Sergio Leone in todays books is regarded as one of the best directors in film history. Indeed Once Upon a Time in America (1984) was Leone’s last film, and it left quite a mark. The final cut for the film lasting at 229 minutes long, it was cut down to a 2 hour version in most territories in the 80’s because the producers believed it was just too long for audiences.
It’s common knowledge that Sergio Leone wanted to make this film almost his whole career, originally reading the story in a book called The Hoods. Stuart Kaminski (writer of the script) recalls a story whilst writing the film, Stuart gave Sergio a draft and whilst reading Sergio pointed out that he needed 10 more words in a scene from a certain character, when asked why, Serigio simply said because ‘she is going to walk from here to there and during which time she is going to be finishing her sentence to ‘Noodles”. Leone already knew what the set was going to look like, he knew how far she was going to walk and he knew where the camera was going to be before a set had even been built.
Sergio also co-ordinated with the legendary composer and close friend Ennio Morricone about the score to the film that far in advance that around two thirds of the score had been recorded before filming had finished, it’s recalled by many cast and crew that the score would play around the set whilst they were filming. Therefore it’s no surprise that Sergio’s passion and determination created this masterpiece.
I sometimes find it hard to explain the film with my words to the extent that the film deserves. The story is a non-linear one, we have 3 time periods, one in the 1968 present, the time period when the gang were boys, and a time period of the gang in their prime. The story is moved forward by Noodles receiving a party invitation from a a politician, he is concerned that people know where he lives in his later years and are threatening him. Whilst he visits his old friend Fat Moe, we go back into his past and see how he came to be in that position. We follow ‘Noodles’ played by Robert De Niro who along with his pals, do illegal errands for gangs in the prohibition only for Noodles to end up in jail for a long duration, on coming out, he finds the gang has moved up in the world and have grown in wealth and power.
It is was a running joke that when the film premiered in Cannes, many other filmmakers threw their films in the ocean because of how utterly magnificent Once Upon a Time in America was.
The one remaining question that is always brought up with this film is the final shot, Noodles in the beginning of the film lies in a Chinese Theatre smoking opium, whilst in the final shot, after all that has been displayed to the audience, smiles in a zoom close up for it to be freeze-framed whilst the credits roll up. What does it exactly mean, was it all a nightmare? It’s a completely frustrating puzzle that has been laid out after the best part of 4 hours of ups and downs.