Sergio Leone’s epic gangster drama remains like no other and is the best of them all
By Jimmy Gillman
For my money, the restored version of director Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America is the greatest gangster film ever made, edging out Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, though all three remain masterpieces in every sense of the word.
A dense and demanding cinematic tour de force deftly told in flashback covering a span of more than 50 years in the lives of four close-knit Jewish friends-turned-criminals, Once Upon a Time in America is a work of uncommon beauty and texture; a brutal, honest and insightful epic despite its squalid subject matter and challenging characters.
From the bosom of New York’s Jewish ghetto to the sprawling mansions of power and privilege, Leone’s masterwork is much more than a valentine to the mobster life—over the course of its nearly four-hour running time, the film extracts and lays bare the essence of the human experience in ways few films of any genre have ever achieved.
Where The Godfather films offer opulence and Shakespearian portrayals, Once Upon a Time in America trades in hardships, grit and realistically drawn protagonists; where The Godfather films offer answers, Once Upon a Time in America instead raises questions. Where The Godfather films offer certainty and the comfort of extended family, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America serves up fleeting memories, unsolvable mysteries and fraternal alliances.
Complex in structure, switching back and forth between various time periods stretching from 1918 to 1968, Once Upon a Time in America is a multilayered film that doesn’t spell out its intentions, dense in detail and subplot, and told as much in the form of a dream with its unrivaled use of flashbacks and flash-forwards.
It all begins with the return of an aging David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (Robert DeNiro) to the place of his youth; the place where the central, still unanswered mystery of his life unfolded. What comprises that mystery is eventually revealed, but not immediately solved, a technique that pulls viewers into the film’s intricate mosaic, which is itself synonymous with America’s transition from adulthood to middle age.
The action later shifts to Aaronson and his compatriots as adolescents (the childhood actors who fulfill these roles are perfectly cast), forming the ties that bind. Unsupervised and basically on their own, the gang commit acts of petty crime before eventually graduating to organized criminal efforts, including extortion, racketeering and murder.
Tonino Delli Colli’s cinematography is nothing short of breathtaking; the film’s elaborate production designs picture perfect; and Ennio Moricone’s score moving and memorable, making Once Upon a Time in America a bona fide classic.
Author’s note: This review applies to the restored 227 minute version of the film; the original 135 version, released against Leon’s wishes, is practically incomprehensible and thankfully not readily available.