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Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in America (original title C'era una volta in America) (1984) is director Sergio Leone's last film. Robert De Niro and James Woods star as two Jewish ghetto youths who rise to prominence in the New York City organized crime world. more...

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Set as an expansive and hypnotic film experience, the story explores the ideas of time, memory, love, violence, and betrayal. It is renowned for its beautiful cinematography, the detail of its three historical settings and its intricate, open-ended narration and was, as almost all Leone films, first released in the United States in a heavily edited version almost ninety minutes shorter than the version released in Europe. The short version also eliminates the flashback structure of the film, instead placing the scenes in chronological order.

The film premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival at its original running time of 229 minutes (3 hours 49 minutes).

Source-Novel and Plot-Summary

The Hoods

The film was inspired by an autobiographical novel called The Hoods, written by Harry Gray (a pseudonym), a former gangster-turned informant. The novel itself depicts only the first two-thirds of the movie's chronology. The 'contemporary' scenes (which many believe to be a prolonged dream/fantasy sequence) were entirely the work of Leone. The plot is otherwise pretty much faithful to the original book, though the rape scenes were not present in the novel, and several character names were very different.

Another major difference is that the original novel featured several historical mob figures (mostly in cameos), including Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel, to name a few. Leone edited out these characters because he felt they distracted from the overall storyline. The Mafia (or "Combination" as its referred to the book and movie) is represented in the final cut of the film by a brief appearance by the fictional Minaldi Brothers, Frank and Joe, played by Joe Pesci and Burt Young, respectively, and their henchmen.

Leone had wanted to make the film since before The Good, the Bad and the Ugly but had great difficulty in securing the rights to the novel, and in arranging a meeting with its reclusive author. Gray finally met with Leone several times in the '60s and '70s, and was a fan of Leone's Westerns; before his death in 1982, he ultimately agreed to the adaptation. Part of the reason why the production took so long was that another producer had the rights to the novel and refused to relinquish them until the late '70s.

There were also a few references to various real gangster anecdotes sown liberally throughout the film. The character of Noodles is based loosely on Meyer Lansky, and Max on Bugsy Siegel (Max's reactions to Noodles' calling him "crazy" is straight out of Siegel's real-life reactions to his nickname), and several of the hits and acts of violence were based on photographs of real incidents (the hit on Joe Minaldi based on Bugsy Siegel's death, for instance).


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