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Once Upon A Time In America (1984) - (Movies To See Before You Die - Thriller)

23 Jul, 2015 | Movies To See Before You Die / Thrillers

Before stating the exceptional merits of this epic project, it first needs to be explained why the reputed critic Roger Ebert called this magnificent creation ‘a murdered movie’ in his four star review written at the time of its release.
Directed by Sergio Leone as his last film, the maestro actually filmed the footage going into 6-7 hours and had an idea of releasing it as a two part film that was rejected by the producers right away (as per IMDB). Further though Leone wanted it to be a 250-265 minutes long film including all the key scenes edited together, the final version remained a 229 minute movie leaving out more than 40 minutes of footage he really wished to be included making the desired impact.
However, the editing process didn’t stop here with the 229 minutes version being premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, since post the festival a severely (rather brutally) trimmed 144 minutes version was officially released for the public in America edited by the producers against the wishes of its director. So where the European and international audience saw a 229 minutes film, Americans were made to see the 144 minutes shorter version that strangely even had a changed script progression, editing all the flashbacks and ‘back & forth’ sequences into a chronological order (with a different ending too) that simply took away the real magic of the film and its actual charm. As a result the ‘cruel shortening act’ got hugely criticized by all and the film flopped at the box office impressing none. It was later also not considered for the OSCARS and received no nominations, not even in the musical score section (for reportedly lack of proper paperwork) that is now regarded as one of the best background music in movies of this particular genre till date.
After (rightly) realizing the mistake, the film was soon released in home video/DVD market with the original close to four hour version that deservingly found both appreciation and commercial success together as expected. But in 2011-12, it was again re-created/restored by adding all the deleted scenes as sequenced by Leone and a 251 minutes long version was premiered at 2012 Cannes film festival (though they wished to present even longer 269 minute film that couldn’t be done due to certain rights issues). So finally now we have a ‘Director’s Cut’ version of 251 minutes released on DVD that essentially needs to be seen in order to understand what was originally visualized by the director and how it went through various unapproved transformations following a faulty vision.
Sharing my personal experience, I had earlier watched the shorter version and a few sequences from the 229 minutes edit many years back and found it great. Whereas witnessing the 251 minutes version recently, I had to admit that the ‘new’ film offered a completely different experience much better than the earlier ones and certainly deserves to be rated as a not to be missed passionate classic by all means.
Now coming to the creation itself, as per many artists and critics this is Sergio Leone’s finest work that should have got a much better release and reception without any unrequired interference in the final edits by the production house. But having said that, it’s not going to be an easy watch for many with a pretty long duration of 4 hours and 11 minutes with a few slow sequences too where we just have the brilliantly scored background music enhancing the visual narration with minimum spoken dialogues as such. So where for the keen students of cinema this would turn out to be a sheer gem, for the regular viewers it might not be a hugely entertaining venture following a set pattern of a gangster classic asking for your four long hours at a stretch.
Largely based on real life gangster Harry Grey's novel ‘The Hoods’ with semi-autobiographical tones, it’s a story moving through five decades with a substantial focus on childhood days of four gangsters of New York city. Having many Oscar nominated and winner actors in its cast ensemble, OUATIA features one of the best performances of Robert De Niro leading the show as Noodles along with Elizabeth McGovern as Deborah and James Wood as Max.
The film has its own share of nudity with few obscene scenes forming an essential part of its descriptive screenplay. And at times one really has to concentrate hard to know what exactly is happening on the screen taking the story forward. Yet after going through the entire glorious effort having a remarkable art direction with terrific detailing of those times and events ending on a hard hitting note you surely feel like having seen a sheer masterpiece in terms of filmmaking, direction and performances reminding you of the cult THE GODFATHER series due to the similar theme. Interestingly, (as quoted in IMDB) Sergio Leone had earlier refused to direct the first part of THE GODFATHER and probably this was his way of overcoming the deep regret as it seems.
Anyway, concluding it with an honest statement, I am recommending this film for the die-hard cinema lovers alone, exclusively for these five outstanding merits of the classic given below.
1. It has an exceptional opening 15-20 minutes wherein you have very few dialogues and only background score slowly guiding you through the unclear progression beautifully.
2. Within these opening moments there is a continuous ringing of phone moving into various sequences as if its ringing in the subconscious of a person. And believe it or not, the phone actually keeps ringing for more than 20 times cutting through the silence like a sword.
3. Watch out for ‘A Frisbee’ coming in on the screen just to represent a change in times, conceived superbly.
4. Look out for the hilarious baby-switching scene in the middle that has been shot really well. And it truly scares you like hell thinking about the outcome in the times when there was no DNA test available to know the actual father.
5. The most intriguing scene in the film remains the meeting of Noodles with Deborah after decades (of a brutal rape), when Deborah is taking off her make-up in the green room, calmly talking with Noodles looking into the mirror. And I would like to rate it as one of the best intense sequences ever conceived, depicting the distance between two wounded souls when they accidentally meet again after a few decades.
6. Lastly Sergio Leone plays his final ace in the climax sequence that keeps you guessing with more than one possible conclusion taking the film to another level altogether.
But remember, this can all be found only in the longer version of the film, preferably the ‘Director’s Cut’ version of 251 minutes. So don’t dare compromise with anything shorter ruining your own experience of watching many maestros at work together led by Sergio Leone.

Tags : Once Upon A Time In America (1984), Movies To See Before You Die, Classic Thriller, Not to be missed movies list by Bobby Sing at bobbytalkscinema.com, Must Watch Movies, Exceptional Gangster Movies, Worth Watching Films list at BTC
23 Jul 2015 / Comment ( 2 )
Aditya Savnal

Excellent article. One of the best movies to be ever made. A filmmaking triumph on various levels. God bless Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone and every other crew member who worked on this classic. And also Martin Scorsese and others who restored and gave Leone\'s film the dignity and respect it truly deserves. When will our filmmakers learn to be selfless like this and respect each others\' work.


Bobby Sing

Thanks for appreciating the article Aditya and for inspiring me to watch it again in the extended version too after many years.


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