How do you end the story? or, the not-happily-ever-after of ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (July 17, 2020)

He was running. Absolutely running, with nowhere to go. And he was not yet four-and-twenty.

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

One of the real pleasures of the last few months has been having more opportunities (and motivation) to watch and re-watch a variety of movies. This has included viewings of a number of classics of Hollywood and global cinema alongside my teenage son Owen. Seeing them anew through his eyes has opened up so many unexpected insights and for this I thank him. 

Most recently on the bill was Sergio Leone’s final film, Once Upon a Time in America (C’era una volta in America, 1984). Earlier in the spring, we screened Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent Godfather trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990); and Leone’s brilliant “Dollars trilogy” (Trilogia del dollaro) (1964, 1965, 1966) has long been a family favorite. I am also beginning work on a book on cultural production in the year 1984, making Leone’s film a must see. So after a fortifying dinner of Reubens, knishes, and matzo ball soup from Katz’s Deli (alas, here in north Florida, such a tempting meal remains a social-isolation-fueled dream), we decided it was time to invest the nearly four hours needed to watch in its entirety the “European cut” of Once Upon a Time in America. At the end, Owen agreed it is an extraordinary experience and we strongly recommend everyone to see or re-see it in this version. 

What especially struck me on this viewing is how much the film both responds to the mythos of organized crime and especially the “family business” of the Mafia—a mythos in a large part, of course, fueled by the success of The Godfather films—and develops a rich meditation on an individual’s responsibility for their choices. In these regards, Once Upon a Time in America speaks as much to us today as it did to its original audience in the mid-1980s.

The story goes that Leone’s interest in making the film began in the 1960s after he first read The Hoods (1952), a memoir by the Russian Jewish immigrant Harry “Noodles” Grey (the pseudonym of Herschel Goldberg [1901-1980]) of his days as a gangster and bootlegger in the 1920s and early 30s. (Leone’s interest may have been sparked by the fact that in the opening chapter, one of Grey’s friends is berated by his Lower East Side high school teacher for reading “Western thrillers,” or what the she refers to as “filthy literature,” romanticizing the exploits of Jesse James. A few pages later, a teen-aged Grey reflects, “I visualized all of us on horses, six-shooters in our hands, banging away at a pursuing posse. That would be fun, I thought.”) Leone’s plan for his treatment took further shape after an interview with Goldberg, who, now in his 60s, reported to be still in hiding from his former associates. 

Given the tremendous popularity of Leone’s “spaghetti westerns,” the director was among the first to be approached to work on the film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s best-seller The Godfather (1969). However, as Leone disliked Puzo’s novel he politely declined and continued to work on his adaptation. It would be another twelve years before Leone’s film would come to realization and it cost him a good deal in terms of his own health. Leone and his crew reportedly generated between 8 and 10 hours of usable footage and Leone initially decided he would release his masterpiece—in a fashion not unlike a number of recent blockbusters—in two 3-hour long segments. These would stand as the climax of his revisionist “Once Upon a Time” trilogy—preceded by Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Duck, You Sucker! (also known as A Fistful of Dynamite or Once Upon a Time…The Revolution, 1971). The studio balked—in part because of the box-office failure of the two-part release of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976)— and so Leone further reworked the material until he had a 229-minute version, which premiered at the Cannes film festival in May 1984 and was subsequently released throughout Europe. (A “restored” 269-minute version has been produced but never released due to legal wrangling over copyright. In 2014, a 251-minute “extended directors cut” was made available on DVD, although which version Leone himself would have preferred is a matter of debate.)

However, for the U.S. release and without Leone’s permission the film was further cut to 139 minutes. Even more disastrously, Leone’s complex plot structure was completely revised, and the resulting film proved to be a critical and commercial flop. The popular television reviewer Gene Siskel was not alone in proclaiming the U.S. theatrical release to be the worst movie of the year—however, Siskel then selected Leone’s original cut as his best movie of the year! Meanwhile, the violence done to his film and its reception in the U.S. proved a further blow to Leone and he would not complete another film before his death in 1989 at the age of 60.

Once Upon a Time in America opens in December 1933 at the end of prohibition, with a scene of a young woman (Darlanne Fluegel) entering a darkened hotel room. There, she encounters a group of thugs who are searching for her lover, the bootlegger, David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro). When she says she does not know where he is, they murder her. We soon learn that Noodles—after coming upon the bodies of his three fellow gangsters, who apparently have been killed in a shoot-out with the police—has holed up in a Chinatown opium den (really more of a cultural center, as it also contains a restaurant and shadow puppet theater) and fallen into a deep hallucinogenic slumber. The film closes with a brief scene of Noodles as he first enters the den. He takes off his jacket, inhales his first drags of opium, and lies back, smiling into the camera as the credits begin to roll.

