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Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
|by P. G. R. Nair|
Director: Sergio Leone/USA/English/229 mts
Cut to 1968, when Noodles receives a letter warning him that the bodies of several dead friends are going to be moved as a new cemetery is being built. Noodles returns to New York, where he reconnects with his childhood friend, Fat Moe. Noodles then begins to reminisce about his childhood at the turn of the century, in Brooklyn, growing up in a heavily dominated Jewish neighborhood. Growing up in the Depression brings poverty, boredom and desperation, leading the boys into a life of petty crime. We witness as he is sent down to murder a local criminal, who had killed another of his boyhood’s pals.
Emerging from prison unchanged, Noodles becomes, alongside his friend Max (James Woods), a player in the bootlegging business during the Prohibition era. In the last reel, set at the present narrative time, Noodles pays a visit Secretary Bailey, now a “respectable” member of the government, who turns out to be Max himself; Max had faked his own death on the night Noodles ran away.
On one level, Once Upon a Time in America is a triangular tale of the temperamental, borderline psychotic Max, the seemingly quiet Noodles, and the girl/woman they both love for decades, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), ever since they were children (the young Deborah is played by Jennifer Connelly).
A resonant, complex movie that, Once Upon a Time in America is more like an elegiac poem about the price paid or succumbing completely and uncritically to the tenets of the American Dream. As a male-camaraderie story, the film presents Noodles and Max as polar opposites, who are nonetheless inextricably bound to one another by shared dreams and fantasies of power, fame, monetary success, and conspicuous consumption.
Quite impressively, the film’s theme, structure, mood, and visual style are congruent, each element dependant in and reinforcing the other. The film moves back and forth in a tapestry of episodes, which all fit together into an emotional whole. Indeed, the deliberate pacing and elaborate style evoke Noodles’ own dreamlike state of mind. Noodles is increasingly lost in his own milieu, never really achieving full control. The final image of a stoned Noodles smiling at the camera in an opium den (same as when the film began) is ambiguous and open to interpretation.
Elegiac, sprawling, and visually stunning, Once Upon a Time in America is a self-conscious work, both a good crime-gangster tale, and at the same time commentary (both wry and ironic) on that genre and its evolution by focusing on four characters and their evolution/devolution over time.
The movie blend successfully codes of realism, surrealism and magic realism: Leon immerses the viewer in the dark, dreary world of the characters, ill-educated, brutal and even primitive men.
A series of Hundred Favorite Films Forever"
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