#75: Once Upon a Time In America (1984)

When and how did I watch this?

November 27th and 28th, 2016, on Amazon Instant Video.

Had I seen this film already?


What did I know about the movie before watching it?

Yet another mob movie set in the 20s and 30s with De Niro and Pesci.  Sometimes it feels like I’m watching the same stuff over and over again.

What do I know about it now?

This film is the longest on the list (so far), and the story spans about 50 years, making a succinct summary almost impossible without omitting crucial details. The film is basically three huge movements, not necessarily told in chronological order, centering around the character of David “Noodles” Aaronson, a Jewish man who falls into a life of crime and faces numerous personal conflicts.  As a kid, he dwells in the streets committing petty crimes with a few buddies, and eventually becomes more prominent once a pedophile officer is blackmailed. After the murder of one of his friends, he retaliates by killing the assailant and stabbing an officer, getting him 12 years.  He reunites with the remaining buddies later, continuing in illegal activity surrounding booze, union bosses, and crooked officers. In the third movement, he’s much older, still having trouble dealing with ratting out his friends who were looking to put on a dangerous heist and subsequently being killed. Two other characters are imperative to the story: Max, the kid who got Noodles into organized hustling early on, committing to a lifelong friendship with him but becoming increasingly hostile and paranoid, eventually dismissing Noodles just before he is turned over to the police; the other is Deborah, a girl Noodles adores from beginning to end, who later becomes a successful actress and dancer, but lives an alternative life from the troubled Noodles due to his decision-making. The film is quite engaging, and like a lifetime, seems to move slowly from one scene to the next. The central idea appears to be an illustration of how, as we get older, we look back at our errors in regret, but eventually come to grips with our past choices.  Clearly, this man’s behavior and consequences are far graver than ours, but it nonetheless resonates with “regular folk”.  What tarnished the film, for me, was the driving need for the director to throw in countless overtly sexual scenes. I counted three rapes, and I lost count of how many gratuitous sexual moments and topless women there were. I’ve learned to “tolerate” the shocking, but I felt this one decidedly went borderline pornographic and subsequently took away from the emotional pull we experience between Max, Deborah, and our main protagonist.

What are some themes in the film?

Growing up, loyalty, regret and acceptance, the mob/crime, friendship, greed, lust vs. love

Did this affect me personally?

Yes.  There were numerous breathtaking scenes, which were emotionally reviewed in the end. Strangely, the lingering scene for me is the bookends: Noodles’ encounter with the opium den.

Why is this ranked #75?

De Niro, Pesci, Leone, mob crime, New York, 1920s-30s, relentless moving imagery, occasionally crossing over into the graphic or pornographic. It’s a huge movie that was initially butchered for American audiences, then released again in its full glory. In the end, it’s a fantastic film that surely many appreciate.

Did my wife watch/like it?

She did watch it, and much of it made her uncomfortable, but the film was nonetheless moving for her as well.

Would I watch it again?

Probably not, but I don’t think I need to.  The impression it made is lasting.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

Yes.  Again, some scenes I felt were too much, but the whole thing is a masterpiece of cinema.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

Indeed. I was enraptured from the start, and it never let up.  At times, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but so goes our memories — it runs in a series clips, sometimes filled with with lurid details, but always riddled with emotion, perhaps from nostalgia, fear, or regret. I cared about all of the characters, for every one of them was tragic, in a way.  The movie score got a lot of attention and won some awards, and rightfully so; it hums, rises and falls, and at the right time crescendos like a great symphony, which parallels similarly with the film’s dynamic.  Awesome stuff.

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