Question re: Once Upon a Time in America

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by GaryEA, Jun 6, 2002.

  1. GaryEA

    GaryEA Second Unit

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    I've watched Once Upon a Time in America twice in 24 hours (on AMC) and I'm still confused.

    This may SPOILER MATERIAL, so please don't continue if you haven't seen the film.
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    Near the end, Noodles (Robert De Niro) is walking out of the party after refusing to shoot James Woods. Alone, he comes out of a driveway and onto what looks like a street. A garbage truck is sitting there. As he walks away, the truck starts up, hits its lights and begins to move forward.

    As it approaches him, a figure come out from the driveway, and from the distance, it looks like James Woods. He walks with the slow-moving truck, and at the moment the truck blocks your view of Woods, you hear two(?) gunshots and then he's gone.

    Did he shoot himself and jump into the truck, finally taking his own life?

    Thanks!
    -g
     
  2. Bill McA

    Bill McA Producer

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    Yes!

    And I hope the version that you were watching was the 3 hour, 45 minute version.
     
  3. Matthew Chmiel

    Matthew Chmiel Cinematographer

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  4. Anthony Thorne

    Anthony Thorne Supporting Actor

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    Gary and Bill,

    Leone, his screenwriters and the consequent critical assessment of OUATIA after the film's initial screenings have all stated that the scene described above was deliberately left ambiguous. From memory, Leone discussed the issue with Christopher Frayling, who reprinted some comments about it in his SOMETHING TO DO WITH DEATH bio of Leone, and the 'Sergio Leone: Once Upon A Time' BBC documentary also mentions the scene. If the sequence plays out with an air of mystery while you're watching it, thats exactly what Leone intended. I think a suicide/murder is probable and hinted at, but nothing really tells us for sure...
     
  5. Bill McA

    Bill McA Producer

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    I suppose that it's possible that James Woods simply stages his death for a second time, again for De Niro's benefit.

    But Woods makes it pretty clear to De Niro that he wants to die (and would have, if De Niro had shot him).
    But since De Niro lets him live, it would be pretty peculiar for Woods to again stage his own death, just moments after offering his life to his friend to take...since De Niro doesn't want revenge, why pretend that you are dead?
     
  6. Mike Kelly

    Mike Kelly Stunt Coordinator

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    Of course, the final shot of the film may yield another interpretation: I'll quote from the 1991 Magill Movie Guide:

    "...the tenth and last segment, a 1933 coda that finds a haggard Noodles entering the opium den in the scene that would chronologically proceed as the very first one in the film. He smokes some opium, then rolls onto his back in an overhead shot taken through fabric that turns his features into an abstraction. Unexpectedly, the strange face smiles, and a freeze frame on this image closes the film. The central importance of the nonchronological structure is startingly affirmed by this coda, which implies that the body of the film might be a hallucinatory reverie, a screen on which Noodles projects memories of his past and a projection of his future. The film need not be interpreted in this fashion, however, as the structure, seen as a pure aesthetic element, has a more concrete relationship to the story and characters."

    This review, which runs eleven pages, is the finest I have ever read on this great film. OUATIA is easily my most eagarly anticipated DVD release.
     
  7. Henry Gale

    Henry Gale Producer

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  8. JohnRice

    JohnRice Lead Actor

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    Gary,

    Be aware that even though this was the long cut of the film, it was still butchered to death for content. If you have only seen it on AMC, you still really haven't seen it. I started watching it, but I got irritated so fast by all the cuts, I dug out my tapes of it (from a WS LD) and watched it from the beginning for the first time in a few years.
     
  9. Ushabye

    Ushabye Projectionist

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    I would tend to agree with the review that Mike quoted above. This also would explain, for example, why Elizabeth McGovern appears pretty much unaged despite the fact that like the rest of them she would be well into her sixties by then. This detail bothered me for years as DeNiro and Woods are very clearly old men, untill I read an excert from an interview of Leone in the BFI's excellent book on the film, where he alludes that it could be interpreted that all those scenes are Noodle's opium dream. It makes sense that in Noodles mind she would always be beautiful.

    If this is the case, then what we think are "flashbacks" are in fact "present reality", and what we regard as "present reality" is in fact an opium hallucination.

    I'm not ashamed to say I cried the first time I saw this film. What an achievement in writing, structure, and pure film making this picture is. It is truly one of the greatest American films ever made. It is perplexing that it is not regarded as such in the United States. It as easily at the caliber of the Godfathers. But rarely if ever is its name mentioned in the same breath.

    What is the butchered down version like? It must be truly shocking if you've seen the full version!
     
  10. JohnRice

    JohnRice Lead Actor

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    I think that is the real key. There is no "true" answer. That aspect of the film is ambiguous. Elizabeth McGovern is also the type of person who may not age that much. In the future, Noodles is also probably still seeing her the way he imagines her to be, which is what we are seeing. That technique hhas been used before.
    I agree it is too bad this film is not regarded higher. it never really caught on in most cases. It was recently obliterated by Amadeus in the HTF Best Pictures tourney. Amadeus is a decent flick, but nowhere in the same league as Once Upon a Time in America. Still, one thing that hit me watching it the other night is that the acting isn't as good as I had remembered.
     
