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REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Image courtesy of Mental Floss

An ageing gangster is forced to confront his past, showing his ascendancy through the criminal underworld in prohibition era America. However, a dark secret from his youth finally catches up with him. Spanning forty years and almost four hours of screen time, this is a film about friendship, betrayal, love and America.

Sergio Leone is probably best known for his series of famous Westerns from the sixties and seventies, starring a screwy-eyed Clint Eastwood and an iconic Ennio Morricone soundtrack – culminating in the classic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966). Or you may have heard of his Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – also often considered one of the greatest Westerns of all time. However, in his final movie he distanced himself from this genre, instead trying his hand at a gangster movie. Beginning as a passion project in the late sixties, the film would take a decade and a half to see release, with Leone passing on potential projects such as directing the famous Godfather films in order to pursue it.

Robert DeNiro plays the character of David Aaronson (‘Noodles’) – following him from his youth in a poverty stricken Jewish neighbourhood to his old age when a life of crime has left him powerless and alone, all friends either having betrayed or having  been betrayed by him. We see him try to make his way in a world that prioritises personal gain over principles – where to make it in life, there have to be a few skeletons in your closet. 

The idea of the American dream is toyed with throughout. Leone seemingly critiques the dream’s unrealistic promise that honest hard work will get you anywhere in society. He does this by comparing and contrasting those who believe in the honest approach to life – such as, an at first anti-gangster trade unionist (played by Treat Williams), or Noodles’ love interest Deborah (played by Elizabeth McGovern and Jennifer Connelly) – against the more cynical realists and criminals who realise honesty gets you nowhere without the violence. The latter’s dreams of avarice continue to grow, often leaving them dead or humiliated and powerless. Noodles is left at the centre of these opposing forces, craving idealism but never attaining it due to his circumstances and surroundings, ending in him destroying the innocence of those around him.

Throughout the film we see a nostalgic view of America against this forefront of crime and brutality, emphasising the contradiction between the idealistic dream of what America is and the underlying violence that made the myth. The music of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin plays throughout, with God Save America being a notable recurring musical motif. Partly feeling a sarcastic ploy on Leone’s part, it perhaps shows him identifying with Noodles’ own yearning for innocence, as well as a nostalgia for the old days of dancing, jazz and black and white movies. The film seems to look back to another time, when men were macho thugs and women were treated as sexual beings over and above everything else.  It’s both a criticism and a swan song for this period, whilst questioning whether the nostalgic version ever really existed, or if it was really just a front for the violence that underpinned it all.

The theme of nostalgia is also reflected through the film’s non-chronological structure as it continually moves between different parts of Noodles’ life. Each transition subtlety flows from one to the next, with Leone using recurring sound motifs to connect them – such as a continually ringing phone in the movie’s opening – allowing for these different points in time to flow and interact with one another. This fluid approach to time gradually builds the picture of a continually changing world amidst a consistent central character who feels like he is the only constant. He feels equally connected to his past and present self, with those around him moving on and leaving him behind. DeNiro’s acting is passive and understated, perfectly encapsulating a man forced to remain indifferent to a society which has come to reject his greed and materialism. He is left alone in a world which the likes of him were essential in making.

The film was released in 1984 to critical acclaim in European cinemas. Its US release was hampered by studios removing ninety minutes of footage, creating a critically panned mess that reorganised the film’s non-chronological structure and left out key scenes. It was Leone’s last film before dying of a heart attack five years later. Now acclaimed as one of the greatest gangster films of all time, the film stands as a deserving swan song to one of Italy’s most influential directors.

By Calum Moran