The Hero’s Journey in “Once Upon a Time in America”

Nearly everything about Leone’s last film—and greatest masterwork—speaks to the grand illusion of the American Dream. Narratively, it is steeped in the rich, aggressively violent history of the early days of our immigrant-hating nation, depicting quite brutally the underpinnings of male-oriented corruption that render many of today’s power structures. Contextually, the film as a cultural moment speaks to the agony and ecstasy of Americana, a great movie that was infamously botched upon release in one of the most shameful studio mishaps of our time, shortly preceding the heartbreaking death of Leone—which raised many to believe that the intensity and tragedy of America itself is what brought the Italian auteur to heart failure.

The film spans an entire lifetime of Jewish immigrants-turned-mob bosses. Led by Robert De Niro and James Woods, Leone charts their rise from the Jewish ghettos of turn-of-the-century New York City to a life of lavish excess, corruption, misogyny, and betrayal as stilted grown men. Told in a kaleidoscope of unchronological fragments, the film presents the emotional passage of these two men, Noodles and Max, as they recklessly tear their way through an unmerciful society of systemic oppression and cruelty.

The film becomes surprisingly prescient again today, because Once Upon a Time in America is as much a crime epic as it is an intricate exploration of entitled young men who might today call themselves incels: aggressively masculine, dismissive of women, yet violently obsessed with achieving sexual dominance.

Fitting in to the ever-burdensome history of American cinema’s fascination with sexual violence against women, Once Upon a Time in America features a vicious rape sequence that illustrates terrifyingly the wicked dangers of this form of male behavior.  Somehow, in spite of all their deplorable actions, it’s just impossible to take your eyes off the criminals of Leone’s “Kosher Nostra” film. Like the characters of all the truly great mob classics, Noodles and Max are empowered as a by product of their environment: early 20th century America. In typical Leone fashion, the film studies the faces of its cast intimately and defiantly, preferring long, extreme close-ups over action or set pieces to convey emotional depth. But more significantly than its obsession with the faces of Robert De Niro, James Woods, William Forsythe, Elizabeth McGovern, and a staggering swath of other prominent 1980s-era stars, is Leone and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli’s dedication to showcasing the transporting beauty, decadence, and decay of America.

There are three eras of America portrayed non-linearly in the film: the hard Jewish ghettos of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1920s, the Great Gatsby-esque exuberance of the 1930s Prohibition, and then the dark, gang-ridden streets of 1968 New York, post-modernity. Leone seeks to capture each era of New York with poetic truth on camera and in spirit. The early days of De Niro’s Noodles are full of childlike wonder for the Big City that so many have used as a synecdoche for our country as a whole. The wide shot of Noodles’s gang walking in Lower Manhattan with the massive Manhattan Bridge looming in the background has become iconic, with the old bridge looking almost like a hulking giant of fairy tales. Later, when De Niro’s character is released from prison, the Prohibition era of New York is portrayed almost like a playground for men of power, with rich decor, gaudy costumes, and grandiosity spilling into every frame.

And then Leone’s vision for the New York of 1968 is foreign and strange, perhaps reflective of what his view of the country may have felt like, being an aging Italian native making films in an industry that had deeply shifted from its auteristic roots, with frisbees whizzing around the city like UFOs and Rockwell-esque bar scenes amidst darkened corridors appearing almost like dreams.

The deeply mysterious ending of Once Upon a Time in America has puzzled viewers for decades. The film, which begins on an image of De Niro as a young man in 1930s New York silencing the terror of his tormented criminal life by suckling on a long pipe in an opium den, also ends with the same scene—although this time, Noodles is lying with his face up, smiling at the camera. Was it all a dream? Or perhaps a nightmare?