Once Upon a Time in America Is Every Bit as Great a Gangster Movie as The Godfather

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When Once Upon a Time in America first ran in theaters, there were reports that people in the audience laughed when Deborah is reintroduced after a 35-year gap in the action. She hadn’t aged at all. But Deborah is representational to Leone, beyond the character.

“Age can wither me, Noodles,” she says. But neither the character nor the director will allow the audience to see it beyond the cold cream. Deborah is the character Leone is answering to. She also embodies the fluid chronology of the storytelling. She is its only constant.

The rest of the film can feel like a free fall though. Whereas The Godfather moved in a linear fashion, Once Upon a Time in America has time for flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, and detours that careen between the violent and the quiet. It’s a visceral experience about landing where we, and this genre, began.

Growing up Gangster

Both The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America span decades; it’s the history of immigrant crime in 20th century America. But they differ on chronological placement. Once Upon a Time is set in three time-frames. The earliest is 1918 in the Jewish ghettos of New York City’s Lower East Side. 

Young Noodles (Scott Tiler), Patrick “Patsy” Goldberg (Brian Bloom), Philip “Cockeye” Stein (Adrian Curran) and Dominic (Noah Moazezi), are a bush league street gang doing petty crimes for a minor neighborhood mug, Bugsy (James Russo). New on the block, Max (Rusty Jacobs) interrupts the gang as they’re about to roll a drunk, and Max makes off with the guy’s watch for himself. He soon joins the gang, and they progress to bigger crimes.

The bulk of the film takes place, however, from when De Niro’s Noodles gets out of prison in 1930, following Bugsy’s murder, and lasts until the end of Prohibition in 1933. Max, now played by Woods, has become a successful bootlegger with a mortuary business on the side. With William Forsythe playing the grown-up Cockeye and James Hayden as Patsy, the mobsters go from bootlegging through contract killing, and ultimately to backing the biggest trucking union in the country as enforcers. They enjoy most of their downtime in their childhood friend Fat Moe’s (Larry Rapp) speakeasy. Noodles is in love with Fat Moe’s sister, Deborah, who is on her way to becoming a Hollywood star. The gang’s rise ends with the liquor delivery massacre.

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