This is Sergio Leone’s gangster tale of epic proportions which follows a group of friends from their New York childhood in the 1920s through their underworld dealings over the next 50 years. It focuses on the relationship between Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods).
Once Upon a Time in America is a meticulously made film, where the quality shines through in almost every scene. The performances, particularly those of Woods and De Niro, are exceptional, as they play ages 20 to 60 accompanied by the sublime soundtrack of long-time Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone.
In spite of its long, sprawling story it manages to remain personal and intimate. In this way it’s very much the Citizen Kane of gangster films, with the importance it puts on specific objects and utterances, its long chronology, and the impact childhood experiences are shown to have later in life.
In terms of setting, however, it feels more like The Godfather Part 2, with its non-linear narrative and childhood segments in New York during the first half of the 20th Century. Seeing De Niro in a flat cap on the streets of the Big Apple, it could almost be extra footage from his turn as Vito Corleone. As historical context is given to differentiate time periods, Once Upon a Time in America shows how prohibition affects people’s lives in the same way Once Upon a Time in the West showed the effects of the newly built railways, although this latter film is more tightly plotted and over a much narrower time frame.
The quality of this film is a product of its lengthy 10 month shoot, which is also the amount of time it takes to watch. This cinematic filibuster is so long that its working title was Shaquille O’Neal. It’s so long David Blaine plans to sit through it for his next endurance test. It’s so long Francis Ford Coppola said “you might want to trim it down a bit”. It’s so long David Walliams tried to swim it. It’s so long my TV tried to shut down half way through (and that’s actually true). At three hours and 40 minutes, this is equivalent to watching Die Hard and First Blood back-to-back.
This is actually mercifully short when you discover the original screenplay was 400 pages and the original cut over 8 hours. Nowadays it would be split in two (or into 6 if you’re Peter Jackson), an idea which was rejected by the studio, leaving a devastated Leone to trim his labour of love to its current length. But whatever the reasons, this is simply too long. As beautiful as it is there are limits to human concentration, and by the end you might be wishing celluloid was more expensive. The amount left on the cutting room floor shows, too, with aspects of the plot feeling under-explained, and the jumping timeline creating more confusion than it needs to.
Leone is far from an efficient film maker. He has a tendency towards long, dialogue-free stretches, which is fantastic for a director with such a brilliant understanding of image and sound, but when you’ve been watching a film so long you could have flown to Turkey in the meantime, lingering shots of inanimate objects or silent actors become tiresome. Once Upon a Time in America gets better in this regard as it goes through, however, with the drama increasing in the final five acts or so, becoming increasingly gripping as the sand trickles through the three-and-a-half-hourglass.
Gangster films have a tendency to be long and elaborate affairs, but with between 40 minutes to an hour on its longest rivals, those with small bladders, significant others or jobs might prefer a Godfather, Casino or Goodfellas, even though America is undeniably up with these films in terms of quality.