Within this frame, Once Upon a Time in America moves back and forth between episodes drawn from three moments in the life of Noodles and his compatriots. First, we are introduced to a teen-aged Noodles (Scott Tiler) and follow him as he establishes his gang, encounters the person who will turn out to be his partner and rival, Maximillian “Max” Bercovicz (Rusty Jacobs), and romances the love of his youth, Deborah Gelly (played in her film debut by Jennifer Connelly, most recently known for her key role in TNT’s entertaining Snowpiercer series). This set of vignettes culminates in Noodles’ imprisonment for the murder of a rival gangster. 

The second sequence leaps forward to the late 1920s with Noodles’ release from prison. He rejoins the gang, who are now powerful and wealthy bootleggers, and attempts to persuade Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) to marry him. These episodes conclude with the murder of Max (James Woods) along with the two other gang leaders and Noodles’ retreat to the opium den. 

The third sequence concerns Noodles’ return to New York City 35 years later, after he receives a note informing him of the relocation of the bodies of his partners from their original Lower East Side grave site. Crucially, this third set (along with the tale of Noodles’ escape from New York) differs from the first two in that it is occurs after the events of the frame.

Leone’s framing has raised a long-running debate over how to read the events we witness on screen. (Spoiler alert: I need to give away some major, and surprising, plot twists. If like me you believe in the pleasures of storytelling and if, unlike me, you haven’t yet seen the film, then I suggest you go and watch it before reading the rest of this post). The frame presents two options to the viewer: either, 1) everything we have witnessed has occurred in “reality;” or, 2) everything we see on screen after Noodles first imbibes opium (or perhaps, after he is momentarily awoken by a ringing telephone, which Slavoj Žižek significantly reads as introducing into the narrative a split between “symbolized reality and the surplus of the Real”) are his memories of the past and a fantasy of an alternate future. In this future, not only does Max remain alive—it turns out, Max sacrificed their partners and faked his own death to steal the million dollars the gang had hidden away—he has, under the new name of Christopher Bailey, become a wealthy west coast businessman, an influential, if corrupt, politician, and the husband of the now celebrated actress Deborah. In short, do the “real” events of the film end in 1968 as does the linear “story” (or what the Russian Formalist critics call its фабула [fabula]); or do they end in 1933, as is literally the case in the film’s non-linear “plot” (сюжет [syuzhet])? Nothing in the film gives us a definitive answer; and neither would Leone. His intent was to leave the matter unsettled, and it is this indeterminacy that makes Once Upon a Time in America one of the great realist and filmic examples of the rare genre Tzetvan Todorov names the fantastic: “The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre.”

The question if we accept the latter possibility is thus what would lead Noodles to retreat into such a fantasy? The answer is revealed in his actions that lead up to the death of his partners. On the night they plan to commit a petty crime, Noodles calls the police and informs on them. He does so with the aim of getting all four of them incarcerated for a short time—“probably one year,” he speculates. He hopes the time behind bars will break Max’s obsession with a suicidal plan to rob the federal reserve bank. However, just before their departure, Max, in an apparent fit of rage, knocks Noodles unconscious. When he wakes up and discovers the disastrous turn of events, Noodles’ guilt over what he has done overwhelms him and he flees to the opium den. (As a friend reminds me too, the guilty flashback on the part of the criminal has been a key aspect of Leone’s films from For a Few Dollars More (1965).)

Crucially, in the 1960s segment Noodles is given a chance at redemption. Late in the film Noodles encounters Max at a party held at the latter’s mansion. Max tells Noodles that he is the one who has enticed Noodles to return to New York. Max then reveals that he has become ensnared in a federal corruption investigation and the information he possesses will be enough to destroy his well-known partners-in-crime. He is sure that before he can testify, he will be murdered—after all, it is that nightmarish year of assassinations, 1968. For these reasons, Max has decided to give Noodles the opportunity to do away with him, which Max feels will be a just payback for his betrayal of Noodles 35 years earlier. 

