‘Once Upon a Time in America’: A Butchered Film Rising Up as a Phoenix

Sergio Leone working on the set of Once Upon a Time in America. Warner Bros./Everett Collection

What was done to Sergio Leone’s 1984 epic crime drama film called Once Upon a Time in America can be honestly called nothing short of a disgrace. Premiering at the Cannes film festival, Leone’s film was greeted with a highly enthusiastic response and a standing ovation. Unfortunately, ­­when the film was supposed to be shown in the United States, a terrible decision was made: Once Upon a Time in America was cut from its 227 minutes (shown in Cannes) to only 139, resulting in a complete mess: the film lost a great deal of its magic, turning into an incomprehensible heap of missed opportunities, puzzling characters and inexplicable motivations and actions. This is why Europe and only a couple of theaters in America had the chance to enjoy Sergio Leone’s sprawling masterpiece, while around the US the shortened version was massacred by the critics. But what made the audience in Cannes give a 15-minute standing ovation? Why do we consider this movie one of the best gangster films ever produced?

Based on Harry Grey’s novel ‘The Hoods,’ Once Upon a Time in America chronicles the lives of four Jewish Ghetto youths who rise to fame and wealth by climbing the ladder in New York City’s world of organized crime. Harry Grey was the literary pseudonym of real-life retired gangster Herschel Goldberg, with whom Leone had met numerous times during the sixties and seventies so that he could really explore and become acquainted with Goldberg’s vision of America. This vision was then turned into one of the most prominent films of the eighties. With the phenomenal Ennio Morricone’s score, with first-rate performances from Robert De Niro and James Woods, with an intricate, studiously developed structure comprised out of flashbacks, dreams and memories, Leone’s film is an authentic, entertaining and ultimately exhilarating portrayal of mobster life in New York City unlike any other we’ve seen so far. It’s sad and unfair that one or two bad decisions by the production company took away the opportunity for the film to get the initial appraisal it deserved, but as these things tend to go in life, with time Once Upon a Time in America got the status its quality warranted. Sergio Leone’s has succeeded in telling a structurally innovative, emotionally haunting, visually arresting story which deals with the themes that made America the land it was back in the old days.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini & Sergio Leone’s screenplay for Once Upon a Time in America [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
“Sergio Leone died far too early, in 1989 at the age of 60. However, the seven pictures he left behind have the breadth and scope of a vast body of work. Each one of his pictures contains multitudes. Leone was, of course, the man who reinvented the western, with the Man with No Name trilogy, with Once Upon a Time in the West, and with the still underrated Duck, You Sucker. But then, in the 80s, he decided to go in another direction with an adaptation of Harry Grey’s 1952 book The Hoods, about Jewish gangsters during prohibition. It was a great event when Leone shot in New York (he also shot in Montreal and Venice), and he was making a genuine epic, an attempt to tell the story of 20th century America and the intertwined interests and development of organized crime, business and politics.

Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Sergio Leone, James Woods and Danny Aiello after the screening of Once Upon a Time in America in Cannes, 1984 (Ralph Cats/AFP/Getty Images)

Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Sergio Leone, James Woods and Danny Aiello after the screening of Once Upon a Time in America in Cannes, 1984 (Ralph Cats/AFP/Getty Images)

We all eagerly awaited this all-star picture, which we knew would be beautifully crafted and would look and feel like no other gangster picture before or since. Leone’s preferred cut was long, over four hours, and he made several painful cuts himself, bringing the picture down to three hours and forty-nine minutes. When Once Upon a Time in America opened in the United States in the summer of 1984, it was in a version that Leone disowned—the film’s intricate structure, which shifted back and forth in time, was thrown out and a lot of the film’s poetic force was lost. Later that year, we were able to see the longer cut, but there were persistent rumors of missing scenes that, we all hoped, would one day be found and re-incorporated into the movie.

