T. it.: C’era una volta in America. Sog.: dal romanzo The Hoods di Harry Grey. Scen: Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone. F.: Tonino Delli Colli. Mo.: Nino Baragli. Scgf.: Carlo Simi. Co.: Gabriella Pescucci. Mu.: Ennio Morricone. Int.: Robert De Niro (David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson), James Woods (Maximilian ‘Max’ Bercovicz), Elizabeth McGovern (Deborah Gelly), Joe Pesci (Frankie Manoldi), Burt Young (Joe), Tuesday Weld (Carol), Treat Williams (James Conway O’Donnell), Danny Aiello (il capo della polizia Aiello), Richard Bright (Chicken Joe), James Hayden (Patrick ‘Patsy’ Goldberg), William Forsythe (Philip ‘Cockeye’ Stein), Darlanne Fluegel (Eve), Larry Rapp (‘Fat’ Moe Gelly), Robert Harper (Sharkey), Jennifer Connelly (Deborah ragazza). Prod.: Arnon Milchan per The Ladd Company. Pri. pro.: 17 febbraio 1984 DCP. D.: 245’. Col.
In between shooting Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Duck, You Sucker! (1971) Leone fell in love with a four hundred page novel about Jewish gangsters, The Hoods. Harry Grey, the author’s pseudonym, himself an ex-gangster, wrote it while doing time in Sing Sing. Leone met him at the end of the Sixties and was intrigued by this ex-hoodlum who responded with monosyllabic answers – “Yes, no, maybe” was all he was able to drag out of him – and represented none of the glory of criminality as depicted by Hollywood, who also shared with him the same imagination, formed in cinema theatres. Leone understood that The Hoods would give him the opportunity to work, not on mythical characters as in his previous work, but on the Myth itself, on its transmission, on film genres and their derivations, on the infancy of the 20th century in a collective Recherche du Temps Perdu. The construction of this cathedral (as Enrico Medioli called the preparatory work) took a long time. 11 years passed between the making of Once Upon a Time in America and his previous film, Duck, You Sucker! In an interview, Leone paraphrased Joseph Conrad when joking about the enormous amount of time it took to make the film: “I believed it was an adventure. Instead, it was life”. According to those who collaborated with him between ’67 and ’77, Leone didn’t work on a script, instead the story evolved through infinite oral versions. The cinematographic rights to the novel weren’t initially available and after many fruitless attempts it would eventually be Alberto Grimaldi, the producer of some of Leone’s earlier work, as well as films by Fellini, Pasolini and Bertolucci, who managed to free up the rights and ask Norman Mailer to write a screenplay. Leone didn’t find that first draft interesting and for the rewrite he gathered an extraordinary group of Italian screenwriters around him: Kim Arcalli (Bertolucci’s brilliant collaborator), Enrico Medioli (writer of seven screenplays for Visconti), Leo Benvenuti and Piero De Bernardi (who, in Mario Monicelli’s film My Friends, reinterpreted the theme of friendship in a entirely new way). Later on, a young critic named Franco Ferrini joined the group (and, much later, during the final drafting of English language dialogue, Stuart Kaminsky). Medioli said: “None of us screenwriters are American, none of us are Jewish, none of us are gangsters. Everything is filtered through the cinema, rather than through literature”. At the centre of the story are Noodles’ memories, shredded by the effects of opium, saturated with nostalgia, impossible to retell in chronological order, but Once Upon a Time in America isn’t a biopic, it is the memory of a man’s life who, for over thirty years, has been examining and re-examining, over and over, his whole existence, specific details and events, obsessively retracing words, gestures, echoes from his past. The result of this lengthy writing process was a screenplay of almost five hours in length, proving too much for Grimaldi, defeated by his experiences with Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, which had been released in two parts. In 1980, Leone met with Arnon Milchan and Warner Brothers and finally it appeared as though the film was on the verge of being made, also because Robert De Niro had accepted to play Noodles. De Niro offered him the possibility of letting “Pinocchio become a real boy”, thereby freeing him from the role of puppeteer and allowing him to become the narrator. The pairing of James Woods and Robert De Niro added an authentic and realistic force to the screenplay, which Leone’s cinema had not previously known. Leone is the singer of this anthem to the cinema. However – and it goes without saying – if he hadn’t had some of the greatest artists from the golden age of Italian cinema by his side, he would never have been able to create a gem so precious, so richly faceted, so luminous. As in his previous films, Morricone’s soundtrack is in perfect symbiosis with the images, but here, for the first time, it contains some famous songs from the 20th century (as well as Rossini’s Gazza ladra) and is an integral part of the narration: it supports the jigsaw puzzle narrative structure, thus allowing us to temporally locate Noodles’ memories. Ennio Morricone already had the soundtrack prepared in the mid-Seventies and during the shoot it was used to inspire the actors, as they did in the silent era. The film was shot over nine months in Paris, Lake Como, New York, Rome, Miami, Venice, New Jersey and Montreal. It was one of the last epics to be shot before the advent of the digital age. Everything we see actually existed in front of the camera. Art director Carlo Simi, costume designer Gabriella Pescucci and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli achieved a miracle of storytelling, recounting three eras with meticulous attention to detail, precision and scrupulous veracity while working between North America and Europe. During the advanced editing stages the issue of duration arose: the first version had a running time of four hours and twenty minutes. Milchan and Warner Brothers expected a film of no more than 160 minutes, but Leone had his film in mind. At the end of the struggle the American version, with the scenes reedited