Once Upon a Time in America
|Once Upon a Time in America
(C'era una volta in America)
Theatrical release poster by Tom Jung
|Directed by||Sergio Leone|
|Produced by||Arnon Milchan|
|Screenplay by||Franco Arcalli
Piero De Bernardi
Stuart M. Kaminsky
|Based on||The Hoods
by Harry Grey
|Starring||Robert De Niro
|Music by||Ennio Morricone|
|Cinematography||Tonino Delli Colli|
|Editing by||Nino Baragli|
|Studio||The Ladd Company
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Running time||229 minutes (European release)
139 minutes (US release)
Once Upon a Time in America is a 1984 Italian epic crime drama film co-written and directed by Sergio Leone and starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. It chronicles the lives of Jewish ghetto youths who rise to prominence in New York City's world of organized crime. The film explores themes of childhood friendships, love, lust, greed, betrayal, loss, broken relationships, and the rise of mobsters in American society.
Leone adapted the story from the novel The Hoods, written by Harry Grey, while filming Once Upon a Time in the West. The film went through casting changes and production issues before filming began in 1982.
The original film by the director was 269 minutes (4 hours and 29 minutes) long, but when the film premièred out of competition at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Leone had cut it to 229 minutes (3 hours and 49 minutes) to appease the distributors. This was the version shown in European cinemas. However, for the US release on June 1, 1984, Once Upon a Time in America was edited further to 139 minutes (2 hours and 19 minutes) by the studio, against the director's wishes. In this shorter version, the flashback narrative was changed, by re-editing the scenes in chronological order. Leone was reportedly heartbroken by the American cut, and never made another film before his death in 1989.
In March 2011, it was announced that the original 269 minutes version was to be re-created by a film lab in Italy under the supervision of Leone's children, who acquired the Italian distribution rights, and the film's original sound editor, Fausto Ancillai, for a premiere in 2012 at either the Cannes Film Festival or the Venice Film Festival. The restored film premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but due to unforeseen rights issues for the deleted scenes, the film's restoration ran for 251 minutes. However, Martin Scorsese (whose Film Foundation helped with the restoration), stated that he is helping Leone's children gain the rights to the final 24 minutes of deleted scenes for a complete version of Leone's original 269 minute version.
On August 3, 2012, it was reported that the restored film that premiered at the 2012 Cannes film festival has been pulled from circulation pending further restoration work.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Cast
- 3 Pre-production
- 4 Production
- 5 Post-production
- 6 Film versions
- 7 Soundtrack
- 8 Critical reception
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 Bibliography
- 12 External links
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (May 2012)|
The film is presented in non-chronological order. While this plot states the film from the 1920s to the 1960s, the film is largely told through flashbacks from the 1960s.
David "Noodles" Aaronson (Scott Tiler) struggles as a street kid in the Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in 1920. His gang, consisting of Patrick "Patsy" Goldberg (Brian Bloom), Phillip "Cockeye" Stein (Adrian Curran), and little Dominic work for an older boy named Bugsy (James Russo) until they meet Max Bercovicz (Rusty Jacobs) who convinces them that they should form their own operation. The boys establish a suitcase money fund, which they hide in a locker at a train station, giving the key to Fat Moe Gelly (Mike Monetti), a reliable friend who's not part of the operation. Noodles is in love with Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), Fat Moe's sister, who aspires to be a dancer and actress, but she does not reciprocate his affection. One day Bugsy attacks the boys and Little Dominic is shot and killed. In a rage, Noodles stabs Bugsy and a police officer who tried to intervene. He is sentenced to prison.
An adult Noodles (Robert De Niro) is released from jail in 1932 and is reacquainted with his old gang: Max (James Woods), Patsy (James Hayden) and Cockeye (William Forsythe), who are now major players in the bootlegging industry during Prohibition. Noodles meets up with Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) and tries to rekindle a relationship. Meanwhile, the gang meets Carol (Tuesday Weld) during a robbery and she soon becomes Max's girlfriend. The gang prospers financially under prohibition as they engage in bootlegging and also provide muscle for union boss Jimmy Conway O'Donnell (Treat Williams). Noodles tries to impress Deborah on an extravagant date, but feels rejected when she states that she is leaving for the West Coast to further her acting career. On their way home, they kiss in a limousine, but upon Deborah's reluctance to go further, Noodles rapes her. After Deborah leaves, he regrets what he has done.
