*. I have to begin with some preliminary notes on the versions of this film that exist. It was drastically edited for its American release, cut down to 139 minutes and rearranged so it ran in chronological order. I’ve never seen this version — which bombed both critically and commercially — and don’t want to. The version I’ve seen, and which I’m discussing here, is the 229-minute European release. Later, a 251-minute version surfaced, an abridgement of a “director’s cut” that ran 269 minutes, which was itself a condensement of Leone’s original intention of presenting the whole thing as two three-hour films. As of this writing, a restoration of the 269-minute version is still in the works. I do not want to see the 269-minute version. I think the movie is too long at 229 minutes.
*. Now, with all that out of the way . . .
*. I really don’t like this film at all. Just as we all have favourite movies and movies that we think are the best or greatest ever, and these are categories that don’t always overlap, so we have all seen terrible/worst-ever movies and movies that may not be as bad but that we nevertheless hate with a passion. That’s where I stand with this one. I can’t stand Once Upon a Time in America.
*. Not that I don’t think it’s a bad movie too. It’s just that for some reason it bothers me more than most bad movies.
*. Having tipped my hand to being a hater, let me count the ways.
*. I hate the phone ringing throughout the introduction. It’s an idea that might have seemed good on paper, and I do like the fake-out where you think De Niro is answering the phone when he’s really picking it up to drop the dime on his friends, but it goes on forever. I wonder if Leone was aware of just how irritating this is. It’s like having to listen to someone knocking on a door for several minutes without stopping. Or a baby crying. I’m told a baby crying is the most irritating noise known to human ears.
*. I don’t like the score. Ennio Morricone is a genius, but then so is Sergio Leone, and neither of them were at the height of their powers here. I find the raspy flute music inappropriate and the “Amapola” theme schmaltzy rather than soaring.
*. I hate the song “Yesterday.”
*. I don’t understand how Noodles has managed to “read all about Secretary Bailey” (a prominent public figure) but never seen a picture of him. Even during the news story about Bailey that plays on the television at Moe’s they never bother to flash up a picture of the man everyone is talking about. Of course for dramatic reasons they have to keep it all a secret till the end (though most people will have figured it out long before), but this is incredible.
*. I hate the kids. They are a pack of snotty, sneering bullies, and I don’t understand how Leone thought audiences were going to relate to them or find them in some way endearing, as though they’re about to break into “Gee, Officer Krupke” at any minute.
*. David Thomson raises two points worth underlining: “[The film’s] would-be Jewish gangsters seemed very Italian; the attitude to women was horrendous — the two rape scenes are among the screen’s nastiest.”
*. It is indeed a very Italian film. It was based on a novel about Jewish gangsters, Hoods by Harry Grey, but I wonder what Leone saw in it. I think he probably thought he was going to have a chance to make another Godfather. The screenplay was an Italian team effort, though the dialogue had to all be done by someone who knew English. Leone and Morricone and most of the crew were Italian, and indeed in the Leone documentary included with the DVD one of the actors remembers nobody on the set even speaking English. The leads aren’t Jewish. Really, aside from a few Yiddish expressions thrown in to the mix there’s nothing in here at all that suggests anyone being Jewish.
*. I’m not a prude about these things, but Thomson’s second point is also right. This movie really doesn’t like women. Or at least only likes them in a very degrading sort of way.
*. I hate the pace, which moves like sap rising. I guess you could think of it as a last gasp of filmmaking in a grand old style, but it seems very dated here. And this is not helped by some of the performances. De Niro in particular seems narcotized most of the time, even as a young Noodles in the 1930s. But none of the actors seems to be trying very hard.
*. The old people don’t look old. They look like young people with powder on their face and in their hair. Also their main method for portraying older characters is to walk and speak slowly, which doesn’t help move things along.
*. Is it all a dream? As with almost every movie where this sort of thing is in play, you have to wonder what difference it makes. Here: none. The film doesn’t mean anything different to me either way.
*. To the question of whether or not it’s a dream you can add the question of what happens to Max at the end: if that’s him disappearing behind the garbage truck, and if so what becomes of him. My own feeling is that he’s just pulled another disappearing trick, as the garbage truck has clearly been arranged to pick him up. But as with the dream-or-not-a-dream question I have to wonder how meaningful such ambiguity is. Or whether it just dilutes any strong sense of what the movie is about.
*. This is a movie that gets a lot of love today. In part this is recompense for what was done to it on its American release. In part it may be due to its being Leone’s last film. I think it is wildly overrated. It has a great eye for detail, but no ear. None of the performances stand out as being very good, with the possible exception of Jennifer Connelly as the young Deborah. The story is just an overweight retread of a lot of gangster conventions. Pauline Kael observed that almost everything in it is an echo of earlier Hollywood gangster movies but Leone “inflates them, slows them down, and gives them a dreamy obsessiveness.” I don’t think any of that is a good thing. Put another way, you can point to parts that are done well, but nothing that is new.
*. Some movies grow on me, but I’m as unimpressed with this one as I was the first time I saw it. I can’t help thinking there is a lot less going on than there seems to be, and that aside from the lush evocation of its period there is nothing else worth attending to.