Register  |   Log In  |  
Sign up to our weekly newsletter    
Empire Magazine and iPad
Follow Me on Pinterest YouTube Tumblr
Trending On Empire
The Future Of Film
The 100 Greatest Video Games
The Making Of The West Wing
Subscribe To Empire Today
Save money and get 12 issues for only £25
Go Think Big
Helping young people achieve their career dreams
Unmissable 5 Stars
Excellent 4 Stars
Good 3 Stars
Poor 2 Stars
Tragic 1 Star

Robert De Niro
James Woods
Elizabeth McGovern
Franco Ferrini.
Sergio Leone.
Leonardo Benvenuti
Piero De Bernardi
Enrico Medioli
Franco Arcalli
Sergio Leone.
Running Time
139 minutes

Grey Owl
1 Star Empire Rating
Glengarry Glen Ross
5 Star Empire Rating
Ghost In The Shell
4 Star Empire Rating
Child's Play
3 Star Empire Rating
4 Star Empire Rating

Glengarry Glen Ross
5 Star Empire Rating
5 Star Empire Rating
5 Star Empire Rating
Ipcress File, The
5 Star Empire Rating
Jules Et Jim
5 Star Empire Rating

Once Upon A Time In America
Sergio Leone's classic portrait of the birth of 20th century urban America.

submit to reddit

A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to Brooklyn over 30 years later, where he once again must confront the ghosts and regrets of his old life.

Let's get our heresies out of the way early on; the film that Once Upon A Time In America is often compared to is, of course, The Godfather. They share superficial similarities: both are epic in scope and exceedingly long. They both have at their heart a history of immigrants and the lure of criminality to the poor; they both traverse decades and they both paint a picture of the birth of 20th century urban America.

Leone's film is arguably the better of the two - if the less popular - eschewing, as it does, the soapy melodramatics of Coppola's family saga in favour of less audience-friendly, but more intriguing, ambiguity and symbolism.

Superficially, it is a gangster film. There are gangs and guns and drive-bys; speakeasies and Prohibition. But in the midst of the familiar trappings, Leone investigates the more resonant, enigmatic themes of time, identity and the reliability of memory. And he does it with incredible technical skill.

Leone is above all a master visualist and his movie is drenched in imagery pregnant with meaning. In the early portion of the film, we follow the adolescent Noodles and Max as they exuberantly roll drunks, torch newspaper stands and form the friendship that will become one of the film's central thematic pillars. Here the looming Manhattan Bridge seems to offer a way out of the poverty stricken ghetto, but nobody ever crosses it.

Later in the film, before the gruelling rape sequence, Noodles dines in a vacant ballroom - an infantile, sociopathic vision of loving gesture, and of course it reveals Noodles as a man who must own the object of his love completely. After it, he stands in a dishevelled tuxedo against a blue-grey seascape, a scene as drained of colour as Noodles now is of redeeming moral worth. But, to get to the point, what is it all about?

Since its release, the complex structure of the movie has left audiences and critics slightly baffled. It's a movie that seems to offer no real resolution. Or at least no easy one. Who took the money from the case at Grand Central Station? How does Max survive what appears to be his murder? And what happens to him in the end? Does he fling himself into the garbage truck after Noodles' final visit? If he does, then the film takes on an unambiguously judgemental tone. The man who came from trash, and reduced a culture to trash, finally reduces himself to trash. Or does any of it actually happen at all?

One fascinating reading of the film, suggested by Leone and investigated by Christopher Frayling in his biography Something About Death, is that the film takes place - in its entirety - in one moment in 1933. Noodles enters the opium den after his betrayal has left his friends dead. He lies on his cot and, in a single moment signified by the enigmatic smile that concludes the film, remembers his past and dreams a possible future.

In the end, Once Upon A Time In America, like all great art - and that is surely what it is - stubbornly resists a final, authoritative interpretation. It places us resolutely alongside the mystified Noodles, desperately searching for a coherence to his life which is probably unobtainable.


Once Upon A Time In America Once Upon A Time In America
Released: 07 February 2011
A mild disappointment — here is a movie that is due the full retrospective treatment. What we get is a measured and informative commentary from Time’s Richard Schickel — a pity, though, that Britain’s Christopher Frayling, the world’s preeminent Leone expert, couldn’t chip in — as well as a brief documentary with contributions from screenwriters, producer Arnon Milchan, James Woods (a little calmer) and, possibly inevitably, Quentin Tarantino.

