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Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

(R) 229 mins

Synopsis: In the tradition of The Godfather comes director Sergio Leone‘s compelling dramatic epic chronicling the lives of two boyhood cohorts and their struggle to achieve power in the gangland heirarchy.

Starring: Robert De NiroJames Woods

Supporting actors: Elizabeth McGovernTuesday WeldTreat WilliamsJames HaydenJoe PesciLarry RappDanny AielloWilliam ForsytheBurt YoungDarlanne FluegelDutch MillerRobert HarperRichard BrightGerard MurphyAmy RyderOlga KarlatosMario BregaRay DittrichFrank GioKaren Shallo

Serious Jest:  (Worth Watching)  This is a high-quality gangster flick, with a good story, interesting characters, and an outstanding cast.   It was cool to see Jennifer Connelly shine so brightly, even at a young age, and in her first feature film role.

Connelly as Young Deborah

Connelly, present day

The makeup artists were also impressive.  In aging De Niro 30 years, they made him look pretty similar to his appearance now, almost 30 years later!

De Niro as Noodles

De Niro as Noodles, aged 30 years

Present-day De Niro

The movie was extremely long, but there weren’t many boring moments.  While I initially thought that more of the film should have been cut, I later learned from its IMDB trivia page that:

  1. Leone was contracted to deliver a 2-hours-and-45-minutes-long movie.

  2. Upon completion of filming, the movie ran 8-10 hours.

  3. Leone and editor Nino Baragli originally cut it down to 6 hours, and planned to release two 3-hour films.

  4. The producers forced Leone to cut it down to 3 hours and 49 minutes, leaving 45 minutes that he considered essential on the cutting room floor, including: further explanation of the mob/labor relationship, Noodles (De Niro) meeting Carol (Weld) in 1968, and a good deal of footage featuring Noodles’s relationship with Eve (Fluegel).

  5. The film premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival in its original running time of 3 hours and 49 minutes.

  6.  The Ladd Company heavily edited the American release, against Leone’s wishes, down to 2 hours and 24 minutes. This version scrapped the flashback structure Leone used, and instead arranged all the scenes in chronological order.  Most of the major cuts were in the childhood scenes, making the 1933 scenes the most prominent part of the movie.  The conclusion was also altered.

  7. A few days before the film’s premier in 1984, Williams found out the 2-hour version would be shown in theaters. He was heard to have said that no one would understand the movie in the shortened version.

  8. The 2-hour version flopped in the U.S., and many American critics, who knew of Leone’s original cut, attacked the short version viciously; some critics compared shortening the film to shortening Richard Wagner‘s operas (some of which run over 5 hours), saying that works of art that are meant to be long should be given the respect they deserve.  The movie was shut out of the Oscars, with no nominations.

  9. When the 3-hour-and-49-minute version was released on video and DVD, the film ultimately found commercial and critical success.

  10. According to Woods, a critic dubbed the movie’s 2-hour theatrical version the worst of 1984; years later that same critic watched the 3-hour-and-49-minute version and called it the best of the 1980s.

Based on the foregoing, I believe the studio should have let Leone put out two 3-hour films, or at least it should have added the additional 45 minutes that Leone wanted (and then split the movie into two).  The script contains many complex relationships and sub-plots, which developed over the course of half of a century, naturally begging an unreasonably long run time…even after 4 hours, some significant relationships, characters, and sub-plots still needed more development.  At first, I thought that maybe the answer would have been to eliminate those complexities altogether, instead of partly depicting them, but the widespread disdain of the 2-hour version suggests that the movie is much worse without them.  Therefore, I think that the best answer would have been to embrace the complexity and give Leone the time that he needed to best develop this film.

I also would have liked to see the film explore more of the differences between Jewish and Italian mobsters.  Other than a few camera shots of Jewish food, Yiddish expressions, the Star of David, and Hasidic Jews walking around New York, these characters could have been written as Italian, with no difference.

This movie was close to getting 4 mugs from me, and I respect its “it is what it is” depiction of its protagonists, but I found De Niro’s character so morally despicable that I had some trouble staying engaged.  I was also a bit disappointed to learn of several historical inaccuracies in this film.

About Serious Jest

Film & TV Reviewer by Choice, Attorney at Law, Marine to the Corps (excuse the pun), Nupe Under Pressure, and MC by Nature

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