BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Jun 10th, 2003 •

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(Warner Home Video) 1984
229 Mins / Color / Rated R / Aspect Ratio1:85:1, enhanced for 16:9 widescreen TV monitors.
2 discs

During the first day’s shooting of “King Lear”, Norman Mailer, cast in the title role, accused Jean-Luc Godard of never having read the play. Godard responded, “Picasso didn’t know the color blue until he painted it.” After viewing the uncut 229 minute European version of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA on DVD, I feel like Picasso with his brush poised over a freshly painted canvas. Now I know the color blue.

The film’s source material is “The Hoods” by Harry Grey (in reality Harry Goldberg), purporting to be the true-life story of two Jewish gangsters during prohibition – Noodles and his childhood friend, Max. The narrative is almost archetypal (Noodles, in the name of friendship, becomes Max’s fall guy and loses everything), but the details – idiosyncratic and mysterious – stay in the mind. I remember seeing the paperback at check-out counters when I was a child. Leone called the author “a very humble man who touched his epoch as if he were a ghost”.

Warner Home Video’s new two disc set of Sergio Leone’s epic makes a cogent argument for reevaluating this film. The story begins and ends in 1933 at an opium den (a wild multi-layered set with brass buddhas and erotic paintings on gigantic screens) where Noodles (Robert De Niro) is hading from thes syndicate. A mob war has broken out and many of his buddies have been killed, including Max (James Woods). Noodles appears to be the only one left. He takes another draw from the long wooden pipe, and we begin to move back and forth through three different time frames – the turn of the century, 1927-33 and 1968 – in what may be memory or what may be dream. There is a sense of discovery, in particular during the childhood sequences of aspiring gangster Noodles growing up on the Lower East Side. “In dreams begin responsibilities”, Delmore Schwartz wrote. Facing responsibilities is the task Noodles is left with.

Imagine, if you can, a film with the plot of THE ROARING TWENTIES, the fragmented, detective story structure of CITIZEN KAND, styled like THE LEOPARD, with sweeping camera movements and a deeply elegiac atmosphere. Then you’ll get some idea of Leone’s ambition and accomplishment here. This film has some of the most startling action sequences I’ve ever seen (particularly a mob ambush on an abandoned waterfront dock with blood and swirling feathers everywhere), but it’s basically a love story – of love lost, that is. It’s also a story of betrayal, particularly, I think, of self-betrayal. (That’s why I find the rape scenes, although difficult to watch, dramatically valid, for in them Noodles is betraying what he has always held dear.) But also, on a very deep level, it seems to be a film about the quality of a person’s life as revealed by the quality of light.

Take one scene, for instance. It’s the early 20th century on the Lower East Side. From the window is a wintry blue light — harsh yet somehow supple, suffusing the tenement’s collective toilet as Noodles tries to read Jack London and escape from his parents’ bickering. The room is a yellowish brown and that blue light, fixed upon Noodle’s face, seems to represent a longing from within the child to escape, to strike out, to be free. The light says, there’s a world to conquer, a world in which to be. As Noodles unbuckles his belt, a pair of tzitzit appear under his shirt, a minor orthodox Jewish tradition. Seeing it impressed me. The historical detail in this film is so obsessive at times it becomes hallucinatory. At that point Peggy, the local teen harlot walks in unannounced; it is her involvement with a corrupt cop which starts Noodles on the road to mobsterdom. But that blue light is what seems to set the plot in motion.

In another scene the light is warmer, a harbinger of Spring. Deborah, the great. unconsummated love of Noodles’ life, (played by a young Jennifer Connelly and as an adult by Elizabeth McGovern) walks along what looks like Berry Street in Willamsburg (a stand-in for the Lower East Side). Leave it to Leone to capture the flat perspective of Brooklyn streets so they seem to extend to the Great Plains. It’s Passover Eve. There’s a hazy azure coming off the East River which cloaks Deborah’s hair in a shimmering softness as she turns the corner to be surrounded by men covered in white prayer shawls, the camera craning upward to the rhythm of Morricone’s amazing score. (The music, with pan pipes by Gheorghe Zamfir, is reason enough for rushing out and buying this disc.) Hidden behind the reflective surface of a car’s windshield, Noodles watches Deborah glide by, the mirror-like image emphasizing the imaginary aspect of what he is seeing. But once again, we’re left with the light, a lyricism yet also a steeliness that sums up Deborah’s personality.