The gang's financial success is threatened when prohibition is repealed. Max suggests robbing the New York Federal Reserve Bank, but Noodles sees it as suicidal. Carol, who also fears for Max's life, convinces Noodles to call the police on his friends. Later, Noodles learns that Max, Patsy, and Cockeye are killed in a gunfight when cornered by the police. He is consumed with guilt for making the phone call. The same night Noodles discovers Fat Moe horribly beaten and the money from their railway locker suitcase missing. After using drugs in an opium den, Noodles flees the city for Buffalo to live under an assumed name.
In 1968 Noodles receives a letter informing him that the cemetery where his friends are buried has been sold and asking him to make arrangements for their reburial. Realizing that someone has deduced his identity, Noodles returns to Manhattan and stays with Fat Moe above his restaurant. Noodles visits a new mausoleum where his friends are interred and discovers a key, similar to the one for the railway locker the gang had previously used. Going to the locker, he discovers a suitcase full of cash and a note saying the money is a down payment on his next job.
Noodles visits Carol, who lives at a retirement home run by the Bailey Foundation. She tells him that Max caused the gang's death by opening fire on the police. While at the home, Noodles sees a photo of Deborah at the institution's dedication. Noodles tracks down Deborah, who is now a successful Broadway actress. He questions her about Secretary Bailey, an embattled political figure whose name has been mentioned in news reports, telling her that he has received an invitation to a party at Bailey's house. Deborah claims not to know much about Bailey, despite public statements indicating that they have lived together for years. As he is about to leave, Deborah introduces Noodles to her son David, who she named after him. David looks the same as the adolescent Max.
Noodles attends the party at Secretary Bailey's house and is shocked to discover that Bailey is Max. Max reveals that he faked his own death and stole the gang's money in order to start a new life. Now faced with scandal and corruption accusations Max asks Noodles to kill him. Noodles refuses, despite Max goading him with the fact that he "stole" Noodles life. As Noodles leaves Secretary Bailey's estate, he looks back to see a man who may be Max come to the end of the driveway. As Noodles watches, a garbage truck drives by the man, who disappears.
Noodles goes to an opium den following the loss of his friends. As he smokes the opium a smile comes across his face and freezes.
|Character||Actor (adult)||Actor (adolescent)|
|David "Noodles" Aaronson||Robert De Niro||Scott Tiler|
|Maximilian "Max" Bercovicz / Christopher Bailey||James Woods||Rusty Jacobs|
|Deborah Gelly||Elizabeth McGovern||Jennifer Connelly|
|Patrick "Patsy" Goldberg||James Hayden||Brian Bloom|
|Philip "Cockeye" Stein||William Forsythe||Adrian Curran|
|Moe "Fats" Gelly||Larry Rapp||Mike Monetti|
|Frankie Manoldi||Joe Pesci|
|James Conway O'Donnell||Treat Williams|
|Peggy||Amy Ryder||Julie Cohen|
|Joe Minaldi||Burt Young|
|Chief Vincent Aiello||Danny Aiello|
|Woman in the Puppet Theatre||Olga Karlatos|
|Cemetery Director (2012 Restoration only)||Louise Fletcher|
During the filming of Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone read the novel The Hoods, by Harry Grey, a pseudonym for a former gangster-turned-informant whose real name was Harry Goldberg. Leone was intent on making another trilogy about America. He turned down an offer from Paramount Pictures to direct The Godfather to pursue his pet project. Grey met Leone several times in the '60s and '70s, and was a fan of Leone's Westerns. Before his death in 1982, he agreed to the adaptation. One reason that the production took so long was that another producer had optioned the novel and refused to relinquish the property until the late 1970s.
The film begins and ends in 1933, with Noodles hiding in an opium den from Syndicate hitmen. Since the last shot of the movie is of Noodles in a smiling, opium-soaked high, the film can be interpreted as having been a drug-induced dream, with Noodles remembering his past and envisioning the future. In an interview by Noël Simsolo published in 1987, Leone confirms the validity of this interpretation, saying that the scenes set in the 1960s could be seen as an opium dream of Noodles. In his commentary for a DVD of the movie, film historian and critic Richard Schickel states that opium users often report vivid dreams and that these visions have a tendency to explore the user's past and future.
