The extended director’s cut of Once Upon a Time in America runs 251 minutes. But there’s an early montage in Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic that’s really all you need.
The sequence is dominated by the sound of a ringing phone. With that insistent trilling in our ears, the camera swerves from the image of Robert De Niro—as Prohibition-era bootlegger Noodles—lying dazed in an opium den to the sight of a fire burning on a street to a shot of a celebration at a nightclub. We then see De Niro again picking up a phone, but the gesture brings no relief. The ringing continues, until we get a shot of another phone. A hand reaches in to answer it, the ringing stops, and we return to De Niro in the den. It’s a masterful stroke of filmmaking (the movie’s editor is Nino Baragli) and a summation of America’s modus operandi: to dampen alarming reality with the dull haze of memory.
As it traces—in elegant, non-linear fashion—Noodles and his childhood buddies from pesky street gang to ruthless professional criminals (also jumping ahead to an aging Noodles in the 1960s), Once Upon a Time in America paints a portrait of the United States as a land of shadows and violence, yet one that nevertheless has an irresistible, romantic pull. Tonino Delli Colli’s deeply saturated cinematography establishes this pattern in an early scene, in which a darkened bedroom is illuminated by the rich glow of a period lamp that a woman (Darlanne Fluegel) turns on. The light only reveals danger—she’s soon shot by three gangsters—and is quickly extinguished to hide what has happened. Similarly, much later in the film, an aging Noodles closes the massive door to a mausoleum, shutting out the sun. This is a movie about men who prefer darkness.
And yet Leone—whose spaghetti-Western poetry (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the West) was spun under the hot glare of the desert sun—still gives Once Upon a Time in America a warm glow. The sequences from Noodles’ youth (where he’s played by Scott Tiler) are a playful mixture of Our Gang shorts and The 400 Blows. And there’s a sexiness to the Prohibition segments—a titillating combination of girls and gunplay—that belies the pain and suffering on the screen. Even the sequences set in the 1960s are less of a reckoning (which is how you could describe Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, also with De Niro) and more of a wistful remembrance of the good old days. Add a gorgeous Ennio Morricone score that softens the brutality, making it fuzzy, and you have an epic of blinkered nostalgia.
This is a movie about men who prefer darkness.
That “sexiness” is worth spending more time on. There is a disturbing, virgin-whore dynamic at play in Once Upon a Time in America, with Elizabeth McGovern—as Noodles’ childhood crush-turned-Hollywood-starlet—on one end and Tuesday Weld—as a rape victim-turned-willing-plaything—on the other. Every other woman we meet is somewhere in between those two (although most fall in Weld’s direction). If a female character isn’t a sexual object in this story, then she’s a victim of violence. And in the two rape scenes those elements are queasily mixed (reminiscent of the way Leone treated Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West).
The character I keep coming back to is Peggy (played as a teen by Julie Cohen and as an adult by Amy Ryder). In their youth, Peggy would trade sex with Noodles and his pals for pastry treats. (There’s a sweetly comical sequence where one of the boys, after getting a taste of some frosting, decides he’d rather just keep the dessert.) In adulthood, Peggy becomes a brothel madam/bookkeeper for the crew, and she’s one of the first to greet Noodles after he comes out of a stint in jail. They share a brief reunion kiss, and as Noodles moves on she lets out a long sigh. There’s a whole movie there, but Once Upon a Time in America—even if it lingers on that sigh—isn’t interested.
Instead, it’s mostly concerned with the friendship between Noodles and Max (Rusty Jacobs as a teen; James Woods as an adult). There’s sexuality involved here too, as one could make the case that Max pines for Noodles from inside the closet, given his hesitant relationship with women in general and the way he consistently comes between Noodles and McGovern’s Deborah. Woods and De Niro have a palpable, prickly chemistry as they negotiate whether it’s Max or Noodles who leads this gang. (There’s a great De Niro moment where he silently stirs his coffee, as everyone else watches, while pondering that very question.)
Once Upon a Time in America concludes, in a somewhat convoluted way, with a ruling on Max and Noodles’ relationship. Or at least it forces Noodles to make a decision on that count. It’s telling that Noodles refuses to face the reality in front of him, but instead chooses to recall what they meant to each other in their storied, supposedly glorious past. For all its achievement, Leone’s movie would have more moral authority if it presented that past as a bit less burnished.