Someone has called Noodles (Robert De Niro), who used to be a gangster in the 1930s, back to New York City, but he cannot work out who it might have been as he believed his past to be dead and buried, not to mention the people he remembers. The reason he had to flee all those years ago was that he had become involved with a potential crime, along with his buddies, which had ended up with all of them hunted down and killed by the authorities, all except for Noodles - even his girlfriend Eve (Darlanne Fluegel) was murdered. Now, in 1968, he will finally get to the heart of the mystery, but first he must track those who have survived from his memories...
A true labour of love that took years to reach the screen, Sergio Leone's final film was not well received at the time it was released, which only led to more ignominy for the epic as it was recut to a shorter length, something which either turned off the fans who might have appreciated the full version or confused those who were not going to enjoy it in whatever form it arrived in anyway. Now we can see it as it was intended to be seen, nearly four hours of gangsters coming to terms with their failings, which for some is one of the greatest films ever made. However, this does not quite prevent some naysayers pointing out that even in its longer cut, there's a lot about this that is plain awkward.
If Once Upon a Time in America is not quite a curate's egg, one wonders if its flaws would have been quite as forgiven if this had been made by a director with lesser cultural standing. There's no faulting Leone's ambition, as he was to be admired as one of the few filmmakers who would even have considered bringing such a mélange of diverse scenes to the screen as one coherent entity, and in truth coherence was not its strong point. For every shocking sequence of violence or moving recognition of what Noodles has lost through his follies, there is a poorly judged try at making a statement or bringing all the time periods it concentrates on together, which often leaves the plot in tangles.
This renders the film a remote experience, as while you can appreciate the hard work that went into creating it, it's not always the most emotionally satisfying of stories. Leone edited it so that we flit backwards and forwards in time, from Noodles' childhood in a Jewish neighbourhood where he learned the tricks of the criminal trade with his friends, right up to the late sixties where he will at last get the answers to all those questions that have been bothering him all these years - better late then never, one assumes. The bulk of the narrative takes place in the early thirties where Noodles gets out of prison and joins with the bootlegging operation of Max (James Woods), his closest relationship but one which will bring about tragedy not only for them both, but too many others as well.
However, Noodles always hoped his closest relationship would be with the girl from his neighbourhood who he idolised, Deborah, played as an adult by Elizabeth McGovern in a dog of a role as she has to essay the woman of his dreams, while being both the movie star she aspires to be and ending up savaged by his impossible to suppress evil, which naturally forces her away for good. The male cast fare better, but curiously even with this amount of time to play with they never get a hang of their characters and rarely offer stellar performances; funnily enough only Tuesday Weld as the masochistic Carol truly convinces, perhaps because the women get such a raw deal from the men here and she seems the best survivor. Really this is about betrayal, not only for the friendships, but for the way that nostalgia is corrupted by death and the tendency of bad memories to surface, romance ends with rape from Noodles, and high ideals are always brought low by someone else's immorality - or your own. The final scene suggesting it was all a dream doesn't do this any favours, but it's a fascinating failure for all that. Music by Ennio Morricone.