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Once Upon a Time in America Movie Review

james robert leone aiello

1984 – Sergio Leone –

Sometimes a movie can take a collection of characters and follow them over decades in the manner of a long novel. Their lives separate and connect in what first seems to be random ways and later appears part of a pattern—like life itself—so that trivial-seeming details later resonate when put in the context of thirty years. The long (227-minute) version of this movie has that sort of richness.

Director Sergio Leone traces the lives of four boys from a Jewish ghetto beginning in 1921 when they start off as little hoods for hire (their first job is to burn down a newsstand). The second lengthy section dates from 1933 and shows their success in the crime world, running a speakeasy that fronts as a mortuary during the last days of Prohibition. The film concludes in 1968 when betrayals of the past are uncovered, and the two best friends (Robert De Niro and James Woods) see how they became the men they are. This span of years emphasizes the importance of memories and context to the developing story. As young men they all pledge to set aside half of their take in a suitcase that they agree to remove from its public locker only as a group. The whereabouts of the suitcase becomes a structuring device and even provides some transitions from one era to another. The sprawling story features a number of memorable moments. In one of the best, Danny Aiello appears as a cop backing some strikebreakers; he gets his comeuppance when the mob plays hide-and-seek with his newborn son (to the tune of “The Thieving Magpie”) in a maternity ward.

Although the full version was shown at film festivals in 1984, Warner Bros. trimmed almost an hour and a half for the version released theatrically in the U.S. They also simplified the structure by making the plot more linear. Both versions have been released on cassette, but the shorter one is much less coherent.

Cast: Robert De Niro (Noodles), James Woods (Max), Elizabeth McGovern (Deborah), Treat Williams (Jimmy O'Donnell), Tuesday Weld (Carol), Burt Young (Joe), Joe Pesci (Frankie Monaldi), Danny Aiello (Police Chief Aiello), William Forsythe (Cockeye), James Hayden (Patsy), Darlanne Fluegel (Eve), Larry Rapp (Fat Moe), Dutch Miller (Van Linden), Robert Harper (Sharkey), Richard Bright (Chicken Joe), Gerard Murphy (Crowning), Amy Ryder (Peggy) Screenwriter: Leonardo Benvenuti, Peiero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone, Stuart M. Kaminsky Cinematographer: Tonino Delli Colli Composer: Ennio Morricone Producer: Arnon Milchan for Warner Bros.; distributed by the Ladd Company MPAA Rating: R Running Time: 227 (139 for the theatrical release) Format: VHS, LV Budget: $32M.

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