Monday, April 6, 2015

Once Upon a Time in America, an underrated gangster great

D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) is considered the first gangster film, but with Prohibition, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson, the genre became one of the most popular for well over 80 years.

White Heat, Little Caesar, and perhaps the Paul Muni Scarface, are probably the most recognizable films from the prohibition/depression era, but if we throw in something like Key Largo, the list of greats gets even longer. The modern era, though, gives us perhaps the greatest-ever of the genre, with The Godfather (Parts I and II--I'll leave it up to the reader if Part III should be included), Goodfellas, and certainly the Al Pacino Scarface. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and even Pulp Fiction, should also be considered as staples of the modern gangster film.

There's one film, though, that may make the lists of the hardcore fans, but isn't necessarily in the discussion when gangster films come up in casual conversation: Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

Perhaps it isn't as remembered by the general public because there are  no memorable lines. It doesn't have...


or even...

One thing it does have that puts it on par with The Godfather, is the sweeping story that spans four decades. And at just under four hours, in its intended North America release (if not the director's overall intent of some six hours), you can certainly feel the decades tick by (this is not meant as a slight, as Leone needed time to tell this epic). The film follows a band of friends, rather than a single family, who decided as a group of troublemaker kids that they were going to make something of themselves. However, in many ways this group of friends is every bit the family as that headed by Vito Corleone. Without giving too much away, these friends have difficulties getting beyond the end of Prohibition, and it is at that point that the story takes an interesting turn for the next 35 years...but you'll have to watch it to find out. No spoilers here if I can avoid them.

Also putting Once Upon a Time in America on the level of The Godfather and Goodfellas is the score. Nino Rota's composition for The Godfather brings a lament for the old-world of Vito Corleone, while Martin Scorsese uses a soundtrack of hits from the '50s through the '70s to help tell his story. And both work to perfection. Scorsese has the knack of picking the perfect songs for his movies; some are not necessarily great songs on their own, but are given new life in his hands, and there's no doubt his soundtracks help drive the film forward, even if the song itself doesn't really seem to fit the story...

Once Upon a Time in America is scored by the venerable and fecund Ennio Morricone, who also scored The Mission and The Untouchables to name only two. In Once Upon a Time in America, Morricone uses Zamfir and his pan flute--my generation will more often remember Zamfir as a punchline-- for a theme to one of the characters, but the entire score brings a melancholy and nostalgia that only adds to the perception of the passing years.

Do you not feel as though this should be the soundtrack for all of us as we age and think back on what was?

From a casting perspective, Robert De Niro does what De Niro does, but it is James Woods who leads both the group of friends and the ensemble cast. Woods is powerful and arrogant, yet always with a hint of sentiment about him that will keep the viewers connected throughout. With performances by William Forsythe, Danny Aiello, Treat Williams, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, and short appearances by Joe Pesci and a young Jennifer Connelly, Once Upon a Time in America has no real weaknesses. Even a mumbling Burt Young fits well in his one brief scene.

The bottom line is that Once Upon a Time in America has as much to offer as any film, not just of the gangster variety, and should be mentioned more often than it is. Story; score; cast. It's all there. So take a long weekend, cook some good food, and just let the river that is this story carry you along to the end. I guarantee it'll be an enjoyable trip.

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