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In the impoverished slums of 1920 New York's Lower East Side, four Jewish boys, Noodles (Robert De Niro) Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe) and Patsy (James Hayden) make a pact to fight for a better life for themselves. For the next two decades they wreak havoc, becoming streetwise hoods with quick quips and tempers to match. But by 1933 it all comes to a tragic end, and it's not until 1968 - when an elderly Noodles returns to reclaim his past - that the devastating truth is pieced together.

Review by Shannon J. Harvey:
Though lesser-known than its gang-land relatives The Godfather, Goodfellas and Miller's Crossing, Sergio Leone's epic gangster thriller deserves its place as an American masterpiece. It's a rich, intimate and detailed film - to the point that it looks hand crafted by its Italian creator, who says he put his whole life into making it. It shows. Especially from the extra features in this sublime two-disc DVD edition, which is the full 219-minute extended edition - not the 129-minute version cut by Warner Brothers, who turned a masterpiece into a jigsaw puzzle. One critic, incidentally, slammed the cut-version of the film in 1984 as the worst of the year, but later praised the director's cut as the best of the decade.

As the 19-minute documentary Once Upon a Time on disc two reveals, the cuts were made because Warners wanted to make it a more linear film, when Leone had poor health. Also discussed is how Leone secured the film rights to Harry Gray's semi-autobiography The Hoods, and the epic scriptwriting process. There are numerous family, cast and fan interviews included, as well as a young Quentin Tarantino doing "Sergio Leone," James Coburn wishing Leone was still around, and James Woods wishing he wasn't in the film so he could rave about it without bias.

The film's ensemble actors might say the same. Each delivers terrifically taut performances, with DeNiro and Pesci pre-empting their Goodfellas/Casino pairing. DeNiro in particular was unlucky not to win an Oscar nomination, probably due to the cuts (it was not nominated for anything that year). As well as best actor, picture and director, it might have won for best score, as composer Ennio Morricone provides haunting pipe music to the film. Much of the information about the film's restoration to its intended glory, however, comes from the mammoth full-length commentary by Time Magazine film critic and historian Richard Schickel. His balanced, insightful and intelligent view of the film covers such topics as the fantasy of the title, Leone's dedication, and how the film is trademark Leone. Schickel also places it high in the canon of great gangster films, mostly for the way it reveals America at a certain point in time.

The DVD rounds off with an extensive photo gallery and theatrical trailer, completing a simple but elegant package that gives this mistreated film its just desserts. It might be almost four hours long now, but Once Upon A Time in America is will worth the investment.

Published August 14, 2003

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(US) - 1984

CAST: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Joe Pesci, Tuesday Weld, Elizabeth McGovern, Burt Young, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Jennifer Connelly, William Forsythe, James Hayden

DIRECTOR: Sergio Leone

RUNNING TIME: 219 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16:9 widescreen enhanced. Dolby Digital 5.1

SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary with film critic and historian Richard Schickel, Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone, Photographic Memories, Theatrical Trailer

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: August 13, 2003

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