Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Once Upon a Time in America is available to rent, buy and stream.

Sergio Leone’s epic tale of friendship, betrayal and revenge is possibly one of the finest depression-era dramas ever made. Yet despite his swan song picture receiving a raucous twenty-minute standing ovation at Cannes, it earned just $5.3 million on a $30 million budget, making it a box office flop. This may be why this razor-sharp exploration of immigration, isolation, economic depression and crime is so often overlooked.

Once Upon a Time in America is as emotionally relentless as it is gritty and beautiful as we follow a group of friends from early adolescence to adulthood in a developing New York. Leone opens the film with four streetwise kids who understand the hidden rules of New York’s backstreets. Here the kids thrive and survive on a mix of low-level crime and violence, 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 trap of self-preservation and social isolation defined by position and class – the only escape route achieved through power, notoriety and status. But this escape route is built on a child’s view of the world, with little understanding of the long-term costs of their actions.

As they grow into young adults, Sergio Leone explores the journey from mouthy teenagers to adult criminals while never losing his focus on the individual’s vulnerability. Here the scale and nature of their crimes and the brief notoriety provided are wrapped in the sense of impending doom. After all, power eventually fades, and success can quickly turn into tragedy.

Despite the overarching darkness of his film, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America transcends the boundaries of the classic gangster movie. Here Leone delivers a beautifully framed exploration of how the choices made in our youth affect the trajectory of our adult life. The final scenes are wrapped in memories that can’t be changed, disagreements that can’t be healed and friendships that died due to a need for position, status and survival.

Italy | United States | 3hr 49min | Director: Sergio Leone


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