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Once Upon a Time in America

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

At 3 hours and 49 minutes long, Sergio Leone's Directors Cut of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is an excruciatingly long mob film that falls far short of his classic westerns.

Thirteen years after his 1971 hit "Duck, You Sucker", Leone created his long awaited organized crime saga. His first cut of the film was over 8 hours long. He eventually cut that in half to this nearly four-hour version.

We meet four young boys in the 1920's, bonding in the streets of a violent New York City. They form a street gang that grows more formidable in their teen years.

The boys eventually grow up to be Robert De Niro (Noodles), James Woods (Max), William Forsythe (Cockeye) and James Hayden (Patsy).

Other mob bosses are challenged, the violence is explosive and a litany of men and women fall prey to the charms and bullets of the foursome.

Sergio Leone has created some of the greatest long-form westerns of all time, including his best film "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" in 1966 and the formidable "Once Upon a Time in the West" in 1968.

He was offered the chance to direct "The Godfather" before Francis Ford Coppola and turned it down, a choice he reportedly deeply regretted. For the next 12 years, he worked on his own crime family story, but this is no Godfather.

Employing the same flashback techniques that Coppola created for "The Godfather Part II", Leone lurches from era to era but never really engages you in any time frame, languishing over every pause and lingering far too long on abuse. One horrific rape scene renders his lead character so reprehensible in the second act that I couldn't care less what happened to him for the rest of the film.

Plot twists aren't very surprising and great actors are left stranded in parts that go nowhere.

There are interesting themes on betrayal, loyalty, greed and power. Any time that Woods and De Niro are on screen they certainly held my interest. Tuesday Weld (Thief) and Elizabeth McGovern (Ragtime) are fascinating women throughout. Joe Pesci is good in his all-too-brief screen time and Danny Aiello (Moonstruck) dominates as the most slimy Police Captain of all time.

I can only imagine how confusing the two hour cut of the film was that hit theaters and bombed badly in 1984. When this nearly four hour cut was released later (on videocassette!) it garnered nearly universal praise, but this is one of my least favorite Leone films.

De Niro spends a long time in the opening act laying in an opium den, pondering what happened to all his buddies. Characters languish. Prohibition comes and goes. Tommy guns explode across speakeasy entrances. A briefcase full of money changes many lives over five decades.

And it all just creaks along.....ever so slowly....

The best part of the film is long-time Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone's score. An instant classic, his music has been sampled by Tarantino and countless others in the four decades since its release. Rarely has the pan flute been so ominous.

Interesting but less than engaging, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA crawls ever so laboriously to a C+ for me.

If you're hungry for a Leone fix, I suggest teeing up "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" to see the brilliant director at his legendary best.

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