Once Upon a Time in America  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Once Upon a Time in America (Italian title C'era una volta in America) is a 1984 crime film directed by Sergio Leone, starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. The story 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, loss, greed, violence, the passage of time, broken relationships, and the appearance of mobsters in American society.

The film premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival in its original running time of 229 minutes (3 hours 49 minutes). However, it was released in the United States in a heavily edited and truncated version almost ninety minutes shorter than the original version released in Europe, against Leone's wishes. The short version eliminates the elaborate flashback structure of the film, instead placing all of the scenes in chronological order.

It is the third part of a loose trilogy of epic called Once Upon a Time Trilogy, follows 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West and 1971's A Fistful of Dynamite (known alternatively as Once Upon a Time... the Revolution or Duck, You Sucker).

Contents

Plot

Scenes set in the early 1900s

David "Noodles" Aaronson (Scott Tiler) struggles to survive as a poor street kid in the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1900s. His gang consists of Patrick "Patsy" Goldberg, Phillip "Cockeye" Stein, and little Dominic. They nominally work for local hood Bugsy, who runs the neighborhood. The scenes deal with Noodles and his gang as they first meet Max Bercovitz and become an independent operation under his and Noodles' leadership, the establishment of the gang funds (a suitcase in a train station locker which becomes a crucial plot piece), and Noodles' fruitless flirtation with Deborah Gelly, a local girl who aspires to be a dancer and actress. Their adventures ultimately end in tragedy as Bugsy attacks the group, shooting Dominic fatally. As Bugsy attempts to kill the members of the group who took cover, Noodles retaliates by stabbing Bugsy to death with a switchblade. Police officers intervene, and Noodles stabs one of them. He is sent to jail for twelve years. Max, in charge with Noodles' absence, is left alone on the outside with the group.

Scenes set in 1930s

Noodles (now played by De Niro) is released from jail in 1932 and becomes reacquainted with his old gang: Max (Woods), Patsy (Hayden) and Cockeye (Forsythe), who are major players in the bootlegging industry during Prohibition. After briefly reuniting with other acquaintances such as the now-teen Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), her brother Fat Moe (Rapp), who runs the speakeasy, and Peggy (Ryder), the gang is recruited by the Minaldi brothers to steal a shipment of diamonds from an insurance dealer and deliver them to Joe Minaldi.

During the robbery, we are introduced to Carol (Weld), the jeweler's secretary. Noodles has violent sex with her in this scene. During an exchange at an abandoned dockyard, Joe Minaldi (Young) and his henchmen are gunned down in a surprise hit by the gang; Frankie Minaldi (Pesci) has arranged the hit to eliminate Joe. Noodles initially expresses his misgivings at working for the mob, but he ultimately drops the subject.

The gang quickly becomes involved in Mafia matters, including getting into a steel workers' strike on the side of unionist Jimmy Conway O'Donnell (Treat Williams), protecting him against a steel tycoon and his thugs. The crew also deals with the corrupt Police Chief Aiello, who is paid off by the steel company, by switching the Chief's newborn son in the hospital with several others. Not long after, Carol becomes reacquainted with the gang and falls for Max. Determined to show Deborah he is more than the poor kid he once was, Noodles goes with her on an extravagant date, but he is left feeling rejected after she informs him she is leaving for Hollywood. He rapes her in the back seat of a limousine in the presence of the chauffeur, which he soon regrets.

Meanwhile, though Max is very eager to advance his gang's position, Noodles still expresses misgivings about what they are doing. After Prohibition is repealed, Noodles balks when Max suggests that they rob the Federal Reserve Bank, realizing that it would be suicidal. He is convinced by Carol to tip off the police about a planned liquor run. After Noodles places an anonymous call, Max, Patsy, and Cockeye are all killed in a gunfight with the police after Max starts shooting. Noodles' new girlfriend Eve is murdered by the Syndicate, and Fat Moe is beaten nearly to death before revealing the traitor's whereabouts. After hiding out in an opium den, Noodles escapes his pursuers and saves Moe from his abuser. Having retrieved the key to the locker, he makes his way to the gang's money hoard. However, Noodles is shocked to discover that the money is missing, and he flees to Buffalo, where he lives under an assumed name.

Scenes set in 1968

In the 1968 scenes, Noodles returns to New York and reunites with Fat Moe, who is still running his restaurant. When visiting the mausoleum where his friends were moved, he is surprised to discover a plaque dedicated to them in his name, and a key to the same money locker. Upon arriving, he discovers money with a note stating it is payment for a killing.

Later, he learns from Carol that Max wanted to die and Deborah has become a famous actress. While meeting with Deborah after a performance of Antony and Cleopatra, he reconciles with her over the rape, and she confesses to him that she has forgiven him, stating that all they have left are memories. Noodles then discovers that Secretary Christopher Bailey had a son whose mother died in childbirth, and that Deborah has been living with him. He is shocked to learn that the son David waiting outside (named after him) bears a striking resemblance to Max.

It is revealed that Max survived the shootout, faked his death with help from the Syndicate, stole the money and became Bailey. Throughout the film, he is said to be under investigation for corruption, and he has hired Noodles to assassinate him - allowing Noodles to obtain his revenge on Max as well as let Max, as "Bailey," die in dignity. At this point the film reveals Max's motive for betraying the gang and forcing Noodles to live in exile: Max believed that he had everything covered for the Federal Reserve job, such as including cops on the payout, and consequently Noodles' tip to the cops was revealed to him and he thought he was betrayed. Now, with nothing to lose because of the impending investigation, he offers Noodles the chance to get revenge for exiling him and ruining his life, paying him with the cash that Noodles had found at the beginning of the film. Noodles politely refuses, carefully explaining to him that his tip to the police was in actuality his attempt to save Max's life from what he thought was a suicidal job, not to betray him. Max, consumed with guilt, presumably commits suicide by throwing himself into the rear end of a leaving garbage truck.

The closing scene involves a flashback to young Noodles in an opium den in 1933, repressing horrible memories and the feeling of being alone - symbolized by a smile.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Once Upon a Time in America" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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