Don't you just hate spoilers? I do, too. That's why I always try to include warnings. However, I sometimes ramble a bit too much here or there and maybe a few (or many) key plot points slip without me giving proper notice. So I'd like to include a blanket spoiler warning for the weary internet travelers of the world: Here There Be Spoilers. You've been warned.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone will forever be associated with his Spaghetti Westerns. That's a given. His films with Clint Eastwood and Once Upon a Time in the West are classics. 

But there is one film in particular that deserves mention. Call it an elephant in the room, if you will.

I've seen gangster movies. Lots of them. Just how many I don't know, but I could talk gangster movies for days. The first two Godfather films are all-time classics. Both Scarface movies are pretty damn good, too. Then of course there are Scorsese's magnificent contributions to the genre with the likes of Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed (which owes everything to Infernal Affairs). And we can't really talk about gangsters without throwing the James Cagney gem The Public Enemy into the mix. 

There are plenty more out there. Those are just some of my favorites. But until today I didn't think that the first two Godfather films could be touched. I always thought they were "untouchable," if you will. 

And yet... and yet Sergio Leone pulled a rabbit out of his hat for his final film. Leone, the master of creating larger than life characters wearing cowboy hats, created what should be considered as one of the greatest gangster films to ever be made. 

This is one of the most engrossing films I've ever seen. At 229 minutes, this is a film that I wish could have been longer. I know there is a version that is 251 minutes and that a 269 minute version is crying for release from some cinematic dungeon somewhere, but I haven't seen the 251 minute version and it seems out of stock on Amazon unless I want to shell out for an import. The 269 minute version is probably doomed to never see the light of day. 

But man, was this movie good. Ridiculously disturbing at times, but good. 

The most surprising thing about this movie is how James Woods actually seems to outshine Robert De Niro at times. 

James Woods can play a dickhead better than just about anybody. We all know that. As soon as I saw his name on the credit list I knew he'd be a bad guy. I even said to myself, "I bet James Woods is behind everything." 

And I was right. I could see the movie's end coming a mile away. Maybe not the specifics exactly, but I knew James Woods and Robert De Niro would have some sort of confrontation in the end and James Woods would be the antagonist. That's just how the universe works. 

I still fucking loved this movie and want to see it how it was truly meant to be seen. De Niro and Woods hold this movie up into the stratosphere while Leone created a fantastic landscape for them to stand on. 

This could even be De Niro's best gangster role. I know that would be saying a lot, but his character was fascinating. He wasn't the good guy, either. It's tough to describe it, but even though he isn't the good guy he isn't the worst of the bad guys. In some ways he reminded me a bit of Keitel's role in Bad Lieutenant. Noodles is a character that is emotionally doomed by his choices. There's no happy ending for him and he honestly doesn't deserve one. Sure, he "survives" the movie, but that doesn't seem like a victory. He ends up a sad old man with nothing to lose while Woods ends up a sad old man with everything to lose. And in the end they lose each other and nobody wins. 

That may feel like a rip off to some people since this movie does take up quite a bit of time, but it felt like it couldn't have happened any other way. In some respects, I felt that Leone was showing his Japanese influences on this story much more so than any gangster influences he might have had. 

The ruminations over the two main characters as they go through life felt like a chapter out of Kurosawa Akira and their final conflict felt more in tune with Eastern philosophy than with Hollywood shoot 'em ups. Had this been a Coppola movie then James Woods would have been eating bullets from De Niro's hand. Maybe De Niro would have gotten offed, too. 

But both of them walked away from the conflict. Woods ultimately chose the path of seppuku in order to avoid being disgraced... albeit in a more Westernized fashion while De Niro's character just walked into the sunset with a melancholic sense of resignation. Somewhat like a gangster version of About Schmidt

I could talk more about this film, but there's only so much that can be gained and adequately discussed from one viewing of this fantastic movie. 


  1. A great movie. It's hard to believe the idiots at the studio destroyed this masterpiece when it was released. It was cut to somewhere around 2 hours and of course it bombed because it didn't make any sense. It was many years before the long version was released and we got to see it somewhere close to what was intended. Do you know what length version Leone wanted to release?

    1. I read where Leone's initial intention was to release two movies that were three hours apiece but he was forced to shorten it by the studio to a 269 minute movie that was further shortened to 229 minutes for the Cannes Festival. Then it was cut even further for the American theatrical release to 139 minutes. So the ideal version of this film as a standalone should be 269 minutes. The longest available version is 251 minutes, though. Although I'm sure there's enough material, assuming the scenes are still intact and all that, that two three hours movies could still be made. I think Leone had eight to ten hours of footage that he trimmed down to six and that was originally going to be his two films.

    2. The 251 minute version I ordered came in today. Whenever I get a chance I'll watch it. Although it says the additional 22 minutes couldn't be restored in the same quality as the rest of the movie because of the limited availability of the 35mm work prints.