Once Upon A Time In America, the gangster picture directed by Sergio Leone and starring Robert De Niro and James Woods, has had a very volatile history since its U.S. release in 1984. Leone created what he thought was his masterpiece, only to have his U.S. distributor butcher it — cutting over an hour and re-editing it to make it flow chronologically. The hatchet job was so hasty, that they forgot to include Ennio Morricone in the credits, so his magnificent score was not eligible for an Academy Award nomination, which it surely would have gotten.
As released, the film was a box-office as well as a critical failure. But watching it as Leone envisioned it, Once Upon A Time In America is a magnificent panarama of the first two-thirds of 20th-century America.
When I first viewed Once Upon a Time in America, I had the feeling it was not only a commentary on the American Dream, but was an homage to Citizen Kane, but it had been some time since I’d seen the latter. Last night I watched Kane again, and confirmed my original belief.
Both films tell the story of shattered American dreams. Both use a complex flashback construction to tell that story. Both rely on the nostalgia of youth as a counterpoint to adult lives. In both films the main character’s life comes to an end in an opulent mansion. Both have showgirls at the heart of the romance.
While Noodles (De Niro) is the main character, it is Max (Woods) who is the Charles Foster Kane of Once Upon A Time In America, a man who rises from his humble beginnings to become unimaginably rich and influential. Noodles is to Max what Jed Leland is to Kane, a friend from youth who tags along with the more ambitious man as the latter begins his rise, then breaks with him. Leland develops a drinking problem, Noodles an opium habit.
Both films feature fabulous photography.
Of course, the similarities only go so far. Once Upon A Time In America is a violent gangster picture, while Citizen Kane is a character study. Still, I admire Leone for creating a film that so adroitly matches his asperations and inspiration.
If you haven’t seen this film as Leone intended it to be seen, you’ve been cheated out of a haunting movie-viewing experience.