Sergio Leone’s final film, the much lauded gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, finally makes its way to Blu-Ray, a port to finally get to see the 4 hour film all in one go as opposed to switching discs half way through.
First off, the film which is thought of by many critics as Leone’s masterpiece, the 229 minute odyssey about the rise and fall of New York gangsters in the Prohibition era is certainly no less than compelling. Focusing specifically on Jewish hoodlum Noodles, played for the most part by Robert De Niro, it tracks his character across 30 years in both flashbacks and flash-forwards which some people have interpreted as opium induced dreams.
Looking at it again for only the second time in its entirety there are good things and some not so good things to say about the movie. Let’s get the troubling elements out of the way first, which are minor. Firstly, it is long, sitting down to find time and watch a 4 hour movie is no easy task and I’m not so sure that the version that its in, is the film at its finest. There are times when Leone’s long takes of nothingness and lingering on animals crossing the frame begin to get grating, and when they aren’t entirely needed they become irritating.
Of course if you become invested in the story, as you inevitably do, this all washes over you as you become immersed in the world. The sexual violence in the film is the one part I feel to be totally redundant, if it is to show that Noodles was a complete misogynist and vile character, the actors should be able to convey that without scenes which are borderline immoral.
Above that, Leone’s film is awesome to look at, the recreation of Prohibition New York is near flawless, it is a beautiful film to look at. Everything looks authentic and is rendered with a limited, muted colour palette which is of browns and yellows, pitch perfect for the tone and setting of the movie. A result of him working with long time collaborator Tonino Delli Colli, a very accomplished cinematographer who did his best work under the direction of Leone.
The acting on all counts it pretty spectacular. James Woods in particular stands out amongst the thesp laden cast, it is De Niro’s film but Woods is just that more convincing. He never overplays it and the aging make up doesn’t distract from his presence later on in the film. Woods is helped by the fact that he has the most likeable character in the film, he is still a gangster but he is a man trying to run a business, and his struggles are easy to sympathise with.
Of course a film like this is going to get compared to The Godfather, the scope and recreation of their periods are pretty much flawless. But they are in the end very different pieces of work, while the The Godfather lends itself an operatic tone which does lead to an all answered if messy conclusion and definitive end, Once Upon a Time in America gives none of this certainty. It is a film which leaves many of its threads unanswered, the tone is uneasy and none of The Godfather’s security is provided. In the end, The Godfather is a superior and more complete work, but Once Upon a Time in America is a eulogy and uncomfortable movie, a film for the senses that requires patience and abandons melodrama.
The Blu-Ray release for the film is both frustrating and very pleasing. The pleasing elements are the impressive video and audio, the film looks and sounds great. The picture quality finds beautiful detail in Leone’s perfectly crafted images, the colour tones and contrast have been solved from the still impressive DVD release. Some shots are still a tad soft, but this may have been committed during filming. But considering the epic film has been stuffed onto one disc the picture quality is very impressive.
The sound is lovingly restored into a DTS 5.1 mix which matches the experience of the theatre, everything is completely crystal clear and the mixing perfectly done. Morricone’s score has never sounded so great and perfectly clicks into the environment of the film. What is disappointing is the special features which are just ports from the 2004 DVD release, which is simply the Richard Schickel commentary and a 20 minute featurette which is edited down from a larger documentary. A shame because there are greater things to be said about Once Upon a Time in America and it deserves a longer, more detailed documentary.
Particularly when it has a fascinating production history behind it, the script took 6 years and their still must be stories to tell about the editing of the film. For a film to be upgraded to Blu-Ray it deserves better treatment with special features, this is a shame and almost makes buying this not worth your while.
Once Upon A Time In America is a stunning recreation of the gangster period with an exciting deconstruction of the mob mythology.