Leone's ferocious four-hour gangster epic, first time on DVD
Since ’96, this troubled, troublesome masterpiece has been unavailable on any format. Until now. But this is the least of the obstacles it’s faced in reaching the audience it merits. The director turned down the opportunity to helm The Godfather to make it. Here’s where we get controversial: it’s a much better, richer film than Coppola’s, and it’s Leone’s best. Grand statements, sure, but nothing to match the grander statements and panoramic power of this sweeping, savage celluloid poem.
Leone conceived it as a fable. “It’s not realistic, it’s not historical, it’s fantastic,” he said in ’84, claiming as influences Chandler, Hemingway, Dos Passos and Fitzgerald. (It’s actually loosely adapted from Harry Grey’s autobiographical novel The Hoods, and early versions of the script?credited to six names?were worked on by Norman Mailer). The Italian director saw it as a homage to the America he got to know, or imagine, from films?to his dreams and memories of the land. Shooting began in ’82, in Cinecitta, Venice, Paris, Florida, Montreal and New York, and the movie first screened at Cannes in ’84. Leone had already made his name with the Fistful Of Dollars trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West. Initial reviews of the then four-hours-plus epic were exuberant.
The money men, however, had been burned by Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff which, at over three hours, had stalled at the box office the previous year. They butchered Leone’s sepia-and-soul film into a 139-minute, strictly chronological story: in this hacked-to-bits state, it died in the US. The rest of the world at least got the longer version, applauding appropriately.
You have to love the old tagline: “As boys they said they would die for each other. As men they did.” The intact, immense saga follows the destinies of our Jewish gangsters across four decades, from youth in the ’20s to 1968, from their bonding as Lower East Side kids through their violent rise to power as dominant hoods of the Prohibition era to a later settling of debts. They’re led by the shy but decisive Noodles (Robert De Niro) and the hot-tempered, amoral Max (James Woods). The women in their life are Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), Noodles’ boyhood crush (first played by a young Jennifer Connelly), and Carol (Tuesday Weld), initially a hate figure and ultimately a match for Max. There’s sterling support from Treat Williams, Burt Young and Joe Pesci as a mobster (for once outplayed for loose cannon rage by Woods, who is absolutely incendiary.)
De Niro is brilliant throughout, ageing convincingly, somehow both blankly impassive and riddled with guilt for a lifetime of sin. For a character who commits one, possibly two rape attacks (on Weld and McGovern), he’s freakily sympathetic. Perhaps because Leone constructs Noodles’ inarticulate love and yearning for Deborah to Gatsby-esque proportions. His frustration at her insouciance becomes plausible if unforgivable. And Woods, in his heated pomp, is just blistering, a primal force. The only time he’s intimidated is when De Niro silently stirs a cup of coffee for an unduly long time: Leone homes in and makes it the most threatening, sinister act conceivable. Watch this a hundred times; it still gives you chills.
Leone’s leaps between time periods, with multiple jumps forward and back, is never bewildering. He rarely opts for a gung-ho gimmick where the subtle establishing of a melancholy mood will suffice. The ambitious structure achieves exactly the levels of poetic resonance he’s aiming for, and his unsavoury, shadowy men become mythical characters. He’s helped considerably by Ennio Morricone’s elegiac score, one of his very finest and most stirring, which elevates the themes of misguided love, broken loyalty and mesmeric friendship even higher. Through an incredible red-tape oversight?”somebody forgot to enter it, it was as stupid as that”, the producer Arnon Milchan’s recalled?it was never submitted for an Oscar.
The history of this film, then, is littered with poor decisions and self-inflicted injuries. Yet it’s a stream of scenes, both beautiful and vicious, which run to a heartbreaking whole, and a profoundly moving prayer to mortality and the passing of time, stunningly shot, agonisingly well-acted. This release, hopefully, will enhance its belatedly solid reputation as one of the true all-time greats.