  11. Bill McA

    Bill McA Producer

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  12. GaryEA

    GaryEA Second Unit

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    Wow. You guys are amazing. I went away for a few days and came back with a ton of knowledge about this one film. Thank you!
    The version I had watched was on AMC was the shortened version, as like Matthew confirmed, which means that I really have only seen a truncated version of the film (thank you Mr. Rice!).
    But in just researching the one scene, I realized how rich this film in terms of the visual and the context. I'm looking forward to watching the full version if I can find it. (the fact that I missed so much stuns me)
    In the mean time, I've been reading for reviews and articles about the film's history, the story about it's editing over the years, and the subtext Leone put into the film. Whether or not Woods killed himself by jumping into the garbage truck isn't the only part up for interpretation or debate, the whole film is. The more I read your posts the clearer it became that this is really a unique film.
    So thank's again gentlemen. Your assistance has been extraordinary. [​IMG]
    Regards,
    Gary
     
  13. Mike Kelly

    Mike Kelly Stunt Coordinator

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    Gary, based on your description of the ending, you did see the LONG version on AMC, although it was shortened by about 20 minutes or so, edited for content. The chronologically presented short version, edited and released by the Ladd Company was a disgrace to Sergio Leone and should be avoided. Of note however was a different version of the ending. In the short version, after Noodles leaves Secretary Bailey's (James Woods) office, he hears a gunshot, implying that Woods shot himself. There is no opium den flashback. If I remember correctly, the short version ends with still shots of the gang when they were kids.

    A quick story. I was in NYC in October, 1982 buying a postcard in Henri Bendel's (a very posh store, a postcard was about all in my price range) I noticed the cashier looking behind me with a surprised expression on her face. I turned and immediately noticed Bill Murray right behind me. It took me a few seconds to recognize the man standing next to him as he had grey hair. It finally hit me that it was Robert De Niro. It wasn't until I saw OUATIA that I realized he must have been filming his older segments at that time.
     
  14. JohnRice

    JohnRice Lead Actor

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    Yeah. Actually Gary, you misunderstood what I said. Don't worry, it happens all the time. The version AMC showed was essentially the long version, but being cut for content destroyed much of the film.

    For example. There is a scene where young Patsy goes to Fat Moe to get e desert so he can get "special attention" from the rather "affectionate" girl in his building. He says to Moe why he is getting it, which was cut out of the AMC version. While he sits and waits for the girl to come out, his patience finally wears down and he eats the desert. It is really a very symbolic scene, but it is destroyed simply be removing that one sentence. Without that sentence, you have no real idea of what Patsy is up to and it dooesn't really register that he would rather have the desert than the girl. No matter how old he acts, he is really just a 10 year old kid.
     
  15. Jo_C

    Jo_C Second Unit

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    Correct me if I'm wrong, but is rights issues the reason why OUATIA hasn't been released yet on DVD?

    I know Artisan Entertainment (which eventually acquired the assets of Producers Sales Organziation, the film's international distributor) owns some kind of share of the rights to the film. Producer Arnon Milchan holds the copyright under his psyudonym, Embassy International Pictures. Is the legal issues between Warner and Artisan the reason we haven't seen OUATIA on DVD yet? Please someone explain.
     
  16. GaryEA

    GaryEA Second Unit

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    So I did see the long version, but in it's "edited for content" form. Thanks Mike and John!

    Now the scene where Patsy eats the desert makes sense. Watching it as I did last week, the scene just came across as an example of the kid giving in to hunger (which he was anyway). Now that I know why he was sitting there in the first place, the scene makes sense and adds to the character. Golden rule of screen writing; One line of dialog can make or break an entire scene.

    The fact there is a version of this film edited in chronological order is ridiculous, but not surprising. There's no way that I'm going to indulge in this version. I'm interested in watching the version I already have, but unedited.

    Little luck finding a laser disc copy, although one auction just opened on Ebay. There are a lot of copies of a no-region DVD on Ebay, which I believe is Brazilian.

    I'm tempted on the laser disc (the DVD is full frame so I have no interest), although the prospects of a proper Region 1 release, and my weariness of Ebay has me waiting.

    -g
     
  17. JonZ

    JonZ Lead Actor

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    Funny I just saw this thread becuase I watched this yesterday (VHS P&S).Havent seen it in years.I didnt know it was on AMC, I was at my moms the other day, noticed she bought the 2 tape version and borrowed it.

    When the film ended I shook my head and said "Wow, they just dont make films like that anymore"
    A f*cking amazing film really.

    Personally,I dont like the idea of most of the film being a dream.
     
  18. JohnRice

    JohnRice Lead Actor

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    Gary,
    now we have both spelled "dessert" wrong. I got mixed up on which was which. [​IMG]
    Just so you know, there were both P&S and LBX versions of the LD. I am almost positive the one on ebay is P&S because the LBX ones are in very high demand. Fortunately, I made a SP S-VHS copy of the LD. Too bad I didn't just buy the stupid LD.
     
  19. GaryEA

    GaryEA Second Unit

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    John
     
  20. Bill McA

    Bill McA Producer

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    If this is the eBay auction that you are referring to, it is indeed the WS version (I used to own a copy)
    Incidently, the P&S version is actually full-frame, the WS version is a matted WS.
     

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