Noodles not only refuses, he persists in referring to Max as “Mr. Bailey” and declares, in a Bartleby-like affirmation of a nonpredicate, that he prefers to not-believe Bailey’s story. Max asks, “Is this your idea of revenge?” and Noodles replies, “No. It’s just the way I see things.” When he arrives on the street in front of Bailey’s house, Noodles sees a garbage truck start its engine and then spies in the distance what appears to be Max approaching the vehicle. After the truck passes by, Max is nowhere to be seen, leaving open the possibility that either, 1) Max has just prevented his planned murder of Noodles and has returned to his house (the “Crime does not pay” lesson of the murder of both Max and Noodles by each other’s hands would have probably been the film’s ending had it been released before the repeal of the Hays Code); or, 2) Max has committed suicide by diving into the vehicle’s trash grinder. (Leone further heightened the ambiguity by using a stand-in for Woods and refusing to tell the actor what transpired in the scene. Reportedly, there is no ambiguity in the original U.S. theatrical version, as after his departure Noodles hears a gun shot from inside Max’s home.) Right before the film cuts to the 1933 closing scene, Noodles “sees” revelers driving past in pre-war vehicles and dressed in old-fashioned clothing: are they real or part of Noodles’ fantasy? Although all these things could have occurred in reality, the incongruities work to reinforce the open-endedness of the conclusion. 

Moreover, on even further reflection, the viewer recalls that the film has introduced a whole series of possible endings, many of which are accompanied by figures of doors. For example, in the opening 1930s sequence, we see Noodles at the bus terminal hesitate as he is about to step through a doorway into the void of an indeterminate future. Perhaps this is where the film “ends,” and his return 35 years later—to which the film immediately segues as Noodles re-enters New York through the same doorway—are his fantasy, dreamt up along his road to “anywhere” (named by a ticket seller as “Buffalo”). 

Or again, shortly after his return to the city, Noodles learns from Deborah’s brother, Fat Moe (Larry Rap)—the owner of a run-down Lower East Side bar that had once been the bootleggers’ jazz-age club and before that his father’s Jewish restaurant—that he too had received a similar relocation notice from the cemetery. Moreover, he informs Noodles that while his sister has become a successful actress, he has not spoken with her in many years. He then invites the frustrated Noodles to spend the night in his apartment. After dark, Noodles climbs on the toilet and pulls open a small hidden door. As he peers through, the film flashes back to an image of a teen-aged Deborah as she dances in the storage room before she spies a youthful Noodles peering through the same door. All of this again hints that perhaps the real narrative action ends here, Noodles belated and confused return to the city prompting both his memories of the past and his fantasy of an alternate and more satisfying conclusion to his dealings with Max. 

Finally, upon Noodles’ release from prison, Max arrives to pick him up—Max driving a hearse no less—and Noodles re-enters the criminal life by passing through the vehicle’s door (and into the arms of the voluptuous prostitute waiting inside). Is Noodles’ imprisonment then, which also begins with him walking through another set of imposing doors, to be understood as the conclusion of his story, making his reunion and subsequent successes and failures no more than a “crime thriller” fantasy constructed by the still incarcerated young man (as was Goldberg when he began writing his memoir)? As Red (Morgan Freeman) notes in the wonderful utopian film, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), “Prison time is slow time. So you do what you can to keep going.”

Even more significant are the film’s possible endings that follow on the heels of acts of deadly violence performed by Noodles. (The graphic portrayals of torture, rape, and murder were another reason for the drastic editing of the film for its U.S. theatrical release.) First, Noodles is sent to prison because he has stabbed to death a competitor, albeit in retribution for the shooting of one of his gang members—but, he then also stabs a police officer who tries to intervene. Secondly, shortly after his release from prison, Noodles commits another murder when he tracks down and shoots a mobster that his gang has betrayed. Noodles is furious that he was not told of the planned double-cross and in response he drives their car off the end of a city pier. The possibility that Noodles drowns in the crash is reinforced in a scene deleted by Leone from his cut (it now can be viewed online) where the other three gang members fall into panic when Noodles fails to resurface (although it is equally possible that this is pay-back for a similar practical joke played on Noodles by Max years earlier). 

Third, and most significant of all, later in the film Noodles takes Deborah on a lavish and costly dinner date, where he expresses his love for her and asks her to marry him. Although she tells him that she cares deeply for him, she refuses and informs him that she will depart the next day for Hollywood. During their ride home in the back of a chauffeured car, Deborah tenderly kisses Noodles. Perhaps this is meant as a farewell; or it may be a sign that she has reconsidered. We never learn the truth, because Noodles responds by brutally raping her. After an excruciating amount of time has passed, the driver halts the car. Noodles disembarks and the vehicle speeds away with the distraught young woman. We then see Deborah’s departure and learn that Noodles spends the next few weeks mourning in the opium den. This revelation raises the possibility that the concluding scene is of Noodles entering the den even earlier, on the heels of his rape of Deborah, and that it is her departure that instigates his flight from the real.

