Once Upon a Time in America – Robert De Niro week

This week I’d like to celebrate one of our great American actors – Robert De Niro. Netflix has a slew of instant movies featuring De Niro including Once Upon a Time in America.

Once Upon a Time in America

PASS: Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, language and some drug use.

“Director Sergio Leone’s sprawling crime epic follows a group of Jewish mobsters (including Robert De Niro, James Woods and Elizabeth McGovern) who rise in the ranks of organized crime in 1920s New York. Their story unfolds in flashbacks as ringleader Noodles (De Niro) returns to Brooklyn some 30 years later to reunite and reminisce with his cohorts. Nominated for two Golden Globes, this gritty drama was Leone’s last directorial effort.”

“What have you been doing all these years?” – “I’ve been going to bed early.”

This is not the masterpiece that one would hope from Sergio Leone’s last turn as director. It is not nearly as emotionally resonant as the first two Godfather films. The action is not as exciting as Leone stages in his westerns. An endless ringing telephone and a beginning scene in an opium den set a nice surreal feel to the film that is unfortunately not followed up on.

The movie is based on Harry Grey’s semi-autobiographical novel, “The Hoods”. The major plot twist is obvious when it occurs although the reveal doesn’t happen for hours after that. Max’s (James Woods) character arc makes absolutely no sense. There are also not one but two rape scenes in the film.

Once Upon a Time in America did terribly at the box office. This was due in large part to the producing company taking the nearly four hour epic and trimming it down to less than two and a half hours. The Ladd company jettisoned the boys growing up (an integral part of the story). They also rearranged the story chronologically. If you haven’t seen this movie then imagine if the producers had taken Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and arranged it chronologically.

Ennio Morricone’s score is wonderfully haunting though not as catchy as his The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme. The cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli appears to be excellent. I say appears to be because while it is beautiful, it is not in its proper aspect ratio on instant play.

I can’t really recommend this film in this format. The acting is fine with the exception of Elizabeth McGovern but nothing particularly special. The real reasons to recommend this film are the score and the cinematography but since the cinematography can’t be properly appreciated in pan-and-scan and this is such a hefty time investment, I have to rate this a pass.

People Watch: Debbie (Elizabeth McGovern) as a teen is played by Jennifer Connelly in her film debut.