Leone considered many actors for the film in the long development process. Originally in 1975, Gérard Depardieu, who was determined to learn English with a Brooklyn accent for the role, was cast as Max with Jean Gabin playing the older Max. Richard Dreyfuss was cast as Noodles with James Cagney playing the older Noodles. In 1980, Leone spoke of casting Tom Berenger as Noodles with Paul Newman playing the older Noodles. Among actors considered for the role of Max were Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, John Malkovich and John Belushi.
Early in 1981, Brooke Shields was offered the role of Deborah Gelly, after Leone had seen The Blue Lagoon, claiming that "she had the potential to play a mature character." A writers' strike delayed the project, and Shields withdrew before auditions began. Elizabeth McGovern was cast as Deborah and Jennifer Connelly as her younger self.
Joe Pesci was among many to audition for Max. He got the smaller role of Frankie, partly as a favor to his friend De Niro. Danny Aiello auditioned for several roles and was ultimately cast as the police chief who (coincidentally) shares his surname. Claudia Cardinale (who appeared in Once Upon a Time in the West) wanted to play Carol, but Leone was afraid she would not be convincing as a New Yorker and turned her down.
The film was shot between June 14, 1982, and April 22, 1983. Leone tried, as he had with A Fistful of Dynamite, to produce the film with a young director under him. In the early days of the project he courted John Milius, a fan who was enthusiastic about the idea; but Milius was working on The Wind and the Lion and the script for Apocalypse Now, and could not commit to the project. For the film's visual style, Leone used as references the paintings of such artists as Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper, and Norman Rockwell, as well as (for the 1922 sequences) the photographs of Jacob Riis. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby influenced the characterization of Noodles (or at least his relationship with Deborah).
Most exteriors were shot in New York City (such as in Williamsburg along South 6th Street, where Fat Moe's restaurant was based, and South 8th Street), but several key scenes were shot elsewhere. Most interiors were shot in Cinecittà in Rome. The beach scene where Max unveils his plan to rob the Federal Reserve was shot in St. Petersburg, Florida. The New York's railway "Grand Central Station" scene in the thirties flashbacks was filmed in the Gare du Nord in Paris. The interiors of the lavish restaurant where Noodles takes Deborah on their date were shot in the Hotel Excelsior in Venice, Italy. The gang's hit on Joe was filmed in Quebec. The view of the Manhattan Bridge shown in the movie's poster can be seen from Washington Street in Brooklyn.
The shooting-script, completed in October 1981 after many delays and a writers' strike between April and July of that year, was 317 pages in length. At the end of filming, Leone had 8 to 10 hours' worth of footage. With his editor, Nino Baragli, Leone trimmed this to almost 6 hours, and he originally wanted to release the film as two movies with three-hour parts. The producers refused (partly due to the commercial and critical failure of Bertolucci's two-part Novecento) and Leone was forced to further shorten his film, resulting in a completed (i.e. scored, dubbed, edited, etc.) film of 229 minutes.
Many people (including film critic Richard Schickel) assume that the flying disc scene was part of a longer sequence. Roger Ebert stated that the purpose of the frisbee scene is to establish the 1960s timeframe.
||This section is in a list format that may be better presented using prose. (August 2009)|
There are three abridged versions of the film, two of which are currently available:
- The 229 minute version – When the 'complete' film was shown in America, it was trimmed slightly to secure an 'R' rating. Cuts were made to the two rape scenes, and some violence at the beginning. Noodles' childhood flashback in his meeting with Bailey in 1968 was also excised.
- A network television version of three hours (without commercials) was prepared in the early-to-mid-1990s, retaining the film's non-chronological order but left out key scenes.
- The 139 minute American version was given wide release in America. Heavily edited by the Ladd Company against Leone's wishes, the story was rearranged in chronological order. Most major cuts involved childhood sequences, making the 1933 sections prominent. Noodles' 1968 meeting with Deborah was excised, and the scene with "Secretary Bailey" ended with him shooting himself (albeit offscreen), rather than the garbage truck conclusion of the 229-minute version. This version flopped in the US and many American critics, who knew of Leone's original cut, attacked the short version. Some critics compared shortening the film to shortening Richard Wagner's operas, saying that works of art that are meant to be long should be given the respect they deserve.
