BLU-RAY REVIEW: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA: EXTENDED DIRECTOR’S CUT / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: SERGIO LEONE / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: ROBERT DE NIRO, JAMES WOODS, ELIZABETH MCGOVERN, JOE PESCI, BURT YOUNG / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
To fully appreciate the Blu-ray release of Sergio Leone’s revered epic, Once Upon A Time In America: Extended Director’s Cut (to be know hereafter as America), it is essential to understand a little of how and why this version has come into being. When an original cut of 229 minutes was shown by Leone at Cannes in 1984, it received praise from all quarters for its visionary style and subtle yet intense performances. An unconvinced studio, however, feared the episodic structure and non-linear timelines, the very things loved by festival audiences and critics, would be too inaccessible to the general public. Leone’s masterpiece was butchered, edited into a “neater” film for general release. The result was a disaster, so much so that the director didn’t make another film prior to his death in 1989.
A version more consistent with the original European release has been available for years so what is it about this edition of America that is worth the time? And at 251 minutes, it’s a lot of time.
The initial thing to note is that the newly included scenes add virtually nothing to the central story. The familiar haunting, almost ethereal, quality of the film remains, with the lingering, poetic indulgence of many of the scenes making you hunger for a type of filmmaking that no longer exists. Initially idealised as two films, Leone refused to compromise the length or narrative, and on many occasions the camera simply just keeps rolling, allowing the full scene to play out, drawing the viewer further and further in. The inclusion of an “Intermission” card is playful and indignant, but also a slight relief as your thumb begins to hover over the pause button.
The newly included scenes are also clearly noticeable as there is a distinct difference in quality when compared with the main film, being distinctly darker and grainier. The additions themselves all add more depth to sections involving supporting characters, including the first appearance of Eve (Darlanne Fluegel) and an aggressive interaction between Noodles (De Niro) and the driver who takes Deborah (McGovern) home after their nasty altercation in the car. Filling out these subplots is interesting but brings little extra to a film that in its previous incarnation was the favourite of its director. Nothing has been added to detract from the ambiguity, certainly over the final scenes, and so may fail to intrigue all but those needing as near to completion as possible (some footage is still missing due to rights issues).
One thing is certain though, America deserves a place in cinematic history. Leone is a master storyteller whose voice was heard too few times. His final film is not perfect; there are questionable politics when it comes to the vastly underserved female characters and, while perhaps in-keeping with the times, is a little difficult to empathise with in today’s world. The overindulgence may also prove difficult for some, with some scenes drawn out over several minutes, but if you let this film envelope you, let it become a companion for a few hours, it will deliver an experience you will not find from many sources. By the end you will have developed a lasting relationship with Noodles and Max (Woods), an understanding of their motivations and an insight into their world. If you already own a copy of America you may not need this in your collection. If you don’t, buy it now and set aside a Saturday night for a little cinematic indulgence.
Special Features: Commentary by Richard Schickel / Making-of documentary ‘Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone’
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