Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Written by Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, and Sergio Leone
Directed by Sergio Leone
Fairy tales are lovely things. They provide us with simple explanations for how the world works, little comforts before we fall asleep, ready to dream of all the beautiful things to come. The final shot of Once Upon Time in America shows its central character, Noodles (Robert DeNiro), lying down beneath a thin sheet as he’s about to be served opium in a den in 1933. The last thing we see is his confident smile that everything will work out. He might be down on his luck, but he did a “good” thing, which makes it alright. The viewer, having made their way through this 4+ hour runtime, knows better. We have seen the beautiful and horrible things that have been and are to come for Noodles, and that smile cuts through us. It doesn’t symbolize joy; it represents a profound tragic ignorance and decades of pain & confusion to come.
Sergio Leone’s final film, Once Upon a Time in America, is his only gangster movie, based on the novel The Hoods, which he’d been trying to adapt since the 1960s. Told across three points in time (1918, 1933, and 1968), we follow David “Noodles” Aaronson, a Jewish-American boy who forms a street gang with his friends, spends over a decade in prison, gets out to find his friends have built something more significant, and then loses it all by the time he’s an old man. This is not the story of a good person or someone who didn’t deserve to have it all taken away. Noodles is a horrible person, a vulgar brute & rapist, he deserves to lose, but that doesn’t make the trajectory of his life less tragic or painful to watch. Leone understands that every violent monster was a baby, a child once and that we don’t have to praise them, but we do need to understand them. If we hope to make a world where children are not ground up into these kinds of base killers, we need to know how they get there. No one is born evil.
The most critical relationship in Noodles’s life is with Max (James Woods). The two meet as boys (played by Scott Tiler and Rusty Jacobs in 1918). The movie’s central love story is between these two characters, and you can feel the hunger grow between them as time passes. There’s an intense scene of the two as adults poolside, their respective molls lounging behind them. Noodles and Max face each other, and Max talks intensely about his plans for an upcoming robbery, emphasizing how this will allow him and Noodles to be free. There’s no thought or mention of the women they are with because they are disposable. Their true loves are each other, and all their passions lie in their bond. They fuck women, but they love each other. This doesn’t excuse how we see them treat women, but it is essential to understand what happens between these two men.
But let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Let’s talk about Deborah. As a young girl, Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) is the object of Noodle’s fantasies. There’s a hole in the bathroom wall of her family’s deli where Noodles will watch her practice her ballet dancing. She is keenly aware that he is watching and playfully teases him, a game of young love going back and forth. When Noodles finally tries to talk to her about how he feels, it’s incoherent. Deborah stops him. She lays out that she could never be with someone who is ultimately a two-bit thug, that Noodles has chosen a life for himself that she can’t live with, and so they will never be anything. She’s entirely correct; women who end up with men like Noodles don’t have pristine life stories; they always end in tragedy one way or the other.
Over a decade later, Noodles is released after murdering a cop and reunited with his old pals. Deborah is also there, and we are unsure if something will be rekindled between them. However, before they have their beautiful moment under the moonlight, Noodles takes part in a diamond robbery aided in part by Carol (Tuesday Weld), a sex worker who also works in the jewelers where the diamonds are held. The gang has to convince the jeweler that Carol is not in on the heist, so Noodles rapes her to make sure the story is “believed.” It’s a shocking moment but not filmed in a way that betrays Leone’s own perspective. He just films the moment and lets us sit with that. It’s never directly addressed by anyone in the scene or even Carol. Later, she shows up as Max’s moll, yet she and Noodles never talk about the rape. That’s important to note as we go back to talk about Deborah.
Noodles and Deborah go on a lavish date, and she talks about her dreams of going to Hollywood and becoming a famous performer. They sit by a river under the moonlight as Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous score plays. I was watching this in complete awe of the beauty Leone could present on the screen. This felt like two human beings connecting, a love being born; this was something good in Noodles’ life. But Leone is not a fool. It’s in his title, “Once Upon a Time.” Life is a fairy tale, a falsehood, a pose obscuring America’s nasty truth.
On the limousine ride home, Noodles brutally rapes Deborah. It’s just a kiss, an embrace, but then, like an animal, he just savages her. We are made to sit through the scene absent that beautiful score, just the sounds of Noodles’ heavy breathing and Deborah’s screams and cries in protest. The car stops, Noodles exits, lights a cigarette. We know he knows he’s a fucked up person, but it’s too late. He destroyed whatever beauty had existed between them. Noodles offers the driver cash to drive Deborah home, and the man rejects the money but takes her away regardless. Noodles continues his late night by seeking a brothel and bedding down for the night with a sex worker whom he lets tag along for a while. Viewers with good memories will note this is the same woman murdered in the film’s opening scene as the mob is hunting for Noodles.
