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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director's (Blu-ray)
Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director's (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // R // September 30, 2014 // Region A
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Oktay Ege Kozak | posted September 29, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

One of Roger Ebert's most famous quotes is "No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough". When I found out that Sergio Leone's swan song masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America was going to be re-released in a restored and extended edition that added 22 minutes of previously lost footage to an epic that was already pushing four hours, I was ecstatic.

Based on Harry Grey's autobiographical novel The Hoods, about his rise as a Jewish gangster during the prohibition, Once Upon a Time in America was a passion project for Sergio Leone (Do I really need to remind you what else he directed? Okay, fine: The Man with No Name Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in The West) that took 15 years of constant, ongoing work to bring to the big screen.

Leone's original cut was a whopping six hours long, which he wanted to split into two three-hour films. When the studio shut down that idea, Leone cut his vision down to the 229-minute theatrical version we've known and loved for the last thirty years.

There was also a shameful bastardization of the film from The Ladd Company, which owned its USA distribution. For the film's initial Stateside release, they chopped Leone's already compromised international cut further down to an incomprehensible 139 minutes, which was mocked by critics who saw the international cut. We shall never speak of this black spot on cinema history ever again.

Before we get to the new footage and how it affects the overall story, let's first focus on the theatrical version's impact on film history. Quite possibly the best gangster film ever made, Once Upon a Time in America is a sprawling epic about the loss of innocence via the corrupting power of greed, a cynical yet gorgeous old-school tragedy that splits three different time periods in the life of a New York-based Jewish gangster affectionately known as "Noodles" (Robert DeNiro).

The first period is unspecified, but a little bit of math places in the early 20s. It tells the story of how Noodles and his gang rose to power as child hoodlums as they stole their way to the top in a Jewish neighborhood in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The second period takes place in the early 30s, as Noodles and his partner Max (James Woods) become bona fide players in the world of organized crime during the prohibition era. The third period, 1968, shows Noodles, now an old man on the run for 35 years, coming back to his hometown to settle old debts after his hiding place is discovered by a mysterious source.

Instead of stringing these periods back-to-back in a traditional linear fashion, which the initial American cut futilely tried to do (Damn, I mentioned it again, didn't I?), Leone expertly weaves a dream-like non-linear narrative that seamlessly transitions between various flashbacks and flashforwards while utilizing some of the most groundbreaking match-cuts in film history.

Take the first flashback to Noodles' childhood, for example: Old Noodles remembers peeking on Deborah (Jennifer Connelly, in her first film role), a dancer he was in love with, through a hole in the wall. Not only does the back-and-forth cutting between young Deborah and old Noodles subtly eases the audience into the flashback, the manner of which it takes place thematically supports the story as a whole, since Noodles looking at Deborah represents him peeking into the innocence he lost, the innocence he could only observe from a distance.

It's no secret that my favorite section is also the one that doesn't involve any of the film's stars: The 1920s sequences. Backed by natural performances by the child actors playing the young versions of Noodles and his gang, as well as the dream-like cinematography and production design that pops out the nostalgia factor to the nth degree (Leone was inspired by Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell while constructing the film's visual style), the childhood scenes have a timeless quality to them, even more so than the rest of the film.

Aside from the violent shenanigans Noodles and Max get themselves into, the best scenes in this section are the more understated ones. My favorite scene in the entire film doesn't involve any of the main characters and is not even vital to the story as a whole. It's about Patsy, the scrawny and shy member of Noodles' gang, buying an expensive cake to give to an underage hooker named Peggy so he can pop his cherry. While waiting for Peggy, he can't help himself and devours the cake.

In a way, Leone's thesis for the entire story is hidden inside this technically uncomplicated but emotionally powerful sequence. Patsy is so driven to become a man while he's still a child, that he forgets he's still at the age where he might value sweets over women. Throughout the film, he's the only one who gives into his childhood urges and remains innocent, if only for a fraction of a minute.

There are many similar moments, most of them ending with a character choosing to play with the big boys instead of enjoying the fleeting charm of childhood innocence. Noodles choosing to answer to Max's calls while being torn by Deborah's inviting eyes, which gets a callback during the 1930s section, is a famous example of this choice going the wrong way.

Of course, the 30s section has some of the most unforgettable sequences, the most entertaining of which is the cruel baby switcheroo perpetrated on a union-busting police chief (Danny Aeillo), who gets a rude surprise upon laying eyes on his newborn "son". The climax of this story is equally hilarious and infuriating, considering that, if it was indeed based on a real event, around fifty babies were raised by the wrong parents during the 1930s simply because of a union dispute.

