Thursday, February 26, 2015

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America is the best gangster film that never was, at least for a while. Upon its release in 1984, American studios were scared to death of the four hour running time, so they butchered Leone's vision. While the original debuted in Cannes to wide praise, the American version was chopped down to two-and-a-half hours, and was utterly baffling to audiences. Large chunks of the story which were crucial to the film - as literally every moment is crucial in the end - were cut, causing confusion and poor character development.

Eventually, the original version was released on home video, clocking in at 224 minutes. It clarified many things for American audiences and it was finally recognized as a great film. Now, a bluray version of the film, Leone's director's cut that he originally intended, clocks in at 251 minutes, and is the complete masterpiece.

The film is an odyssey of young boys who become young men, and eventually some make it to old age. All the while this crew of men seem hard-wired for violence, to run the streets of a prohibition New York, and to stomp out their competition. Robert De Niro plays Noodles, are entry into the story, whom we see near the beginning in an opium den while other men are employing violence to hunt him down. The opening sequence is virtuoso, with moments of shocking violence, and a phone which rings 24 times, brilliantly creating a thread between timelines.

James Woods is Max, the hotheaded hood of the group who, over the course of several decades, struggles with Noodles for power. All of the tropes of gangster cinema are here, including double crosses, speakeasies, and fast women of the twenties and thirties. But the film also has deeply complex characters, and it manages to create wholly despicable humans who keep the momentum of a four hour film going. Despite it's run time, Once Upon a Time in America never drags, it never feels that long.