At long last, materials for some of these missing sections have been found and re-inserted into the picture under the supervision of Leone’s family and surviving collaborators. The work has been completed by the magnificent team at Cineteca di Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata, and it has been wonderful to witness this enlargement of Leone’s vision, step by precious step.” —Martin Scorsese, Founder and Chair, The Film Foundation


Open YouTube Video

An interview with Sergio Leone from the pages of the June 1984 issue of American Film written by Pete Hamill. Throughout the candid interview, it’s clear filmmaking is a sacred belief to Leone who hails from a family steeped in the tradition of filmmaking. Often attributed with perfecting the spaghetti western genre with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968), Leone developed an artistic voice with a precise knack for uncovering the raw realities of the often cartoonish and glamorized American Wild West conceived by Hollywood during the 1950s. Leone confides to us about the arduous and lonely process of filmmaking throughout the 10-year process on what would be his last and arguably greatest film. Here he speaks to the sacraments of technical filmmaking and his devoted belief in the idealized American dream with the sentiment, “America is the determined negation of the Old World, the Adult World.”

 
Here’s a great press book and booklet from the 1984 Sergio Leone’s epic masterpiece [PDF1, PDF2]. Courtesy of CineFiles.

I think, to go to the bottom of it all, that the films I have made and my kind of filmmaking is a hybrid type of filmmaking—in that it isn’t American, it isn’t Italian. It really just has to do with my own ghosts and phantoms. And I have to say, in the end, it’s just my way of seeing things. An important Italian critic once gave Fistful of Dollars a very bad review when it came out. Then he became a fan of mine later. He went to the university here [Rome] with Once Upon a Time in America. We showed it to 10,000 students. And while the man was speaking that day to the students, with me present, he said, “I have to state one thing. When I gave that review about Sergio’s films, I should have taken into account that on Sergio Leone’s passport, there should not be written whether the nationality is Italian or anything else. What should be written is: ‘Nationality: Cinema.’ —Sergio Leone

Short documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone profiling the making of the film.

 
Robert De Niro talks about Sergio Leone, Once Upon A Time In America and Harry Grey’s book The Hoods.

SERGIO LEONE: THE WAY I SEE THINGS

Western towns controlled by outlaws. Cigar-chewing heroes in looming close-ups. Operatic showdowns. Throbbing music. Movie buffs know the trademark elements of the great Italian filmmaker, Sergio Leone, by heart, but the engaging documentary Sergio Leone: The Way I See Things will surely give even the most ardent fan new insights into this unique master. The maestro behind such genre epics as A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone (1929-1989) was a superb stylist who took the American Westerns he loved as a kid and transformed them into visual arias all of his own, in the process influencing such directors as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Just as fascinating as his films, Leone’s larger-than-life personality is profiled here in an illuminating journey, rich in both anecdotes and gorgeous clips from his movies. By examining Leone’s superb use of image, sound and the frame, the film reveals the magic and the rough beauty of his arid vistas and outsized characters. Actors Eli Wallach and Claudia Cardinale, directors Giuliano Montaldo and Vittorio Giacci and historian Christopher Frayling, among others, offer invaluable contributions to Giulio Reale’s exhilarating Sergio Leone: The Way I See I Things, a mesmerizing portrait that makes us look at an old master with fresh eyes. —Fernando F. Croce

 

WHEN THE ‘MYTHS’ ARE TOLD: SERGIO LEONE & FEDERICO FELLINI

The following video is a must-watch. For the most part the language barrier won’t be a problem so just relax and enjoy it. We did, immensely!

 
For further relevant information about this film, see also…

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Still photographer: Angelo Novi. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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  • Stephane Fontana
  • Ronnie Banerjee

    This was a great article with superb photographs. Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ is arguably one of the greatest films ever made; it is art in motion and an absolute masterwork of cinema. It embodies all the ingredients of a supremely grand epic: friendship, love, loyalty, betrayal, the passage of time and the mystery of memory, among many other themes, that captivate the viewer and draw them into the film’s surrealistic world.

    I created the following video tribute to the film which features Scott Tiler Schutzman (who played “Young Noodles”); it’s an interesting promo worth checking out for those who appreciate, understand and value this magnificent film:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSyMRlQbYSk

    Noodles, I slipped…