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11. Once Upon a Time in America 

Besides the opportunity to behold an uncannily recreated early 20th century Lower East Side where herds of orthodox Jews amble through narrow streets in their tallaisim and mobsters toss off a mournful L’chaim before downing a shot, it’s difficult at first to determine the relevance of legendary director Sergio Leone choosing Jewish criminals as the focus of his final film. The film’s title alludes to an intention to deliver a quintessential American story (if not fable) and the era chosen suggests the story will be told through the prism of the immigrant experience. A rags to riches tale so commonly associated with the fundamental American notion of achievement, yet instead of hard work, unwavering ethics, and fortitude, Leone shows us success gained via murder, mayhem, and the flouting of every civil rule.

Clearly, Once Upon a Time in America is a title drenched in irony as the American dream and the way to attain it becomes a twisted mockery of the celebrated ideal. Whether that is a fair and realistic interpretation of America, well, that depends on one’s level of cynicism.  In a post The Godfather (and The Godfather II) world, for Leone to even consider taking on an epically scoped (roughly four hour) New York gangster film (with Robert De Niro in the lead no less) took tremendous courage if not foolishness, Coppola had set the bar at an impossible height. Despite the quality of Leone’s film, even the best of receptions would merely denote its worshipful imitation of the original great mafia saga. Leone’s only chance to make an impression was to follow in The Godfather’s footsteps, but apply his own spin on the material (see Scorsese’s unique take on the subject also featuring De Niro, Goodfellas). Leone fortunately had already been recognized as having created (or substantially contributed to the founding of) a unique genre of filmmaking known as the spaghetti western, epitomized by his collaborations with Clint Eastwood including their masterpiece The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. The formula essentially consisted of non-American casts and crews, typically Italians and Spanish, trying their hand at a gritty American cinematic staple. The result was an outsider’s artistic, slightly patronizing perspective of our stoically serious, macho as hell tough guy culture. Leone figured, likely after being struck and inspired by The Godfather, that what worked for the western would work equally well for the gangster picture. Presumably to further disassociate his attempt from Coppola’s game changer, he thought to concentrate on a band of Jewish lowlifes instead of Italians. So we get De Niro, James Woods, William Forsythe, and other mean looking gentile actors portraying characters with the names like David Aaronson, Max Bercovicz, Phil Stein, and Patsy Goldberg. These soulless Yids are then put through the motions of mob movie standards, with their polished, respectable façades barely hiding the bloody chaos of political corruption and precarious tooth and nail survival.  But is that it? Is there no greater comment in relation to what Jews bring to the organized crime table? So they hang out in a restaurant where stars of David decorate the glass windows and they avoid attending services to burn and pillage the neighborhood. Are such atmospheric details (or indicators) the final word on Judaism for Leone and his movie (which was based on the novel The Hoods by Jewish gangster Harry Goldberg)?   

The answer is yes and no.

Once Upon a Time in America is more than anything else a heavily layered, mildly trippy and bizarre (and not entirely believable to that end), sumptuously textured period piece about dirt poor immigrants rising to prominence through conscienceless actions and the wealth they accumulate by taking advantage of Prohibition. The friends who meet in the gutters and form a bond based in loyalty, despair, and a very American infatuation with conquering society at any cost, go on a journey that spans half a century and encompasses dramatic betrayal, savage deceit, doomed romance, and depraved sex (stunning actress Tuesday Weld providing a heavy dose of the latter). It is all handled in a very self-important, false hearted, almost duplicitous way that makes one sooner or later realize that The Godfather this is not and, if not for a few interesting sound effect techniques and an eclectic performance by Elizabeth McGovern, well enough should have been left alone. In terms of a straightforward gangster picture, Once Upon a Time in America contributes nothing by virtue of its central characters being Jewish (other than letting us know that American Jews, stereotypically seen as fragile nebbishes, once upon a time kicked some ass).

The only interesting point I can concoct a theory around regarding the difference between the Jewish criminals here and the Italian ones depicted elsewhere, is that the Jews leave family out of it. The Godfather is all about family, keeping it in the family, getting married, settling down, and bestowing the wonderful legacy of shooting someone through a pillow to the next generation. It seems that when Jews go bad it’s an anomaly in the chain. Rabbi, Butcher, Tailor, Organized Criminal, Dentist, Lawyer. There is no sense of desiring a Corleonesque tradition of an established family business. Quite the opposite, the Jews in Leone’s movie are tortured loners with no warmth or fatherly inclination. A violent Jewish criminal seems a wild departure from what historically is a family oriented gene pool and it is understandable that the irregularity begins and ends with one individual. Unlike the closeness of the Corleones which brings tragedy from father to son and beyond, Once Upon a Time in America shows us renegade Jews taking an extreme shot at the good life without regard for what came before or what may come after. The result is the same as it typically is in these sorts of mob movies. What starts off exciting and thrilling winds up darkly, in a heap of loneliness and unbearable regret. One could then either find it a symbol of mercy or selfishness that the Jewish gangsters choose not to bring their families down with them. That they only destroy themselves. Whether that is a fair and realistic interpretation of Jews in America, well, that depends on one’s level of cynicism.