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'Once Upon a Time in America': Sergio Leone's epic tale of endearing nostalgia

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A phrase common in both children’s tales, as well as in epic cinematic stories of grandeur, ‘once upon a time’, particularly in the movies, denotes a film ready to commence a story of great magnitude. This is likely derived from Serio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, itself a definitive film of the Western genre that tied together eclectic influences from The Searchers, to The Iron Horse. Released in 1968 to the tune of the spaghetti western’s impending demise, Leone’s film became one of the last great admired stories of the genre. Sixteen years later, the director would release Once Upon a Time in America, far from a sequel to his original western, but a picture that would nonetheless reflect similar ambitions of grandeur, telling a lyrical generational tale of regret and wistful nostalgia. 

Leone’s film plays out like a sprawling, interconnected dream as if an ethereal recollection from an elderly mind who can’t quite piece each memory together. Even in the opening 15 minutes of the film, we traverse decades of time and varying viewpoints, transitioning through each one without warning and with little internal logic. It’s clearly a deliberate choice from Leone who wants to impose an intricacy to the life of prohibition-era gangster ‘Noodles’ (Robert De Niro), his life a complicated Pandora’s box soaked in pleasure but tinged with deep regret. In small transitions, such as a look in a mirror, or a march down the street, we are transported back into Noodles’ past life where we witness his ascendence from delinquent crook to full-time gangster. 

It’s an epic journey that unfolds with weighty gravitas, thanks to the graceful symphonic score from the late Ennio Morricone that underlines the epic 230-minute tale. Bringing a great momentousness to every sequence, it’s as if the pages of a dense, Homeric novel are being turned with every soothing passing of Morricone’s delicate strings. Though, it also works in contrast with Noodles’ gang’s violent actions, partaking in brutal, twisted murders to the tune of Morricone’s beautiful, reflective score. 

Seeing Noodles, Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe), and Patsy (James Hayden) grow from somewhat innocent youths to young men, certainly helps to humanise their behaviour. As a fervent lover of the film, iconic director Quentin Tarantino noted that “the weight of what they’re doing never rests completely in your heart, the fact that you walk away talking about how beautiful the film is, and how poetic the film is, and how lyrical the film is, and how moving the film is, it’s an incredible testament to Sergio Leone’s canvas.”

Leone masterfully steers Once Upon a Time in America away from the trap of genre conventions, creating a sprawling character study as opposed to a commercial gangster-flick. Floating between the fractured timelines of Noodles’ old life, we eventually navigate to the present day where the gang’s life has reached an anticlimactic close and spirits of their pasts have caught up to haunt. “We’re both getting old, all that we have left now are our memories,” Noodles’ long-lost love Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) utters in the final stages of the film, a melancholy remark that well summarises the film’s evocative tone. With every passing day Noodles’ own forgotten ‘joy’ ebbs away, left only with the regrets of yesterday. This haunting mood is illustrated by the extraordinary use of the Beatles’ sombre masterpiece ‘Yesterday’ at notable points throughout the film, a song whose own lyrics work to define the film itself: “Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be. There’s a shadow hangin’ over me…”

Sergio Leone’s final film before his death five years later is in many ways an ode to his past career. Pioneering a spaghetti western genre punctuated by violence and savage individuals, Once Upon a Time in America illustrates the personal sorrow that such a criminal life can bring, showing, in this epic tale of endearing nostalgia, how the ghosts of the past can return to possess you.