Sergio Leone | 220 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Italy & USA / English | 18 / R
Part of Leone’s intended trilogy about the history of violence in the USA, Once Upon a Time in America is the life story of four friends and gangsters in Noo Yoik during a large chunk of the 20th Century. So it’s a gangster film focusing on violence, then? Well, no… not at all, really. Indeed, saying Once Upon a Time in America is a film about gangsters is a bit like saying Die Hard is a documentary on police procedure during a hostage crisis — sure, there’s something of that in there, but if you’re focused on it then you’re missing the point.
I refer to “the point” as if, a) I’m some kind of expert about to expound on it, or b) there is a singular ‘point’ to this three-and-a-three-quarter-hour epic. Neither is true. In fact, I’ve perhaps never felt less qualified to discuss a film in depth. Thing is, it’s a difficult film to digest in one viewing, because there’s so much there. It’s not just the length (Titanic is pretty straightforward through its three-and-a-bit hours; even something superior like Apocalypse Now Redux I ‘got’ first time), though that is a factor: over such a long time, it’s packed with incident, and shaped in a non-traditional — or non-common (uncommon, you might say) — narrative structure. A first viewing is an exercise in following what’s going on, what connects to what else, why things are happening in such an order. It fairly begs, “get a handle on it this time, you can analyse it when you watch it again”.
And analysing it may, I think, be a requirement, because this isn’t a film of straightforwardness or easy answers. For one, it asks much of the viewer in our interpretation of the characters: this is a film where our (supposed?) heroes do truly despicable things, and not in aid of a “they’re actually the villain” twist either. Is Leone exposing us to reality — that not all those who do horrible things are horrible people? Or is he just a misogynist? Or a lover of violence? It’s something grander critics than I have battled with for decades.
Leaving aside the less savoury aspects (as, it seems, many have to), a lot of the discussion when it comes to a Leone film is always of his fantastic visual and storytelling style. That’s not unmerited, and while it’s not as overt here as in his Westerns, it is present. But he was a filmmaker with an awful lot of substance too — perhaps a daunting amount. What he created here is an Epic in the truest sense of the word, but in addition to that, it’s a peculiarly intimate one. It has an epic’s length and a decades-long sweep, at times exposing and commenting on facets of entire eras that it traverses; but it’s really ‘just’ the story of a small group of friends, their successes and their failures, their triumphs and their tragedies — probably with the emphasis on the latter — over a more extended period of their lives than most movies are prepared to tackle. That probably doesn’t make it unique (someone else must have attempted such a feat, surely), but it does make it rare; and when something rare is created with such undoubtable skill and achievement, it certainly merits deeper consideration — over an equally long period of time, I suspect, as the ghost of 82 notes in his summation.
My relationship with Leone’s oeuvre is, on reflection, a vexed one. While I liked A Fistful of Dollars and was instantly beguiled by For a Few Dollars More (both fairly straightforward action Westerns, or at least digestible in that way), it took me two or three viewings to appreciate Once Upon a Time in the West (now it would contend for a place among my favourite films), and I wasn’t congruent with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — to a point where, about a decade on, I still haven’t found time to revisit it and try to see what all the fuss is about. Once Upon a Time in America falls somewhere between these two stools. It’s a film that is, I think, easy to instantly admire — if not wholly, then for its majority; but also one I found difficult to process a full personal reaction to. With the recently-extended version set to arrive on DVD/Blu-ray/download later this year (in the US, at any rate), an ultra-convenient chance for a second evaluation looms.