ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA: EXTENDED DIRECTOR'S CUT
(US/Italy - 1984/2012)
Directed by Sergio Leone. Written by Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone, and Stuart Kaminsky. Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Louise Fletcher, Tuesday Weld, Danny Aiello, Richard Bright, James Hayden, William Forsythe, Darlanne Fluegel, Larry Rapp, Richard Foronjy, James Russo, Amy Ryder, Jennifer Connelly, Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Brian Bloom, Noah Moazezi, Adrian Curran, Mike Monetti, Mario Brega, Robert Harper, Olga Karlatos, Arnon Milchan, Frank Gio, Paul Herman. (R, 251 mins)
SPOILERS: This review assumes you've seen ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.
It's probably a safe bet that we'll never see a definitive, last-word version of Sergio Leone's final masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Known for his legendary spaghetti westerns that made Clint Eastwood an international star, Leone set out to make the ultimate gangster film and in many ways, he succeeded. Though he made some uncredited contributions to Tonino Valerii's comedic western MY NAME IS NOBODY (1973) and Damiano Damiani's semi-sequel A GENIUS, TWO FRIENDS AND AN IDIOT (1975), Leone hadn't directed a film since 1971's DUCK, YOU SUCKER!, aka A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE, and he spent the better part of the 1970s prepping ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, based on Harry Grey's novel The Hoods. The rights to The Hoods were initially purchased by DARK SHADOWS creator Dan Curtis, who was nursing ambitions of breaking out of TV horror and making a name for himself on the big screen. Leone desperately wanted the rights to Grey's book, prompting his then-producer Alberto Grimaldi to cut a deal that saw Curtis signing over the film rights to The Hoods to Grimaldi and Leone in exchange for Grimaldi ghost-producing Curtis' 1976 film BURNT OFFERINGS. With the rights secured, Leone and a committee of screenwriters (among them frequent Dario Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini) began work on his vision of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, though it ultimately didn't begin shooting until June 1982. By that time, Grimaldi was no longer in the picture and Leone finally got the project going through Israeli producer Arnon Milchan, who was just making a name for himself by producing Martin Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY (1983) and would eventually go on to form his Regency Enterprises production company and become a major Hollywood player, bankrolling films like Oliver Stone's JFK (1991), Michael Mann's HEAT (1995), David Fincher's FIGHT CLUB (1999), and Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013).
|Sergio Leone (1929-1989)|
|Leone and his cast at Cannes in 1984|
In the US, the long version went from 227 minutes back to Leone's "official" 229 minutes over the years, reinstating some snipped shots from a pair of rape scenes--one with Robert De Niro and Tuesday Weld, and an especially graphic one with De Niro and Elizabeth McGovern--that were trimmed so the long version could secure an R rating. The 139-minute version, released on VHS and shown on cable in the mid '80s, is now rightfully regarded as one of the most shameful instances of a studio cluelessly destroying a filmmaker's vision. It's since been buried in the Warner vaults, presumably never to be seen again, though it would be interesting to view again for curiosity's sake. Even in its "official" 229-minute form, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA leaves questions unanswered. Given the argument that the 1968 portions of the film are a dream being experienced by Jewish mobster Noodles (De Niro) in an opium den in 1933, it's possible that clarity was never meant to be had with the film. Perhaps it's hazy and incomplete by design. That still doesn't explain other mysteries of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, like the significance of Frankie Minaldi (Joe Pesci) turning up in the lobby of a hospital long after his portion of the story is over, unseen by Noodles and Max as they get off an elevator and never seen or referenced in the film again, unless something in Leone's earlier rough cuts showed that he has a role in the ill-conceived Federal Reserve robbery that proves to be the gang's undoing or he's an unseen power player pulling the strings of union leader Jimmy O'Donnell (Treat Williams). As unwieldy and wandering as dreams can often be, there will never be definitive answers for a lot of what happens in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, much like there can never be a definitive version. No matter how much gets put back in, the enigmatic elements remain. We're watching--presumably--the dreaming, drugged-out mind of a man consumed by guilt, who's just ratted on his friends and inadvertently gotten them killed. It's never going to make perfect sense.
|Treat Williams, William Forsythe, James Woods, and Robert De Niro|
at the New York Film Festival screening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA:
EXTENDED DIRECTOR'S CUT in September 2014.