In the Soviet Union, the film was theatrically shown in the late 1980s, with other Hollywood blockbusters such as the two King Kong movies. The story was rearranged in chronological order and the movie was shown in two parts, one containing all childhood scenes and the other for adulthood scenes. The parts were run as two movies. Except the rearrangement, no major deletions were made, and the film was rated as "16+" by the Goskino.
A 256 minute restored version adding 26 minutes to the currently available 229 minute version screened at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This brings the film closest it has ever been to the original run time that Leone crafted.
The film was released on DVD in the late '90s. A two-disc special edition was released on DVD in June 2003, and again in January 2011.
Blu-ray Disc releases
The film was released on Blu-ray Disc in February 2011. The Blu-ray Disc contains a high definition, re-mastered 229 minute cut of the film. A 246-minute cut of the film has been released on Blu-ray in November 2012.
|Once Upon a Time in America|
|Soundtrack album by Ennio Morricone|
|Released||October 17, 1995|
|Label||Musicrama / Koch|
The music was composed by Leone's long-time collaborator, Ennio Morricone. Due to the film's long production, Morricone had finished composing most of the soundtrack before many scenes had been filmed. Some of Morricone's pieces were played on set as filming took place (a technique that Leone used for Once Upon a Time in the West). "Deborah's Theme" was written for another film in the 1970s but rejected; Morricone presented the piece to Leone, who was initially reluctant, considering it too similar to Morricone's main title for Once Upon a Time in the West.
- "Once Upon a Time in America"
- "Deborah's Theme"
- "Childhood Memories"
- "Prohibition Dirge"
- "Cockeye's Song"
- "Amapola, Pt. 2"
- "Childhood Poverty"
- "Photographic Memories"
- "Friendship & Love"
- "Deborah's Theme-Amapola"
- "Suite from Once Upon a Time in America (Includes Amapola)"
- "Poverty" [temp. version]
- "Unused Theme"
- "Unused Theme" [version 2]
Besides the original music, the movie used "found" (source) music, including:
- "God Bless America" (written by Irving Berlin, performed by Kate Smith – 1943) – Plays over the opening credits from a radio in Eve's bedroom and briefly at the film's ending. Incidentally, the recording of the song used was not sung until 1943, for the film This is the Army, so its use is a slight anachronism on Leone's part.
- "Yesterday" (written by Lennon–McCartney – 1965) – A muzak version of this piece plays when Noodles first returns to New York in 1968, examining himself in a train station mirror. An instrumental version of the song also plays briefly during the dialogue scene between Noodles and "Bailey" towards the end of the film.
- "Summertime" (written by George Gershwin – 1935) An instrumental version of the aria from the opera Porgy and Bess is playing softly in the background as Noodles explains to "Secretary Bailey" why he could never kill his friend, just before leaving.
- "Amapola" (written by Joseph LaCalle (American lyrics by Albert Gamse) – 1923) – Originally an opera piece, several instrumental versions of this song were played during the film; a jazzy version which played on the gramophone danced to by young Deborah in 1922; a similar version played by Fat Moe's jazz band in the speakeasy in 1932; and a string version, during Noodles' date with Deborah. It has been suggested that Leone used this piece after hearing a version of it in the film Carnal Knowledge, though this has not been confirmed. Both versions are available on the soundtrack.
- "La gazza ladra" overture (Gioachino Rossini – 1817) – Used during the famous baby-switching scene in the hospital.
- "Night and Day" (written and sung by Cole Porter – 1932) – Played by a jazz band during the beach scene before the beachgoers receive word of Prohibition's repeal and during Secretary Bailey's party in 1968.
- "St. James Infirmary Blues" is used during the prohibition 'funeral' at the gang's speakeasy.
Once Upon a Time in America is widely regarded as Morricone's best work, but was disqualified, on a technicality, from Oscar consideration. In the original American print, Morricone's name was accidentally omitted from the opening credits by the producers.
