“Once Upon a Time in America” is a thriller film and 1984 drama directed by Sergio Leone, one of the most acclaimed directors in the history of cinema. It’s an epic gangster movie which tells the story of a group of Jewish friends and criminals in 20th century America.
The film is based on the novel “The Hoods” by Harry Gray and is set primarily on the Lower East Side of New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. The plot unfolds through flashbacks, with the main protagonist, Noodles (played by Robert De Niro), reflecting on his past as he returns to his hometown after many years away.
Noodles, along with his childhood friends Max (played by James Woods), Patsy (played by James Hayden), and Cockeye (played by William Forsythe), forms a group of petty criminals known as “The Boys”. As they try to seize power in New York’s criminal underworld, they encounter friendships, betrayals, love and tragedy.
The film explores themes such as friendship, guilt, betrayal, unrequited love and the American dream. It also presents a gritty and realistic portrayal of the violence and corruption that permeate society.
“Once Upon a Time in America” is known for its complex and non-linear narrative structure, which jumps back and forth in time. The soundtrack was composed by Ennio Morricone and helped make the film even more memorable.
Despite its cinematic quality, the film was originally cut drastically for its initial US release, reducing the original runtime of over four hours to approximately two and a half hours. Only many years later, in 2012, a restored and reedited version was released that comes closest to Leone’s original vision.
“Once Upon a Time in America” is considered a cinematic masterpiece, widely appreciated for its masterful direction, the performances of the actors and its dense and melancholy atmosphere. The film has gained a large cult following and is often cited as one of the best films ever made in the gangster genre.
The story of “Once Upon a Time in America” follows the life of Noodles (played by Robert De Niro) and his childhood friends Max (played by James Woods), Patsy (played by James Hayden) and Cockeye (played by William Forsythe) on the Lower East Side of New York City.
The film opens in the 1960s, with Noodles returning to his hometown after many years away. Recalling his past, the film flashes to the 1920s, when Noodles and his friends were petty criminals known as “The Boys.” Under the leadership of a feared local kingpin named Bugsy (played by Tuesday Weld), the group commits petty crimes and builds their reputation in the criminal community.
As the years go by, Noodles and Max make their way through New York’s Jewish crime world. They become involved with a crime syndicate led by a powerful gangster named Joe (played by Burt Young) and become his protégés. Meanwhile, Noodles falls in love with Deborah (played by Elizabeth McGovern), an ambitious young woman who aspires to be an actress.
However, the dreams and ambitions of the protagonists collide with the harsh reality of the criminal world. There is betrayal within the group and a conflict with a rival gangster. During an attempted robbery that ends in tragedy, the group is framed and Noodles ends up in prison for many years.
When Noodles is released from prison in 1933, he finds himself in a completely different world. Prohibition is over, America is facing the Great Depression, and her old friends seem lost forever. Noodles tries to uncover the truth about the death of one of his friends and collides with ghosts from his past.
The story of “Once Upon a Time in America” takes place between the past and present, revealing the secrets and connections that bind the characters. The film explores the theme of remorse and guilt as Noodles reflects on his past actions and the consequences they have had on his life and his friends.
The story culminates with a shocking final revelation that shatters viewers’ expectations and offers a profound reflection on the meaning of life and destiny.
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Here are some of the main characters from the movie “Once Upon a Time in America”:
Noodles (portrayed by Robert De Niro): The protagonist of the film, Noodles is a former petty criminal and member of the group “The Boys”. After spending many years in prison, he returns to his hometown to face his past.
Max (portrayed by James Woods): Noodles’ childhood friend and member of the group “The Boys”, Max becomes a powerful gangster and one of New York’s top criminal leaders.
Deborah (played by Elizabeth McGovern): Deborah is Noodles’ love, an ambitious young woman who dreams of becoming an actress. His relationship with Noodles is complicated and tormented.
Patsy (played by James Hayden): Patsy is another member of the group “The Boys”. He is a loyal friend to Noodles, but his life is marred by tragedy and hardship.
