(Originally posted on 11/17/03)
Sergio Leone was a master of genre revisionism, and yet it's funny to find that few people characterize his final film, Once Upon a Time in America, as an example of such. A hallucinatory, melancholic meditation on grief, ambition, and betrayal, Leone's film purports to be a gangster film but, in reality, is something more like a romantic evocation of a gangster film. Like his groundbreaking spaghetti westerns (of which One Upon a Time in the West, coming soon to DVD, is the finest), Leone uses familiar genre tropes as a means of creating a dream-like collage of images and sounds that seek to convey an emotion, a passion, rather than a traditional narrative logic. In Once Upon a Time in America, Leone marries a European art-film sensibility -- embodied by the film's two framing devices and an intricate flashback structure -- to his flamboyant and slightly cartoonish trademark cinematic mannerisms (tight close-ups, charged revealing shots). The result is a haunting, thematically complex movie that, instead of a straightforward genre film, works like an elegiac poem about the cost one pays for dreaming big and trusting blindly.
Childhood pals-turned-Prohibition-era gangsters Noodles (a powerfully understated Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods) are the film's yin and yang, polar opposites who are nonetheless inextricably bound to one another by a shared dream of power and success. The film follows an elderly Noodles in the 1960s after he is mysteriously summoned back to New York. His journey home leads to recollections of his youthful escapades -- drinking and fighting with friends, running petty scams, and his love affair with the ethereal Deborah (played by Jennifer Connelly as a girl and Elizabeth McGovern as a woman) -- and eventual rise to prominence in the crime world. Along with pals Cockeye and Patsy, Noodles and Max become bootleggers and business owners, and eventually become entwined with a union leader (Treat Williams) who's slowly shedding his idealistic morality.
Noodles' journey is an act of self-discovery in which the veil of illusions he has lived under throughout his adult life is torn away to reveal a reality of greed, treachery and pathetic wastefulness. Yet after Noodles discovers that what he thought was real was simply a carefully-executed deception, the story's reliability is called into question by a final image of a stoned De Niro brightly smiling at the camera (through a veil, no less) in an opium den. The implication is that the entire film has, perhaps, been merely one petty criminal's guilt-ridden fantasy from his spiritual deathbed. However, answering this tantalizing question -- Is the film a dream? -- is beside the point. Leone is interested in the mood, the atmosphere, and the grand gestures of the gangster novel primarily as a means of reaching some larger truth about human interaction - how man's dreams and desires are driven by feelings of self-interest, self-loathing, and self-doubt, and how one's motives are always inscrutable to others. It's an entrancing and stirring epic from one of the cinema's most expressionistic artists, and one of the most consistently fascinating films I've ever seen.
DVD: As for the DVD, Warner Bros. has done an absolutely smashing job with the audio and video restoration. A few minor specks of dirt can be seen on the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack isn't quite as enveloping as one might like, but there's really nothing to complain about when it comes to this audio/video presentation. The extras, on the other hand, are a bit of a letdown. We get an all-too-brief 20-minute excerpt from the documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone, and a commentary Time magazine critic Richard Schickel that, simply because of its length (the film is, after all, 4 hours long), provides only sporadically enlightening material.