Three versions of this movie exist. Two of them, so I’ve read, were ruined in the editing. Make sure you get the 225-minute European version of this film.
The movie follows four friends through four decades. It opens with Noodles (Robert De Niro) leaving New York in a hurry. The million dollars his gang made is not in its hiding place, but he has to leave without it because some thugs have been sent to kill him and are hot on his trail.
The movie flashes forward to the “present,” when Noodles is an old man. He is returning to New York at the vague invitation of whoever took the money all those years ago. He knows he’s been invited back to be killed, but curiosity drives him. The other members of his gang were all killed, so he needs to know who ended up with the million.
The movie flashes back to points in the past. Each segment is introduced thematically, not chronologically, but we do learn the story of Noodles’ youth. He grew up a young nogoodnik on the streets of New York. Eventually he runs into Max, an older boy who also has a penchant for street crime. The two team up and soon they have a four-person gang.
Their gang gets strong enough that they start making headway against other gangs, real gangs, of grownups. Chance brings them to a tunnel one day in which they encounter a cruel rival who recognizes them as the young upstarts. The rival draws a gun and starts shooting. The youngest member of the gang (who’s only about 10) is killed in the street and the others take cover where they can. Noodles sees an opening and stabs the killer to death. A bit of bad timing brings the police, who catch Noodles blood-red-handed.
When Noodles comes out of prison he is a changed man. He is more cautious and less eager for the dangerous jobs. He’s still part of the gang, but he’s not okay with unnecessary violence or risk. So when the rest of the gang starts talking about The Big Job, Noodles is apprehensive.
He devises a plan to teach them what he learned in prison. He’s going to get them caught on a minor bootlegging charge, giving them each a couple years in prison, where he hopes they will decide The Big Job is not worth the risk. But something goes wrong and instead of going to prison, the gangsters end up dead and burned.
Which brings us back to Noodles’ curiosity at the missing million dollars. After thirty years, who could be calling him out of the past?
Once Upon a Time in America is masterfully edited. I might not have noticed had I not read that the American version, edited chronologically, was so much worse. But having that knowledge made me realize how inspired the structure was.
In the European version, the entire movie is like a mystery. We know the beginning and we know the ending, but we don’t know how the one became the other. We are engrossed as each scene reveals a critical piece about the plot or the characters. Linking scenes by their importance to the story (and not necessarily by their timeline) makes each individual piece more interesting.
Edited chronologically, the movie is merely another gangster movie; Leonard Maltin liked the re-sequenced film; Roger Ebert hated it. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t really say, except that part of what made the movie so good was its original structure, and that would be lost. I might even go so far as to say that what I liked best about the movie was its final scene (which is not set in the “present.”) Without giving the last scene away, I can say that by going back to that previous time and place, we know perfectly what Noodles’ state of mind is. No ending set in the “present” could have had such power.
Unfortunately, the movie is prohibitively long for some viewers. The European version I saw is 15 minutes shy of 4 hours. The time flew by and the story held my interest, but it is often hard to schedule that much time for a movie.
But the holidays are coming up, and if you prefer something thoughtful to the televised alternatives, Once Upon a Time in America is a great evening.