Part of the allure of any spaghetti western has to be its otherworldliness, the sense that, with its dubbed English, acrylic-red blood, stock company of decidedly non-American faces, and expanses of red desert, it’s happening in an entirely separate realm of human experience, even if it takes place in California. Sergio Leone, the grandmaster of the genre, codified these as legitimate storytelling techniques, never as interested in verisimilitude (historic or otherwise) as he was in visceral storytelling—a pulpier idea of genre cinema than the mannered Once Upon a Time in America would suggest. Even in this 229-minute prestige picture, Leone’s camera cuts almost pathologically on screams, gunshots, and punches.
The Italian mafia had been pretty thoroughly explored on screen by the time the auteur returned behind the camera, for the first time in over a decade. So in a reverse angle on American history, the Italian Leone set out to tell a story of Jewish mobsters, chiefly Noodles Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and Max Bercowicz (James Woods). The screenplay hopscotches from the ‘30s to the ‘60s to the late teens and back again, but all you really need to know is that growing up poor as dirt, Noodles and Max will make their bones working for Bugsy (James Russo), a Cagney-esque hood whose influence eventually becomes cumbersome.
Leone and his crew built a Lower East Side that seems to go on forever, simultaneously majestic and epochal, yet squalid and filthy. The camera’s details are brilliantly, impulsively in sync with the characters’ preadolescent world: pathetically corrupt adults, the chubby-cheeked faces of immigrant children, young Noodles’s attempts to get girls to show him their vaginas. Ennio Morricone’s score trills with intrigue as young Noodles and Max get mixed up in petty crime, counterbalancing their new risks against a melancholy, tinny piano theme that suggests America as a churning work in progress, ceaselessly plowing forward with or without them.
That’s the closest Leone ever gets to outright moralizing. In one scene around the film’s midpoint, the guys rob a jeweler and Noodles rapes his secretary (Tuesday Weld) on a table while Max and their accomplice, Patsy (James Hayden), chuckle over the loot in the other room. Leone’s camera zooms feverishly into Noodles’s face as he steps away, and again onto the secretary’s as she gasps for breath, capping the scene. Whether this is cruel exploitation or gritty drama is an open question, but the movie never misses a chance to remind viewers that America was just as brutal a place in the 1930s as it was in the Old West.
As a magnum opus, Once Upon a Time in America falls just a few point tragically shy of greatness. Several jobs and three decades later, Noodles (now played by De Niro) revisits New York. He stops at the mausoleum housing his fallen partners. Noodles being the audience’s vessel for contemplation, his introspective scenes—the movie’s tonally heaviest—reveal Leone’s weaknesses. As Noodles steps into the tomb, Leone’s camera makes endlessly, possibly pointlessly, choreographed long maneuvers, and the music swells, turning its soapiest. Here was a filmmaker who specialized in pure, blistering images, and this operatic earthiness just doesn’t play as well as the horrifying, salacious stuff. For all its details, its lushness of mood and feeling, the film remains stubbornly basic in its grand design, and thus a rare breed of classic-style studio epic: a decidedly Italian melodrama, despite its Hollywood stars and behemoth international budget. But does sheer bigness make a film better?