Once Upon a Time in America quad poster

“We should have known, huh? You can always tell the winners at the starting gate. You can always tell the winners, and you can tell the losers.”


Shot over the course of a decade, Sergio Leone’s final film is a sprawling gangster epic that reflects his regret at turning down the opportunity to direct The Godfather. Although he adopts the sequel’s approach of intercut flashbacks (as well as its lead, Robert de Niro), its use here bears greater resemblance to Casablanca — an older man, weary with regret, is forced to revisit the ghosts of his past. At nearly four hours in length, the film held me riveted despite convoluted storytelling, some threads still feeling truncated despite the running time (allegedly between eight and ten hours of footage were trimmed down to the final version and certainly now this would fare better as an HBO mini-series). What Leone nails, however, is tone: the intoxication of greed and success, the wistful remembrance of first love and lost friendship, the ugliness of violent acts, and the weight of guilt. So strong are those aspects, enhanced by Ennio Morricone’s score, that they surpass the specifics of the story. No, I don’t think Once Upon a Time in America challenges The Godfather‘s place in crime cinema, but notably Leone avoids Coppola’s glorification of crime: we may want to see the street hoodlums succeed as children but as a gang he forces us to see them as extortionists, rapists and murders, unpleasant as it may be.