Twitter Plot Summary: The lives of four gangsters are played out over the course of fifty years.
Five Point Summary:
1. Will someone answer that telephone?!
2. Bugsy Don’t mess with him.
3. Worst identity parade ever.
5. A secret doorway! How cunning!
Once Upon A Time In America is Sergio Leone’s magnum opus. 13+ years in the making Leone constructed a gangster film that arguably surpasses The Godfather in terms of impact and quality. I say arguably because I maintain that The Godfather is also a 5/5 movie, but there will always be people who prefer one of them over the other and as a massive fan of Leone’s previous work it’s this movie that wins the race. It’s a reasonably narrow margin, but Leone pips it by a whisker.
It is an incredibly long film, there’s no two ways about it. Yet despite the long running time it remains compelling from start to finish, for want of a better term it’s a masterpiece of narrative. Following the exploits of a small group of wannabe criminal masterminds across a period of 50 years, from their youth to their twilight years and all of their exploits in between, including butting heads with a young thug called Bugsy and the expansion of their bootlegging empire.
The heart of the story is the rivalry/brotherhood/whatever it is between De Niro’s Noodles and Woods’ Max. Max sends them deeper and deeper with the mafia whilst Noodles has severe misgivings about the whole venture. The narrative is driven by Noodles and his betrayal of Max – this is no spoiler as this is made clear within the first five minutes of the movie, as some clever cutting switches between the “present” and a comprehensive flashback to Noodles ratting out his friends, all of which is set to the constant ringing of a telephone.
That’s not to say that Noodles is entirely likeable – he graphically rapes a girl in the back of a car after she rejects his advances. He may have a certain code that he lives by, but being respectful towards women isn’t one of them. You could argue that he’s a product of his era, but that’s a flimsy argument at best. Max meanwhile, despite being ruthlessly ambitious, is an altogether more rounded personality and acts as a perfect counterpoint to Noodles – indeed, even from their very first meeting they are rivals, it just varies in severity as the years go by. The remaining members of the gang don’t get much room to expand their characters, this is very much about Max and Noodles.
can only level one complaint at this epic piece of epicness, and that’s the fact it could easily have been another hour longer and it would have still been compelling and a must-see. Leone really had a knack for telling a good story, and the mostly non-linear narrative works wonders here. Visual motifs and repeated shots – admittedly separated by years in terms of the narrative – help build the sense of location and the almost inevitable nature of their lives. Other little quirks such as the telephone ringing in the opening few minutes leave you wondering where the phone is ringing, who can hear it, is it a memory, a flashback, or both? So many questions from just a single scene.
Visually it has everything you would expect from a Leone movie – stunning locations, a very specific eye for detail in the period set flashbacks, and an eye for a simple camera shot/setup that still manages to cram a ridiculous amount of detail and meaning into every frame. This is a filmmaker at the peak of his powers, and it’s augmented by Ennio Morricone’s absorbing soundtrack. Equally at the top of his game, Morricone’s soundtrack is beauty incarnate. I can’t define in words how much I love his music, and when it’s a Leone/Morricone combo the only result is a win.
There are few movies of this quality out there, and whilst the gangster aspect may not appeal to everybody it’s still an amazing piece of cinema and should rightfully be positioned as one of the all time classics.