When Morricone’s score returns, it doesn’t hit us with the same sense of beauty; this time, it’s a mournful tragedy. It’s a beautiful note played against the ugliest of tableaus that evokes a sense of painful sadness and sorrow. As Noodles’ life unravels further, as his plans to protect Max seemingly fail to happen, he retreats further into confusion. How he’d thought you lived life to be a success isn’t working out. Growing up, he’d seen that you would eventually get to the top if you brutalized and bullied your way along. That’s the way the other gangs operated. Hell, the police functioned practically the same. Manipulating a cop is how the crew got things off the ground in 1918 in the first place.
If you are an American, as I am (however, living outside of the country), you are subject to a very coercive & effective system of propaganda from the moment of your birth. The messages about society and individuality are blasted into your brain every waking moment, from what you see in the news to the emphasis on “merit-based” success and bootstrap ideology, devotion & adherence to clearly broken institutions. If you just fuck over enough people, you, too, can be a winner! You see it in the praise of billionaires as “financial geniuses” rather than lucky-by-birth, duplicitous exploiters. The worst I’ve seen, especially as a teacher, is how this system of social education affects immigrants. So many Southeast Asian and Latine immigrants guzzle down these lies because they are so desperate to assimilate, and this “grindset” is how society appears to “function.” The country is a meat grinder, and its citizens are divided into two class-centric groups: the wealthy, turning the crank, and the rest of us, who get turned into dog food. The tragedy is that we future cans of Alpo are so effectively convinced to turn on each other, fighting to be the first one at the top of a pile of corpses.
Noodles is an objectively abhorrent character, and his rape of Deborah cements his status. I could not forgive him, but I still ached at that final scene. Leone isn’t going to just write people off as nothing; the tragedy comes from those childhood years when the movie is filmed with this sense of awe about New York City, the feeling that something magical could happen, that is the fairy tale of this story. The further we move along through time, the less pretty things become; even the lighting becomes darker, more noir-ish. Leone tells us the story of how immigrants got caught up in the fantasy of this time and how it destroyed them in the end. All the money, the violence, and the women you could fuck, whether they wanted it or not, amounts to nothing. You just hurt people struggling just like you, and it got you nowhere. You cannot argue that Noodles, Max, and friends are bootlickers. They rightfully hate cops, but they are too blinded to see that the path they’ve chosen instead doesn’t end with them coming out any better than those who stringently follow the system. In fact, organized crime was made a part of the system. The police are state-sponsored organized crime; the mob is an independent contractor.
I’ve seen some reviews on Twitter and Letterboxd where it’s clear the person did not get what Leone was doing here. They are so fixated on the act of rape that they fail to understand why it is in the movie. Leone was as mad as they were about Noodles raping Deborah. People who like this movie feel the same anger. However, you have to understand this is a piece of art and the presentation of a criminal act in art is not an endorsement of the action. You can tell Leone finds nothing beautiful about it in how he films it. A subset of Americans is increasingly demanding puritanical art obscuring our lives’ cruel truth. I don’t fault anyone for wanting to indulge in fantasy. Hell, the majority of what’s playing in cineplexes across the country is escapist garbage that either has no connection to what people are experiencing in their material reality or pieces of poorly hidden propaganda that seek to re-instill conformity in the masses. They may present diverse faces, but the themes and intent of the art are still as sinister and nasty as ever.
Once Upon a Time in America is a better film in its portrayal of organized crime than The Godfather and the gangster movies it inspired. I don’t dislike The Godfather. It is one of the best movies ever made, but so is this. Leone’s final film is a tragic romance, deconstructing the dense myths America built up about these criminal figures. He is saying that if you live by these principles, you will die a friendless, miserable, old piece of shit. No one in the movie gets a happy ending. Hell, one of the last times we see a central character are his limbs getting ground up in a trash compactor. If you walk away thinking Leone doesn’t view these characters as harshly as you, then it speaks to a profound lack of literacy in the culture than it does the filmmaker’s work. This picture is a condemnation of America, shared through tears and a sense that it didn’t have to be like this. These children didn’t need to become these broken old men. But, they just followed the few paths before them as immigrants in a country that has always harbored a seething hatred for new arrivals while assigning themselves some sort of divine right to exist in the space. Once Upon in a Time in America should linger with you, it should be something you cannot get out of your head, and the outcome of that contemplation should be on ways we can make a world where children do not get locked into suicidal lives before they get a chance to understand who they are and could be.