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CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

Directed by: Sergio Leone

Produced by: Arnon Milchan

Screenplay by: Sergio Leone, Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini

Based on: The Hoods by Harry Grey

Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, William Forsythe, Jennifer Connelly, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, William Forsythe, Richard Bright, James Hayden, Brian Bloom, William Forsythe, Adrian Curran, Darlanne Fluegel. Larry Rapp, Mike Monetti, Richard Foronji, Robert Harper, Dutch Miller, Gerard Murphy, Amy Ryder, Julie Cohen etc.  

Music: Ennio Morricone

Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli


***CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS***



If you were, like me, thoroughly absorbed by Martin Scorsese’s recent directorial gangster epic, The Irishman (2019), you should definitely check out another incredible gangster drama, Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It is directed by acclaimed Italian filmmaker, Sergio Leone, he of “Spaghetti Western” fame. Indeed, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), was the first feature film he’d made since A Fistful of Dynamite (1971). Sadly, it was to be his final film.

With a director’s cut running at a behemoth 250 minutes and original theatrical release lasting 229 minutes, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is certainly a marathon viewing experience and fitting epitaph to Leone’s cinematic craft. Yet, the film rarely feels over-long or slow because there are so many memorable scenes, fascinatingly complex characterisations, incredible intrigue and enough narrative density present to satisfy any audience member with the patience to let it absorb you. Structurally, the film is epic in nature too as it cross-cuts between three, arguably four, separate timelines in: 1918, the 1920’s, the 1930’s and 1968. Interestingly, I watched it via Amazon Prime in two sittings and is so long even the original ‘Intermission’ card remains.



Leone and his amazing production cast and crew took almost a year to film Once Upon A Time in America (1984). It’s reported to have had somewhere between eight to ten hours of footage on completion. He originally wanted to release it as a two-part epic, but the studio insisted it was distributed as one film. The almost-four hour theatrical release was received to great critical acclaim in Europe, however, a severely chopped down 139-minute version was put out in America. It was a critical and box office bomb. American critics however, lauded the European version, lamenting the non-release of Leone’s full cinematic vision.

For a filmmaker who was drawn to stories set in the America, Leone would generally film in European studios and locations. While some exteriors for Once Upon A Time in America (1984) were shot on location in Florida and New York, many of the interiors were recreated in Rome’s Cinecitta. Furthermore, a Manhattan restaurant was built in Venice, and incredibly, Grand Central Station was rendered at part of the Gare du Nord in Paris. Having said that, Once Upon A Time in America (1984), is so carefully and exquisitely designed and filmed, you would not notice. While possessing more than an air of European arthouse sensibilities, the film, based on a novel called The Hoods, represents Leone’s and his co-screenwriter’s tarnished vision of the American dream. Most significantly is the theme of a loss of innocence. 1920’s New York is presented through the eyes of these Jewish working-class children, many of them sons and daughter of migrants from Europe. These are tough times and the story explores the collision between young innocence and adult corruption by society and humanity. Once Upon A Time in America (1984) is also a story about friendship, loyalty, passion and crime.



The narrative revolves around the lives of young gang of Jewish friends growing up in Brooklyn called: Noodles, Max, Patsy, Cockeye and little Dominic. It’s majestic storytelling of the highest quality as we flit between past, present, now and future. Robert DeNiro’s older Noodles reminisces both from 1930 and 1968. There is a sense that he may be projecting from the hazy and drug-addled glow of an opium den. That is open to interpretation though. Thematically, the framework hangs a history of childhood friendships, juxtaposing it with the same people as adults and their victories, losses and betrayals. Further themes include: love, lust, greed, crime, broken relationships, Prohibition, union corruption; as well as focusing on the rise of mobsters in American society.

Noodles as portrayed by an imperious Robert DeNiro is calm on the outside, however, his often-rash actions show him as impetuous, emotional and wild on the inside. James Woods’ Max is much more careful, calculating and ice-cold in his business. But the two forge a friendship as teenagers which continues in adulthood. Their childhood gang subsequently becomes a renowned bootlegging and criminal outfit. Leone does not ask us to like or find sympathy for the characters, but rather respect that they are a product of a ruthless era. Sure, they could have got day jobs, but they decide to become criminals and very successful they are too. Even after Noodles gets out of jail for killing a rival, Max has saved a place for him in their illegal liquor trades. Only later does the true deception occur. Ultimately, while their stories are incredibly compelling, these men are violent lawbreakers who spill blood, bribe, threaten, kill and rape, all in an attempt to rise up the ladder of the American capitalist system.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the story, but safe to say the cast in this classic film are amazing. Along with DeNiro and Woods’ brutally convincing performances a whole host of young and older actors are directed beautifully by Leone’s careful hand. The standouts for me are Jennifer Connelly in a very early role. She portrays the younger Deborah, while Elizabeth McGovern is the older version of the same character. Connelly is a picture of angelic innocence and Noodles is smitten with her from the beginning. It’s sad therefore that when the adult Noodles’ is rejected by Deborah, his reaction is both toxic and unforgiveable.



