Once Upon a Time in America (1983) – Sergio Leone

Clocking in at almost four hours long, Leone’s cinematic adaptation of  Harry Grey’s original novel is the next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of The Godfather.

Robert De Niro stars as David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson, a gangster, who after fleeing New York returns over thirty years later to face the fallout, regrets, and pains of the past.

Joining De Niro is a star-studded cast including James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Treat Williams, Jennifer Connelly, William Forsythe, and Danny Aiello. Set in the early decades of the 20th century, the tale follows a gang of boys in their youth as they begin to pursue a life of crime – not because it’s necessarily criminal, but more to get by  and have money.

But they hold their brotherhood higher than their desire for money, but in the end it will all come out in tragedy.

The story takes its time in the telling, and with almost four hours of film time nothing seems particularly rushed. I am sure that there are tons of commentaries out there on the nature of Noodles pathologies, the violence, the repressed sexual desire that only seems to come out in violent acts of rape. So I will not discourse on them here, only to say that it served to make the character infinitely more unlikable.


There were points where I could attempt to empathise with the character but when his violence, and maladjusted tendencies surface, I had a hard time relating to him as a character.

When his friends, including his best pal, Max (Woods) are supposedly killed, Noodles flees town, but returns in 1968 and begins to piece the events of his life together, laying them out before us in flashback, even as he tries to figure out why the suitcase of money that had been set aside by the gang in their youth now has a note saying an advance for a last job.

Leone has crafted a solid, and involving film, his final one, and one that tied off his unconnected trilogy of films, Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in America. The three are considered part of a trilogy because they come from the same director, and tell stories from important times in America’s history.

Of the trio, I prefer Once Upon a Time in the West, but surprisingly, considering I don’t care for gangster films, I quite liked this one.



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