Cockeye (portrayed by William Forsythe): Cockeye is another member of the group “The Boys”. He is a skilled thief and assassin, but ultimately comes up against the violence and corruption of the criminal underworld.
Bugsy (portrayed by Tuesday Weld): Bugsy is a crime boss who hires Noodles and his friends as his protégés. However, his influence in the criminal underworld leads to complications and conflicts.
Joe (portrayed by Burt Young): Joe is a powerful gangster and head of a crime syndicate. He becomes a mentor to Noodles and Max, but their relationship is marked by tensions and rivalries.
These are just some of the key characters in the film. Once Upon a Time in America also features a number of supporting characters and extras who help paint a picture of a complex and dangerous criminal underworld.
The production of the film “Once Upon a Time in America” was a long and complex process. Here are some details on the production of the film:
Direction and Screenplay:
The film was directed by Sergio Leone, the renowned Italian director known for his spaghetti westerns such as ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. Leone also co-wrote the film together with Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli and Stuart Kaminsky.
Choosing the cast was a thorough process. Sergio Leone had initially considered actors such as Al Pacino and Paul Newman for the lead roles, but ultimately cast Robert De Niro to play Noodles and James Woods as Max. The cast also included Elizabeth McGovern, James Hayden, William Forsythe, Tuesday Weld and Burt Young, among others.
Filming for the film began in 1982 and took place primarily in New York City. Leone worked with cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli to create breathtaking cinematography, using light and shadow to create a somber and melancholic atmosphere.
The soundtrack for the film was composed by Ennio Morricone, a longtime collaborator of Sergio Leone. Morricone’s music helped create the film’s unique mood, with nostalgic and melancholic melodies intertwining with the images on the screen.
Assembly and Duration:
The original cut of the film was over four hours long, but due to concerns from studios and distributors, the film was drastically cut for its initial US release. The stage version released in 1984 was approximately two and a half hours long. Only many years later, in 2012, a restored and reedited version was released, with a running time of about four and a half hours, which comes closest to Leone’s original vision.
Reception and Acknowledgments:
‘Once Upon a Time in America’ was received mixed upon its release, but over the years it has gained a huge reputation and acquired the status of a masterpiece of cinema. The film received numerous accolades and nominations, and is often cited as one of the best gangster films of all time.
Despite the complexity of the production and its various cuts and versions, “Once Upon a Time in America” remains a landmark in cinema, highlighting Sergio Leone’s mastery of creating epic visual narratives.
Distribution and Reception
The distribution and reception of “Once Upon a Time in America” were influenced by various circumstances and creative choices.
The film was released in the United States in June 1984 by Warner Bros. Pictures. However, Leone’s original version, which was over four hours long, was heavily cut for initial US release. These cuts resulted in a roughly two-and-a-half-hour version, which compromised the film’s narrative coherence and depth.
Initial critical response to the film was mixed. Some critics praised it as an epic masterpiece, lauding Leone’s direction, the performances of the actors and his reflection on the human condition. Others, however, complained about the cuts made and the resulting narrative confusion.
However, over the years, ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ has gained a great reputation and garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews. Many critics now consider it one of the best films of all time, praising its cinematic craftsmanship and narrative complexity. The restored and reedited version, released in 2012, received even more acclaim, allowing viewers to fully appreciate Leone’s original vision.
Box office success:
Despite initial mixed reviews, ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ was moderately successful at the box office. However, the cut version negatively impacted its financial performance in the United States. In other parts of the world, such as in Europe, the film was more positively received and made higher box office earnings.
Legacy and accolades:
Over the years, ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ has gained a huge reputation as one of the greatest movies in cinema. It became a landmark for the gangster genre and inspired many subsequent filmmakers. The film is often cited in lists of the best films of all time and is considered a milestone of Italian and international cinema.
Despite initial difficulties, “Once Upon a Time in America” is now regarded as one of Sergio Leone’s masterpieces and is celebrated for its unique vision and epic storytelling.
