After leaving an indelible mark on the Western genre with his “Dollars” trilogy and “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone turned his attention to gangsters with “Once Upon a Time in America.” Leone brought along the composer he worked with on his Westerns — the legendary Ennio Morricone — to his gangster epic as well, and for his efforts Morricone won the BAFTA for Best Score.
The story follows a Jewish gangster named Noodles at different points in his life, including his childhood before turning to a life of crime, and the latter stages of his life after leaving organized crime behind. The screenplay was adapted from the novel “The Hoods” written by Harry Grey, who was a former gangster in real life and pulled from his own past as inspiration.
In the time between “The Godfather: Part II” and “The Untouchables,” Robert De Niro starred in this epic gangster film that spans more than three decades. The full course of the story runs from the 1910s to the 1930s, with plenty of jumping backwards and forwards in time from the adult versions of Noodles and his fellow gangsters to their younger days and back again.
Before De Niro and Joe Pesci played gangsters together in “Goodfellas,” they did it first in “Once Upon a Time in America.” However, the most explosive dynamic in the film is between De Niro’s Noodles character and the James Woods character of Max. Treat Williams, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, Danny Aiello, Burt Young, William Forsythe, and a young Jennifer Connelly all play memorable supporting parts as well. “Once Upon a Time in America” is a lengthy film at nearly four hours, but the scale and scope of the story more than earns it.