Gangsters – Part III

May 10, 2011 | By

Sergio Leone’s final film was a hugely nostalgic ode to the gangster movies from the thirties and forties, but through the director’s own patented style filter, Once Upon a Time in America [M] morphed into an art film – largely because its resolution is more in line with those famously vague finales typical of Euro art films – or tricky puzle movies by contemporary directors such as Christopher Nolan (Insomnia [M], Inception [M]).

America is epic, elegant, and a modern gangster classic, but its timing in 1984 was terrible. There should be room for a unique film within a predictable film market, but as we all know, unless it has something that gels with the general public and gains momentum through posiive word of mouth, it’s dead and doomed. America got it worse when Leone’s cut was radically chopped down to about two and a quarter hours from almost four, and re-ordered in chronological order. The critics hated the shorter U.S. -only version, and the it took years before the longer European edit replaced the recut Leone disowned.

What’s unfortunate is that length and indulgences were always a problem with the operatic director – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) were also shortened before the relatively recent restorations – but America is special because scenes don’t meander, the music doesn’t replay in a demonic loop, and more scenes would’ve placed several of the minor characters in better context.

The Euro cut almost pulls off the miracle, but there are still loose ends that have frustrated fans and theorists for years. There are plans by Leone’s heirs to mount a restoration of their father’s longer pre-Cannes edit for a 2012 release, but what’s important to point out is that as it stands, the current version from Warner Home Video isn’t a dud, an incoherent mess, nor a misfire; it’s the product of an obsessive mind who tinkered with the script for more than a decade, and fiddled with the scenes to deliver a version that please him as well as the producer and executives at The Ladd Company, with sacrifices.

The finale remains controversial and frustrating, and there are some really nasty moments of violence aimed squarely at women which makes America tonally uneven, but what a sumptuous production; what a cast; what stunning recreations of grungy Prohibition-era New York City; and what a gorgeous score by longtime Leone collaborator Ennio Morircone.

Maybe the extra scenes planned to be re-inserted into the film will improve continuity issues and odd scene transitions, but WHV’s Blu-ray is a worthy addition to one’s Leone collection, and for some (like myself) it makes up for the later spaghetti westerns with restored running times that go on for an eternity.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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