Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
disc special edition contains the unabridged version of Sergio Leone’s
final film. This definitive cut is more than an hour longer than the
American theatrical release and was favoured by most critics and the
is conveyed via a series of flashbacks. A scene depicting the
excavation of a cemetery provides a powerful, if obvious, metaphor for
the brutal and unrelenting examination of the past that ‘Once Upon a
Time in America’ represents.
chronicles the life of David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson. As a boy, Noodles
resorts to petty crime to survive the New York slums of the 1920s.
Almost half of the film focuses on the childhood adventures of Noodles’
gang. The friendship formed among these children is their only moral
code and indeed their only expression of humanity. This theme remains a
constant as they commit one unspeakable act after another.
Niro plays the role of the adult Noodles with unsettling detachment
while James Woods is menacing as Max, Noodles’ closest friend and
rival. Tension mounts between the two as Noodles obsessively pursues
his childhood flame, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern).
portrayal of women in this film is problematic. Despite some of the
female characters demonstrating occasional ingenuity, they are almost
uniformly depicted as victims. After being possessed, bashed, raped and
exploited, they are essentially expected to bite their lip and accept
their lot in life. While it is admirable to demonstrate that many women
of this era suffered terribly at the hands of men, the story would have
been well served by granting screen time to a more substantial female
remains, however, one of the better gangster films of the 1980s. The
period sets and matte paintings are nothing short of spectacular. The
stylish and bombastic direction is a joy to behold and Leone fans won’t
want to miss some of the perfectly choreographed action sequences. De
Niro enhances his reputation as a master of playing despicable
characters and the remainder of the cast are equally proficient.
technical limitations, the film is spread across two discs with the
first unforgivably concluding in the middle of an important scene. The
most significant additional feature is a well-informed commentary by
Richard Schickel. Unfortunately Schickel is in the habit
of saying ‘you know’ quite frequently, which can become tiresome during
the nearly four hour run of the film. He is also bizarrely insensitive
during the second major rape scene, at first implying that the woman
invited her fate, before scurrying to safer moral territory. Perhaps
this segment could have been re-recorded?