As a Leone and DeNiro fan, I’ve come to appreciate this long, and to use a hackneyed term, epic film. I’ve seen it several times which as any other fan can attest, is a fair investment of one’s time.
In this post I’ll cover some thoughts on the film, especially the ending. I’ve done a fair amount of research on the ending so I feel what I have to say is more than my opinion but backed by some investigation. I think that’s a good place to start.
The Ending – It appears Leone intended for the ending to be a mystery. Although I cannot find the original source of this quote, I’ll have to trust the Q&A found on www.onceuponatimeinamerica.net Ironically, the digital age has caused me to rely more heavily on concrete sources, since “truth” can be manufactured more easily than ever these days. Nevertheless, I will trust what is found on www.onceuponatimeinamerica.net since I doubt someone would go to the trouble of purchasing a URL just to fabricate the analysis of a nearly 30 year old movie.
“Leone obviously wanted to keep this ambiguous. The pages relating to it in the screenplay are missing and an actor other than James Woods was hired to play the scene. Leone’s reasons are not known but it does start the audience to think about the movie, talk about it and view on more than occasion. “Did I die in the garbage truck?” is said to be the most frequent question James Woods is asked and even he doesn’t know. Woods says that Leone’s comment was “It’s like Jimmy Hoffa. We know but we don’t know but we know.” And Woods adds “There’s one thing we know. He won’t be coming to dinner tomorrow night.”
To further back up my interpretation of the ending, I go to none other than the narration of the original trailer, which, in discussing the film states:“it ended as a mystery that refused to die.”
My conclusion then is that the ending was intentionally left ambiguous. Leone spent ten years working on this film so I am certain he thought much about the ending. I also must agree with the analysis from the comment posted above, an ambiguous ending does spur discussion, as this blog post nicely proves.
The Final Scene – Since I am sticking with the “mystery” thesis regarding the film’s ending, I’ll apply the same logic to the final scene, that, in short, it is fully up to interpretation. I’ve read several posts that contend the entire 1960s segment is a drug trip, all made up in Noodles’s head in the opium den. I disagree with this interpretation mainly because there is not much for Noodles to be happy about: he was forced to go in hiding, find a new way of making money, his friends were dead, and only after 35 years does he discover he was in fact betrayed by his life long friend who will shortly be killed. Not something I would smile about.
My own interpretation is that Noodles smiles in the end because this is the moment is the peak of his life. True, prohibition is over so he must find a new way of making money, but he “likes the smell of the streets.” He has plenty of money and is out of jail. He should be OK. Furthermore, he just had to rat out his friend, which I’m sure he wasn’t pleased about, but relieved since he felt he had saved his life. So what better thing to do than take a load off and get high? At that moment life seemed to be sorted out. Of course, everything goes downhill for him once he is woken from his trip, but at that moment, he’s on top of the world. Why not capture it as the films ending?
Godfather, Sopranos, Goodfellas Comparisons – Despite the obvious parallels: gangsters, greed, violence, and Americana one needs to understand Leone to appreciate this film. To me, this film is more about enduring friendships and how life is nothing but immutable despite our best efforts to change it. Although the Godfather and Goodfellas are both wonderful films, I find we are comparing apples and oranges here. In Once Upon a Time in America, the gangsterism and violence are merely the background or the world these characters find themselves in. The core of the story here is about relationships over time, not about the violence.
Other Thoughts – This film is a long one, but I’ve come to appreciate this for the depth in character development. There are two parts which really stand out in my mind. The first is when you see Deborah’s son. You are reminded of how the two young boys met so long ago and forged a friendship that would last their entire lives. The other scene is where Senator Bailey shows the watch to Noodles, signifying once again how far back these two go, and you the viewer.
What’s also fun about this film is the toying of emotions. I can’t help but feel pity for Noodles during the 1960s portion of the film, yet he was not what we could call a good person. Simply think back on the various rape and violence scenes, yet the film makes you like these two very evil people. That in my mind is good film making.