I’ve been a fan of Sergio Leone’s films for many years. I think he’s one of the most influential directors of all time, although probably not in ways that he would have imagined. But just watch any sitcom. Sooner or later, there’ll be a scene where two of the characters confront each other. Stirring music will swell up, and the camera will zoom in for close-ups of their eyes narrowing. It’s the classic Leone-staged final gunfight, played for laughs. I’m convinced that it’s been done so many times it’s become part of filmmaking grammar, and some directors probably don’t even know anymore who they’re paying homage to when they shoot a scene like that.
My favorite Leone film, and one of my favorite films, period, is ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Somehow, though, I never got around to watching the similarly-titled ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, one of Leone’s last projects from the Eighties. We watched it last night. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the epic (three and a half hours!) story of several Jewish boys from New York who grow up to be mobsters. The story jumps around in time from the Twenties to the end of Prohibition in the Thirties to the late Sixties, when one of the boys (Robert DeNiro as an adult) returns from a long exile to confront some ghosts from his past, and thereby trigger a series of flashbacks.
There’s no question this is a well-made film. The acting is good, the script strikes plenty of suitably operatic notes, and the photography is beautiful. Most of the Leone touches are there: the complex plot; the long, lingering, sometimes almost dialogue-free scenes; the frequent close-ups; the sweeping Ennio Morricone musical score; and the occasional bits of dark humor. It’s a violent, gritty film, befitting the subject matter.
But even though I found much to admire in this movie, ultimately I was a little disappointed in it. I felt like it was building up to something that never quite came together and didn’t care for the ending at all. I know it’s probably unfair to compare this film to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, but that movie built up to something and really delivered. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, not so much. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s worth watching. I doubt if I’ll ever revisit it, though, as I do on a regular basis with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
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