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Once Upon a Time in America(Laser)B+,B+

Warner/1984/226m/WS 1.85

     This is stylist Sergio Leone’s last directoral effort, his most complete vision, and by far, his greatest movie achievement. No other Leone work combines the visual mastery and storytelling power of the director so successfully. Once Upon a Time in America is so magnetic that it pulls the viewer back to a reassessment of those other legendary Leone movies, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, and Once Upon a Time in the West. But those films only remind one that Leone found his true voice with Once Upon a Time in America and that the film represents a distillation of the best of Leone.
      This epic film traces the lives of a group of neighborhood kids from childhood to graying maturity. The bonds they form on the streets of the lower east side of New York provide the map for their journey through life. It is clearly derivative of many pictures of the genre , but what injects a special vitality into Leone’s vision is the style in which he translates his ideas to film. Leone plays spider, catching his viewer in a complex web. While drawing you to action and character, he cunningly places the strands to form his web of mystery. For more than the first half hour of the film, you barely know the names of the players, yet the director succeeds in ineluctably trapping his audience on the sticky strands of story and character, holding them transfixed by the filmmaker’s stratagem for the almost four hours of movie.
     The photography is haunting and the lighting delicately shaded. The camera moves in liquid, dreamlike, pans, emphasizing a mythic quality to the narrative. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, whose most recent work is the crisply photographed Roman Polanski film Bitter Moon, boasts collaboration with Passolini, Malle, and Fellini, Ennio Morricone’s music is seductively nostalgic. It moves with the narrative flow in fluid notes floating in a sea of remembered images. The most magnificent achievement of Once Upon a Time in America is, however, is the inventive and elegant scene transitions. Some are used in standard fashion to go from one place to another, but others cleverly change the course of the action. A telephone’s incessant rings moves the action in unexpected turns. Photos move in time, sparking a sense memory in the characters. Style imposes itself on story.
     The director is gifted by outstanding performances from Robert De Niro and James Woods. De Niro is at his laconic best portraying Noodles. He invests the character with an air of mystery. Woods’ own forceful screen personality works well alongside De Niro.
    Though this is the original unmutilated version of the film, there are still plot lines that are not clearly developed. Though some characters fall in and out of the film in confusing fashion, the obtuse effect creates a filter over the resolution of the film, much as the moody lighting and choice of film stock exaggerates a sense of timelessness as the film weaves artfully back and forth in years.
     This widescreen version of the disc is an excellent production. Leone’s impeccable compositions have been perfectly preserved. The hallucinatory feeling of the film is captured in the transfer. Though the transfer may seem overly grainy at times, it appears to be an artistic choice of the filmmaker. The colors are accurate and the shadowy detail is well handled. The mono sound is outstanding, enhancing the impact of the disc