Undeniably, sex and violence are powerful features in Once Upon A Time in America (1984). Sex especially is rarely, if at all, romantic or part of loving relationship. There are two brutal rape scenes in the adult years. Even when they are kids the character of younger Peggy is shown to use her promiscuity as a weapon to blackmail a police officer. There are some tender moments though, notably during the scene where young Patsy seeks to lose his virginity with Peggy. Her payment would be a cream cake, but Brian eats the cake and saves his innocence. Yet such scenes are fleeting as mob rule, violent robberies, fiery death and murder ultimately dominate the character’s bloody existences.

As I say, the actors all give memorable performances and the supporting cast including the likes of Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Tuesday Weld and Joe Pesci are extremely strong too. A special mention to James Hayden who portrays the older Patsy. He doesn’t have the most dialogue compared to the characters of Max and Noodles; however, he has a quiet power which steals many scenes via strength of personality. The fact that Hayden died of a heroin overdose, in 1983, after completing filming only adds to the cult of tragedy. Dead at 30 years of age, James Hayden never got to see any completed version of Once Upon A Time in America (1984).

Given this review is getting near epic proportions itself I will begin to wrap up by heaping praise on the incredible production design. The costumes, locations, vehicles, props and era are slavishly and beautifully recreated. So much so you can almost smell the smoke as it drifts up from the Brooklyn streets. Moreover, the film is superbly photographed by Tonino Delli Colli. The music! I haven’t even mentioned the sumptuous score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. His score is a masterful symphony of haunting laments for loss of love, friendship, loyalty and life. Much indeed like Once Upon A Time in America (1984) itself, as a whole. In conclusion, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so in the knowledge that Sergio Leone has transplanted that same brutally elegant vision of the Wild West to the American gangster genre with unforgettable emotional resonance and power.


CULT FILM REVIEW – VIDEODROME (1983)

CULT FILM REVIEW – VIDEODROME (1983)

Written and directed by: David Cronenberg

Produced by: Claude Herroux, Pierre David, Victor Solnicki

Cast: James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Les Carlson, Jack Creley, Peter Divorsky etc.

Music: Howard Shore

***CONTAINS SPOILERS***



With the lack of cinema-going action, I am now looking at building other review ideas and articles into my blog. I have regular new release reviews, classic film reviews, great ensemble casts and under-rated film reviews. I suppose that’s enough really, but there are some films that don’t quite fit these categories and they are cult movies. How does one define a cult film? It could have been a box-office bomb or be a no-budget gem, be transgressive or have controversial subject matter. Conversely, it could be a video nasty or banned or even an ultra-arthouse film which defies classical filmmaking conventions. More importantly, I do not have to actually like the film for it to qualify as a cult film. It could be a difficult film I am evaluating or re-evaluating from a fan or academic perspective. Lastly, it could just simply be a film that is uncategorizable or so bad it’s bad or so bad it’s good.

My first review in this category is David Cronenberg’s body-horror film, Videodrome (1983). Now, it may fit the specific rules of an under-rated classic laid down in previous articles, however, Videodrome (1983) is not necessarily a film I love or believe is a classic. It is a remarkably original narrative descent into the hellish and surreal world of demented psychological snuff television. It contains amazing practical special effects by the legend Rick Baker, yet, having re-watched it last week I cannot say it’s a film one can enjoy from an entertainment perspective. Don’t get me wrong, David Cronenberg is a true auteur and genius filmmaker, it’s just Videodrome (1983) is a hallucinatory and disturbing nightmare of a film that works outside the boundaries of usual image systems and narrative conventions. Basically, it’s more a powerful set of concepts and scenarios rather than a simple and satisfying story.

The story opens with anti-heroic, Max Renn (James Woods) as president of CIVIC-TV, seeking new content for his Toronto-based TV channel. Despite Woods’ charisma as an actor he is an expert at playing dominant alpha male types who challenge the audiences’ empathy. He portrays Max with a sleazy charm hunting for, what one may consider, soft-pornographic shows for his station. He’s basically an addict looking to push the walls of taste for his sex-hungry viewers. Max then discovers a channel, via a grainy satellite feed, called Videodrome. It shows unfiltered torture and sexual aggression, and Max becomes determined to tap into that market. At the same time, he begins a sado-masochistic sexual relationship with a radio host, Nikki Brand (Deborah Harry). Soon, these two intense narrative strands entwine and threaten Max’s mind, body and very existence.



Videodrome (1983) is a highly intelligent shocker which explores the nature of television violence, notions of taste and censorship, fears of technological programming, and the mental damage caused by over-exposure to violent pornography. It is an extremely psychologically and physically graphic film to watch. Nevertheless, it is also full of incredible imagery involving on-screen murder, Renn being swallowed by his TV; and also literally transforming into a human video cassette player. While an audience may not like Max Renn as a person, his journey is one that grips with magnetic shock and disgust. As he gets ever closer to the Videodrome channel his downward spiral plays out like a demented morality story, with Max representing the journey of those audience members who lose themselves in the illusory realities of television product. As he begins to lose touch with reality, Max experiences a complete lack of control over his mind and desires, all seemingly controlled by a heinous corporation led by insidious suit, Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson).

Incredibly, David Cronenberg apparently turned down directing The Return of the Jedi (1983) to write and direct this more personal vision of cinema. Could there be two more different films? Nonetheless, while it may not be a film I can easily recommend to those of a sensitive disposition or those who like their horror to have tidy conclusions, Videodrome (1983), retains its relevance and power to this day as a shocking critique of modern media. Hence qualifying it as a cult horror film which pushes all the wrong buttons in the right way.