Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Genre: Crime Drama and Gangster Running Time: 3 hrs. 49 min.

Release Date: June 1st, 1984 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Sergio Leone Actors: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe, Darlanne Fleugel, James Russo, Jennifer Connelly




n the run from murderous thugs, bootlegger and stoolie David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) carries with him a suitcase that’s supposed to be filled with $1 million, but is instead unexpectedly empty. After spontaneously skipping town for 35 years, he returns to his friend Fat Moe’s (Larry Rapp) bar, at the veiled behest of a synagogue letter, which signifies that the men who were after him decades earlier have finally discovered his whereabouts. He’s eventually led from a mausoleum to the train station that housed the original briefcase, and then to several faces from the past, harboring secrets and answers to the mystery of his forced disappearance.

As a Manhattan teenager in the 1920s, young Noodles (Scott Tiler) spies on aspiring ballet dancer Deborah (a 14 year-old Jennifer Connelly) through a hole in the wall of the restaurant that would become Joe’s pub. When not obsessing over the classy girl, Noodles spends his time with a street gang that commits petty crimes, such as harassing small businesses and stealing money from drunks. When Maximilian ‘Max’ Bercovicz (Rusty Jacobs) moves in from the Bronx, he joins forces with Noodles and a corrupt cop to encroach on local mob boss Bugsy’s (James Russo) territory. The situation gets wildly out of hand when Bugsy shoots one of the boys, and Noodles stabs the thug to death in retaliation.

After spending more than ten years in prison, adult Noodles is released and reunited with former associates Max (James Woods), Patsy (James Hayden), and Cockeye (William Forsythe) – and Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). Wasting no time, Noodles is introduced to hotshot gangster Frankie Manoldi (Joe Pesci) and his brother Joe (Burt Young) at Fat Joe’s Delicatessen, where they’re informed that a diamond shipment to Holland is in need of thieving. It’s the first of many assignments that see the foursome elevating in status as a miniature mafia, pushing around politicians, policemen, and rivals alike.

Based on “The Hoods” by Harry Grey and arriving a decade after “The Godfather: Part II,” this monumental gangster flick welcomingly brings back the subject matter and tone of Francis Ford Coppola’s two mobster masterpieces – before “Part III” would spoil the momentum. It’s also been thirteen years since “Duck, You Sucker” premiered; something of a lifetime for legendary Spaghetti Western pioneer Sergio Leone to be absent from the director’s chair. The cinematographic style has evolved (here done by Tonino Delli Colli, who also did “Once Upon a Time in the West”), but it’s still unmistakably reminiscent of his earlier projects; flashbacks are utilized generously, the sound effects loudly take precedence over actions and scene changes (clever editing concerning a telephone ring haunts just such a segment), and Ennio Morricone’s ever-present music commands each moment. In addition, the pacing is slow (or slower), capturing expressions, emotions, and small details with ease.

New to the fold are a non-chronological ordering of the narrative and a significant romantic entanglement. The violence is certainly bloodier, the nudity and sexuality more shocking, and with a running time that clocks in at nearly four hours, this final feature-length Leone effort is definitely the lengthiest. Some of the themes have changed, here showing a poisonous man whose egotism, hunger for power, desire to ensnare whatever he wants, and refusal to take orders from anyone fatefully leads to the destruction of everything he values. Predicaments with the competition, betrayal, union and prohibition contentions, political imbroglios, and bank robberies have been updated for the shift in time period and settings, but the idea of a collection of antiheroes immersed in criminal activities doesn’t feel all that different.

In the end, as with Leone’s previous films “For a Few Dollars More, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” and “Once Upon a Time in the West,” the need for knowledge, closure, and revenge vastly outweighs greed or a satisfying future. A symbolic pocket-watch makes an appearance to signify the terminus of a friendship, a life, and a time itself. As was becoming more common in similar underworld epics of the era, reform is a potent part of the journey, too, and Leone toys with this in an ambiguous conclusion that demonstrates forgiveness, redemption, and conflicting escapism – all to Morricone’s melancholy cues and pleasant reflections on untroubled youth.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10