Monday, July 12, 2010


Sergio Leone's Final Masterpiece?

Sergio Leone's final 1984 film, Once Upon a Time in America, was a 227-minute epic almost four-hours in length. The original script cut was over five hours long, but the producers refused to release it. When it came to the United States, it was cut down to 144 minutes--a cut that broke Leone's heart, and he never made another film again.

Many assert that the European 3¾-hour cut was a masterpiece, superior by far to the reorganized and heavily trimmed American cut that so upset Leone. I've seen parts of the American cut, and I must admit that the R-rated U.S. release (two rape scenes had to be edited, for example, to secure the rating) is far, far inferior to the final cut that was released in Europe.

When filming Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone read a novel called The Hoods, about the rise of American organized crime. This inspired him to create a trilogy of films exploring this topic, and actually turned down an offer to direct The Godfather in favor of his own project. After watching his final, European theatrical release version of Once Upon a Time in America, I felt like sharing some of my thoughts on the film.

The epic story itself is, indeed, a masterpiece. The story is presented in a rather non-linear fashion, with two major timelines being played out simultaneously. Initially, we see David "Noodles" Aaronson pursued by a group of vengeful mobsters, intent on killing him. Gradually, the story reveals their motivation for the chase through flashbacks. Eventually, the two timelines solidify, one tracing the origins of Noodles' relationships with three other youths and their gradual development into a powerful cabal of rum-runners and speakeasy operators during the height of Prohibition, the other following Noodles' eventual return from hiding during the late 1960s, following the mystery of how he was found.

As the film develops, a number of surprising weaknesses begin to emerge.

Problem #1: The Cinematography
To put it bluntly, I found Leone's use of the camera to be inconsistent and horribly dated. At times the framing of events was excellent, such as the scene where Noodles as a young boy is walking with his friends and in the background is the massive edifice of the Brooklyn Bridge. However, at other times, I found he had an over-reliance on zoom-ins that gave the film a very dated 1960s New Wave feel. Granted, Leone was a European filmmaker who gained notoriety during the 1960s, but the effect was, for me at least, quite jarring.

I'm no critic, by far. But for the most part, I thought that the camera techniques were okay, but not good or great by 1980s standards. This issue, though, doesn't ruin the movie for me (actually, none of them do), and is, by itself, easy to ignore. The other two issues, not so much.

Problem #2: Pacing
Leone wanted to make an epic. This is not a problem, especially if that epic has a grand, sweeping feel. However, Leone didn't make the most efficient use of the time he took (this is a big problem I have with Jackson's The Lord of the Rings as well). Instead of taking 1½ minutes to establish a scene and situation, Leone took 5½. Let me give you an example.

One of the extended flashback scenes begins with a young Noodles secretly observing his childhood crush, Deborah, practicing her dance routine through a peephole. By the end of the first half-minute of watching her flex, bend, and pirouette, notice Noodles' eyes at the peephole, watch Noodles lamely try to hide, and then watch again we are well-aware that a) Noodles is infatuated with her, b) Deborah knows this and is teasing him, and c) that she is keenly interested in developing her talents as a dancer/entertainer. However, the scene drags out for two or more minutes, all the while torturing us with slow, lethargic, utterly boring music in the background. If this is Hollywood, why can we not watch her dance to Tchaikovsky? (This is related to my third issue with the film.)

This is just one example of how Leone does not make effective use of his time. Scenes drag out long after we've gotten the idea. The viewer doesn't need to watch the same scene for three minutes to get the message that Noodles is crazy about Deborah, but she thinks he's a dirty wastrel.

Some might shoot back that these techniques are similar to those used by Kubric in 2001, or perhaps Ridley Scott's Alien. This, however, is a false analogy. Kubric's long, drawn-out scenes were an exploration of possible future technologies and an immersion into a completely different world from his own (and ours)--and indeed, some have even said that Kubric does so at the expense of story. Likewise, Scott has been criticized by my friends for his long, drawn-out scenes. However, I always found that these scenes were well-done because they were at times symbolic (such as the opening, where the ship awakes, then the characters--notice that the first one awake is the first to die), or they heighten tension and generate a sense of the unknown (the exploration of the alien spaceship). There's definite purpose to lengthening these scenes.

No, I find Leone's inefficient use of time to be similar to Peter Jackson's filming of The Lord of the Rings and King Kong. Although Jackson's long scenes had the effect of heightening the emotional impact of the drama (to the point where it was almost cheesy melodrama, in my opinion), I would find myself waiting for the slow-motion lethargy to end and the next sequence of on-screen events to begin (such as when the dying King Kong stares longingly at Ann Darrow for what feels like ten agonizing minutes before slowly, slowly slipping off of the Empire State Building and plummeting out of sight, or when Sam falls into the River Anduin and sinks for what seems to be an eternity before Frodo's hand plunges in and rescues him in The Fellowship of the Ring). This is an inefficient use of time, in my opinion. Though Leone doesn't descend to using slow-motion gimmicks for cheap emotional ploys, he does, nevertheless, needlessly drag scenes out that do not heighten tension or otherwise enhance dramatic effect. Watching a 12-year-old girl dance to an utterly boring song is not my idea of a good time, and I'm likely to just fast-forward through that scene if I watch the film again.

