Italian director Sergio Leone was a man obsessed with America. He was best known for his grand spaghetti westerns, which reimagined the American Old West from a nihilistic Italian perspective, subverted tropes with an operatic romanticism and tough-hearted tongue in cheek, and re-invented the American cowboy as an anti-hero.
Surprisingly, Leone had never visited the United States (crafting his vision through American cinema and pulp novels whilst living through a Mussolini ruling) until around the time he first conceived his magnum opus, Once Upon a Time in America, a gangster epic that took over a decade to create, in which time Leone rejected the chance to direct The Godfather. Interested more in villainous thugs than Mario Puzo’s honourable family man-gangster, Leone chose to adapt Harry Grey’s The Hoods instead.
Once Upon a Time in America follows Jewish gangster “Noodles” (Robert De Niro) as he reflects on his life and identity in an opium-induced stupor. In it, Leone uses a non-linear structure (borrowing from film noir) to reconstruct the gangster genre’s rise and fall structure into a meditative memory piece for his character.
After establishing the stakes for an old and middle-aged Noodles in his opening, Leone whisks us away into his formative years as a child. His trademark extreme long and close shots create an air of innocence, dwarfing the children in the large New York landscape. These images are complimented by composer Ennio Morricone’s wistful score that oozes ‘sweet youth’, which creates an atmosphere where children taking on Bugzy Malone in a knife fight feels like a childish crime.