in chronological order and not approved by Leone, lasted 1 hour and 34 minutes, while the European version, presented at Cannes in May 1984, lasted 3 hours and 49 minutes. Several sequences had been eliminated, which, thanks to the stubborn will of the Leone family, the perseverance of The Film Foundation supported by Gucci and the rights owner New Regency, we have been able to find and re-insert where Leone had originally intended them. Beginning and end frames of the cut scenes allowed us to identify the exact place they were deleted from. Leone often recalled many of these scenes with regret, such as the appearance of Louise Fletcher, Oscar winner for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as the director of a cemetery, which disappeared from the film along with the scene of Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) reciting as Cleopatra. This newly reconstructed version lasts 4 hours and 15 minutes. All the characteristic elements of Sergio Leone’s cinema are to be found in Once Upon a Time in America: myth, death, friendship, memories, robberies, betrayals, a much anticipated duel, the ‘visual’ presence of the soundtrack, the amazing use of dolly shots and camera movement. However, the film is very different from his previous work: thriller, melodrama, citations from gangster cinema classics, as well as the cinema of Chaplin, Welles and Neo-realism all come together in a voyage towards oblivion and death, in which we slowly discover, within this unreal cinematographic grandeur, Noodles’ desperation and anguish. In this circular story, where everything is always postponed and remains inalterable, in an America which is no longer the country where dreams come true, but where power can only ever end up ground to nothing, Noodles is an antihero with the aura of an epic character, an exile that can no longer return home, because home only exists in his memories. Observing happenings from a cosmic perspective, examining his characters with compassion and emotion, once again Leone depicts human myths, but here we also find the miracle and mystery of their existence. De Niro’s memorable ecstatic smile in the film’s finale is a liberating betrayal of cinematic conventions, but it is also a logical conclusion to a film which Leone considered to be “A sort of death dance at the birth of a nation… [where] all my characters stare death in the face”. It was to be the last frame of his cinema. Leone died in 1989, while at home watching Robert Wise’s film I Want to Live!
Gian Luca Farinelli
Contrary to what is often believed, even relatively recent films may require restoration. The challenge in digitally restoring Leone’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in America, was to bring back to the big screen a film of which only copies ruined by over-projection and in the initial stages of colour fading were in circulation.
The restoration of Once Upon a Time in America was a lengthy process in which various laboratories – amongst the most skilled in the world – were involved. The restoration enabled not just the application of new digital supports for screening the film and new film copies, but also the creation of new conservation elements. The post-production work on the film was carried out in Italy, but today the original negative, as well as many other working elements, are conserved in Los Angeles. The original 35mm camera negative was scanned at a resolution of 4K at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI). The scanned files were then worked on at 4K resolution in Cineteca di Bologna’s L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, where the complete frame-by-frame digital restoration was carried out. The most demanding and delicate phase of the restoration was without doubt the colour correction, working to recreate the sooty and smoky atmosphere of the 20s and 30s and the colder, more pallid atmosphere of the late 60s. As a reference in this phase, Martin Scorsese’s own positive copy – conserved at MoMA, New York – was fundamental, as were the contributions of numerous people who worked on the original production and lent their experiences and memories of working on Leone’s set to the restoration process.
The main challenge faced was represented by the desire to re-establish the first editing curated by Sergio Leone. A team of film scholars worked for months researching all available information and testimonies. Ever aware of the delicacy of the intervention, these scenes, previously considered lost, were inserted in an extended version in the most harmonious way possible. Technically, the homogeneity of the unedited scenes was the biggest problem, as unfortunately the negatives for these scenes no longer exist. The only materials available were discarded strips of working positives which had been badly preserved. Making this task even more difficult was the fact that the working positives had been printed without particular care, as originally they were part of the working copies which circulated between the assistant editors and sound editors as a work reference. The images in these sequences were ruined, not just by their poor state of preservation, but also through their use as working copies. Our most heartfelt thanks go to executive producer Claudio Mancini and Franco Ferrini, one of the film’s screenwriters, who made a fundamental and invaluable contribution to the restoration by providing the original screenplay from the set, which thus represented the principal source of reference for the insertion of previously unedited scenes. We also wish to thank editors Patrizia Ceresani and Alessandro Baragli, Leone’s assistants, who gave their approval to the extended version, Fausto Ancillai and Leone’s family, Andrea, Francesca and Raffaella, for all the support they gave throughout the entire restoration process.
Restored in 2012 by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory in association with Andrea Leone Films, The Film Foundation, and Regency Enterprises. The restoration of Once Upon a Time in America was funded by Gucci and The Film Foundation. 4K Scans by Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI)