Once Upon a Time in America
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Once upon a Time in America: Special Edition (DVD)
Ten years in planning, Sergio Leone's epic Once upon a Time in America portrays 50 years of riveting underworld history and offers rich roles to a remarkable cast. Robert De Niro and James Woods play lifelong Lower East Side pals whose wary partnership unravels in death and mystery. Strong support comes from Tuesday Weld, Joe Pesci, Jennifer Connelly, Elizabeth McGovern and the young actors playing the central characters as ghetto kids. To see this film (offered for the first time in the full version 1984 Cannes Film Festival audiences cheered) is "to be swept away by the assurance and vitality of a great director making his final statement in a medium he adored" (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times).]]>
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(I'm going to try and keep this brief, but it's almost impossible when talking about this film.)
In 1984 Sergio Leone, master of the long-form story of American anti-heroes (and mostly through cowboys and gunslingers) set his sights high when adapting the 1952 gangster book "The Hoods" by Harry Grey for the screen. The result is long, drawn-out, meditative and grim, a delirious event onscreen which will either dazzle you or bore you if you don't have the patience to wade through it.
A brief history:
In 1984, after carefully crafting the film together as he saw it, it was ready to be screened (culled from the ten hours of the actual story on film). Originally envisioned as two three-hour films, he showed a 269-minute cut (with intermission) at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, which garnered over 15 minutes of a standing ovation.
However, Warner Bros. (and their distributors The Ladd Company, who had mangled 'Blade Runner" only two years earlier) convinced him to squash all six hours down into a single 229-minute film. After carefully editing it down as best as he could, the distributors - WITHOUT LEONE'S INVOLVEMENT AND CONSENT - reshuffled and rearranged most of the scenes into an almost chronological order, which was not how the story in the book is told, and it now clocked in at a sterile 139 minutes! The film itself suffers for it immensely, with now missing scenes and plot points that would have made this much easier to understand simply if it was left alone.
The result was a critical and commercial flop worldwide, although a few critics liked it. Both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were the one of the few lone champions of it, brutalizing the distributors for their chop job, having seen the 229 minute version at Cannes themselves, and Siskel put it on his Top Ten films of 1984.
The fallout? Having been disillusioned and distraught by Hollywood, America in general, and it's decline in substance over style, it became the last film Leone ever directed.
(In 2012 Martin Scorsese re-introduced Leone's 229 minute version to Cannes, and interest for this forgotten film was reignited. To this day he and Leone's children are still trying to gain back the rights to over 29 missing minutes of the film to show his almost complete 269 minute 1984 Cannes version.)
So what is it about? It's all a delirious dream and memories (or maybe it isn't), but is filled with some of the best performances onscreen by Robert De Niro, Elizabeth McGovern, James Woods, Treat Williams, James Hayden, William Forsythe, Darlanne Fluegel and a cast of dozens, all trying to tell you, the viewer, a story lasting almost 50 years. I think that's all I can say because the plot is simple, but the story envelops you!
You have to watch it for yourself, as it rivals "The Godfather" as one of the best gangster films ever made... that you've never seen, even in it's chopped up form.
If you've ever seen the previously released 139 minute "theatrical version" on DVD, it can be confusing without mulitple viewings (like I have done over the years). Entire subplots are ripped out, and all we have left are some great bang-bangs and some sexy moments, but the subtlety of the story itself is pretty much 75% gone.
When it was finally released in 2002/3 a a "Special Edition" and as a "Director's Cut," restoring it to Leone's 229 minute post-Cannes cut, it was revelatory, and those of us who truly valued this film (such as myself) were finally able to see Leone's version as he wanted to show it in theaters, complete with an intermission - try that nowadays!
Now here it is, almost a decade after the 2002/3 release, and we have been given the best possible version to what Leone wanted to show, as much more scenes (but not even close to all) have been reintroduced and reshaped using his original notes. It comes in at a staggering 251 minute version (just a little over 4 hours), with the intermision.
Now for the physical details:
This version, that I bought here on Amazon, is the collectible Blu-Ray/DVD version, with both the 229 minute cut and the 251 minute cut available on 1 Blu-Ray disc and two DVDs (the former "Collector's Edition" from 2002/3). There's an amazing amount of new information included here, a 32-page color hardcover book with photos and production info not found almost anywhere else, but some of the same commentaries, documentaries and trailers found on the Collector's Edition, which is fine.
As to the technical end:
The Blu-Ray looks great onscreen, the colors are even, and even though the Italian restoring companies did a great job, it's obvious to see the lost or new scenes when it comes on - they look a little washed out, but it's to be expected considering it was from throwaway negatives, and not the original film elements.
Despite that, the film's story, as envisioned by one of the great directors in our lifetime of all things Americana, is a major step forward to being complete and worth the 4 hour watch. I give it, and the restoration, and the package overall, a mighty 5 stars.
Warner Home Video, who didn't help much to rescue it back when it was first released by the Ladd Company (the resulting flop almost bankrupted Ladd, just as they were recovering two years earlier when they took "Blade Runner" and screwed that all up too), has finally delivered a package worth holding on to!
You'll enjoy it, if you love the gangsters, the drama, and the story, told by one of the masters, and this should most definitely be in your collection!
(Thanks for reading, please leave a thanks if you liked it, and then check out my other so-so reviews of other items for sale here on Amazon.)
Once upon a Time in America is the the Italian maestros last film (as well as being his only American production), and it turned out to be the grand send-off that Leone so rightly deserved. While the American theatrical version was a horrible movie by most accounts due to over-editing and pandering by studio executives, the director's cut (running a cool 4 hours) is an epic in every sense of the word.
Leone weaves a complicated and engrossing tale about a group of young jewish kids who grow up to be gangsters. This threadbare synopsis does the film no justice. If you consider yourself to be a movie buff, carve out 4 hours out of your day to enjoy this unique and captivating piece of cinema. It's worth all your time.