Thursday, June 09, 2011
#135: Once Upon a Time in America
Sergio Leone- in Hindi we would say,' bas naam hi kaafi hain... '
The man who became synonymous with an entire genre in filmdom beginning in the 60s, the man who gave us Clint Eastwood in his most raw form and the man whose style till this day has inspired many a filmmaker. But few know that he was also the man who once refused an offer to direct The Godfather.. Somewhere within him, there must've been something really strong that wanted to make amends for that decision. Because nothing else explains the lengths to which Leone went to make Once Upon a Time in America. Auditioning over 200 actors for the role of one character, employing the services of 7 screen-writers and working on a script that initially was 317 pages long, are manifestations of maniacal standards, however perfection-seeking, an auteur might be. And Leone didn't rest after having made it, because he continued to fight the system to showcase the movie in it's original form of 229 minutes. He didn't quite have his way and that devastated him. He never made another movie but suffice to say, maybe, in the fitness of things, he did reserve his best for the last.
Once Upon... is a story of a group of four boys growing up in the mid 30s in New York against the backdrop of suburban crime. The story that had as many as 8 writers including Leone is adapted from the novel 'The Hoods'- a semi-autobiographical account by a gangster called Harry Grey and it traces the life of protagonist Noodles (De Niro) right from the 30s till the mid 60s. The first thing that will strike you about the movie is the look and feel of the America of the 30s. Whether it is the iconic Manhattan bridge shot as in the poster above or the scene where De Niro stares into nothingness after getting out of a car, it's a movie that will make you believe it could've been shot by a poet -there's such rhyme in these scenes. The languid air in a crime drama doesn't seem logical but cinematographer Donni Colli obviously knew better.
And no sooner have those soothing images permeated your senses, that you start falling for the characters and soon enough you make a choice- a hero who you want to see winning by the end of the movie. Will it be the ruthless and the manipulative Max (James Woods) or the quiet and cold but soft-hearted Noodles. Or are you veering towards the staunchly ambitious Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). The movie's flashback narration keeps those questions ticking in your mind as to what awaits your hero towards the end. Is there something that the character in the movie already knows in the present that you don't ? Such absorbing fare is laid out over the course of this epic, that it's hard to not feel sad once the movie's over. The performance of De Niro is akin to that of a statesman leading his people towards a cause- bristling with confidence underneath but devoid of flamboyance. That, is James Woods' signature for his Max. With their contrasting styles, they squabble time and again, but never lose the big picture to keep the money ticking in. It's a friendship that's to be envied and it's also too good to last and that provides the story the requisite dramatic tension to keep the movie well afloat in spite of it's lengthy duration.
With any Leone movie, you know you're going to get your money's worth with the background score and Once Upon... is no different. With Ennio Morrocone, Leone once again has got a mesmerizing soundtrack that will tease and haunt you with it's insolence for it's terse and limited but extremely well-knitted with the on-screen action.
Once Upon a Time in America was perhaps Leone's statement to Hollywood that he could direct a crime film as well as he could a western. His struggles to have the movie released with it's original duration of close to 4 hours is well-documented and it's a travesty of sorts that the movie gained it's much deserved acclaim in the United States only after the release of it's DVD. This is a movie that needs to be revered for it's stellar form, for telling us a human story about a hardened criminal who wanted to reform, for reminding us that the bad will always fall by the wayside and most importantly but simply that a great story will always make a great film.