Taglines: As boys, they said they would die for each other. As men, they did.
The film is presented in non-chronological order, from 1920 to 1968, and it is largely told through flashbacks from the viewpoint of one person. The specific scenes and their order vary from version to version. The following description is that of the film’s full European cut.
The film begins in medias res with gangsters entering a Chinese puppet theater, looking for a marked man. The proprietors slip into a hidden opium den and warn a man named “Noodles”, but he pays no attention. In a flashback, he watches the police remove three disfigured corpses from a street. He successfully kills one of the three thugs that are after him but learns that the thugs have murdered his girlfriend while looking for him and finds that someone else has stolen his money. He leaves the city.
David “Noodles” Aaronson struggles as a street kid in the Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1920. He and his friends Patrick “Patsy” Goldberg, Phillip “Cockeye” Stein, and little Dominic commit petty crimes under the supervision of the local boss Bugsy. Planning to rob a drunk at the moment a passing truck hides them from a policeman, they’re foiled by the older Max Bercovicz, who jumps off of the truck to rob the man himself. Noodles confronts Max but a crooked policeman steals the watch they were fighting over.
Later Max’s camera enables them to blackmail the policeman, having sex with a teenage girl, and thus start their own gang independent of Bugsy, who enjoyed his corrupt protection. The boys establish a suitcase money fund, which they hide in a locker at the railway station, giving the key to Fat Moe, a reliable friend who’s not part of the operation. Noodles is in love with Fat Moe’s sister Deborah, who aspires to be a dancer and actress. One day, Bugsy ambushes the boys and shoots little Dominic, who dies in Noodle’s arms, who then stabs Bugsy to death and injures a police officer who tried to intervene. Noodles is arrested, and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
An adult Noodles is released from jail in 1932 and is reacquainted with his old gang: Max, Patsy, and Cockeye, who are now major players in the bootlegging industry during Prohibition. Noodles reunites with Deborah and tries to rekindle their relationship. Meanwhile, during a robbery, the gang meets Carol who soon becomes Max’s girlfriend.
The gang prospers of bootlegging under the prohibition, and further of providing muscle for union boss Jimmy Conway O’Donnell. Noodles, though aware of Deborah’s soon leaving for the West Coast to promote her acting career, tries to impress her on an extravagant date, but on their way home in a limousine, when Deborah starts kissing him, yet reluctant to go further, Noodles rapes her. After witnessing her leave, he becomes remorseful for what he did.
The gang’s financial success ends with the prohibition repeal, when Max considers an offer to work for the teamsters union, which Noodles refuses and leaves. Max runs after him and they go to Florida together. While there, Max suggests robbing the New York Federal Reserve Bank, but Noodles sees it as suicidal. Carol, who also fears for Max’s life, convinces Noodles to call the police on his friends for a minor offense, just to keep them in jail.
Later Max knocks him unconscious for his attitude. After gaining consciousness, Noodles finds out that Max, Patsy, and Cockeye have been killed by the Police, and is consumed with guilt over making that phone call which led to the scenes which begin the film. Noodles is then seen boarding the first bus to leave New-York, going to Buffalo, where he will live in hiding under a fake identity for the next 35 years.
In 1968, Noodles receives a letter informing him that the cemetery where his friends are buried has been sold and asking him to make arrangements for their reburial. Realizing that someone has deduced his identity, Noodles returns to Manhattan and stays with Fat Moe above his still open restaurant. While visiting the new cemetery, Noodles finds there, visibly hung for him to take it, a key to the railway locker, once kept by the gang, and further notes the license plate of a car that is following him there. Opening that locker, he discovers a suitcase full of cash, like the one kept there and taken away, now with a note saying the money is a down payment on his next job.
Noodles visits Carol, who lives at a retirement home run by the Bailey Foundation. She tells him that Max caused the gang’s death by opening fire on the police, and while he’s there, Noodles sees a photo of Deborah at the institution’s dedication. Noodles finds the lavish estate of Secretary Bailey, the foundation’s sponsor and embattled political figure whose name has been mentioned in news reports of the car explosion which killed the district attorney. Noodles tracks down Deborah, now a successful actress.
He questions her about Secretary Bailey, telling her that he has received an invitation to a party at Bailey’s house. Deborah claims not to know much about Bailey, but Noodles already knows they have lived together for years. In the end Deborah is forced to introduce Noodles to Bailey’s son David, who is named after Noodles and who casually appeared there. He resembles the adolescent Max. Knowing the chilling truth that Bailey is Max, Noodles breaks with Deborah and leaves and Deborah cannot look at herself anymore.
Once Upon a Time in America is a 1984 Italian-American epic crime drama film co-written and directed by Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone and starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. Based on Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods, it chronicles the lives of Jewish ghetto youths who rise to prominence in New York City’s world of organized crime. The film explores themes of childhood friendships, love, lust, greed, betrayal, loss, broken relationships, and the rise of mobsters in American society.
It was the final film of Leone’s career and the first feature film he had directed in 13 years. The cinematography was by Tonino Delli Colli, and the film score by Ennio Morricone. Leone originally intended for the film to be released as two three-hour films but was convinced by distributors to shorten it to a single 229-minute film.
The film’s American distributors, The Ladd Company, further shortened it to 139 minutes, and rearranged the scenes into chronological order, without Leone’s involvement. The shortened version was a critical and commercial flop in the United States, and critics who had seen both versions harshly criticized the changes that were made. The original “European cut” has remained a critical favorite and frequently appears in lists of the greatest gangster films of all time.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Darlanne Fluegel, William Forsythe
Screenplay by: Leonardo Benvenuti
Cinematography by: Tonino Delli Colli
Film Editing by: Nino Baragli
Costume Design by: Gabriella Pescucci
Art Direction by: Carlo Simi
Music by: Ennio Morricone
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, sexual content, language and some drug use.
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: June 1, 1984