(USA 1984 228m) DVD1/2
An appointment at Fat Moe’s
p Arnon Milchan d Sergio Leone w Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero de Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Stuart Kaminsky, Sergio Leone novel “The Hoods” by David Aaronson, Harry Grey ph Tonino delli Colli ed Nino Baragli m Ennio Morricone (with Giaocchino Rossini, Cole Porter, Joseph M.Lacalle, Lennon & McCartney) art Carlo Simi, James Singelis cos Gabriella Pescucci, Nino Baragli
Robert DeNiro (David “Noodles” Aaronson), James Woods (Max), Elizabeth McGovern (Deborah), Treat Williams (Jimmy O’Donnell), William Forsythe (Cockeye), Tuesday Weld (Carol), Burt Young (Joe), Danny Aiello (Police Chief Aiello), Joe Pesci (Frankie), Jennifer Connelly (Young Deborah), Larry Rapp (Fat Moe Markowitz), James Russo,
Once Upon a Time in America is Sergio Leone’s defining statement as a filmmaker, one that it effectively took him twelve years to conceive and make. It wasn’t helped by the fact that Leone’s masterpiece was butchered in the US to 149m with the sort of careless glee not seen since Jack the Ripper roamed Whitechapel and, like so many other masterpieces of the eighties (see Kurosawa’s Ran and Bergman’s full Fanny and Alexander), it was made by a man a generation after his peak, but it’s also one of the greatest films of its decade.
Noodles Aaronson has been summoned back to New York 35 years after all his friends were supposedly killed after a robbery went wrong. He knows not why he’s been summoned or, apart from a name, who by, but he starts to piece together the pieces while looking back at his childhood before World War I in New York’s Jewish quarter.
It sounds simple enough, but America is a film that cannot be appreciated in one viewing. It demands at least three, like the best of Kubrick or Tarkovsky. Leone goes against the grain immediately by not having his gangsters Italian (like him) but Jewish, automatically distancing it from the familial splendour of the Mafiosos in The Godfather. The feel and look of the film is nostalgic, almost elegiac, and some of the directorial touches so audacious as to leave one gasping (the endless telephone ringing, the final mysterious refuse truck – did he or didn’t he?). Never, even in The Bowery or Manhattan, has the Brooklyn Bridge been so memorably depicted on film, towering over the kids like a huge Grim Reaper, ready to descend down on the next inevitable victim that always seems imminent. Not all nostalgia then, and this is certainly true of two rather horrible rape scenes, though the one of Tuesday Weld in the bank raid could equally be seen to be aggressive sex as one finds it hard to see her as a victim as much as we do poor Elizabeth McGovern in the backseat of the limo. Our hero may be a double rapist, and his friend psychotic, but they are real, and we care because we know them so completely.
Yet America is a film full of humour, as one recalls the girl who offers to pop a boy’s cherry for a delicious cake, only for him to eat it, and the hilarious scene set to Rossini’s ‘Thieving Magpie’ overture (a homage to Kubrick perhaps?) where the babies are switched. Leone is helped immeasurably by his superb cast; we expect great things of DeNiro and he returns to the sort of reflection not seen since 1900, Woods is mesmerising as Max, Weld is memorable as his sluttish but ultimately considerate lover Carol and there’s a lovely vignette from Larry Rapp as Fat Moe (he of the kosher confectionary, saieth the sign). Yet in spite of their fine work, Leone’s main partner in crime has to be Morricone, for his incomparably sweeping and multi-layered score (too good for an Oscar). As with the earlier Once Upon a Time in the West, the music was written first and played on the set (incorporating Joe Lacalle’s immortal Amapola). It’s sad that Leone didn’t live long enough to make any more films or to see his masterpiece get the praise it deserved, but he had the last laugh. America is truly a film to make one believe in cinema’s limitless potential if the mercenary studio hacks would keep their Philistine scissors off. A film of consummate mournful splendour, a modern day Greek tragedy to make the Gods laugh and its audience weep with joy and desolation. Like Deborah’s Cleopatra, age cannot wither it, nor custom stale its infinite variety.