The first thing you appreciate about Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America is its scale.
The epic ambition of this crime saga is palpable in Ennio Morricone’s sweeping score (certainly one of the best in his career) and in the grueling four-hour runtime of the movie’s uncut version. Leone is of course known for his sprawling Spaghetti Westerns, but this still feels seminal because of his deviation from the genre that has defined his career and the way it sought to represent the ethos of contemporary America. If Coppola’s The Godfather skewered the American Dream by fusing the criminal enterprise with the immigrant experience, Once Upon a Time in America showed how greed and corruption are much more endemic to an already corrupt society.
Comparing this to The Godfather is natural, apt even. Before Coppola was tapped to direct this classic, the studio first offered the job to Leone. But he turned it down because he wanted to work on Once Upon a Time instead, and he would spend ten years of his life on this project. It didn’t turn out to be the classic that The Godfather was (primarily because the shortened two-hour American version turned out to be a disaster). Instead, it became one of the most criminally underrated works of the American Gangster genre that influenced succeeding movies like Goodfellas, The Intouchables, and Pulp Fiction.
This really isn’t a ‘gangster movie’ in the real sense of the term, because the action sequences, the chase scenes, the gunfights and all the other elements that make it so aren’t in the foreground. Instead, the heart of this movie lies in the friendship between Noodles (Robert de Niro) and Max (James Woods), two gangsters who’ve been partners in crime since they were children. Even though the movie is punctuated by graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence, there is an intimacy in the telling of their story. The mob hits, the broads, the heists — they weren’t ends in themselves. They all were forces that carved the contours of their partnership with Noodles acting as its moral center, always drawing the line on what is unacceptable and reining in Max’s unbridled criminal aspirations.
As Robert Warshaw argues in his essay “The Gangster as a Tragic Hero”,
“…we are always conscious that the whole meaning of this career is a drive for success: the typical gangster film presents a steady upward progress followed by a very precipitate fall. Thus brutality itself becomes at once the means to success and the content of success—a success that is defined in its most general terms, not as accomplishment or specific gain, but simply as the unlimited possibility of aggression.”
This is the trajectory of Max’s career: the drive to obtain the ‘unlimited possibility of aggression’. He typifies the inevitability of being a gangster — he is destined to go on and on, each crime bigger than the last, until he meets a demise worthy of his life’s achievement. The only way for a successful gangster to go down is through a glorious hail of bullets. Otherwise, he is but a petty criminal.
Even though Max represents the archetype of the gangster, Leone lingers on Noodles’ character and consciousness more. In fact the film’s underlying leitmotif is Noodles’ growth as a man not through a series of victories but through a series of losses, which is in stark contrast to Max’s upward climb in the ranks of the underworld. In each episode of his life, there is always someone being taken from him — Dominic, his childhood friend who was killed when they were still boys pretending to be men, Deborah, his sweetheart who left him to be an actress, and then finally Max — and all those losses change him, for better or for worse.
If there’s a literary character analogous to Noodles, it is Nick Carroway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby. Leone admitted as much when he said that Fitzgerald’s work was a big influence on this movie, and it shows in the way Max acts as a detached observer. After he sees the murder of Dominic, he kills a police officer and spends more than a decade in jail. He reunites with Max and the rest of his gang after, but he never really fully reintegrated with this group, approaching it instead with the curiosity of a outsider. And as spectators like him, Noodles is our gateway to this world.
If Nick’s biggest flaw is his inaction, his refusal to meddle in the affairs of his friends because of his tolerable nature, the same can’t be said of Noodles. For the most part, he also accepted Max’s delusions and even assisted him in his quest for power. But when his plans became too destructive and his cooler head failed to quell Max’s aggressive temperament, he intervenes and turns him in, perhaps the biggest form of betrayal a gangster can make. The guilt from his treachery weighed down on his soul, and he carried this burden for the rest of his life.
It’s hard to be a conscientious gangster. Negotiating the ethical implications of one’s actions is hard because one presumably already is morally bankrupt. But gangsters are not devoid of any ethical arrangements. The unwritten code gangsters follow is based on something more intuitive: a man’s word, archaic notions of loyalty and honor. Noodles breaking this agreement and using the actual law to save Max from himself is an admission of the necessity of the institution that they vowed to resist. But ironically, conforming to the law wasn’t a cause for celebration but the start of Noodles’ tragic demise.
This would turn out to be Sergio Leone’s last movie. It is unfortunate that it was met with controversy because of the way it was re-edited in order to make the non-linear narrative structure more palatable to American audiences. This even underscores how this is the partner piece of The Godfather. Coppola insisted on having his way despite meddling from studio executives. Among other things, he insisted on having Brando and Pacino play the Corleones and it turned out to be one of the best decisions he ever made in his career. Leone was forced to compromise.
Once Upon a Time in America isn’t a perfect movie. It is at times uneven and overwrought. But despite this, it is a masterpiece worth examining because of the way it attracts us to the violent underground, how it challenges social attitudes on what it means to be successful and how it portrays the American Dream as an artifice that must be deconstructed in order to see its illusory nature. Max and Noodles wanted to buy their way to happiness, power, sex. They’re not really that different from the rest of us.