Film review: Once Upon a Time in America (1984), directed by Sergio Leone
tl;dr: It’s needlessly long and rapey. Don’t like it.
After posting a quick review on Instagram, one person said I hadn’t understood the film, and that “you must be focused to get it”. I admitted that they were probably right, and that watching it in one go would probably have helped. Instead I watched it in three chunks, a month or more in-between, so my impressions are what they are. I’m not known for being able to focus for long stretches of time if something doesn’t grab me, so bear that in mind.
I started watching this in the bath some time last year. Then I watched some more at a later date, when I remembered “oh yeah, I never finished it”. (This film is nearly four hours long and you do feel that.) I wasn’t really impressed up to that point, having already encountered a questionable rape scene. Then I read some reviews which spoiled an upcoming scene and kinda went “the fuck?! I can certainly do without seeing that.”And thought I’d leave it, but then I was reminded of the film again, and I do hate leaving films unfinished, so I figured okay, let’s do this.
Okay, first off, Once Upon a Time in America is based on the novel The Hoods by Harry Grey. The film was directed by Sergio Leone (he of spaghetti western fame – my dad was a big Clint Eastwood fan), and takes place in the late 1910s, in 1920s-1930s and 1960s. There are gangsters, they’re into bootlegging in New York, so this seemed like a film I ought to see. Clips from the film were also, inexplicably, used in the video for Modern Talking’s Brother Louie in 1985, so that also worked as an incentive.
So, what’s it about? David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro as an adult, Scott Tiler as a teenager), growing up in the slums on the Lower East Side in New York. He has a little gang of friends: Max (James Woods/Rusty Jacobs), Cockeye (William Forsythe/Adrian Curran), Patsy (James Hayden/Brian Bloom), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi). They do petty crime for a gangster called Bugsy (James Russo) back in 1918. Noodles and Max become best friends.
Noodles is infatuated with Fat Moe’s (Larry Rapp/Mike Monetti) sister Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern/Jennifer Connelly), who wants to be a dancer and actress. Noodles likes to hide out in the toilet of the family restaurant and spy on her through a hole in the wall. It’s creepy.
Things happen, as they inevitably do when you’re involved in a gang. Noodles ends up in jail, at which point we cut to when he gets out in 1930. The remaining gang have made good money in bootlegging, and look to include Noodles in a diamond robbery, which is where the first rape comes in. The jewellery store informant, Carol (Tuesday Weld), asks Noodles to hit her so the robbery seems more authentic. He decides to rape her instead (!), then and there. Which at first she resists but soon turns out to be really into, because WTF?! She later ends up being Max’s girlfriend, because WTF?
To make a long story short, in the end we follow Noodles in 1968 when he returns after laying low in Buffalo under an assumed name for the past 35 years because reasons. And it ends in an ambiguous way so that people are still not sure about what actually happened.
Do I like Robert De Niro as an actor? Yes. Was I fascinated by seeing a much younger Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern)? Yes. Do I agree with this film’s 8.3 rating (at the time of writing) on IMDb? Umm. No? Just because a film is long doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece.
Sure, it’s beautifully acted, the period features are super lovely, but it really drags on unnecessarily and there are two (well, three, because one’s a double 🙃) completely unnecessary rape scenes in it. Am I the woke police? No. But it’s not a light subject, so if you feel like you need to include it in the story, it should at least serve some sort of narrative purpose for the story moving forward. My problem here is that this doesn’t happen. The rape of Carol doesn’t seem to impact her at all, it certainly doesn’t mean anything at all to Noodles as a character, and it doesn’t impact the story. Then again, this is probably the fault of the book rather than the film, but adaptations can choose to omit things from books that are superfluous to the narrative, and they clearly didn’t. Carol is even made out to be some kind of slut later, so “that makes it okay” or something. It’s fucking gross.