The style of “Once Upon a Time in America” is characterized by several components that make it one of the distinguishing features of the film and director Sergio Leone.
Visual Direction: Sergio Leone was known for his ability to create iconic and evocative images through the use of wide shots, long shots and close-up details. His visual style was based on a combination of epic grandeur and intimate detail, creating an intense and immersive atmosphere.
Cinematography: The cinematography of “Once Upon a Time in America” was curated by Tonino Delli Colli. His lighting choices and use of color helped create a sombre and melancholic atmosphere. The contrasts between light and shadow were used to underline the dramatic aspect of the scenes and to explore the dark side of the characters.
Editing: The film was edited by Nino Baragli. Leone used montage to create temporal contrasts, jumping back and forth in time to create a complex web of present and past. This non-linear structure helped emphasize nostalgia and reflection on character choices.
Soundtrack: Ennio Morricone’s music was a crucial component of the film’s style. The soundtrack helped create an emotional atmosphere and emphasized the tensions and emotions of the characters. Morricone used a variety of instruments and melodies to evoke feelings of melancholy, sadness and hope.
Atmosphere Narrative: “Once Upon a Time in America” is characterized by slow and thoughtful narration. Leone takes the time to explore the details of the scenes and the feelings of the characters, creating an emotional depth and a feeling of immersion in the world depicted.
Recurring Themes: The film deals with themes such as friendship, betrayal, remorse and the desire for redemption. Leo explores the dark side of humanity and offers a critique of the violence and corruption that permeate society. His characters are often ambiguous and complex, defying the conventions of the gangster genre.
In summary, the style of “Once Upon a Time in America” is based on a combination of intense visual direction, evocative cinematography, non-linear editing, evocative soundtrack and thoughtful narrative atmosphere. These elements come together to create a unique and unforgettable cinematic experience.
Curiosities and Anecdotes
Here are some trivia and interesting anecdotes about “Once Upon a Time in America”:
Original Running Time: The original version of the film had a running time of approximately 269 minutes (about 4.5 hours). However, for its U.S. theatrical release, the film was dramatically cut down to approximately 139 minutes. Only many years later, in 2012, the restored version was released, approaching Leone’s original vision.
Noodles Skin Etchings: During one scene in the film, Noodles (Robert De Niro) has a series of numbers engraved into his skin. This scene was shot using the stop-motion method, in which the actors remained motionless and a frame-by-frame photography process was performed to create the illusion of movement.
Famous Line: One of the most famous lines in the film is “You can’t make love with a gun in your hand.” This line has become an iconic movie quote.
Collaboration between Leone and Morricone: Sergio Leone and the composer Ennio Morricone have collaborated in numerous films. During the making of “Once upon a time in America”, Leone used some compositions by Morricone from previous films such as “My name is Nobody” and “Giù la testa”.
Removal of a controversial scene: Initially, the film included a rape scene involving Deborah, the character played by Elizabeth McGovern. However, this scene was cut after the first screenings due to its controversial nature and the inconvenience it caused to viewers.
References to previous films: “Once Upon a Time in America” contains various references to previous films by Sergio Leone. For example, some shots and visual themes are similar to those found in his spaghetti westerns, such as “A Fistful of Dollars” and “Once Upon a Time in the West”.
Literary influences: The film is inspired by the novel “The Hoods” by Harry Grey. While there are some significant differences between the novel and the film, the story and main characters are partially based on the book.
These are just some of the curiosities and anecdotes related to “Once upon a time in America”. The film has a complex production history and several unique aspects that make it a cinematic milestone.
“Once Upon a Time in America” deals with many complex and profound themes, which contribute to its relevance and its ability to engage the audience. Here are some of the main themes of the film:
Friendship and Betrayal: The theme of friendship is central to the film. Noodles, Max, Patsy and Cockeye have formed a strong bond since childhood, but betrayal and suspicion test their loyalty to one another over the years.
