"I hope they burn the fucking negative!" James Woods raged about what had happened to Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America in an anonymous editing suite in New York. "Three weeks before the film is released, they have the assistant editor of Police Academy chop it to fucking ribbons! I mean, do you think I was suicidal? The film got fucking slaughtered by the critics, as well it should have. It was fucking dead in the water."
It was the old, old story. Leone, the feted director of such modern classics as The Fistful Of Dollars trilogy had been contracted to deliver a film of not more than 165 minutes. Leone hadn't. He had probably never intended to. Instead, after extensive cutting, he delivered a final print of 229 minutes. If it had been released it would have been one of the longest films ever to hit American screens. But thanks to the attentions of Zach Staenberg, the Police Academy editor (who, for some audiences, redeemed himself 14 years later by editing The Matrix) the version that American audiences saw ran to just 144 minutes. "It was such a stupid move," mourned Woods. It was. The film tanked. And it was only when it was finally shown in its full three hour 49 minute cut that European critics recognised it for the enduring classic it now is.
All of which is somewhat ironic, because among its other many themes, Once Upon... is a film about the inexorable passage of time. From the start of the movie Leone begins to manipulate it. We first meet Jewish gangster Noodles (De Niro) in an opium den (just one of the many fantastically evocative sets built in J Rome); behind him a shadow play is dimly visible through the narcotic fug. But soon, in what's a regular occurrence in the movie, we flashback to the previous evening. We're in a 30s speakeasy where Noodles and his Jewish gangster gang are mourning the passing of prohibition and where he is about to betray his best friend, then back again to the early part of the century where we see the young rapscallions on the Lower East Side slowly moving more and more towards the life of organised crime that will ultimately destroy some of them. Then, in an audacious jump in time, we move forward to 1968 where we find Noodles attempting to piece together his life, deciding whether to go to a mysterious party.
It's an incredible narrative achievement, indeed, the structure was so complex that, in the 15 years it took to bring the movie from inception to the screen, Leone had separate sets of writers working on the different sections (Norman Mailer's early screenplay having been dismissed as "Mickey Mouse"). For many, the "early years" are the most effective, combining astounding sets and location work (the sequences were filmed in Rome, Montreal and on location in New York, but the nine-month shoot also took the crew to Paris, Lake Como, and Miami) with excellent performances from the cast of mostly unknowns who play the junior hoodlums. It's the most obviously accessible and most narratively easygoing part of the movie as they lose their virginities, roll drunks for money and blackmail the local plod.
But it's the difficult, ambiguous elements of the movie that are the most satisfying. Ultimately America is much more than just a gangster picture. Certainly some of the familiar genre-trappings are floating about, rival gangs, money in suitcases, sudden vicious violence and corrupt police. And the betrayal of friends is a theme etched in most organised crime flicks. But it's at its deeper level that the film transcends genre and becomes something much more profound. It's a movie about the unreliability of memory; about ageing and guilt and indelible regret. Noodles lies on his cot in the opium den and tries to make some kind of sense of his life and actions. Three decades later he returns to finish that project. Or, as the pantomime phrase goes, does he? As Leone biographer Christopher Frayling points out, an intriguing reading of the film has Noodles never leaving 1933. The sequences set in 1968 have a strange symbolic quality to them, which may suggest they are opium inspired dreams.
Either way you read it, it's a film that deliberately offers no real resolution, only a sense of melancholy and which leaves the audience, like Noodles, wondering, dazed, what it's all been about.