“But you said there were two/three? What about the other one(s)?” Sweet, innocent Deborah. The one Noodles has been infatuated with for so long. (She does not end up being into it, so at least there’s that.) They’re in the back of a car, she’s told him she’s off to Hollywood, and his response is to force himself on her. Twice; one after the other. While the driver is driving them somewhere. At least the driver is sympathetic towards her afterwards, but dude, you could have stopped the car and helped her sooner, maybe? (He clearly wasn’t worried about getting shot when he finally did stop.) She goes off to Hollywood, apparently sad that Noodles wasn’t a nice guy after all, and when she returns in 1968 and has an adult child, you think “aha, at least there was some kind of point to this, it must be Noodles’s kid!” but no, the child is someone else’s. So what was the point? It has zero impact on the characters or the story! And it’s not a short scene either, so all in all it just feels like the film makers were into rape porn and, again, that’s fucking gross and could we not?
Rape is a plot device that should be used with caution – sparingly! – and always because it will have some kind of bearing on the plot or impacts the characters involved. If it happens without any consequences and without actually achieving anything narratively, then why the fuck include it in the first place?! Real people are raped every day and it’s not something you just shrug off like it’s nothing. Like, the least you can do if you’re going to use their very real trauma for “entertainment” is to at least treat the subject with some sensitivity.
Another Instagrammer commented that they never understood what the message of the film was supposed to be. “Noodles was destined to be betrayed?” I don’t know either. It’s essentially Noodles spending the better part of four hours being an unrepentant asshole to everyone, but he won’t kill his old friend because … he doesn’t want to, because he suddenly has developed some kind of scruples in old age? It might have helped if any of the characters were likeable, but few – if any – of them are, so it’s hard to sympathise with any of them. If you’re doing a story about hardnosed gangsters, you need to be able to empathise with them on some level, which is very difficult to do here. People love rooting for anti-heroes and antagonists, but they still have something about them that you can connect with, and the characters in this film … don’t.
The women in it are either raped (as above), murdered (things don’t end well for Darlanne Fluegel’s character), or otherwise portrayed as commodities to be used by men – see Peggy (Amy Ryder/Julie Cohen). “Yeah but, it’s an old film.” It’s not that old. I’m older than this film, and they still had standards in the 1980s.
So, were there any positives? The actors were fantastic (also includes people like Joe Pesci, Treat Williams, Burt Young, and Danny Aiello). Ennio Morricone knows how to do a good score. New York in the past looks amazing. Costumes are on point.
But at the end of the day, as much as I love Prohibition gangsters in New York, this film is creepy, and if you have a limited attention span … good luck. I don’t mind really long films (I enjoyed The Irishman), but when they’re also really slow and full of narratively pointless asides and shots that drag on for minutes when you’d get the point across in a much shorter time than that it becomes frustrating. Like young Noodles creeping on young Deborah dancing and changing her clothes in the back room? If that scene didn’t take a good ten minutes to express what could have been said in about ten seconds, it certainly felt like it, and it’s not the only instance of things that seem to take forever to say something that then turn out to not even be narratively important. It becomes tedious very quickly. If you think the phone takes forever to get answered in the beginning? The entire film is like that.
I could happily have sat through a film about Prohibition gangsters in New York twice this length (hyperfocus ftw) if it felt like it actually had a point to it – and wasn’t full of unsympathetic assholes who didn’t even get what was coming to them. But for me, Once Upon a Time in America is just meh, and I expected so much more from it.
But okay, perhaps I simply “didn’t get it”, like the commenter said. That’s fine. I probably didn’t. I could perhaps watch it again, in one sitting this time, but if I am, I’m watching it in a higher speed than 1x, because streaming services don’t tend to fast-forward very well and I don’t need to spend five minutes watching young Noodles eat a cream cake he was going to give to young Peggy in return for sexual favours, which he later gets for free anyway, because of course he does. Ugh.
This film may be considered a masterpiece of cinema, but so is Citizen Kane, and that’s a film I actually like.
2 out of 5 missing money hoards.