These multiple possible endings and our inability to decide between them offer important clues to the film’s central message. Whatever “in reality” may be the narrative’s conclusion, what becomes clear is that Noodles “real” flight is from what Žižek refers to as the “properly traumatic” experience of freedom. Žižek further points out, “it is easy to accept that we are just a speck of dust in the infinite universe; what is much more difficult to accept is that we really are immortal beings who, as such, cannot escape the terrible responsibility of their freedom.” Žižek’s insight very much applies to Noodles. All the terrible events in his life—his imprisonment, his break with Deborah, and the deaths of his friends and lover—are consequences of choices made by Noodles and it is this truth from which he tries to run. This makes Noodles a lot like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Both young men try to dodge responsibility for their actions: “You had to listen to him as you would to a small boy in trouble. He didn’t know. It had happened somehow. It would never happen again.” Also like Jim, Noodles expresses the desire to begin again with a “clean slate,” where his past acts and guilt have been wiped away. Finally, both men find redemption only in fantasy, whether such fantasy be reality or a dream.

The indeterminacy of what is reality and what is fantasy also transforms the film into a mirror held up to every viewer: it all depends on the way you “see things.” Those who conclude that the 1968 events are “in reality” are also often those who want to hold on to both dreams of heroic redemption—“He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane”—and the notion of a more authentic inner self distinct from our choices. However, Leone’s film repeatedly reminds us that even if Noodles makes a better decision in the future this does not erase what he has done in the past or lessen his responsibility: we can learn from our past, but we cannot change it. Once Upon a Time in America, Conrad’s Lord Jim, and other works like them teach us that we are what we choose to do, and it is our actions more than our internal fantasies that define our true selves.

This complex open-ended structure also serves an important role in Leone’s rejoinder to The Godfather. The link between the first two Godfather films and Once Upon a Time in America is further suggested by Leone’s choice of De Niro to portray Noodles. Al Pacino plays Michael in all three Godfather films, as he moves from a being a young decorated veteran in the days immediately following the Second World War to someone who is by the late 1970s a wealthy and immensely powerful head of a global corporation. An aged Vito is memorably brought to life in the first film by Marlon Brando. In the second film, however, Brando never appears on screen and instead a young Vito is equally memorably played by . . . De Niro. Moreover, The Godfather II also deploys an interweaving narrative structure, shifting back and forth between the story of Michael’s efforts in the months preceding the Cuban Revolution to transform his family’s business and flashbacks to Vito’s emigration in the early years of the twentieth century from Sicily to New York’s Little Italy up through his rise to power in the 1920s. (Revealingly, while alluded to, the violence of the gang wars of the 1930s and Vito’s actions in that period never appear on screen). 

These similarities aside, the narrative structure and ultimate vision of Coppola’s and Leone’s films diverge dramatically. Despite its elements of fantasy, Once Upon a Time in America formally offers a realist portrayal of the lives of Noodles and his compatriots. Fredric Jameson once pointed out that in any authentic realism, the author “does not really know what he will find beforehand.” This means that every event in the story should feel as if it opens up onto a number of possible resolutions, each of which is contingent on the free choices made by the protagonists. 

 Coppola’s mode, on the hand, is the very different one of tragedy. And as tragic figures whose destiny is determined by fate, Vito and Michael cannot be judged according to the criteria of good and evil. In the spirit of classical tragedy, the pair are portrayed as noble men, who, while they may do bad things are not bad in and of themselves. They come to their tragic ends precisely because of a fatal conflict between their unbending wills (their harmartia, “a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine”) and forces external to them. Indeed, the films show that many of their worst deeds are “forced” upon them by the evil of other men. 

Take the case of Michael. His intent at the beginning of the first film is to stay far away from his family’s criminal enterprise. He is drawn in only after an assassination attempt on his father, who has been targeted by other gangsters because of his principled refusal, whatever the lost profits, to support the trafficking in heroin. Michael realizes that the only way to truly protect his father is to murder those who want to do him harm. He is similarly forced to become the head of the family after his older impulsive and violent brother Sonny (James Caan) is brutally murdered. And finally, it is the plots against him that forces Michael to eliminate both the leaders of the other factions and one of his father’s closest associates—as well as his brother-in-law who has confessed to setting up Sonny.

