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.
The nostalgia of this (rising) sequence does not glamourize a victory, but rather sinks us into Noodles’ perspective. We come to believe that his violent outbursts are reflections of his tortured soul. This is fully accredited to De Niro, who never lets us all the way in, raising a poetic question mark to each of his emotions.
Noodles is a contrast to the stereotypical go-getting gangster that acts as a twisted metaphor for the American dream. He’s a damp squib that never developed the backbone to go after what he truly wanted. He desired traditional love but gained love through a toxic brotherhood. Noodle’s partner, Max (James Woods) is the archetypical gangster who can never get enough success. Together, they’re seemingly invincible as they brush past other gangs and police with ease. (In one audacious set piece the gang swap 30 babies in a hospital, which feels like A ‘Leone’ Clockwork Orange.) The theme of Brotherhood often creates a companionship we relate to and respect but Leone flips this theme on its head. Leone has his men turn on each other in an ambiguous fall that forces us into siding with one of the men, breaking our only remaining connection to the brotherhood.
It’s important to note that Leone was met with criticism for his portrayal of the women that side with the gangsters. But he never fetishizes his deviant characters’ actions, pointing out, painstakingly: this is a boys only club. However, the female characters are relatively complex when you keep in mind that they are being portrayed as Noodles sees them. This is a man who holds a melancholy mirror up to his own mythos, but Leone lets us see past Noodles…His gangsters are narcissists who only have a loyalty to themselves. It is through this uncompromising belief that he shreds another American myth, freezing the fall with a wicked smile.