Once Upon a Time in America (1984, Sergio Leone)

Sergio Leone can make me care about things that don’t really interest me much at all. He directed the first western that ever really connected with me, Once Upon a Time in the West. For the first half of the epic four-hour Once Upon a Time in America, he seemed to have created the first American gangster film I ever enjoyed; it perhaps could be termed the humanist take on one of the genres that sticks in my craw the most. The bare fact is that I never even knew how much I disliked gangster films until I became seriously interested in film history and sat through The Godfather and Goodfellas only to find them bringing out the prude in me: they wallow in depraved, glorified violence and they are brutally sexist and they are, in the end, not particularly fun or entertaining, and it’s my personal view that they put the lives of crime they depict up as an American dream of sorts. And I know how desperately uncool (and unqualified for film reviewing) it makes me, but I am really, really not comfortable with that. And I think the whole genre or subgenre or vice is creepy and irksome.

In hindsight, maybe I appreciated the first two hours of America so much because until the final seconds of this segment, it doesn’t possess any of the conventions of its cinematic division. It plays as a sort of doomed coming-of-age story, sophisticated in characterization (though it still has all women as sexpots, which admittedly bothers me somewhat less than depicting them all as nags, bitches, or useless drones), full of excellent acting. (It’s all in the eyes; the child actors all have incredibly expressive eyes, and so does James Woods in his role; Robert De Niro, not so much.) This half is palpably felt and even lyrical at times, with appropriate injections of humor and the deliberate sheen of nostalgia. Leone remains, after a long lapse in output, an exceptionally good filmmaker; he amps up many arresting sequences thoroughout and offers a fair number of beautifully wide, vivid compositions evoking their time and place (NYC before and during prohibition) splendidly. On first viewing, the haze of it all won me over; perhaps because of my knowledge of how rudely and completely Leone undercuts his film’s virtues, I unfortunately found myself quite bored on my recent revisit.

The entire story occurs in flashback mode with an aging De Niro trying to figure out who has sent him an offer to get back into The Business. But as in so many other films, as soon as the boy in him meets the gangster in him, everything spirals out of control and into the realm of complete unbelievability. The second half of the film is ponderous and silly; all the things that are officially sanctioned by the government as being required to be in every movie of this type are there (starting with the casting of Joe Pesci — do you think even he can remember which of his roles was which?), in spades since there’s plenty of extra time. There are many pointless dialogue scenes, a fair number of dull and arbitrary conflicts, and characters with no serious purpose running in and out. It’s still at least interesting, well-mounted, and watchable, but then it crosses a line.

I’d honestly prefer to dismiss Once Upon a Time in America entirely because it’s so finally repellent and indulgent, and its story isn’t particularly compelling anyway (if anything, it plays more as a parody of modern gangster films than the critique of capitalism it means to be). But Leone’s mixture of soft-focus, shattering beauty and deliberate ugliness, the audacity of his scope and the inscrutably eccentric but glorious way he shoots everything in a manner that could be the work of absolutely no one else make it harder, even though I don’t think I have a tougher time with any scene in any movie than the rape and the aftermath here. (The gun-to-nipple shot is risible as well, but no more than Martin Scorsese’s endlessly delightful “shove a gun up her pussy” cameo in Taxi Driver.)

The original American prints of the film cut out the scene in which Robert De Niro’s Noodles rapes his childhood squeeze Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) graphically, brutally, unforgivably in the back of a limousine after a very contrived “romantic” will-you-please-fuck-me evening. I’m not joking when I say the sequence is painful to watch and essentially useless as a component of the narrative; it’s there for no apparent reason. That’s bad enough. What makes it offensive, though, is not the scene itself — at least De Niro’s behavior is, for the moment, rebuked just afterward — but the flippant attitude toward it thereafter. All McGovern does is cry, and when they run into one another years later, she actually talks to him and seems to treat him with a degree of sympathy. He fucking raped her, unpunished, you realize. And not like any cute fantasy version of rape, he raped her. The idea that any woman would somehow “see past” this or whatever is an insult to humanity in general. Fuck you for that one, Sergio. (The rape is not in the novel on which the film is based.)

