Champagne Charlies: Fat Moe's bone-yard boys celebrate the end of Prohibition; left to right: Cockeye (William Forsythe), Patsy (James Hayden), Max (James Woods) and Noodles (Robert De Niro) in Once Upon a Time in America (1984).
'Prohibition Dirge', which leaps to life with a dynamic drum roll and chaotic wind work. Elsewhere, there are the eerie piano and ebbing violins of'Poverty' and the happy-go-lucky 'Speakeasy'. 'Deborah's Theme' is a richly orchestrated piece reminiscent of'Jill's Theme' from Once Upon a Time in the West, again highlighting the towering, bittersweet soprano of Edda Dell'Orso (this was an unused commission for a Franco Zeffirelli film). It also inspired Shane MacGowan, when he wrote the intro to the Pogues' Christmas hit 'Fairy Tale of New York'.The ghostly, menacing pan flute of 'Cockeye's Song' is used at its best as accompaniment to Dominic's murder. The pan flute was played by Gheorghe Zamfir, who had featured in the distinctive soundtrack to Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).
On its release in the US in 1984, Once Upon a Time in America's two major flaws, its length and its sexual politics, ensured its doom. Leone had already discussed the length of the film to be released with the Ladd Company and had even tried to release it in two parts. He chopped the film down from ten hours' worth of footage, to six hours, to finally 229 minutes. Scenes that didn't make it into this final version include a conversation between Noodles and the cemetery owner, Deborah's stage performance as Cleopatra, a further conversation between Carol and Noodles in 1968 at the 'Bailey Foundation' and the original opening scene in the Chinese theatre. It was rated R after two minutes' worth of violence and sexual content were excised from the US preview in February 1984, but the producers decided to cut the film further to improve the pace. Unfortunately, the two rape scenes make the film very difficult to praise and are the worst example of misogyny in Leone's films, an aspect of his work that escalated alarmingly with Duck You Sucker and destroys Once Upon a Time in America, making Noodles an alienating, unsympathetic protagonist.
UK and US posters announced that the film was 'The Epic and Powerful Story of an Unforgettable Era', with iconic images of De Niro's face and the gang members' bodies lying in the rain. Advertising copy said, 'As boys they said they would die for each other. As men, they did'. The trailer was edited to resemble an action-packed gangster film, invoking hits like Borsalino and The Valachi Papers. 'They forged an empire built on greed, violence and betrayal,' said the voiceover. 'It ended on a mystery that refused to die.' America played at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1984 to a 15-minute standing ovation, even though De Niro was harangued by a spectator who said, 'As a woman, I feel deeply embarrassed to have witnessed it'. Critics raved about this 'uncut' 229-minute version. But in the US, the film was re-edited and redubbed against Leone's wishes and cut down to 139 minutes. Its narrative was shuffled into chronological order, beginning with the childhood scenes in 1922, progressing to the 1933 and 1968 sequences, and ending with Bailey shooting himself. The missing half-hour was mostly explanatory dialogue, but predictably the violence remained. It was eventually released stateside in June 1984. Vincent Canby in the New York Times called it 'a lazily hallucinatory epic' that had been 'edited on a roulette wheel'; Ian Christie's New York Times review began, 'From bad to worse with the Kosher Nostra'.
It bombed in the US and was re-released in October 1984 in the 229-minute version. It grossed a measly $5.3 million in the US, $2.5million from the awful initial version. In the UK it was cut by 16 seconds for violence by the British censors and rated a certificate 18, the replacement for the old X certificate (abolished in 1982). A video release in 1986 removed a further ten seconds. America was a disaster and is Leone's least profitable film. For the US network TV showing there was a 192-minute version prepared; English-language DVD versions run at 222 minutes. In fact, the slated, chronologically edited print was the first version of the film I saw, in Liverpool in December 1989. It was far better than I was expecting from reviews, then raving about the 227-minute version. Even though some of the continuity is somewhat jumpy, it is still an absorbing, visually beautiful film. In Italy C'era una Volta in America was first screened in the Barberini cinema in Rome. It was distributed in Italy by Titanus and while not in the same financial league as the 'Dollars' films and Once Upon a Time in the West, it was still hugely successful and admired in Italy and throughout Europe.
The film even won a few awards: Morricone deservedly earned a BAFTA in 1985 for Best Score; Leone and Delli Colli missed out in their respective categories. Leone and Morricone were also nominated for Golden Globes and the Italian Film Journalists Syndicate awarded Silver Ribbons to Leone, Delli Colli, Simi and Morricone, as best in their fields for the year. Unbelievably, the US promoters forgot to register Morricone's score for an Oscar; it would certainly have won an award.
The critical reappraisal America has received and its availability on video and DVD led to Grey's 'The Hoods' being republished in the nineties as 'Once Upon a Time in America'. Leone had spent nearly twenty years thinking about, planning and shooting America and the later problems in releasing the film took a terrible toll on his health; he never directed a film again and died of a heart complaint in December 1989. When asked what is his greatest artistic achievement, James Woods answers, 'It was working with Sergio Leone .it was the Everest of my life'. Many of the cast feel the same way, but America is a strange film. At some moments it is a great film, the production design and costumes are exquisite, and De Niro and Woods deliver the best performances in a remarkable cast. But there is also an ingredient in his westerns that is missing here, leaving a hollowness. For example, rather than adding to and creating atmosphere, the long Leone silences do actually slow the film down. Elizabeth McGovern reckons that the most successful aspects of the film are those dealing with the gang's childhood. Perhaps Leone was more at home in this juvenile territory, a more straightforward world, with its children's bravado more in keeping with his simple western heroes, than the modern 'real world': a dream of America, rather than the harsh reality. After all, 'once upon a time' is how fairy tales begin.
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