To underscore my point, just watch the scene where Noodles spies on Deborah play out below.

Watching this lethargic scene just drag out for five minutes isn't my idea of great entertainment or fine cinema. And it is underscored by the absolutely dismal, boring, uninspiring music. We don't get an impression of grace or passion from this scene. Which leads me to my next point.

Problem #3: The Score
This is unforgivable. In a post-Star Wars era, a number of excellent Hollywood composers have emerged to create a brilliant array of film scores, from James Horner with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Basil Pouledouris with Conan the Barbarian, and of course John Williams' Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even Nino Rota's score of Copolla's 1972 mobster flick The Godfather was superior. Music composed for Hitchcock films managed to be memorable and effective in creating atmosphere.

The score in Once Upon a Time in America is not only forgettable--it is boring. The same two or three themes repeat throughout the entire movie. Sometimes characters "whistle" them (although the viewer can tell it is a poor dub). During the 1968 timeline, a bloodcurdling Muzak version of the Beatles' "Yesterday" assails the viewers' ears. The best song in the entire movie is a cheezy 1930s/1940s recording of "God Bless America" played at the beginning and ending of the film.

When I compare this to other mobster flicks of the late 20th century, I can't help but be disappointed by the lack of period music throughout the film. No 1920s big-band jazz is played during the Prohibition storyline. Nothing iconic of the 1960s greets the listener (with the exception of that horrible Muzak "Yesterday"). The droning score threatened to put me to sleep.

Problem #4: Plot/Character Holes
There aren't a great many, but the biggest issue is the motivation of character Max Bercovicz. I don't want to give anything about the plot away. However, the tensions between Noodles and Max after Noodles returns during the Prohibition storyline isn't quite square with me. What happened while Noodles was away that made him so extremely cautious and unambitious at times, while at other times arrogantly independent. His character is actually the least well-defined of the entire story, and he's the protagonist. As a young boy, his motivation seems reasonable enough--become important enough to impress Deborah and throw off Bugsy's shackles. But upon his return, he doesn't seem to be much of a risk-taker, yet he chafes under authority. He's actually the weakest link in the team. And it is difficult to understand where he gets his disturbing predilection for rape.

As for Max Bercovicz, his motivation seems clear enough--until the final forty-five minutes of the film when Prohibition is about to be repealed. Perhaps it is Noodles' resistance to getting involved in racketeering and unions, but that doesn't explain Max's plans for the Federal Reserve Bank, nor does it explain the entire Secretary Bailey thread. Indeed, Max seemed to be the one thing gluing the group together.

There's a possibility that the loss of Dominic and Noodles' capture at the end of the childhood storyline made it so that Noodles was not keen on taking risks again. But the damage to his psyche and the pain of the loss are never explored by the script. If Leone had delved into that aspect of Noodles' character, it would make things much more understandable. However, as it stands, there seems to be very little rationale for Noodles' or Max's behaviors during the Prohibition storyline.

I want to end on a positive note, so I decided to get the bad out of the way first. Although I can't consider it a strength, at least Leone was wise enough to use the music very little throughout the film--most of the time there is no music playing at all, or perhaps only in the background. This is, however, more of a testament to how bad the music is.

On the other hand, I must say that the script, while it has a number of plot holes, is still pretty emotionally compelling. It is a pretty good exploration of the themes of friendship and the costs of betrayal. The action scenes are rare and well-done. Robert DiNero's Noodles' and James Woods' Max play quite well off one-another.

However, I have to say that, for me, the flaws of this film really do take a lot from the whole. All-in-all, I'm disappointed. Leone may have been a great director at one time, but perhaps he was beginning to slip. If Once Upon a Time in America had been made in the 1960s, I wouldn't be quite so critical. Nevertheless, 1972's The Godfather had a tighter script, better pacing, a decent score, and was an overall better package than 1986's Once Upon a Time in America. Leone eschewed more modern cinematographic techniques in favor of hackneyed and dated ones, picked a lousy score, failed to pace the film well, and didn't tighten the script up when it came to the weaknesses of Max's and Noodles' characters.


Chris Cesarano said...

Watching that clip on YouTube wasn't quite as long as you described, but you're right. The only thing I can imagine is that the director wanted to get some sort of symbolic imagery across when she crouched/sat to the ground, surrounded by white objects (to suggest a purity?) or her reflection in the mirror (usually to suggest duplicitous behavior?).

However, these could have been done in much less time. Hell, just the time required to go from the adult character to the actual flashback, just looking at him staring through the hole, was too much. Brevity is the soul of wit, after all, and if you take too long trying to explain something then the reader/viewer will get bored.

Gonna be honest, I'd rather just rent GoodFellas or finally sit down to watching The Godfather from start to finish (parts one and two at least, though I've heard nothing but bad on part three). It seems like if I want a mobster film there are plenty of better ones to choose from.

Dave Cesarano said...

Yeah, Chris, and that's the darn tragedy, because Sergio Leone had a real epic story on his hands. There are lots of great moments in the film, and it's got a hell of a story. The entire problem with the film is the pacing. I think Leone, like Peter Jackson, got so hung up on the "epic" concept that he started thinking "more = better" rather than "less = more."