Thursday, September 21, 2006

14. The late Italian director Sergio Leone's US masterpiece "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984): A great swansong

Not many realize that Sergio Leone was offered the chance to direct Puzo's The Godfather but opted to make Once Upon a Time in America. They say he regretted this decision later in life--but it would be pertinent to know why someone like Leone would have made such a decision.

Any Leone fan would know the importance the director gives to music, structure of the story, the importance of money and how it corrupts many values. All these elements are underlined in this gangster film. In Coppola's work, the story afforded more importance to social details, character details and fabulous camera-work. Both works are monumental--but I preferred Leone's work, truncated to less than 4 hours than his original cut of 6 hours.

The music. Leone's favorite Ennio Morricone provided one of the finest film music for this film and he won awards for this film as he had won praise for Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and a host of other spaghetti westerns by Leone. But the real contributor of music was a Romanian flute player called Georghe Zamfir who plays the brilliant, haunting Pan's song just as Zamfir played the same tune equally effectively in Australian Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock made 9 years before Leone's film. Weir and Leone both know their music and both need to be complimented for picking up this obscure Romanian to enhance their films. Leone's cinema does not limit to brilliance of music--he uses sound to give effects that surpass the camera eye. The ringing telephone--a telephone ring that persists before the number dial moves on the instrument--provided a stamp of Leone that no viewer will easily forget--and no director had accomplished so effectively. Of course, the telephone call was so central to the film's plot. If the telephone was not enough, the sound of the lift moving up (without a passenger) plays another aural reminder of Leone's cleverness behind the camera.

The structure. Leone's screenplay of switching from the present to the past and vice versa increases the entertainment value. Coppola's work was linear and less demanding of the viewer. In many ways Leone's work comes very close to the Coppola's third Godfather film--his least appreciated Godfather film, which mixes pathos, irony and closure to intrigues. Leone's film is many ways quite philosophical as was Coppola's Godfather III--far removed from the brutal and power-hungry Godfather I and II. Leone was able to add a dash of comedy--scenes with antics of the Artful Dodger in Carol Reed's Oliver! are copied in the sequences of the early years. Leone's comedy can span from a simple act of hungry boy eating a cream pastry that he had bought to impress his love interest to a young girl taunting her boy lover that "his mother is calling" when his male friend whistles. Coppola's cinema rarely dealt with comedy, unless it was a precursor to tragedy. Several sequences where Leone switches time--the eyes of the protagonist changing from the old to the young man, the appearance of the protagonist in the railway station, and the Frisbee hitting the protagonist as he walks the lonely cold street--makes the film more exciting and colorful. The long film is suddenly less boring as it entertains you while unfolding the saga. The switching of the female child with the male, the corruption among the law enforcers, and the obvious dwarfing of the female characters against the male parts for Leone appears more pronounced than in Coppola, because the intent is to underline the weakness of male folly at the height of their power.

The film is Leone's essay on American's interest in getting rich and powerful at the cost of simple values of honor and friendship. At the end the director emphasizes the importance of honor and friendship even among gangsters and even women who often ultimately seek the rich guy to live with rather than the true lover.

The effect of De Niro's final laugh at the camera can be interpreted in several ways. Who is he laughing at? The camera? The audience? The irony of his life? Is the chase for money worth it? It reminds me of Richard Burton's character, a vicious bank robber, who in the final shot of the remarkable British film Villain (1971) turns around at the camera and shouts "Who do you think you are looking at?"

Leone could not have made Godfather I or II, but he could have dealt with Godfather III. And Coppola could never have made Once upon a time in America. Leone's decision to change the name of the film from the novel's name The Hoods gives an indication of where the director is leading the audience.

The more you see the film you realize the film is a robust one that will stand the test of time because Leone did not want to merely present an interesting saga on screen but entertain intelligently.


Jesse said...

I love this movie. thanks you so much. this is the single best thing ive read on the internet in weeks.

Jugu Abraham said...

Thanks for the feedback, Jesse. That keeps me going...

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Sir, I must say that I couldn't agree with you more on this one. No other director living or dead can actually come close to Leone's ingenuity in Once Upon a Time in America, a movie for which he waited for almost two decades. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the remarkable service that you are rendering to cinema, simultaneously educating and enlightening cinema lovers like me.

Jugu Abraham said...

Thanks, Murtaza.