More noise than signal

Once Upon A Time in America

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

This film, at least in the versions commonly found today, is not renowned for its brevity, so I trust you’ll forgive a less than completely detailed recap. This film charts, over the course of a lifetime, the friendship of Robert De Niro’s Noodles and James Woods’ Max, from their initial meeting as street kids in 1918 (played as young un’s by Scott Tiler and Rusty Jacobs), where they form a gang alongside their friends Patrick “Patsy” Goldberg, Philip “Cockeye” Stein and Dominic, hustling away for local petty crime boss Bugsy.

However, they get ideas of moving up in the world, bringing them into conflict with Bugsy, leaving Dominic dead and, after Noodles takes revenge, Bugsy following, with Noodles locked away. Released in the prohibition era, Noodles rejoins the gang, now successful bootleggers, and rekindles a relationship with Max’s sister, Elizabeth McGovern’s Deborah. However things are complicated, with the worlds of organised crime and politics colliding and back rubbing in various ways with tragic ends.

The framing device linking all of this is 1968’s older Noodles, long in hiding after the events of the thirties, getting a message along the lines of “we know where you are, and you need to do one last job”, with the intrigue of who knows, and what that job is, pulling us through the three and three quarter hours-ish the cut I watched unfolds over.

It’s epic in scope and ambition, and there’s a lot of subtlety and nuance, as well as a lot of not at all subtle and nuanced events I’m skipping over there. It’s not a pleasant film, for the most part, at least in the events and characters it portrays. Given the talent behind the camera, Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, is frequently looks really good, often providing a counterpoint to the ugliness of the actions and ambitions of the lead characters.

It really is the perfect role for James Woods, as he is, by nature, an odious prick, so that’s top drawer casting from real life right there. It’s an exceptional De Niro performance, of course, and with an extraordinary character that at first seems to be drawing from an honour amongst thieves canard before moving to a much more compromised position, to put it mildly.

I’m not too sure how much I need to tell you about this – despite bombing at the box office on release, almost certainly due to studio meddling with drastically shortened cuts, in the past few decades it’s most often spoken about in the same sentence as The Godfather in terms of being a genre defining crime movie, and, well, for once I don’t have a contrary position to take.

It’s a long film, to be sure, but like …the West one that needs all of that space to breath, and doesn’t feel like it drags at any point. Exceedingly competent in all of the technical aspects and in all of the performances, and very satisfying character arcs. If I’m going to pick a flaw, the revelation, of sorts, in the final act is, well, silly, but even if that isn’t quite truthy enough narratively speaking, it has undeniable emotional heft.

So, yes, watch it if you haven’t already done so.