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Once Upon A Time In America

I still can't decide if Once Upon a Time in America is better than Once Upon a Time in the West. Even though Once Upon a Time in America is stylistically better, thematically better, and has better actors, Once Upon a Time in the West is the perfect Western, indeed the best Western I can imagine it being possible to make. I'm just not sure if Once Upon a Time in America is the perfect gangster movie, although it is certainly my favorite.

A lot of people just do not like this movie. People I think (or used to think) had good taste think the movie is too long, too dry, and basically just a big waste of time. But some people who have seen it agree with my view that it is an enormously rich and rewarding film. The problem is that the film is almost four hours long, and can be somewhat confusing with its layers of flashbacks. However, the full story of the film is a large one, and Leone's style is so operatic at this point that it takes much longer than the plot demands. There are many slow crane shots of various streets in New York's lower east side, and many awkward silences and pauses where nothing is physically happening. The action, however, does not seem slow to me. None of Leone's movies seem slow. Leone keeps everything moving quite nicely, yet he pauses to establish the mood with, for example, a crane shot of the bustling New York street, or a scene where Noodles stirs his coffee for a couple minutes, letting the mood become extremely uncomfortable.

None of Sergio Leone's Western characters seem to have much emotion in any of his movies. There is emotion, but it tends to be emotion that is extremely repressed, hidden beneath a calm, tough exterior. This film is different. Noodles (Robert de Niro) does not seem to have any emotions, extremely odd for the protagonist of a movie. When Noodles comes home and visits Fat Moe after 35 years away, his first words after seeing Moe are "I brought you back the key to your clock". There is a reason for Noodles loss of affect, as the psychologists call it. His emotion has been buried under the memory of having inadvertently killed his best friends, his soul has clearly died. After meeting Max (James Woods) as a kid, Noodles, Max, Patsy, and Cockeye form a gang. After spending most of his childhood in jail for avenging the death of a friend, Noodles rejoins Max and the gang, to find Max starting an ambitious climb to the top of the organized crime ladder. Eventually, Max becomes too ambitious, and after prohibition is repealed, seeks to rob the Federal Reserve. To stop him from an obviously suicidal heist, Noodles turns Max in. However, Max and the rest of the gang get into a shoot-out with the police, and Noodles soon hears of the death of Max, Patsy and Cockeye. Noodles can't stop thinking about the call he made that killed his best friends, and soon has to flee New York because the crime syndicate he worked for now is trying to kill him. Thirty-five years later, he is still haunted by the memories of his dead friends. He is mysteriously summoned to New York by an unknown person for unknown reasons, and soon discovers a trail of clues that will lead to a great revelation. At the end, there is the final smile by Noodles, doped up on opium, the only time in the movie that he looks completely happy and at peace. Even though this is an earlier Noodles, this is Leone's way of depicting Noodle's return to normality after 35 years of grief. It is the perfect conclusion to this movie.

This is a story of a man at war with himself. Noodles is criminal, savage, ruthless, and is sexually animalistic (as demonstrated in the various raping scenes). Yet he is also tender, loving, down-to-earth, and honorable. The center of this conflict is Deborah, who loves Noodles, and tries to turn him away from his criminal side. Deborah is the one pure thing in his life, the one thing that he loves, and when she is about to leave for an acting career, Noodles rapes her. He rapes her because he is mad at her, he is confused, and realizes that this is probably the last time he will ever see her, so he must have sex with now or never. Besides, that is Noodle's instinct, and his sudden moves on Deborah would be quite acceptable with the kind of girl he normally sees. Perhaps he rapes her because he sees in her a purity that he can never have, tries to take it and in the process destroys it. When Noodles' realizes what he has done, he starts on a slow recovery process, gradually becoming less and less criminal, which forces the rift with Max, who is determined to build a huge organized crime empire. When Max and the others are dead, and Noodles flees New York, his bad side has vanished. And when he comes back, he is a changed man.

The reason that I feel this is the best gangster movie is because none have the combination of style and substance that this films brings. It's not just about gangsters, its a look inside the soul of Noodles. Robert de Niro gives such a wonderful understated performance that the character of Noodles sticks with you. I can still remember Noodles just by a certain look in de Niro's eyes, a sort of calm depression, a look that has the weariness of the world in it. This is a movie where the mood of repressed sadness will linger long after the film has ended. Very few films are as powerful.