Movies To See Before You Die: Once Upon a Time in America
Sergio Leone’s 1984 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America spans four decades in the lives of a group of Jewish gangsters. The story is seen through a series of flashbacks from David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson as he returns to New York in the 196os. We follow the life of him and his friends starting from their childhood as young street hoodlums and rising to power in the prohibition era world of organized crime. It’s an impeccable story of love, greed, and betrayal. Featuring a phenomenal cast including – Robert De Niro, James Woods, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Jennifer Connelly, William Forsythe, Tuesday Weld and Elizabeth McGovern, who all give stellar performances.
This movie is a profound epic that equals and in some parts exceeds other highly regarded gangster films like The Godfather or Goodfellas. Leone’s direction in this film is spectacular; he was a perfectionist and would often require dozens of takes for scenes until he felt it was correct. The work shows as you see time periods accurately recreated to the smallest detail. Most notably being the 1920’s NYC Jewish ghetto, shown as the beautiful dusty and chaotic world it was. Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography is simply breathtaking, dull and gritty shots of the NYC landscape paint the perfect picture of life in this period. The famous image above of the boys moving along a street with the Manhattan Bridge backdrop is one of the many great shots of this movie.
The story of America is a complex structure that requires your time and attention to enjoy it thoroughly. Even with the long running time the flick never feels drawn out as you quickly become engulfed in this awe-inspiring work of art. The final scenes will leave you confused and wondering what exactly happened, thinking you missed something only to rewind and realize you didn’t. Leone purposely left the ending very vague and open to the viewer’s interpretation, which has spawned many opinions of what exactly happened in America. The biggest star of this movie is the brilliant score, some of the best work of Ennio Morricone’s under-appreciated career. Full of beautiful and haunting themes that shape each scene, the movie would not have had the same impact without it. Take a listen to Deborah’s Theme below, one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed for a movie.
Leone, prior to this film, had only been known for his Spaghetti Westerns, great films like – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West and For a Few Dollars More. Leone’s shift from Western to Gangster Film was not an easy one. The 1953 novel The Hoods, by Harry Grey, was the model for Once Upon in America. Leone had read it during the filming of Once Upon a Time in the West and became obsessed with creating his version of the American gangster tale. He then spent over a decade trying to create his vision, even turning down an offer to direct The Godfather to continue work on his project. The development process was long and troubled through the 1970’s with many casting and production changes. When filming finally began in June 1982 shooting ran for over nine months, when it finally wrapped in 1983 the budget had doubled and Leone had close to 10 hours of footage in his hands.
Leone originally wanted to release the film in two parts, each running 3 hours but was denied and forced to shorten it. Leone then trimmed the film down to a 269 Minutes, but the film executives were still not pleased. They had wanted a movie much shorter and after viewing Leone’s film they decided the film was unmarketable and could not be released. Leone then decided to screen film at Cannes in hopes that positive feedback would open the eyes of US distributor. The Cannes audience unfortunately expressed animosity towards some of the content, which did not help Leone’s case. He then trimmed it further to 229 Minutes in hopes of appeasing the executives but again they would not accept the film.
Leone had made the mistake of signing a contract giving the producers control to do what they wanted with the finished product. Because of this they removed Leone from control and hired Police Academy editor Zach Staenberg to trim the movie and re-edit the screens in chronological order. The results of this was a 139-minute atrocity, full of plot holes and scenes that just made no sense without the other material. This is the version that was released, and it was destroyed by critics. Audiences then avoided it, and it was a huge box office failure. The correct 269-minute version was recently been released on Blu-Ray, this is the version you should be watching.
Leone was deeply hurt by the studio editing and poor reception of his film; sadly this would be his last flick. Leone died on April 30th, 1989, of a heart attack at the age of 60. He is still considered one of the most influential directors of all time, despite never being nominated for an Academy Award.
- Currently ranked #440 of all-time
- Currently ranked #8 of 1984 flicks
- Ranked 116,159 times by 12107 users
- Wins 49% of matchups