Memory and Remorse: The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks showing events from the characters’ past and their influence on the present. The characters are tormented by the memory of their mistakes and have to deal with the weight of remorse.
Illusion of the American Dream: The film explores the concept of the illusion of the American Dream, particularly through the character of Noodles. Despite his efforts to navigate his way through the criminal underworld, Noodles realizes that success and wealth don’t bring happiness and that the American dream can only be an illusion.
Corruption and Violence: “Once Upon a Time in America” paints a grisly picture of the corruption and violence that permeate the criminal society. The characters find themselves trapped in a world of crime where violence is an everyday weapon and corruption is rife.
Nostalgia and loss: The film is pervaded by a sense of nostalgia for an irrecoverable past. The characters are confronted with the loss, ruin and end of an era, reflecting on the choices made and the time that cannot be recovered.
Identity and Masculinity: “Once Upon a Time in America” explores gender dynamics and the construction of male identity. Characters are often defined by their role in the criminal underworld and must deal with the consequences of this identity.
Redemption and destiny: The theme of redemption is present in the film, with the characters trying to find a way to redeem themselves from their past sins. However, fate seems to play an important role, questioning the possibility of true redemption.
These themes are woven into the complex and articulated story of “Once Upon a Time in America”, offering a profound look at human nature, corruption and moral dilemmas.
Historical and cultural references
“Once Upon a Time in America” is set primarily in the United States, covering a time span from the 1920s to the 1960s. Throughout the course of the film, references are made to several significant historical and cultural events. Here are some examples:
Prohibition: The prohibition period of the 1920s and 1930s is a key element in the film. The sale and smuggling of alcohol is present in the criminal world depicted, and the tensions and rivalries between different gangs are influenced by the struggle for control of the illegal alcohol market.
Great Depression: The film also moves to the period of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Difficult economic conditions and mass unemployment affect the lives of the characters and contribute to their motivation to enter the world of crime.
World War II: World War II plays a significant role in the plot of the film. Some of the characters participate in warfare as soldiers, and the events that unfold during the war have a significant impact on their lives and the dynamics of their relationships.
Hollywood: The World of Hollywood and the film industry is depicted in the film. Some of the characters engage in extortion and control of film productions as part of their criminal activities.
Jewish Culture: The film also explores Jewish culture and Jewish communities in the United States. Many of the main characters are of Jewish descent, and their cultural identity and experiences of anti-Semitic discrimination influence their stories.
Mafia and Organized Crime: “Once Upon a Time in America” is based on the history of the Mafia and organized crime in the United States. Many characters are involved in criminal activities, and the film offers a glimpse into the workings of gangs and criminal power networks.
These are just some of the historical and cultural references in the film. Sergio Leone has tried to capture the atmosphere and historical context of the different eras represented, offering a glimpse into the social, political and cultural dynamics that have influenced the history of the United States in the 20th century.
The director of “Once Upon a Time in America” is Sergio Leone, born January 3, 1929 in Rome, Italy, and died April 30, 1989. Leone is considered one of the greatest Italian directors and one of the most influential figures in the western genre.
Leone is known for his distinctive visual style, which combines epic grandeur with intimate detail, and his ability to create iconic images. His films often feature a slow but engaging pace and a clever use of editing to build tension and suspense.
Before directing “Once Upon a Time in America”, Leone was already known for his dollar trilogy, consisting of “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The the good, the bad, the ugly” (1966), which redefined the western genre. He also directed “Giù la testa” (1971) and “Once upon a time in the West” (1968), both considered masterpieces of cinema.
“Once Upon a Time in America” was one of his most ambitious projects. The film represents a departure from the western genre and focuses on the story of a group of Jewish gangsters in 20th century America. It was praised for its cinematography, the score by Ennio Morricone and the performances of the actors, including Robert De Niro.
Leone has left an indelible mark on the world of cinema with his innovative style and his ability to create epic and iconic films. Although his career was cut short by his death in 1989, his contributions to cinema continue to be celebrated and his work continues to influence filmmakers around the world.