In the second film, Michael struggles to make legitimate his family’s various business interests. However, again he is forced into violence by the combination of the racism of a corrupt Nevada senator, the desire for vengeance on the part of his business partner, and, worst of all, betrayal by his remaining brother Fredo. (Fredo is played by the extraordinarily talented John Cazale. Cazale appeared in only five films between 1972 and his untimely death in 1978, but all five—the first two GodfathersThe Conversation (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and The Deer Hunter (1978)—were nominated for the best picture Oscar, two of them in the same year and three of them winning.) Even his last efforts at redemption in the third film—protecting his son and daughter and supporting the good man John Paul I’s efforts to reform the Catholic Church—are thwarted. In the last film, Michael famously cries out, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” We the viewers realize this has always been the case, and it is the casting of Michael as a victim of fate (them) that makes him such a prototypically tragic figure.

It is this reimaging of the criminal as tragic—again, someone who is not really free and hence beyond judgment as good or evil—that Leone thoroughly demolishes in Once Upon a Time in America. Imagine the response in the U.S., his story seems to suggest, if he made a film that cast the leaders of Italian fascism as similarly tragic heroes, noble men forced to act in the ways they did by the nations around them? The only ones who bear the responsibility for their actions, Leone’s film maintains, are these men, be they Noodles, Max, Michael, Vito, or Mussolini and his partners-in-crime. 

 And here we arrive at the continued timeliness of Once Upon a Time in America. Such a tragic mythos extends beyond the figure of the immigrant gangster and is applied to many aspects of twentieth- and twenty-first century American life. First, it is no coincidence that Leone sets the action of the final sequence in 1968, for among other reasons, this is the year of the election of Richard Nixon as the President of the United States and the beginning of the long historical wave that has led to the present. Revealingly, the title of a 2015 study of Nixon’s presidency is One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon. Furthermore, recall that when Leone’s film was first released, there was a concerted effort underway to re-narrate the actions of the U.S. in Vietnam and other hot spots of the Cold War not as ethical and political failures, freely initiated crimes for which the nation collectively bore responsibility, but as tragedies.

Even in Coppola’s own monumental treatment of the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now (1979), the question arises as to whether the character of Kurtz (Brando)—adapted as is much of the film’s narrative structure from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)—is evil or tragic. We are left to wonder whether Kurtz is brought down by his “unsound methods” or by the conflict between his core values—the film’s version is no hollow man—and the cowardly pragmatism of his superiors: “these were not monsters. These were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.” Could it also have been some obscure recognition of how out of step Leone’s vision was with Reagan’s “Morning in America” (a moment too when the older heroic figure of the cowboy so effectively undercut by Leone’s 1960s westerns was also being revived) that contributed to the decision to undertake the extreme and disastrous editorial efforts to make the film more “palatable” to a U.S. audience?

Such an ethos continues unabated into our millennium. For example, as the sad case of Ward Churchill reminds us, any attempt to locate some responsibility for the 9/11 attacks as “blowback” for U.S. policy decisions and the actions of the military around the world were met with swift and brutal reprisals. Even more recently, while the book itself is quite critical, the title of Glenn Greenwald’s 2007 best-seller, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency suggests that the catastrophe of the second Bush administration’s actions in the Middle East are less free choices than tragic failures, instigated by the harmartia of too simplistic a moral world view. Even in terms of Trump’s presidency some already seek to explain the crimes that he and those around him have committed through recourse to the formal logic of tragedy: “Yet there is an undeniably tragic quality to the Trump presidency . . . . Why? Because Trump did have some valid and important insights into America’s current problems and he had a chance to do something about them when he got elected. That opportunity has been wasted, however, and Trump’s flaws as a politician, strategist, and human being are the main reason why.” 

This encapsulates in its most fundamental form the work of ideology or what Roland Barthes calls mythology: “myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear. . . . it transforms history into nature.” Leone’s great film cracks open such myth making and teaches us that until we refuse the comforts of tragic modes of national storytelling, “Once upon a time,” and face up fully to our responsibility for our actions, we will remain trapped in a repetitious structure where the encounter with the truth about ourselves never comes and we retreat further and further into fantasy—into our dreams. But the dream of a better world is not a better world. The latter will only come into being when we wake up, attend to the truth of what has come before, and begin to act in new ways. 

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