Classics never die, but they seldom get replaced. Cinema is populated with enduring, venerated works of art that deservedly adorn list after list, but those lists are rarely updated, and less often expanded to include new, equally worthy entries. Organizations that give out annual awards are constrained not only by the limitations of formatting, but perspective - they can’t anticipate which film will survive the buzz of its initial acclaim or success and become part of the cultural firmament. And then there are just certain films or even genres that too infrequently receive the critical attention they deserve, are too obscure to break through to bigger audiences, or just aren’t taken seriously enough to merit consideration alongside the ones we “all” already know we love or respect. A Case For Greatness, this series, tries to argue for, and to champion, forgotten or underappreciated films in a variety of genres that may be worthy of being called “classics.”
Sergio Leone only directed eight films over the course of a more than 50-career, but six of them are stone cold classics. His final film, Once Upon a Time in America, was originally envisioned as two three-hour films which were then cut down to one 269-minute version, later 229 minutes, and most disgracefully, chopped to 139 minutes without his participation. That 229-minute “European version” was later not only vindicated but became so definitive that it virtually erased the shorter cut from existence, though a 251-minute version was eventually reassembled and released on Blu-ray. Although that cut features some never-before-seen scenes that explain some of the more cryptic details in Leone’s “European version,” the familiarity of the 229-minute cut prompted me to revisit it at that length - and especially looking at it now, that version feels like the most powerful in terms of exploring and reinforcing its themes, some 35 years after it was released in the country it was named after.
Based on Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods, the film flashes back and forth in time to chronicle the lives of Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods), two Jewish street kids in New York who build a criminal empire over the course of several decades with their childhood friends Patsy (James Hayden) and Cockeye (William Forsythe). But even as the film depicts the unpredictable ups and downs of both their friendship and business partnership, it’s also the story of America itself, a land of immigrants and people who came from nothing, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to make a living, and eventually, rewrote their own history to polish, or bury, the rough edges of what they had to do in order to achieve what they wanted. For Noodles, street life is metastasized in his bones, and he can’t escape it; for Max, it’s a means to launch him toward greater ambitions. But both are waylaid by their loyalties - to one another, and to a lifestyle that inevitably ends in self-destruction - even as they establish the myths on which the country was founded.
OUATIA is a movie I’ve watched dozens of times, and each one gives me a new perspective about its characters and what it’s about. As a huge fan of the gangster movies that came before (The Godfather) and after (Goodfellas), Leone’s final film feels like a perfect balance between the polish of Coppola’s portrait of organized-crime-as-family and the rock & roll unpredictability of Scorsese’s Henry Hill biography; as much as the director romanticizes Noodles and Max’s seat-of-their-pants bravado, he consistently and almost always undercuts it with a painful, even tragic depiction of the consequences of their criminality. Noodles is the more measured and rational of the two, but he suffers alongside his recklessly ambitious best friend each time their plans fall apart - and as frequently, when they come together. It depicts the Prohibition era, but the film seems more focused on how these underserved young men circumvented traditional paths to personal and financial success - or perhaps were never availed of them in the first place - than simply getting the details of the time and place right, though it does that as well.
From the very beginning of the film - or perhaps more accurately, the beginning of its serpentine timeline - Leone’s camera shoots his characters from ground level as they’re swallowed by the enormity of New York’s landscape; not only do the buildings dwarf them and their street dreams, but they bear the hallmarks of previous generations of dreams - advertisements, paintings, abandoned businesses that serve as window dressing, or the ghosts of a forgotten past. Though Noodles and Max pay repeatedly for their own ambitions - running afoul of Bugsy (James Russo), a local hood who claims ownership of the streets they work - they eventually acquire respectability when Max starts a funeral business as a front for their criminal enterprises. They effectively paper over their wrongdoing, presenting a guise of respectability for the world; Noodles’ modesty prevents him from being able to absorb that lesson in his own life, but as we later learn, Max integrates it all too successfully into his own vision of the future, so much so that eventually it comes at Noodles’ expense.
But the movie is also about trying to deny your nature - an exercise in futility, from Leone’s point of view. “I like the stink of the streets,” Noodles says. “I like the smell of it - it opens up my lungs.” But Deborah (Jennifer Connelly as a kid, Elizabeth McGovern as an adult) represents everything that he wishes that he could be - respectable, successful, even noble - which is both why he pines for her his whole life, and why he repeatedly, and ultimately, destroys any opportunity for them to be together. As children, after they share a first kiss, he leaves her to meet up with Max - a rendezvous that ends in a beating from Bugsy - and Deborah literally locks him out as he pleads with her to come back. Later, in the film’s most upsetting sequence, he takes her out for an elaborate, incredibly expensive dinner, and after learning that she’s leaving the next day to embark on her acting career, he rapes her in the back of the limousine.
It is an absolutely brutal sequence, born out of his determination both to get the basest version of what he truly wants from her - love - as well as the feeling that he must destroy this person, this thing that he has coveted that will always remain out of reach to a former street kid. His prestige, his success, his polish is manufactured, stolen and falsified; hers is earned, and comes from a grace and aspiration nobler than his. Tragically, and violently, it’s too much for him to handle, even as he admits in a scene earlier directly to her.
And ultimately, who they are prevails over who they hope or aspire to be. Noodles vanishes for 35 years, only to return after receiving a mysterious letter from Secretary Bailey, a politician intending to hire him for a murder. Bailey, Noodles discovers, is the supposedly rehabilitated Max, who faked his death decades before and reinvented himself as a scrappy immigrant, achieving the success he dreamed of as a kid - which in a spectacular betrayal includes marrying Deborah. At the same time, the reason Max/ Secretary Bailey hunts Noodles down and hires him is because he has as a politician grown corrupt, and needs his friend, the only person he respects, to pull the trigger and kill him before his mysterious political partners do the same in a decidedly less humane fashion. Noodles accepts with melancholy resignation his own identity - a guy satisfied with pocket money and the smell of the street - and is thereby rescued from the fate of his two dead partners, or the disillusionment and disgrace Max has coming to him. You can paint or paper over your past, it seems, but the real story, that real identity, always eventually shines through.
Again, the 251-minute version has a lot of additional details that further expand the story and structure of the film, and certainly will appreciate in meaning and emotional weight the more opportunities there are to see it. And given the intelligence and sensitivity of the filmmaking feels like there is always some new idea, detail or theme to uncover with each new viewing. But even though Leone’s final work already took years for people to discover its scope and ambition, the core of its ideas, and his genius, were always there to explore - which is why at any length, Once Upon a Time in America epitomizes the story of the people and the land in which it’s based: who or what we are is there from the very beginning, and no matter what we do, or how we try to change, that undeniable truth will always remain.