When I picked up Once Upon a Time in America I had no idea what it was about and certainly no idea how long it was. I put off starting the film for a few days and then settled in. The film is set between the 1920’s to the 1960’s and follows the life of David “Noodles” Aaronson, a Jewish gangster who grew up during prohibition, played by De Niro. Noodles reluctantly returns to his childhood neighborhood and reflects on a life of excitement, passion, and betrayal. Sergio Leone’s final film features a well-crafted and driving story line, masterfully executed suspense sequences, and elegant editing and camera work.
Leone fought to get the rights to Harry Grey’s The Hoods.1 He was interested in making the film even before he made Once Upon a Time in the West.1 When he finally got a meeting with ‘Harry Grey’ he met him at a bar that was similar to the bar depicted in the film as Fat Moe’s bar.
We left immediately, to go to a certain bar in Manhattan which Harry Grey had mentioned…The barman was fat, but seemed benign and of uncertain sexual orientation… He was exactly in the mould of Fat Moe in ‘Once Upon a Time in America’. And this place — relaxing and secretive at the same time — was maybe the model for the 1968 version of Fat Moe’s bar. The sequence where Noodles, after forty years’ absence, comes back to New York and calls Fat Me from a telephone kiosk in front of his bar — that was exactly like how we met Harry Grey.1
The meetings he had with Harry Grey helped craft the way in which Leone built the story within Once Upon a Time in America. The storytelling framework was established from his interactions with Harry Grey and resulted in the fragmented flashbacks and flash-forwards that are told from the perspective of an aged Noodles.
Leone left that Manhattan bar convinced that the best approach to filming ‘The Hoods’ would be to have the elderly Noodles revisiting his childhood and youth as a small-time gangster; just as Harry Grey had revisited his early life when writing the book and Leone had visited Grey in 1968.1
The idea to take a story like The Hoods, and split it up, created a constantly moving cinematic adventure. The film starts in medias res, in the midst of things, and maintains that pace through the four hour adventure.
Noodles and Max, played by James Woods, embody more than just two bit gangsters. Their friendship and loyalty is challenged by their deceit and greed. While Noodles is more loyal and sentimental, Max is focused on greed and power. In an interview with Sergio Leone he commented on the balance between the two characters. “Envisioning his two central characters as opposite sides of the same coin, Leone has stated, ‘Noodles represents everything romantic that has ever been associated with gangsterism, while max is hard, realistic, down-to-earth.'”2 Their dynamic remains consistent throughout the film, helping drive the movie to the end.
One aspect of Leone’s films that always stands out is the masterful edits, by Nino Baragli. I specifically enjoy the suspenseful sequences that are usually simplistic. These suspenseful sequences are usual comprised of creative camera angles and cut between two subjects that slowly build tension. For example, in Once Upon a Time in America there is a scene early on where Noodles is running from gangsters out to kill him and heads to Moe’s bar. The viewer sees Noodles call the elevator down, while one of the gangsters is waiting for him to arrive. The scene cuts back and forth between the elevator and the prepared gangster’s face. Then it cuts to a door sliding open and Moe on the ground as he looks at something. The sequence continues between the elevator and the gangster. Baragli and Leone create the anticipation for Noodles to emerge from the elevator only to get shot immediately, when suddenly the gangster is shot through the back of the head. As the gangster drops to the floor, Noodles is revealed behind him. The editing is paired perfectly with the misdirection to create an exciting and unexpected sequence. Here is that scene from the movie.
There are several sequences like this throughout the movie, and many other Leone pictures. This has always stood out as a fingerprint of Leone movies and I was glad to see it in Once Upon a Time in America.
Leone and Baragli also create a fluid and elegant flow throughout the entire film. Once Upon a Time in America is full of smooth transitions not just from shot to shot within a scene, but between large jumps in time. For example, there is a scene where an aged Noodles wanders around Moe’s bar, reminiscing. He enters the bathroom and removes a brick to reveal a peep hole to the back room. This initiates a transition to a scene that is a mix between a dream sequence and a flashback. These types of shots are prevalent throughout the film.
There are countless examples of excellent camera work and editing throughout this film. It is no wonder that Leone’s films have stood the test of time.
Leone also uses the camera, sound, and editing to embellish the emotional tone and emphasize the importance of a scene. This can be seen clearly in the telephone scene in the opening sequence of the film. While Noodles is in the opium den, he is startled by the phone ringing. At first it seems like the phone is ringing at the opium den, but the attendant quickly moves in to sooth and relax Noodles and it becomes clear that the ringing is in his head. The film transitions into a flashback and the ringing continues for three minutes until we see the source of the ringing. Through that opening sequence Leone is able to summarize the core event of the film’s focus and how it affects the protagonist. He clearly sets the tone, or really hammers it in, for both the film and for the main character.
While looking up information about this film after I watched it, there seemed to be two main topics that came up again and again. Did Max die at the end? And, was the entire move an opium dream? I enjoy a movie with an ambiguous ending. They tend to be more thought provoking and force me to extrapolate more from the film than I perhaps would if it was all tied up nice in a bow. There obviously isn’t a clear answer for either, but I will throw my thoughts out there.
Did Max throw himself into the most intense garbage-grinding truck ever? I don’t think so. First off, it is not clear if that is even Max. Second, there were two other instances in the movie where Max tricked Noodles into thinking he was dead (when he deceived Noodles into thinking he drowned when they were kids and the faked death that is the focal point of the film). Why should this “death” be any different? Perhaps the scene is just to emphasize how the Max he once new, was indeed dead. On a literal level, I can’t image plunging myself into a giant auger and not making a sound… just saying.
The idea that the entire movie between his comrade’s death, in the 30’s, to leaving Secretary Bailey’s mansion, in the 60’s, is just an opium dream, is interesting. The idea that a young Noodles dreams about an aged Noodles only to sooth the guilt he feels for ratting on his friends is certainly possible. The moment that young Noodles transforms into an aged Noodles at the bus station would fit this theory as it is shot like a wispy dream sequence. By the end of the film, it appears that Noodles gets closure and relief. He gets this both from his confrontation with Max/Senator Bailey and from the opium that leaves him with a smile. Perhaps one “lesson” to learn from this story is that no matter how traumatic an event or guilt ridden you feel, you can always find a way to forgive yourself or move on. For some this might be by coming to peace with the situation over time, others might lean on self-medicating.
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Score by: Ennio Morricone
Runtime: 3h 49m
Genre: Crime, Drama
Distributed by: The Ladd Company, Warner Bros.
2 – Once Upon a Time in America. N.p.: Ladd, 1984. Print.