Once upon a Time in America (1984)

Once upon a Time in America (1984)
  • Time: 229 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama
  • Director: Sergio Leone
  • Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern


Epic, episodic, tale of the lives of a small group of New York City Jewish gangsters spanning over 40 years. Told mostly in flashbacks and flash-forwards, the movie centers on small-time hood David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson and his lifelong partners in crime; Max, Cockeye and Patsy and their friends from growing up in the rough Jewish neighborhood of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1920s, to the last years of Prohibition in the early 1930s, and then to the late 1960s where an elderly Noodles returns to New York after many years in hiding to look into the past.


  • I have seen many movies, good and bad. One thing for certain, Once Upon a Time in America is more than good. It is amazing, a true milestone in the crime drama genre. The cinematography, images, scenery and locations are all superb and quite sweeping, while Ennio Morricone’s score ranks up there with his very best. While the film clocks in at nearly four hours long, it never feels boring to me while the pace is quite elegiac everything else just compels you. I will admit, this is another film you need to see more than once to understand/appreciate it.

    Sergio Leone’s direction is also superb, the story is always compelling and rich and the dialogue is very thought-provoking. The characters are wonderful if different. Unlike The Godfather(not a bad thing by the way), Once Upon a Time in America doesn’t make you feel sympathy for its characters, these characters are actually quite nasty people but the way they are written and acted makes them compelling too. The two rape scenes are very shocking and perhaps brutal, but again that’s no flaw in any way, because this slant on crime and the like is quite realistic if you put it in perspective.

    The acting is another strong asset. Robert DeNiro and James Woods, both are great actors, and both give brilliant performances. So overall, extraordinary, not only of its genre but of film full-stop.

  • On the cover of the video for Once Upon a Time in America is a sepia-toned picture of a gang of five in trench coats and hats strolling past the Manhattan Bridge. The smallest of the quintet appears to do a dance backwards as if imitating Chaplin. This nostalgic shot eventually leads to one of the most unforgettable sequences ever captured in American film – a stunning mix of strong visuals and powerful music.

    Sergio Leone, whose film masterpiece remains to be Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), has embarked on perhaps the most ambitious motion picture about organized crime since Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part mafia drama The Godfather in the early 1970s, putting together an original cut that runs nearly four hours, transporting viewers back to nearly fifty years of American underworld history.

    Perhaps the most striking aspect of Leone’s crime epic (apart from its extraordinary length) is Ennio Morricone’s legendary score. Truth be told, it is one of the greatest film scores never to be nominated for an Oscar (due to a late submission caused by a clerical error). The beauty of Morricone’s score is largely confined to the first half of the film where it is played more often and has its most resonance because it perfectly evocates the nostalgia of early 20th century America.

    Once Upon a Time in America stars Robert De Niro (Noodles) and James Woods (Max) in the film’s two lead roles, and is accompanied by an extensive cast of young and old including a 12-year-old Jennifer Connelly, Joe Pesci, Tuesday Weld, and Elizabeth McGovern.

    The acting is consistent throughout; every role is given time to develop. This is especially so for roles which have two different actors playing them in two different timelines. Of course, the best performance comes unsurprisingly from De Niro, whose powerhouse display of male chauvinism and uncompromising personality does no harm in affecting his reputation as one of the world’s most proficient actors.

    The bloody violence is reminiscent of The Godfather but Leone’s film is harder to watch because there are two graphic depictions of rape shown. Although Once Upon a Time in America tends to devalue and victimize women by portraying them as objects of sexual and verbal abuse, the film’s strength lies in Leone’s ability to build a story around core values of friendship, loyalty, and brotherhood amongst men.

    Once Upon a Time in America does not move in a linear fashion. It is a series of inter-cutting character development flashbacks and flash forwards edited with excellence and assembled with coherence to a main narrative that reveals few things.

    Its puzzling ending is shrouded with mystery and till today remains the most talked about part of the film. Each character is distinctive and developed with immense depth, yet after four hours, we still know so little about them. But it is this enigmatic quality that these characters emanate that makes Leone’s film such a satisfying watch.

    Coppola romanticized organized crime with The Godfather while Martin Scorsese’s take with Goodfellas was explosively visceral. Sergio Leone, on the other hand, has opted for nostalgia.

    Once Upon A Time In America is a massive film; it is a landmark of its time and a colossal achievement rarely equaled. To see this film is “to be swept away by the assurance and vitality of a great director making his final statement in a medium he adored” (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times). Highly recommended!

    GRADE: A (9/10 or 4.5 stars)
    More reviews: http://www.filmnomenon2.blogspot.sg/

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