07 – Once Upon a Time in America

Abstract – Directed by Sergio Leone; Robert DeNiro stars as a prohibition era Jewish mobster.

Background – In spite of some people claiming they “aren’t real westerns” The Man With No Name Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West are four of the most well-known westerns of all time. So when I heard that Leone’s final film got chopped up against his will but had recently been almost fully restored, I knew it had to be on my list this month.

Comments – 1: Leone’s direction is really the star here. While there are some very good performances from Robert DeNiro, James Woods, and Joe Pesci among others, the reason this film is at all watchable is that Leone has a marvelous sense of pacing. I want to make clear that this is a near four hour movie and yet it never really feels that way. Leone’s greatest gift as a director was his sense of pacing, making westerns – the genre most commonly associated with a boring sentiment – exciting and fresh. Here he takes a crime saga about the dangers of greed in America and develops a remarkable character study over a brooding four hours.

2: And here we make history. This is my first negative comment for one of the films this month. While Leone has an excellent sense of pacing which makes the film very watchable, the film has a huge problem in its storytelling. Almost four hours of film and the plot we get is unfortunately lacklustre. As the final hour approached I was struck with the feeling of “three hours over already” while simultaneously feelings “is that it?” It was truly bizarre because I wasn’t bored but I was certainly craving more information.

3: This is a particular example of the problem above. There are two rather graphic rape scenes. They are long scenes and they are hard to watch. Their graphic nature could be attributed to something thematic but eventually it moves from theme to gratuity and you start wondering why you’re watching this for so long. You get the message, but Leone keeps beating you over the head with it.

Deep Cuts: I want to specifically focus on one scene in the deep cuts to fully demonstrate what I’m getting at. There is an excellent sequence early in the film where one of the children (one of the younger DeNiro’s compatriots) buys a cupcake topped with whipped cream that he’s going to sell for a few minutes with the local prostitute. He gets the cupcake and knocks on her door and I told to wait for a few minutes. So he sits down on the stairs to wait for his chance. As he is waiting he starts playing with the wrapping on the cupcake trying to get some of the whipped cream out. Realizing how good it tastes, he unwraps the cupcake and starts slowly taking bits of whipped cream off. He considers taking the cherry on top but thinks that would defeat the purpose of having bought the cupcake in the first place. So he puts the cherry back and starts scraping bits of whipped cream off the sides of the wrapping until he caves and eats the cherry and the entire cupcake shortly after that. This is almost a seven minute scene and it benefits from Leone’s pacing while suffering from his script. This scene is very long and generally a metaphor for the core theme of this film: greed. It never feels slow but at the same time, every scene of the film is like that. Long metaphors filled with emotional content that don’t satisfy.

Double Feature

Watch with Miller’s Crossing for a night of Jewish mobsters.

Watch with Blade Runner The Final Cut for a pair of director’s visions restored.

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