Sunday, December 7, 2014
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA
(June 1984, U.S.)
I hadn't seen Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA since I initially bought the DVD many years ago and had forgotten it was originally a summer release; this being an epic gangster film that likely would have fared better in the Fall for better box office receipts. I can't help but wonder how this film stacked itself up against summer release that involved INDIANA JONES, STAR TREK, GHOSTBUSTERS and GREMLINS.
Having originally been offered the director's chair for THE GODFATHER back in the 1970s, Sergio Leone (made famous for his spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood) likely had a lot to make up and compensate for more than ten years later. So the big question is how do you make a worthy epic gangster film (with Robert DeNiro, I might add) and not leave yourself open to having copied two previous GODFATHER films prior? The answer is that you do your damnedest not to come too close and specifically come up with something original in you story. Whether Leone succeeds in that task is completely up to the viewer. For starters, this is an American gangster story that originates from the poverty-stricken streets of the lower east side of New York City and contains many traditional themes such as the ambition and dream of rising to power, friendship and betrayal. Sounds an awful lot like THE GODFATHER-PART II at first glance, doesn't it? Well, let's face it - gangster films are a tough genre to change very much. Power, violence, greed, friendship and betrayal and just inevitable and unavoidable contents of the recipe. So what this films attempts to offer its viewer is an experience in non-linear, non-chronological (GODFATHER II does do that, though) and flashbacks as told through the viewpoints of one particular character known simply as "Noodles" (played by DeNiro). The other slight twist here is that our protagonists are a product of the Jewish ghetto rather than the traditional Italian origin of many other gangster films. Yes, we have a here a story of less-than-traditional Jews as told through the perspective of an Italian director. Ah, yes, ain't America grand!
Perhaps the most key word I can use to initially describe ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is ambiguity. As the film's title would suggest, we are being offered a story of boys who grow up to be men over the course of several decades that include important pieces of American history that include the Great Depression and Prohibition. That's easy enough to understand. The classic elements of the traditional gangster film are also easy to understand if you've seen enough of them. What this film attempts to do is to deliberately not give us all the answers to some key questions as it rolls along and allow it's ambiguity to give us the option and the power to make up our own minds. For instance, what is the 1968 Frisbee scene supposed to mean when it immediately cuts to another sequence and gives no further resolution? Is it merely an establishment of the time frame and nothing more or is there a deeper threat to "Noodles" at that moment as he walks through the streets with a suitcase that we're not meant to see? Then there is the ultimate plot between "Noodles" and the girlfriend of his longtime friend and partner Max (played by James Woods) to set him up for arrest and prison in order to keep him from being killed by police in an outlandish scheme to rob the federal reserve. We listen to the plot between conspirators and we fully understand the purpose behind such a betrayal, but at no time do we get to witness the attempted crime itself or the ultimate outcome. Then there is the suitcase filled with the cash that all the film's friends and business partners agreed to contribute to and divide equally when the time came that sits quietly in a bus station locker. Even though we see the cash, there is a strange mystery to this suitcase that one can't help but wonder if it influenced Quentin Tarantino when he gave us the same mysterious suitcase element in PULP FICTION ten years later. What is the final outcome of that suitcase? We watch "Noodles" retrieve it from the locker, but does he actually get away with it safely, as the strange Frisbee scene may suggest that he doesn't. Again, we're not sure. And finally (but not necessarily limited to), there's the end resolution where we learn that Max, presumed dead for many years, is not dead and has been assuming an alternate identity as Secretary Christopher Bailey. When he and "Noodles" confront each other after years of absence and betrayal, what is Bailey's ultimate purpose? Is it to really have "Noodles" kill him and put him out of his misery or is it really to gloat to his one-time friend and trusted partner of his financial success, power and the fact that he managed to take and live "Noodles" life by stealing and marrying the woman that he ("Noodles) always truly loved Deborah (played by Elizabeth McGovern and Jennifer Connelly, respectively). Deborah, the woman "Noodles" has always loved, by the way, is also a woman he violently rapes in one scene, totally inexplicably. Again, the ambiguity and mystery of why a man like this would do such a thing is perhaps beyond our comprehension. "Noodles" is a violent man, by nature, yes, but the explanation as to why he would deliberately hurt a woman he's worshiped since childhood is puzzling to us, to say the least. As I watched that particular rape scene, I couldn't help but shake my head and ask, "Oh, man, why are fucking this all up?"
But wait, I suppose "finally" was not so final after all. What is the true meaning of the final shot of the film in which we see DeNiro lying down in an opium-soaked high with a huge smile on his face. This is how such a long film ends and we're meant to wonder why. Was the entire story nothing more than a drug-induced dream, with one man's vision's of his past and his unknown future? As I said and will repeat now, I believe that Leone knows very damn well that he cannot hope to match the artistic successes of the previous two GODFATHER films, so he offers the ambiguity of unexplained and unresolved issues of not only the boys and men in the story, but also their ultimate outcomes of life and survival. I can only say that for what is meant to be the traditional gangster film, Sergio Leone offers his own artistic poem to a classic genre...and it works for me!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Noodles: "Today they asked us to get rid of Joe, tomorrow they ask me to get rid of you! Is that okay with you? 'Cause it's not okay with me!"