Martin Scorsese breathes new life into gangster classic Once Upon a Time in America

A new-look version will thrill Cannes

Geoffrey Macnab
Tuesday 15 May 2012 11:31
Wise guys: Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken in Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in America'
Wise guys: Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken in Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in America'

As Martin Scorsese puts it, "the great Sergio Leone's epic cinematic canvas of the 20th century, Once Upon a Time in America" has now been "reconstituted." Next week in Cannes, audiences will have the chance to a savour a new 245-minute cut of Leone's gangster masterpiece. Twenty-five minutes of extra footage will be included.

"It has been wonderful to witness this enlargement of Leone's vision, step by precious step," enthuses Scorsese (whose Film Foundation has supported the restoration alongside Gucci).

Oscar-winning actress Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) will feature in the film for the very first time. (Back in 1984, her entire role as the director of the cemetery where Robert De Niro's Jewish gangster Noodles comes searching for his past ended on the cutting-room floor.) Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern will be seen performing Cleopatra. (In previous versions, she has only been shown in the dressing room, after her performance.) Producer Arnon Milchan's cameo as a chauffeur is also back in full in the film, which has been restored by the Cineteca di Bologna.

As Raffaella Leone (the director's daughter) acknowledges, Once Upon a Time in America was an anomaly in her father's career. His Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly etc) were generally treated dismissively by critics but audiences loved them. With his gangster epic, the reverse happened. When the film premiered out of competition in Cannes in 1984, it was given a rapturous response.

However, the American distributors were already fretting about its immense length and complex flashback-within-flashback structure. They cut it brutally, releasing it in the US in a linear two-hour version that perplexed reviewers. "I don't believe I've ever seen a worse case of mutilation," Pauline Kael lamented in The New Yorker while her fellow critic Vincent Canby suggested that the film must have been "edited with a roulette wheel."

The movie that Leone had always intended as his magnum opus was a box-office disaster. It had taken him 15 years to get it made. "The thing is that when my father edited the movie, it was really very long," Raffaella, who worked as a costume assistant on the movie, recalls with evident understatement.

There were claims that the American distributors had tried 18 times to come up with an intelligible cut under two and a half hours long and had failed every time.

Arnon Milchan paints a tragi-comic picture of the first US test screening of the version that had so excited Cannes audiences. He had secured a contract for Leone to have final cut "on something close to three hours" but Leone had delivered a film three hours and 47 minutes long. It was a cold, wet night in Boston when this version was shown. "People stood in line, got in at 7 o'clock. Then somebody came in and said 'in case we didn't tell you, the movie is almost four hours.' They [the audience] started to boo and whistle before the movie started. Then, a projector broke after two minutes and they had to re-start it... the whole atmosphere of that preview was [such] that every name that appeared on screen, whether it was an art designer or whatever, they were booing. It was a disaster!"

Thankfully, the Cannes version was released successfully in Europe and subsequently on video and DVD in the US. Once Upon A Time in America is now acknowledged as Leone's crowning achievement and one of the greatest films of its era . Now, in its new extended form, its reputation is likely to rise yet further.

'Once Upon a Time in America' screens in Cannes on 18 May

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