Sunday, November 9, 2008

Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in America; Crime drama, Italy/ USA, 1984; D: Sergio Leone, S: Robert De Niro, James Woods. Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, James Hayden, Joe Pesci, Larry Rapp, Danny Aiello, Burt Young, Jennifer Connelly

The mafia kills the wife of the Jewish gangster Noodles. He is wounded, but kills one of them and hides in a Chinese theatre. Then he remembers his life: in the 20s of the 20th Century, Max and Noodles photographed a cop having intercourse with a minor and successfully blackmailed him to pay them for the prostitute Peggy and to not interfere with their smuggling business. They entered the mafia by giving them the idea how to push the goods to the surface of the water with salt. Noodles killed Bugsy and spent 12 years in prison. Then he smuggled alcohol with Max, but his beloved Deborah left him after he raped her. After the end of Prohibition era, Max decided to rob an extremely well guarded bank, so Noodles turned him in to the police to save his life. Max later called him for a dinner and offered him to kill him, but he refused.

Even though the epic, 4 hour long crime drama "Once Upon a Time in America" abounds with brilliant scenes and was critically acclaimed, it is an overrated and overlong film, a film that is "brilliant in a wrong way", and does not have that special control that is needed from a director that shoots his dream project and is thus in love with every scene to the point of excess, thus the whole movie ultimately gets crushed by its tedious tone and starts going on one nerves after a while. The exposition is excellent and filled with great details: a woman finds numerous bullet holes on the bed, shaped like a silhouette of a man; Noodles' (De Niro) hallucination that the telephone is ringing even after he picks up the earphone...They all form a very good starting point for a story and manage to absorb the viewer into their world.

But despite his talent, Sergio Leone here loses the focus and point of the gangster story after a while, turning the whole film into a chaotic mess filled with disturbing scenes, like when Noodles rapes a woman on her agreement so that his gang could convincingly steal the diamonds, and later on they take out their penises so that she can recognize the perpetrator, and misogyny (the gangsters pressure Danny Aiello's cop character by swaping of his baby boy for a baby girl), in just some of the infamous scenes, not to mention that it is sickening that the director tried to give a sentimentalised depiction of the gangster hero (the song "Yesterday"; the cheap attempt that he actually loves his girlfriend after he raped her...). It is an wildly ambitious, sharp and clever film about the empty lives of gangsters, filled with great ideas here and there (an amusing joke with a coffin that has the word "Prohibition" written on it) - but it would have been better if the director could have made it without vague, unclear characters and events, heavily overstretched running time (too many scenes of characters just staring at each other that go on and on) and irritating pretentiousness. It was nominated for 2 Golden Globes (best director, Ennio Morricone for his great score) while it won 2 BAFTA awards (costumes, score) out of 5 nominations (best director, cinematography, supporting actress Tuesday Weld).


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