Volume 3 Number 16, April 1999
Leone's Impure Vision
_Once Upon a Time in America_
London: British Film Institute, 1998
Sergio Leone's _Once Upon a Time in America_ (1983) has been widely regarded as a flawed classic and as such presents the critic with many tricky questions. One critic even went so far as to suggest that the shorter 'American cut' (147 minutes) edited by Zach Staenburg was 'a stronger and more cohesive film'.  Leone's film tells the tale of a Jewish boyhood gang growing up in New York and graduating through crime and political connections into prohibition mobsters. The movie moves backwards from the perspective of an old man, Noodles, played by Robert De Niro, returning in the eighties to the neighbourhood of his youth. The story of his childhood, adolescence, and early manhood, his disastrous love affair with his childhood sweetheart, his friendship with Max (played by James Woods) and their criminal exploits are all related through massive flashbacks. Noodles's life emerges as a tale of great melancholy. It is a life of loss instead of memory, violence instead of love, and betrayal instead of friendship. His time is eaten up by prison and by his unseen middle years of going to bed early.
Adrian Martin's beautifully illustrated book uses the ambivalence with which the film was received as its starting point. Considering this was Leone's last movie, there is a poignancy to Martin's project. The first concept he dispenses with is the idea of Leone as a creator of pure cinema. Often intended as a compliment, Martin reads the phrase as backhanded at best. Leone, as supreme stylist, must lack substance. He becomes a director of surfaces rather than an explorer of depths. Martin argues for a Leone whose films stand as exemplars of impure cinema; part comic book, part opera, ugly and beautiful, comic and tragic, pulp poetry. The title itself indicates an impure mixture: a fairy tale set in a geographically and historically specific place.
Martin's subject perfectly informs his own all-inclusive and populist approach. He delineates Leone's complex masterpiece through a series of closely attentive and imaginative readings. The first twenty minutes of the movie are diligently mapped for us with such care and wonder as to make you put down the book and immediately view the opening of Leone's film again. This breath-taking piece of cinema is minutely observed, and yet it is no fault of Martin's that on any subsequent viewing you will spot moments and angles which he has neglected. Rather, it is a testament to the rich detail of Leone's artistry and the artistry of his collaborators.
However, Martin's book elucidates with an encyclopaedic breadth a whole host of those details. Martin charts the film's genesis and development from the autobiographical novel 'The Hoods', first published in 1955, through a myriad of scriptwriters (including Norman Mailer at one point), extensive pre-production casting with 3000 actors auditioned, a shooting schedule which took seven months, cost somewhere in the region of $30 million and shot locations in Venice, Miami and New York, to the final release of the film to ambivalent film reviews and studio hostility. This hostility culminated in the recutting of the movie, which saw it altered to fit a standard chronological structure. Gone were the inventive moments of transition between the years, and lines of explanatory dialogue were added where Leone originally had wordless pauses. Worst still, in the drive for narrative logic, the shorter version discarded, or confused the essential rhythms of the movie. Rather than the old man Noodles fixing us with his gaze like some latter-day Ancient Mariner and through that gaze compulsively retelling his tale, in the shorter version he becomes simply an old man wandering around and looking at things with a confusing epiphanic expression on his face. And yet there seems to be an obvious contradiction to, on the one hand, defending the film as impure cinema, and on the other, criticising the alternative version. However, the alternative version, by reorganising the film's temporal structure and shortening or removing scenes of violence, attempts to purify Leone's epic. The tragic fall-out of the legal battle between Leone and the studio which then ensued became apparent as it contributed to Leone's failing health and, ultimately, to his untimely death.
The film's impurity as cinema is very much a consequence of its allusions to and stretching of generic categories. Most obviously the film fits into the gangster genre (and has been marketed and packaged most frequently as within this genre). Martin questions its status as a gangster movie. The film's treatment of violence and the generic staples of the gangster genre are relatively perfunctory. Heists, revenge slayings, bank robberies, and one-to-one showdowns are all either unseen, or undercut. A shooting in a feather cleaning plant is just that: a shooting. It is markedly not a shoot-out. As a strange kind of gangster movie, it is also an epic and an art film. It spans the life of a hero, from boyhood to old age, whose life is a product and a participant in grand historical moments (e.g. the depression and prohibition). However, Martin stresses this is not a movie of manifest destiny. Conversely, it is the tale of a dupe. His narrative role consists of a series of revelations. These revelations are revelations of failure, of blindness and of betrayal, motivated by a belated suspicion and paranoia. When Noodles first gazes into the past, Leone has him stand upon a lavatory. Noodles's major revelation is that he is not the traitor he thought he was, rather he was the victim who was betrayed by his best friend. It is a revelation which he pointedly refuses to recognise and, ironically, this is possibly the only victory of the film.