Then there’s Fat Moe’s, the headquarters of Noodles’ gang. Through the course of the film this set becomes another character as it evolves from a Dairy restaurant to a Deli to a Speakeasy and finally a seedy bar with a faded Jewish star on the window still mutely witnessing everything. It’s1968, and De Niro, playing an old man, limps into the restaurant. He’s been gone for 35 years, now back to find out what happened to his dead friends and the money that’s vanished. The mystery and determination of Noodles’ search is what carries us, narratively, through the film. But the first thing he does is go to the space where he used to watch Deborah dance as a child. Even though it’s the dead of night, a bright light, like the beam of a movie projector, is coming from that chink in the wall. Sorry, but I must quote Delmore Schwartz again “The long arm of light crossing the darkness and spinning, my eyes fixed on the screen.” The camera moves up along with Noodles and suddenly, blam!, we’re back at the turn of the century. The shot is a paraphrase of Anthony Perkins peeping at Janet Leigh in “Psycho” mated with a matte of the young Deborah that seems out of D.W. Griffith’s TRUE HEART SUSIE, another example of how Leone synthesizes all of American cinema in this film.

I can’t begin to describe De Niro’s performance here. It has subtlety and heft and an extraordinary precision for expressing that which seems impossible to express. This is mostly done in the realm of pure movement, like his lumbering tenderness in the darkness watching a vision of the young Deborah at Fat Moe’s, or the way he pauses tableau-like, silent yet pervasive, before lighting a cigarette. His line readings and gestures are of a piece, creating a parallel aesthetic to Leone’s evocative camera movements. This is a performance that has mostly been ignored, possibly because it was generally unavailable. I encourage you to become familiar with it. There is also James Woods, of course, playing Max, Noodles’ great friend, who may even be more tender than De Niro in his toughness, and is able to show very succinctly the romance that lies at the core of this story. His comments in the documentary on the making of the film are wonderful and well worth the price of the disc, particularly a story in which Leone conjured up a storm at exactly the right moment in the middle of a shot.

All in all, this disc has an extraordinary transfer. The image is crisp, with no digital grain or shimmers. Leone in an interview said that Italian Technicolor used a color density process so the hues of each time sequence looked different. That color differentiation comes across very clearly here. The depth of field is incredible. The color matches or may even be better than what I remember seeing in a theatre. I’ve talked about the blues, but there’re also yellows and reds and whites, the maroon of a car hood, the haze of a summer morning and the clarity of a winter’s dusk, all presented impeccably on this disc. The presentation is also impeccable, with an RAI documentary on the making of the film, an interesting commentary by Richard Schickel that helps clear up the plot confusions and contains lots of juicy anecdotes (although his interpretation of the last 15 minutes I find kind of meshugge). Also, the photo galley is fun, with period photographs by Jacob Riis and others intercut with production stills that look exactly the same. My favorite is a shot of De Niro in the opium den with a bare chested Leone sitting cross-legged beside him resembling an Italianate Buddha.

Commentary by Richard Schickel.
Excerpt from Documentary “Once Upon A Time Sergio Leone”.
Stills gallery: “PhotographicMemories”.

Robert De Niro
James Woods
Joe Pesci
Elizabeth McGovern
Burt Young
Tuesday Weld
Treat Williams

Directed by Sergio Leone.
Screenplay by Sergio Leone, Leonardo Benvenuti,
Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini.
Music by Ennio Morricone.
Photography by Tonino Delli Colli.
Produced by Arnon Milchan.

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