Sergio Leone’s epic “Once Upon a Time in America” was a victim of what is perhaps the most botched studio release in cinematic history. Leone’s 229-minute cut of the film originally premiered at Cannes in 1984 to outstanding reviews, but when it opened in the States, the studio decided to cut about 90 minutes from it and rearrange the entire structure of the film so that it ran chronologically. This resulted in a film that made no sense, one that was slammed by critics and audiences alike. While the rest of the world received Leone’s full cut, it was not until later on home video that American audiences were able to see the version that was much closer to the director’s original vision, a cut of the film that is now deemed by many to be a masterpiece. However, just two years ago, yet another version of the film premiered that features the addition of approximately 22 minutes’ worth of footage, resulting in a cut that is just about as close to Leone’s original vision for the project as we are likely to get. Now with this new cut’s release on Blu-ray, audiences all over will finally have the chance to get an even closer look at what Leone originally intended.
The film is told in a series of flashbacks beginning in 1933 with the aftermath of a gangster’s decision to call the police on his three friends, who all end up dead because of it. With syndicate men hunting him, David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) decides it’s best to get out of Dodge while the getting is good, after which, we flash forward to his return 35 years later to reconnect with some old acquaintances and face the ghosts of his past. Meanwhile, we flash back to when Noodles was a kid, growing up with his own little gang consisting of Max, Cockeye, Patsy, and Dominic. They want to go into business for themselves, but they must first deal with a local mobster by the name of Bugsy, who has laid claim to the territory. A confrontation with Bugsy and the police leaves one of his friends dead and lands Noodles in jail, but as soon as he gets out, his remaining friends are ready and waiting for him to jump right back into their business. As we jump back and forth between these time periods, we slowly realize what has made Noodles the man he is in the present and why he did what he felt he had to do in this sprawling epic of crime, betrayal, and coming to terms with one’s past.
After immersing myself in Leone’s four-hour epic, no cut of which I had ever seen before, I find that there are certainly things to like about it, but also some rather major issues that hold it back from being the masterpiece that others speak of. There is a fantastic story contained within, as well as intriguing characters that make certain parts of this ambitious project come alive. As far as the different times periods, the flashbacks to when the gang was just a bunch of kids trying to become crooks in their Jewish neighborhood holds the most fascination, showing us how they got their start and what put them on the path to the men we meet in the later periods. These later periods have some interesting parts to them too, including the build up to why Noodles chooses to betray his friends, but due to other issues, these parts just never rise to the level of what we see in the past.
As already mentioned, there is a great story in here, but it becomes so incredibly smothered with excess that it’s never allowed to breath. I know people like to make a big deal of how more of Leone’s original footage adds more depth and complexity to it, but unfortunately this is not the case with most of it. As the epic goes on and on, it becomes abundantly clear that there were scenes that could have been excised entirely and many that go on for so long that they merely become meandering and inconsequential to the plot. Because of this, much of the film lacks focus, leading the audience to have to wait for long periods before the plot finally gets a move on or the characters continue to develop. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to like here, including wonderful performances from Robert De Niro and James Woods, gorgeous cinematography, and an intriguing structure that slowly unfolds the story, but you can’t help but wonder how great the film could have been if the excess had been trimmed away to allow the story and characters to shine. It’s still worth checking out, just don’t go in expecting the masterpiece that some people make it out to be.
Sergio Leone’s epic has been beautifully restored for its Blu-ray release, which presents the film in a 1.85: 1, 1080p High Definition transfer. While the footage that had previously been available (i.e. the 229 minutes of the previous cut) looks absolutely stunning, the new footage is far more degraded because the only available source was discarded strips of working positives that were printed for reference only. However, it too has had a lot of work done and is presented in a very watchable quality. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is very soft, but satisfactory when adjusted, for the original footage, while for the newer footage it is a little more muffled and sometimes harder to understand. Overall, the studio has done a phenomenal job restoring this beloved classic, especially in regards to integrating the new footage.
Excerpt from the Documentary Profile Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone: A retrospective on the film featuring interviews with cast, crew, and even Leone’s wife. It runs about 20 minutes and is definitely worth taking a look at.
While Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” is not quite the masterpiece that some make it out to be due to its excess, there are still plenty of things to recommend about it. The story’s structure, the performances, and, of course, Leone’s direction, are more than enough reason to give this ambitious four-hour crime epic a chance. Even with its pacing issues and lack of focus in certain areas, it’s still quite a sight to behold just for the scope and complexity of it, and with the release of this new and beautifully-restored definitive cut, there’s no better time to give it that chance than now.
Available on Blu-ray starting tomorrow.
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