One unique aspect of this score is Ennio’s incorporation of Gheorghe Zamfir, who plays a pan flute. At times this music is used to convey remembrance, at other times terror. Zamfir’s flute playing was used to haunting effect in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Awards and nominations
- Best Costume Design – Gabriella Pescucci (Won)
- Best Score – Ennio Morricone (Won)
- Best Director – Sergio Leone
- Best Supporting Actress – Tuesday Weld
- Best Director – Sergio Leone
- Best Original Score – Ennio Morricone
- Best Music – Ennio Morricone
American Film Institute lists
- AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Ennio Morricone (Nominated)
- AFI's 10 Top 10 – Gangster Film (Nominated)
Reception and legacy
The film premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival in April and, according to Howard Hughes' book Crimewave: A Filmgoer's Guide to Great Crime Movies, received a "15 minute standing ovation". Several sneak premieres in Canada and the US gained a mixed reception at best (some suspect due to studio tampering). The film was cut again – without the supervision of Sergio Leone – to 139 minutes for cinema distribution in the United States. Roger Ebert wrote in his 1984 review that the uncut version was "an epic poem of violence and greed" but described the American theatrical version as a "travesty". Ebert's television movie critic partner Gene Siskel considered the uncut version to be the best movie of 1984.
The uncut film is considered to be far superior to the edited version shown in America. James Woods, who considers Once Upon a Time in America Leone's finest work, mentions in the DVD documentary that one critic dubbed the film the worst of 1984, only to see the original cut years later and call it the best of the 1980s. Ebert, in his review of Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, called the original uncut version of Once Upon a Time in America the best film depicting the Prohibition era. When Sight & Sound asked several UK critics what their favorite films of the last 25 years were in 2002 as a reaction to its earlier poll, Once Upon a Time in America placed at number 10. Movie Room Reviews gave the film four stars and said "The film remains one of the most ambitious attempts of a legendary director, and fans of Leone's work will find it a suitable addition to their movie collections."
- "Festival de Cannes: Once Upon a Time in America". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-06-25.
- Variety (March 10, 2011): "'Once Upon a Time' to be restored" Retrieved 2011-04-21
- The Film Forum (Mar 13, 2011): "Once Upon a Time in America – 269 minute version in 2012" Retrieved 2011-04-21
- Gallman, Brett (2012-04-24). "'Once Upon a Time in America,' Other Director's Cuts Worth Watching – Yahoo! Movies". Movies.yahoo.com. Retrieved 2012-05-19.
- Joe Klein, Peter Blauner: A Film Grows in Brooklyn. New York Magazine, January 24, 1983, p. 3, pp.16–17. Retrieved 2009-01-12.
- Hughes Crime Wave:The Filmgoers' guide to the great crime movies pp.156–157.
- Simsolo, Noël (1987). Conversations avec Sergio Leone. Paris: Stock. ISBN 2-234-02049-2.
- Once Upon a Time in America commentary with film historian Richard Schikel
- The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations http://movie-locations.com/movies/o/onceamerica.html
- Washington Street, Brooklyn | New York
- Hughes Crimewave: The Filmgoers' guide to the great crime movies p.163.
- Once Upon a Time in America DVD audio commentary
- Once Upon A Time In America, January 1, 1984, film review by Roger Ebert. Accessed September 13, 2008.
- Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone Documentary
- Barraclough, Leo (2012-05-16). "Another chance for 'Once' – Entertainment News, Film Festivals, Media". Variety. Retrieved 2012-05-19.
- Other reviews by Messrob Torikian (2003-08-25). "Once Upon a Time in America (1984)". Soundtrack. Retrieved 2012-05-19.
- AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees
- AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot
- Ebert, Roger (1 January 1984). "Once Upon A Time in America". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2008-06-08.
- Siskel, Gene. "Siskel and Ebert Top Ten Films (1980–1998)". Gene Siskel Official website. Retrieved 2012-01-02.
- Roger Ebert 1987 review of The Untouchables
- "Modern Times". British Film Institute. 2002. Retrieved 2008-11-09.
- Mandell, Zack (2013). "'80s Movie Month: "Once Upon a Time in America" Review". Movie Room Reviews (Movie Room Reviews). Retrieved 2013-11-21.
- Hughes, Howard (2002). Crime Wave: The Filmgoers' guide to the great crime movies.
- Once Upon a Time in America at the Internet Movie Database
- Once Upon a Time in America at Rotten Tomatoes
- Once Upon a Time in America at Box Office Mojo
- Once Upon a Time in America at allmovie
- Roger Ebert's 1984 Review
- A site dedicated to the film