The key to time is memory. Fueled by the past, memory allows us to prepare for the future and live consciously in the present. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America embraces this concept by operatically weaving together multiple periods of time that collectively express the growth of a nation through the intimate eyes of the film’s enigmatic protagonist.
Fluctuating between 1924, 1933, and 1968, the film follows the rise and fall of a criminal nicknamed Noodles (Robert De Niro plays the character in the latter two time periods, while Scott Tiler plays the adolescent version in the 1924 scenes). Along with his loyal childhood friends, Noodles successfully navigates the organized crime industry of New York City. However, when the gang’s wealth is threatened by the repeal of Prohibition, Noodles’ closest friend Max (James Woods) boldly proposes they should rob the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Fearing for the safety of his friends, Noodles makes an anonymous tip to the police about the gang’s actions. As a result, his friends are cornered by the police and killed in a firefight. Noodles becomes consumed by guilt and flees the city under a false identity, only to return in 1968 after receiving a party invitation by a mysterious political figure.
The beginning of the film takes on a mesmerizingly somber tone that immediately captivates. While there is dialogue and music in various places, the first half hour could easily play out like a silent film. With a reliance on framing and blocking, the opening scenes give us a taste of what is to come both plot-wise and thematically. It is at this time that the ultraviolence is introduced, only to be shoved aside by De Niro’s through the looking-glass portrayal of the elderly 1968 Noodles. In fact, the 1968 scenes are the most intriguing because of how quiet and pensive De Niro carries himself. While these scenes are less eventful when compared to the action contained in the 1924 and 1933 scenes, there is something mystic and melancholy about the 1968 scenes that make them stand out. The way Leone displays 1968 makes it feel like a sort of end of days, a comforting yet sadly reminiscent time similar to the poetic tone established by the aftermath of World War II in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour.
In The Godfather Part II, De Niro played a younger version of Marlon Brando’s iconic Vito Corleone. However, this time it is De Niro in the elder role and he does an excellent job as the older Noodles; his performance easily stands as one of his all-time best. Tiler does just as well for the younger Noodles, evoking the juvenile Antoine Doinel in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Instead of conjuring up a translation of De Niro, Tiler plays his Noodles with a more radiant demeanor that informs the character of his emotional shift from adolescent to adult. Thus, while the performances of De Niro and Tiler could have easily stood on their own, the two actors meet each other halfway in an epic and transformative characterization that spans five decades. Leone also deserves credit here, as he renders the corresponding child and adult performances through the juxtaposition of various filmic elements (e.g. how a shot belonging to one time period can be framed to rival a shot of another time period).
As Leone’s last film, it is very much an accumulation of his talented style. Through its nonlinear story structure and epic scope, the film requires a higher degree of concentration to understand Leone’s subtly devised vision. Just like Once Upon a Time in the West, certain character motivations are hidden or not revealed until later on. Ennio Morricone is also present as the film’s composer, devising brilliant themes that further build on the concept of memory. The soundtrack in and of itself is a masterpiece, as Morricone enlists pan flute musician Gheorghe Zamfir and vocalist Edda Dell’Orso for one of the most enchanting film scores ever made. There are also some interesting pieces of source music included, such as The Beatles’ “Yesterday” that introduces the 1968 setting and Gioachino Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” that plays out as homage to A Clockwork Orange.
The history of Once Upon a Time in America is a bumpy one. It is a film that was once overlooked here in the United States because of a tampered theatrical release (139 minutes) but has since been revived on home video in its masterfully longer form (229 minutes). In 2012, the film was re-released in a newly restored form labeled as the “Extended Director’s Cut” (251 minutes). Having seen both the 229- and 251-minute cuts, I personally recommend the 229-minute version because the additional scenes in the 2012 restoration feel more supplemental than substantial. Regardless of what the definitive form of the film is, it is clear that Once Upon a Time in America is, above all, a study of progress. Between plot and setting, Leone captures the essence of the Prohibition era and the political upheaval of the late 1960s. Through its haunting tone that echoes the past, the film is a national treasure that speaks to the twentieth century.