Sergio Leone is undoubtedly a master of his craft; in fact, such is his genius that one could approach any of his major works and find a film whose sheer magnificence is scarcely penetrated by whatever amount of critical adoration and thesaurusful of superlatives might be thrown at it. His is a rare breed of director (in fact, the mind quickly wanders to project who else might adorn this infrequent throne) who has arguably produced more masterpieces than not. A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, which feature Clint Eastwood’s iconic Man with No Name, form one of cinema’s greatest trilogies and remain landmarks of the Western genre. Leone went on the produce one of the finest Westerns ever made with 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a miraculous film that laments the death of the same Western genre that made his name whilst eulogising it with heartbreaking reverence and soul-aching beauty.
Leone followed Once Upon a Time in the West with the shamefully underrated Western A Fistful of Dynamite; the film was appallingly named Duck, You Sucker upon its initial US release, and failed to find an initial audience, but has since been reappraised as one of the best revisionist Westerns of the 1970s. Leone’s swansong, the mesmerising Once Upon a Time in America, has lost none of its power; it is a tragic and poetic vision of America’s blood-spattered past, the subject of this Love Letter, and also, whisper it, one of the greatest films ever made.
Much has been written on the poetic quality of the cinematic image – one might look to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick for an approximation of film’s poetic potential – and yet, beyond the films of those unquestionably great auteurs, one might be inclined towards any of Sergio Leone’s aforementioned masterpieces and find that there is pure, unconditional, and affirming poetry etched into the bones of his violent yet beautifully symphonic cinematic visions. If Leone is one of cinema’s great poets then Once Upon a Time in America is one of cinema’s great poems; it is a King Lear for the medium that is enigmatic, transcendental, and utterly bewitching – just consider for a second that the entire film is constructed so that it might be read as a fever dream.
Once Upon a Time in America, Leone’s chronicle of the rise of a tightly-knit group of young American street youths growing up in early twentieth century Lower East Side Manhattan, arrived more than a decade after A Fistful of Dynamite, the director’s previous feature. The film stars Robert De Niro as Noodles, a young hoodlum who joins forces with James Woods’ Max (performed by Scott Tiler and Rusty Jacobs, respectively, for the childhood passages of the film) as they rise from angst-ridden if violent youths to successful if merciless gangsters.
Once Upon a Time in America opened at Cannes Film Festival in 1984 to a standing ovation and ecstatic praise from the critics in attendance; however, such critical rapture would not greet the film upon its release in the United States. The film was (in)famously butchered for US audiences; upon release, the film’s meat had been mercilessly carved from the bones of the original 229-minute cut that premiered in Cannes, resulting in an unimaginable and unforgivable 139-minute cut that saw the film stripped to an unrecognisable mess that was light years away from the masterwork that Leone had first created.
The film’s mutilation did not end there; not only was an hour and a half excised from the film, its equivocal and enchanting structure was utterly abandoned to be rearranged in chronological order, an act that destroyed the film’s exquisite literariness, and perfectly judged pacing. Perhaps the greatest tragedy that spawned as a result of Once Upon a Time in America’s maiming was the fact that Sergio Leone vowed never to direct again and, true to his word, he never did. While there is comfort to be had in the restoration of earlier cuts and the universal abandonment of the 139 minute wreckage – the 229 minute version, Leone’s preferred cut, is readily available, while a longer 251 minute cut has recently been released on Blu-Ray – one cannot help but grieve for the tragic fate of a master filmmaker who was ultimately betrayed by the medium he so dearly loved. At the time of his death, Leone had seemingly overcome these resentments and was working on a script based upon the siege at Leningrad that had attracted international investors and was set to once again star Robert De Niro; alongside Kubrick’s Napoleon, perhaps, Leone’s impossible project might be a noble candidate for the greatest film never made.
As it stands, in either of its longer cuts, Once Upon a Time in America is a triumph of cinema, a crime masterpiece spanning half a century that aches with themes of love, friendship, greed and betrayal, adorning its simultaneously shattering and wholly entrancing duration. Many of the characters’ actions are reprehensible – Noodle’s rape of Deborah is both brutal and tender, both terrifying and utterly heartbreaking – and yet Leone imbues his characters with such humanity as to ensure that they remain captivating while concomitantly deserving of their fates.
Individual moments are constructed with such exquisite detail and such ecstatic beauty that they can comfortably rank alongside the greatest moments in the history of cinema. Among a vast array of stand-out moments there is a scene in which Brian Bloom’s Young Patsy purchases a cream cake to exchange for sexual favours with a local girl. It is truly magnificent; before he can acquire the services he so desires, the temptation of the cake itself overwhelms him and he ends up devouring it piece by piece at her door step while accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s sublime score. The sequence is a wonderful moment of understated genius; the very literal notion of having one’s cake and eating it extends beautifully to the rest of the film, as greed will eventually prove to be the gang’s ultimate foil. Once Upon a Time in America is without question one of the greatest films ever made; a tragic, poetic vision of America that rewards the patient viewers with an exuberant treasure trove of cinematic wonder.