If nothing else, the new 4K restoration of the late Once Upon a Time in America proves the necessity of film preservation. This essential new cut of Sergio Leone’s last film was re-assembled from newly rediscovered footage long thought lost. At last night’s packed screening, actor James Woods insisted that Leone “died of a broken heart” because he could never release the cut of the film he really wanted to. So the mandate to restore the film was clear, once the footage was recovered and cleaned up by a number of people, including Gucci, the Leone estate, and the Film Foundation. And while though Leone couldn’t supervise the restoration of his last masterpiece, the new footage that debuted yesterday is every bit as essential as one could hope.
Rest assured, the new scenes, including a new final confrontation between Max (Woods) and the head of the union, are definitely not extraneous. Some new scenes serve as crucial juxtapositions against relatively canonical ones, like a previously missing sequence after Noodles (Robert De Niro, also in attendance last night) drives his gang’s car off of a short pier and (more on this in a moment). Others remind us of characters’ limited agency and inability to totally remake/self-fashion themselves, as when Noodles talks to a chauffeur who disapproves of the fact that he’s both Jewish and a gangster (“Everyone knows what you are.”). When viewed holistically, the new cut is revelatory. Its restoration has only served to make this masterpiece that much more fulfilling.
I’ve singled out the new brief scene after Noodles drives the car into the water because, while it seems fairly negligible, it’s surprisingly rich when placed alongside other scenes. In this new sequence, all the gang members resurface except Noodles. This understandably makes Max nervous. He panics and thrashes around trying to find his friend but is overshadowed by a nearby crane that’s busily and indiscriminately picking up garbage from the bottom of the sea floor.
This short sequence creates a parallel with Max’s garbage compactor suicide as well as mirroring an earlier scene where the group, as adolescents, scheme to recover submerged contraband with sacks of salt. So in an instant’s time, this newly restored scene further establishes Noodles’ fatalistic identification with Maxie as his twin. The post-crash footage also sets up a troubling intermediary image to connect the relatively innocent past with a forbidding future. And this is probably the least impressive of the recovered scenes!
Sequences like the one where Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, who was also at last night’s screening) performs Cleopatra’s death scene in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Noodles talks to the caretaker of the gangsters’ tomb confirm Leone’s status as a master choreographer. The film’s vision of life is all the more complex for these bridging scenes, because they call attention to Noodles’s inability to reconcile his past with his oppressive present. It’s as if key missing pieces of a never-completed jigsaw puzzle have finally been put into place. Every piece is important, even the smaller ones.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.