Monday, October 26, 2009

Once Upon a Time in America

When Joe at This Distracted Globe put the call out for contributors to his Class of 1984 blog-a-thon, I'd just picked up the 2-disc edition of 'Once Upon a Time in America' for a song. It had been a while - quite a while - since I'd seen it. I'd pretty much forgotten most of the narrative beyond the scenes in the anti-heroes' childhood. I figured Joe's blog-a-thon was the perfect opportunity to re-approach Sergio Leone's swansong. I had plenty of time to watch the film, marshall my thoughts and prepare an article.

Life, predictably, got in the way. Life, work, illness, the Third Annual Dirk-Fest, my wife's birthday and the Italian horror movie blog-a-thon over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies, to be exact. So now I find myself hammering out a few paragraphs at the eleventh hour, Ennio Morricone's melancholic score still in my ears and that last shot - that freeze-frame of Noodles (Robert de Niro) reclining in the opium den, a soporific smile on his face - still fixed in my mind. And I'm thinking that the film is less a gangster epic than a ghost story. I'm wondering if the trio of heavies who, in the bluntly brutal opening scenes, slap around Noodles's girlfriend Eve (Darlanne Fluegel) then severely beat his friend Fat Moe (Larry Rapp) before tracking him down to the opium den actually pull the hit on him and the next three and a quarter hours present a conflation of the old saw about one's life passing before one's eyes and a vision of the future had he lived. A future which is corrupt and rotten and inescapably defined by every violent act of the past.

I'm also wondering - when 1984 saw the release of so many mainstream crowd-pleasers - why I decided to pick a four-hour epic of such formalism, such measured pace and so steeped in loss and regret that it's less an organic development of the grungily operatic spaghetti westerns that made Leone's name than the closest cinema has given us to a gangster movie as if made by Ingmar Bergman.

I had forgotten just how melancholy 'Once Upon a Time in America' is. That the scenes set in the late 1910s, which document the youthful Noodles and his friends' collective loss of innocence, are the cheeriest in the movie kind of says it all. We see Noodles (Scott Tiler), Max (Rusty Jacobs), Cockeye (Adrian Curran), Patsy (Brian Bloom) and Dominic (Noah Moazezi) commit arson, robbery and blackmail, throw in their lot with an older group of bootleggers, take a beating from a rival gang leader, and - sealing their fates into adulthood - one of their number being murdered and another going to jail after a revenge killing ... and Leone imbues every bit of it with nostalgia. Kids still half a decade off shaving roll drunks, backtalk cops and pursue sexual favours from a neighbourhood girl for the price of a cream cake ... and there's a palpable sense of yearning that this brief tenement-set idyll is so soon to end. Noodles gets it bad for Fat Moe (Mike Monetti)'s svelte sister Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) and when he muses, with all the braggadoccio of a lad who'd never dare tell his mates that he hasn't got laid yet, "She wants something from me and one of these days I'm going to give it to her", it's almost comical.

There's nothing funny, though, about Noodles' attempt to romance the adult Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). When he doesn't get what he wants, he takes it by force. By now it's the early 1930s and Max (James Woods) fancies himself as the gang's de facto leader. Max's compulsion to leave the small time prompts an uneasy partnership with Mob guy Frankie Minoldi (Joe Pesci) and his low-class associate Joe (Burt Young), who tips them to a diamond heist. Frankie gives them additional orders and the job takes a darker turn. Prohibition is coming to an end and when Noodles jokes that "we're out of work", Max doesn't see the funny side. Max gets increasingly involved with the Mob's political machinations, providing protection for union boss Jimmy O'Donnell (Treat Williams). He also plots a suicidal heist on the federal reserve. Then Max's girlfriend Carol (Tuesday Weld) implores Noodles to an urgent course of action rather than see Max gunned down.

Noodles' decision effectively explodes the narrative, and even Noodles himself isn't fully cognizant of the repercussions. Not until the film's third timeline - 1968 - where the past comes back to haunt Noodles in a way he could never have anticipated, and I find myself back at the 'Once Upon a Time in America' as ghost story reading. For all the iconography - the hats and suits and cars and tommy guns and molls in flapper dresses - the film is decidedly atypical of the genre. The final hour plays out absent of anything approaching an action scene. The curiously muted finale - replete with enough pregnant pauses and unspoken implications to fill a dozen Harold Pinter productions - builds to an image of two old guys (one wearing a tux, one a fedora) and a garbage truck, its pulping mechanism churning away, that just plain fucking disturbs me.

But we're talking of a film where the most poetic scene has a boy standing on a toilet to peek through a removed brick into an adjoining room at a girl practicing her ballet recital; where the chronology of a petty theft and its aftermath is timed on the very pocket watch that was stolen; where the saddest, truest, most insightful moment is of a boy sitting on a stairwell unable to resist eating the cream cake he's spent his only money on, even though he knows what he can barter it for and how badly he wants it.

'Once Upon a Time in America' is a gangster film in imagery only; it's really about the loss of innocence, very early on in the game, and how the best we can hope for thereafter is narcotic oblivion or a quick death.

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