While The Godfather delivers certainty and a comforting dramatic resolution, Once Upon A Time In America delivers a profound kind of mystery. While Coppola's film delivers answers, Leone's asks questions. It lingers and plays on the mind; its meanings shift and change like a faded memory or a half-remembered dream.

Reviewed by Adam Smith

Related Reviews

Write Your Review
To write your review please login or register.

Your Reviews

Average user rating for Once Upon A Time In America
Empire Star Rating

Once upon a Time...

If you ever have a spare 4 hours or so then Once Upon A Time... is definitely worth a look with it's lavish costume, period settings, outstanding performances and stunning Morricone score. It's not until afterwards when you start to think back that you realise the possibility that everything that happened after the 1930's could have been dreamt by noodles (De Niro) in the opium den. However, we can forgive Leone for being so deceptive because there are many other questions that arise that are ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by gzus at 16:25, 04 April 2010 | Report This Post

Despite running nearly 4 hours long, Leone's homage to gangster films is a richly rewarding experience that offers unprecedented insights into the roots of crime and the power of friendship ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by vermin101 at 05:23, 13 September 2009 | Report This Post

Despite running nearly 4 hours long, Leone's homage to gangster films is a richly rewarding experience that offers unprecedented insights into the roots of crime and the power of friendship ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by vermin101 at 05:23, 13 September 2009 | Report This Post

An enigma of a film, Leone's epic is gripping and realistic ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by wiseguy7 at 09:26, 22 May 2009 | Report This Post

The greatest

this is, without a doubt, the greatest film i have ever seen and most probably will ever see. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by DJ Funktris at 16:51, 14 February 2008 | Report This Post

Once upon a time in America

The most epical movie ever. Beautiful storytelling and backrounds. You actually get sucked up in the film, because it really delivers. It takes you a while to fully see it, but it is worth it. There are some movies that are a must see, and this one has to be on the top five of this list. No Oscar wins or nominations, but who cares! One of the best crime movies around, together with The Godfather Part 1 and 2. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by daxpieters at 22:11, 19 January 2008 | Report This Post

i dont know if its Leones best - its certanily up there ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by bobbyperu at 08:55, 23 October 2007 | Report This Post

i dont know if its Leones best - its certanily up there ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by bobbyperu at 08:55, 23 October 2007 | Report This Post

A good film...

...can get a bit tiresome but if you have a spare 4 hours worth a go. De Niro is fairly restrained, Woods is engaging. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by dhollseed at 01:48, 18 August 2007 | Report This Post

You turned out in your hundreds and thousands, and here are the results... Browse the full list

The Empire Podcast #133: Robert Duvall, Anna Faris And James Marsden Interviews
Plus the team discuss the latest news on the upcoming DC and Marvel movies

Documentaries: What Happened Next
We track down and interview the stars of great non-fiction films

Movie Poster Mashups: Sean Bean Edition
You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be appalled at the punning...

Your Introductory Guide To That DC Movie Slate
Suicide Squad? Cyborg? Aquaman? We explain who’s who in the DC Universe

Video Interviews: Megan Fox And Will Arnett Talk Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Plus the director and producers on the tone of their new turtle flick

Captain America 3, Iron Man And Civil War: Where Next For The Marvel Cinematic Universe?
What to make of today's Marvel news

Interactive Gallery: Explore Iconic Movie Spacesuits
Explore the fabric of space-time

Subscribe to Empire magazine
Get 12 Issues Of Empire For Only £25!

Get exclusive subscriber-only covers each month!

Subscribe today

Subscribe to Empire iPad edition
Get The Empire iPad Edition Today

Subscribe and save money on annual digital subscription

Subscribe today
Buy single issues

Get 12 issues of Empire for just £25!
Get the world's greatest movie magazine delivered straight to your door! Subscribe today!
Empire's Film Studies 101 Series
Everything you ever wanted to know about filmmaking but were afraid to ask...
The Empire iPad Edition
With exclusive extras, interactive features, trailers and much more! Download now
Home  |  News  |  Blogs  |  Reviews  |  Future Films  |  Features  |  Interviews  |  Images  |  Competitions  |  Forum  |  iPad  |  Podcast  |  Magazine Contact Us  |  Empire FAQ  |  Subscribe To Empire  |  Register
© Bauer Consumer Media Ltd  |  Legal Info  |  Editorial Complaints  |  Privacy Policy  |  Bauer Entertainment Network
Bauer Consumer Media Ltd (company number 01176085 and registered address 1 Lincoln Court, Lincoln Road, Peterborough, England PE1 2RF)