Once Upon a Time in America (1984) starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams directed by Sergio Leone Movie Review

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)   5/55/55/55/55/5

James Woods as Max in Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Leone's Noodles Eastern

Watching "Once Upon a Time in America" is a daunting task, partly because at 11 minutes shy of 4 hours it takes up a sizeable chunk of your day. But it is also daunting because in those 229 minutes there is so much detail that it is impossible to take it all in, little subtleties which you may miss again and again and then suddenly when you watch it again you pick up on them. As such I can say that having watched Sergio Leone's masterpiece at least 10 times I still don't believe I have picked up on every nuanced moment because every time I have seen something new that I can't believe I missed on a previous viewing. And on the subject of daunting to do "Once Upon a Time in America" justice through a review is impossible, this is a movie which you could write a book on analysing because it is so detailed.

Now you could sum up "Once Upon a Time in America" by saying it is a mob movie, it is Sergio Leone having regretted passing on directing "The Godfather" delivering his vision, an epic vision of a group of Jewish gangsters. And in fairness you wouldn't be wrong because we are taken back to the early 1920s where David 'Noodles' Aaronson meets Maximilian 'Max' Bercovicz and along with friends Cockeye and Patsy start building their crime empire. We follow them as they go from teenagers who roll drunks to men who make their money via illegal booze during Prohibition and offering protection to Union bosses. There is more to it than that, there is run ins with other heavies and Noodles doing a stretch after he murdered a man and attacked a policeman but in a way this side is sort of familiar, the rise to power of these Jewish Gangsters.

Elizabeth McGovern and Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

But then we have more that this because we have issues of relationships and friendships from Noodles being in love with Deborah ever since he watched her practice dancing as a young girl to the combustible friendship between him and Max. The element of this friendship between Max and Noodles is important because as the story plays out it becomes fractious with a high level of mistrust going on between the two top dogs.

Now all that isn't that amazing, mob movies with mob action and tension between gangsters isn't unusual even back in 1984 but what is is the added element of mystery. After a protracted disjointed opening which culminates with Noodles leaving New York after discovering his friends are dead and the money stashed in a locker has gone we see Noodles return 35 years later. Someone has found him and summoned him back and he has no idea who, his only connection is Fat Moe who still runs the same bar that he did 35 years earlier when he hung out with the gang. It means we have this movie which takes us from the 1920s and into the 30s but also the 1960s as an older Noodles tries to work out who has mysteriously tracked him down and why.

That is an incredibly simplified look at "Once Upon a Time in America" a movie which keeps on giving on subsequent viewings. And the reason why is that it is Sergio Leone's master piece, a perfectly crafted movie lush in style, drama, violence, intrigue, romance and detail. It may sound daft but the simple scene of Noodles leaving New York in the 1930s is so full of detail from a man washing the floor to the smoke filled air of the station, the baggage attendant pulling a trolley across, it all seems unimportant but it creates the scene and brings it to life as if what you are watching was shot in the 1930s it is that authentic. And this level of craftsmanship, those little touches of detail, such as the clutter on Deborah's dressing table just continue throughout which makes it so easy to miss some subtleties because there is so much going. Throw in what for me is one of Ennio Morricone's greatest musical scores and you have a movie which is beautiful even before anything significant really happens and instantly memorable thanks to the music.

And of course there is the acting with Robert De Niro and James Woods delivering pitch perfect performances through out. But do you know what every performance is pitch perfect from Larry Rapp as Fat Moe right through to Jennifer Connelly making her movie debut as Young Deborah with Elizabeth McGovern doing an amazing job as the adult Deborah. It's not just performances because getting the right actors to play younger version of De Niro and Woods is no easy task but in Scott Schutzman Tiler and Rusty Jacobs they got it spot on.

What this all boils down to is that "Once Upon a Time in America" is despite being a daunting movie is also one of the greatest movies ever made. It is a sizeable movie at almost 4 hours but it is 4 hours well worth putting aside to watch and trust me you will want to watch it again because it is a movie which keeps on giving every time you watch it.