Once Upon a Time in America (1983)

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Review by Abbi of Where The Wild Things Are

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I have to admit when I picked Once Upon a Time in America from the list of available De Niro films I had no idea it was 229 minutes long… and I probably wouldn’t have picked it if I did. I am not a great believer in the idea that longer is better when it comes to films, because it normally isn’t and also I can’t sit still for very long because I have a short attention span. With all of that in mind, I guess the theme of this review is going to be, was it worth the time investment?

But first… a synopsis…

Former gangster, David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (Robert De Niro) returns to his old neighbourhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan after receiving a mysterious invitation from “Secretary Bailey”, a politician facing an inquest. Here he visits with his old friend Fat Moe (Larry Rapp) and is soon overtaken with memories of his past.
This introduces us to a further two time frames, which are explored concurrently throughout the film. The first shows Noodles in his early teens (here played by Scott Schutzman Tiler) as a small time street thug, who has formed a gang with his friends Patsy (Brian Bloom) and Cockeye (Adrian Curran) working for Bugsy (James Russo) who is in charge of the local turf. We see Noodles’ first confrontational meeting with Max (Rusty Jacobs), which eventually leads to Max joining Noodles’ gang and the friends agreeing to a kind of collective pooling of money and an ideology that they won’t work for a boss.
The second shows Noodles as an adult, still working with Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe) and Patsy (James Hayden) now rich and successful as a result of Prohibition and mixed in with both a mafia gang and some questionable politicians. This time period is also crosscut with scenes from the same time period where Noodles appears to have betrayed his friends.
And then of course the bulk of the film is finding out how these different time periods come together and what this means for present day Noodles and his connection with Secretary Bailey.

The overarching theme of director, Sergio Leone’s labour of love, is friendship and how far one will go to protect their friends, even when that means doing something that goes against your own inner moral compass. I guess the ultimate question is where does the group end and the self begin?

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De Niro gives a masterful and brave performance of a character that I found highly unsympathetic, caught up in a brutal lifestyle and unable to resist the lure of self-destruction. Woods provides the perfect foil in the highly ambitious Max and their interactions pull you in and make the story feel that much more personal. Pair this up with Ennio Morricone’s gripping and beautiful score and some of the best aging make-up I have ever seen and the result is a sweeping epic that leaves you guessing until the very end.

But was it worth the 229 minute time investment? I’m going to say yes and that I feel like the complex and twisty narrative would probably benefit from multiple rewatches. Whether I’ll actually manage a rewatch though only time will tell.

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31 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in America (1983)

    • Thanks! I am guilty of playing with my phone/iPad while watching movies and then looking and going, “wait what’s going on now?”

  1. Great work Abbi and thanks for choosing this film. I was hoping someone would. It’s my favourite DeNiro film and my second favourite film of all time. I think it’s a masterpiece and just gets better with every viewing. I think it even surpasses The Godfathers and Goodfellas as the finest gangster film ever made. I just love it.

    • Thanks! It was pretty intimidating when I realised it was on two DVDs but it’s a complex story of someone’s whole life and it needs that much time to really pull you into the story.

        • In all honesty, I wouldn’t let the running time put you off. It’s so immersive and masterfully handled that the time just flys by. It’s one of the best films ever made in my opinion.

        • Wow. That’s some high praise, indeed. Hard to keep it off the list after hearing something like that. 😉

          Especially after Abbi’s pretty glowing recommendation.

          It is now another of my ever expanding must-sees.

  2. Yes, it’s definitely an epic this one. Never did I think that someone could stir a cup of tea or hear a phone ringing for so long, but it was worth the watch wasn’t it? I felt like I’d grown up with them by the time it got to the end. Nice review.

  3. Great post. This film is top notch, I couldn’t praise it enough, it’s in my top 10. I was so engaged by it that I didn’t actually feel the running time. I had sympathy for Noodles up until a particular scene.

    • Thanks! I know exactly what you mean. You start out respecting him and then there comes a point where you just can’t forgive him anymore.

    • Thanks! I would definitely recommend watching it all in one go. It’s not one of those you can do bore the course of a couple of watches. It would be hard not to lose track. Possibly something to do if you have time off over Christmas.

    • I am enjoying reading everyone’s reviews so much and I’ve actually gone on to watch some of the De Niro films I haven’t seen because of this Blogathon!

      • That’s music to ours ears Abbi. That was the whole point of this Blogathon. Tyson and I wanted to bring some more attention to DeNiro’s films and to encourage people to check more out. Our work here is done… 😉

  4. Great review, well done! I absolutely love James Woods in this movie. I love him in pretty much anything, but you’re right, he does such a fantastic job as the foil here.

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