Gangsters and Nothingness
“Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.”
Henry Wilbourne, in the William Faulkner short story “The Wild Palms,” from “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem”
“Between guilt and nothing, I will take guilt.”
Maxim as reworded to apply to Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Italy/USA, 1984)
I saw this film, Leone’s last before he died in 1989, for the first time on the big screen last weekend at the gorgeous American Film Institute theater, where I had already seen two of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns — THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — earlier this fall.
Though it’s obviously great to see this masterpiece in a theater, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA was actually one of the earliest case studies in the virtue of home video. After playing at the Cannes Film Festival at 238 minutes, the film’s U.S. distributors chopped it by 100 minutes and completely re-edited the film to ditch its complex 50-year flashback structure (some critics have even suggested that it all takes place in the opium-filled head of the central character) in favor of straight chronology. But at approximately 2:20, it was still too long and remote to appeal to younger audiences, and the savaging it got from American critics as incomprehensible meant that it had no shot at being a succes d’estime.
But when the film was released on tapes in the late 1980s, just as home video was becoming ubiquitous, Leone’s cut was the version released in the United States. What videotapes and discs did was to provide a reliable mass market for films after theatrical release. Thus some movies could get a potential second bite at the box-office cherry, and it made potential sense to go back and revisit bad box-office decisions with specials like Director’s Cuts (ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA only grossed 1/6 of what it cost to make). What was done to the film was obviously a crime, but home video enabled the amelioration of some of the damage, giving Leone’s actual film a chance later to succeed or fail, to find its audience, a chance it might not have gotten otherwise. Roger Ebert called ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA “a murdered movie, brought back to life on home video.” And now, coming back full circle, some spiffed-up theatrical prints are making their way across the country, often in concert with those spaghetti Westerns that first made Leone’s name. And if you’re in a city where they’re playing — run, do not walk …
The gangster film put Leone’s talent in a new light. He lost something in having to forgo the grungy pictorialism of his landscape- and face-dominated Westerns, but gained that much back in the kind of ravishing luxury more suited to the kind of movie he was making here — an intimate, elegiac opera.
Unusually, for a film that spans 50 years and looks like an epic on first glance, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is an interior psychological film, primarily about the guilt of one gangster (Noodles, played by Robert De Niro) over betraying his boyhood friends (the closest being Max, played by James Woods) to the police and having them die in the resulting shootout. The drama unfolds in three relatively short spans in the teens, early 30s and late 60s. But the chronological juggling is needed, because certain scenes have to take place in the order they do for emotional sense, not chronological sense (including the last, more anon). The film is fundamentally about what time changes and doesn’t change, and a chronological structure is too naturalistic for such a story.
The virtuoso opening sequence tells the basic plot, about Noodles’ betrayal (we don’t know why), the death of his three closest friends, his fleeing town with no money (we don’t learn the source of the money he’s picking up or why or how it disappeared) and as he sinks into a guilt-wracked opium haze, we hear loud telephone rings on the soundtrack. They continue long after we’ve gotten the point and learned that the phone is at a police desk. And that *is* the point. The telephone never stopped ringing in Noodles’ head. We flash to the late 1960s and Noodles getting a call to return to New York (he doesn’t know why), and then we mostly follow the principal characters as they grow from child delinquents into hoodlums and then gangsters (with some flashing forward to the late 1960s). Although it sounds complicated, it really isn’t. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the original cut “it takes real concentration to follow … (but) is compulsively and continuously watchable.”
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is full of wonderful moments, touches and grace notes — a young boy debating between flattering the neighborhood tramp with a cream cake and eating it himself, Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,” a frisbee coming out of nowhere, the line “Noodles, I slipped,” Ennio Morricone’s mournful theme as played on a pan flute by Gheorghe Zamfir (yes … THAT Zamfir), the limo driver rejecting Noodles’ money and leaving him incredibly alone, Deborah closing the window curtain as the train departs, the dissolves between the Jewish neighborhood at various times … it’s all lovely and sad. When it gets to the late 1960s, we reach a revelation (SPOILER WARNING).
Noodles has been invited to New York by a “Secretary Bailey,” a Cabinet member and successful businessman who is on the verge of losing everything in a widening corruption probe (imagine Richard Nixon in June 1974). Only Bailey is actually Max, who really wasn’t killed in the shootout whose memory has consumed Noodles’ life. Instead, Max fooled Noodles into betraying him and their two friends, so Max could make a clean break, take the group’s stash, and start life anew — respectable and able to climb the greasy pole of success. Now, to avoid exposure, Bailey is offering Noodles a chance at revenge by killing him. “I took your money, I took your girl, all I left you was 35 years of grief over having killed me,” “Secretary Bailey” tells Noodles.
But Noodles doesn’t bite, refusing to look back at Sodom. Partly, he doesn’t want to turn into a pillar of salt, but also because he can’t have the 30 years back. There is no redemption or undoing the past, because the past is what has made you what you are. Throughout the scene, Noodles refers to him as Secretary Bailey, not Max, and pretends not to know any of the back story. It’s as if he would rather live as he has for the past 30 years — a guilt-ridden ex-gangster — than look back. “It’d be a shame to see a lifetime of work go to waste,” Noodles tells Max. He’s referring on the surface to “Secretary Bailey’s” achievements, but he’s also referring to himself. His last 30 years would have been a waste if he were to acknowledge having been conned by taking vengeance on “Max.” Between guilt and nothing, he’s taking guilt.
In some ways, the ending of ONCE UPON A TIME resembles the last scene reversal in MEMENTO — both have a man prefer the delusion he can live with to an empty, meaningless truth. But it’s also the opposite — in the later film, the last scene turns Guy Pearce’s character Lenny from victim to agent (even if it’s the agent of his own self-delusion); here, Noodles says agency and autonomy isn’t worth it to him. He’s turning his back on the most fundamental of Today’s Virtues — being your own man and leaving the past behind.
As a result, the last shot of the film justifies the complex, jump-around-in-time structure. It’s a full-facial closeup of a young adult Noodles smiling after retreating to an opium den, taking a hit, and rolling over under some netting, and it’s the film’s emotional punctation even though it takes place 30 years before the final dramatic scene. De Niro’s expression and all the ambiguities contained in it *are* what the film is about. In fact, I was kinda mad at Leone for only holding the shot for a few seconds before superimposing the credit crawl. That image needed to be held for an unnaturally long time (30 or 40 seconds at least, whatever is needed to call as much attention to itself as the telephone rings at the start do). And then fade to black.