The centerpiece of the 1930s sequences is the relationship between the adult Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) and Noodles. Leone eases the audience into a false sense of security as he presents Noodles' no-expense-spared romantic date with Deborah, only to have the night end in a shockingly horrifying and graphic scene. If you were on the fence about liking Noodles up until that point, I think it's safe to say that the end of that sequence will obliterate that fence. The scene is not constructed merely for shock value but makes perfect sense upon studying Noodles as a character: He's used to taking everything by force, why would anything be different this time around?

The 1968 section, on the other hand, has a lucid dream-like quality as Noodles tries to piece the mystery. There are some theories amongst fans that propose the possibility of these scenes merely being Noodles' vision while high on Opium. The notorious opening flashback, cut to the sound of a telephone ringing incessantly, as well as the enigmatic final scene supports these theories.

At the very least, some of the minor issues I have with this section, the lack of sufficient old-age make-up on the then 21-year-old Elizabeth McGovern, who was supposed to play a 60-plus-year-old, as well as the practical impossibility of a major character's death makes much more sense via this theory. Regardless, the dream-like atmosphere Leone infuses into those scenes still work perfectly well.

So, that was for the uninitiated. I'm guessing the hard-core fans are already asking "What about the extra footage!?" Calm down, here it is:

While many studios release "Extended Edition"s on their hit movies that provide little to no useful footage in order to cynically rake in some cash by conning fans to double-dip, Once Upon a Time in America's additional scenes brings us that much closer to Leone's original vision. Bear in mind that we're talking about a director who doesn't like any fat in his films, who had to cut his six-hour version down to four hours. It's not surprising to find out that the newly restored missing scenes add tremendously to the overall structure of the story.

A scene that restores Louise Flether's (Nurse Ratchet) role as a funeral home director delves deeper into the conspiracy surrounding 1968 Noodles, which is paid off later during another previously lost scene that ends with a literal bang. A brief but important conversation between the Jewish driver and Noodles not only explains the motivation behind the driver's actions at the end of Noodles' date with Deborah, it also shines a light on what the law-abiding Jewish citizens thought about his type.

The longest of these sequences elaborates more on Noodles' relationship with Eve (Darlanne Fluegel), which was breezed over in the theatrical version. Noodles' answer to whether Deborah made the right choice by leaving him to pursue acting makes much more sense after seeing him watch her in a play about Cleopatra. We also get a long scene during the party that covers the film's finale, which lets the party scenes breathe a bit more. In the theatrical version, the party climax always felt a bit rushed.

The Blu-Ray:


The majority of Once Upon a Time in America's running time consists of the previously available theatrical cut footage, which was meticulously restored in 4K for this release. Instead of creating a more colorful visual palette, the restoration pulls down some of the colors and showcases a presentation that focuses more on the grays, which is closer to Leone's intention. The 1080p Blu-Ray transfer is a visual feast that perfectly captures the film's exquisite cinematography by Leone regular Tonino Delli Colli. The entire film is squeezed into a single Blu-Ray Disc and sports an average bit rate of 15 mbps. However, any possible loss in detail and resolution due to the low bit rate is not noticable.

The restored lost footage, on the other hand, come from a workprint source and look faded and muddy. It basically looks like the precogs' visions from Minority Report. Yet compared to how terrible the previously lost footage in The Complete Metropolis looked, it's not so bad. I'm sure the restoration team did everything they could to make these scenes look as good as possible.


More than anything else, the DTS-HD 5.1 track is a treat for fans of maestro Ennio Morricone's spellbinding score. From the famous pan-flute theme to the three different arrangements by Morricone of the famous Spanish tune Amapola, this clean and powerful audio presentation will surround your home theater with its glory, even while not showcasing a particularly strong presence on the surround channels. The dialogue and sound effects are also mixed perfectly.


Excerpt From Once Upon A Time: Sergio Leone: This 20-minute excerpt was included on the original DVD release; it basically shows interviews with the cast and crew talking about Leone's dedication to the film.

We also get a Teaser and a Trailer.

Final Thoughts:

This lovingly restored Extended Edition brings fans of Once Upon a Time in America even closer to Leone's original vision. The footage from the theatrical cut looks better than it ever did and the additional footage helps supplement this epic story.

Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com

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