When discussing a Leone film, it is impossible to avoid mentioning the name of his most famous collaborator, and included in this book is a chapter which serves as an essay of appreciation for Ennio Morricone. Martin regards the film's music as an extension of the film's project of mixing and impurity: 'It is the relentless, inexorable blurring of the upbeat, action-oriented melodies with the more sentimental 'Deborah's Theme' across the course of the narrative that enables the film as a totality to be located within the subjectivity of the hero.' (45) However, Noodles's subjectivity is not a comfortable place to be located and the transitions of the music are also suggestive of 'a certain chasm or abyss' (45). As an old man Noodles is a determinist. His conversations with Moe, the bartender of the film, reveal a fatalist who, ironically, is to find out that he is mistaken: things are actually worse. The main strand of Noodles's development as a fatalist is woven through the film in the form of his relationship with his childhood sweet-heart Deborah, played by Elisabeth McGovern. The old Noodles's first journey into the past re-enacts an initial voyeuristic moment watching Deborah dance when she was a child . The distance between them is widened by class, gender, and crime. The interrupted kiss, like the death of the youngest gang-member Dominic, is an interruption of life and possibility by violence. But, as Dominic's last words which haunt Noodles ('I slipped') suggest, it is an interruption for which the male protagonists bear some of the guilt.
This leads on to the most violent interruption of the film, the rape of Deborah. It is a topic which Martin quite rightly regards as difficult to broach. Christopher Frayling in an interview on the Sergio Leone Home Page regards the scene as so excessive as to go some way towards spoiling the film and certainly colouring his appreciation of the movie.  For me, personally, the scene, and the overwhelming sense of misogyny throughout the film, has been a stumbling block to my own reception of Leone's work. I find Jason Robard's advice to Claudia Cardinale at the conclusion of _Once Upon a Time in The West_ offensive, but he is a bandit. More disturbing still, Rod Steiger in _Fistful of Dynamite_ commits a rape, which is perilously portrayed as close to a comedy/seduction scene. Once more, Steiger plays a bandit, but he is a bandit which the film sanctions. With _Once Upon a Time in America_, Noodles rapes Deborah in a world which sanctions violence towards women. As a boy, Noodles proclaims that if Deborah does not leave him alone 'I'm gonna give her what she's asking for'. Martin's attempt to handle this topic is the least satisfying part of the book. He distinguishes the rape of Deborah from 'those perversely thrilling rapes -- where the woman supposedly comes to enjoy herself -- in the vein of Peckinpah's _Straw Dogs_' (48). However, Martin does not view it in the context of the earlier rape of Tuesday Weld's character Carol, which is staged as one of those 'perversely thrilling rapes'. Carol's rape (or violent seduction?) takes place in the midst of a heist and is concluded with a joke. When told to hurry up, Noodles tells an exasperated Max 'I'm coming'. Another scene, which immediately precedes Noodles's night out with Deborah, has the gang once more meet up with Carol in a brothel. Carol invites Noodles to join her and Max in a threesome. Noodles declines, giving as an excuse lines to the effect that he is worried that if he hit her in the mouth she'd like it.
In this context, Noodles suspects that women like rape and like violence and the film mitigates his responsibility in committing rape. His tragedy resides in his failure to recognise that Deborah is not a whore. Martin's argument approaches this view. He writes that the film 'offers, in many respects, a desolate and anguished portrait of male sexuality. Masculinity, as learnt and lived, is presented as an impossible, self-cancelling human condition.' (49) However, in Leone's movie, women inform Noodles's education. Carol's behaviour acts as a template for his assessment of Deborah. When Martin insists on the complexity of Deborah's character and the power of McGovern's performance, he appears to be extending in critical terms the whore/virgin dichotomy (51). Carol is not as complex; Tuesday Weld's performance does not achieve a rounded portrait and so her rape is for the most part ignored. A rape scene should perhaps make us uncomfortable but the discomfort which is evoked by the scene of Deborah violation in the back of a limousine is not caused purely by the sight of her ordeal. Leone is saying something about rape and what he says is uncomfortably close to the apologia which Martin expressly denies it to be (49).
In the final part of the book it is in his treatment of the last scenes of the film that Martin reveals himself to be an acutely sensitive critic, not above counting how many times De Niro shakes his head in the penultimate scene (twenty-four times), or tracing the trajectory of a cinematic journey whose destination is 'an extremely black one' (13). As a Postscript, and almost as an attempt to find light at beyond the point of the film's destination, Martin appends a brief summary of Leone's persistent influence. Leone is a film-maker who managed to create, from _Fist Full of Dollars_ on, a string of classics or near classics, pulp and epic, a mythology and a critique of that mythology. His influence spreads across playful copyists such as Sam Raimi, to Clint Eastwood's earnest tributes. The impurity of such an influence seems entirely consistent with his life and film-making.
University of Liverpool, England
1. Mary Corlis, 'Once upon a time . . .', _Film Comment_, August 1984, p. 20.
2. Cenk Kiral, 'An Interview with Professor Christopher Frayling' <http://film.tierranet.com/directors/s.leone/articles/prof.html>.
John Bleasdale, 'Leone's Impure Vision', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 16, April 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n16bleasdale>.
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