Essential Pick of the Week – Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Charting the journey of four friends over five decades. Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America has found itself eclipsed in recent years by the equally stunning Goodfellas and The Godfather. But this is a film that deserves an equal amount of praise and attention. As it wraps the viewer in a truly epic tale of friendship, betrayal and revenge. While equally echoing the volatility of the journey from teenager to adult in a landscape of economic depression and crime.

Once Upon a Time in America is as relentless and emotionally powerful as it is gritty. In a depiction of poverty and violence that hums with a realism rarely seen in depression crime dramas. Leone opens the film with four young friends growing up in 1930s New York. All of them street kids who understand the hidden rules of the New York backstreets they inhabit. Each one both thriving and surviving on a mix of low level crime and violence. While protecting each other from the dangers of the adult world that swirls around them.

These are the children of immigrants, their lives caught in a mix of self preservation and social isolation. As one immigrant group outstrips the other in terms of position and class. Ultimately creating a group of young people who understand that power and success comes through notoriety and position. While equally having little understanding of the social costs of their actions.

As they grow into young adults Sergio Leone beautifully encapsulates the journey from teenage bravado and mouth to adult criminality and a sense of invulnerability. The true scale and nature of their actions hidden under the brief notoriety and power their criminal behaviour brings. But power eventually fades, and the petals that brought colour and life eventually fall. Leaving nothing but old age and wisdom at the journey taken and choices made.

Despite the overarching darkness of the film, Once Upon a Time in America transcends the normal cliches of the gangster movie. Delivering a beautifully framed and performed examination of the choices made in youth and their eventual translation into adult life. While dovetailing this with a commentary on the shroud of invincibility we wear in our younger years. And the harsh reality of lifting this shroud as we enter our later adult life.

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Robert De NiroJames WoodsElizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Burt Young, Joe Pesci


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