Not only do Noodles’ victim and by extension the film treat him with some sort of dignity, he is our protagonist so we are expected to sympathize with him throughout, despite the fact that he does nothing to atone for his actions aside from looking slightly upset. (And I hasten to add that it’s central to my belief in cinema that a person could make a movie in which a rapist was a sympathetic character, provided the film itself was not casual or dishonest about rape, or eager to gloss over it somehow; the child killer played by Peter Lorre in M, after all, is treated as a human being without pretending he is not horribly fucked up or playing down the brutality of his actions.) By the end, we are obviously expected to feel some sense of regret or woe for the way Noodles’ life has gone. I wish he had been castrated then shot immediately after the scene in question and that the movie had simply ended there.

I can’t help wondering if anything besides basic misogyny could have allowed this horrific sequence into the picture. It comes in without warning and is never narratively justified. It is not directly or cinematically glorified, at least, but it still moves beyond creepy into truly disturbing, on the part of the director even more than the character. The rest of the film is more condescending and simply stereotypcal in its attitude toward women than outright spiteful. But it’s maddening that the only woman who dares to show some sort of individuality has to be put in her place, especially in the harshest and most soul-crushing way possible. It’s fine, Leone suggests, for girls to be independent as long as it’s in a sexual way, but the second they get a mind of their own and start to want to move beyond your own petty life, you have a full license to rape, hit, or even probably murder them, because they’re cunts and don’t deserve your respect as human beings.

And it is all Sergio Leone, I’m afraid; none of this can really be blamed on anyone else, as much as I’d like to since I enjoy his films (and I admire his centering of Once Upon a Time in the West around a strong-willed woman, though let’s not forget that it too features an explicit rape as a plot point — and most of Leone’s other films just pretend women don’t exist at all). I felt like I needed a long bath after seeing the movie. And after four hours, what was I rewarded with but possibly the stupidest ending I’ve ever seen to a film? De Niro refuses to kill James Woods in the interest of “honor” or something (I’m unclear on what a rapist who’s never really shown any remorse knows about “honor”), then he walks out and wanders down the street in full-on tragic mode. He looks back to see Woods following, equally solemn. Then, in all seriousness, a garbage truck drives by. And after it’s gone, Woods as disappeared. Cut to greatly meaningful closeup of food getting shredded in the truck. Then we return to a scene of De Niro, some years earlier, grinning broadly during an opium high, over which the credits roll. I’m not making this up. It’s actually so dumb, and so terrible, that it makes the film harder to dismiss, at least from (oh lordy) an auteurist standpoint.

Because, see, there are so many weird, incongruous bits of business here — Danny Aiello’s performance, the extremely troubling but undeniably ravishing “goddess” treatment of a young Jennifer Connelly, De Niro driving the car into the water, the fucking trash truck (!?!?!), the baked-over opium smile — that I suppose I will always feel as if this is just shy of being as strange and wonderful as …In the West. It just feels incomplete, and I don’t think any added footage in any of the seven thousand extant and rumored alternate cuts will ever change that, because there’s a fundamental flaw in the way Noodles (ugh) is arranged as an abhorrent figure but treated, filmed, even scored (by Ennio Morricone, with Cinema Paradiso levels of schmaltz) with the romance of a great epic hero. You can’t pull that off without actually revealing more about the human being in question than this does (the one thing I can say that’s kind of defensive about the misogyny here is that the male characters are no more believable and show no more complex inner life than the women), about Noodles or anyone else. Characters in Leone films are always cartoons or abstractions, but here they’re pawns in a postcard to such an extent that the film, when not offensive, borders on incoherent. I will say this much for it: even with my diminished affection for it, the first half is still more interesting than any other movie in the ’70s-’80s-’90s rash of New York gangster pictures. Just turn it off before it gets really gross, for the sake of your health.

[Originally written and posted in 2007, with a few recent additions.]

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