The Greatest films of all time: 11. Once upon a time in America (1984) (Italy)


The creator of Spaghetti Western and the dollar trilogy of “A fistful of Dollars”, “For a few Dollars more”, and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” who also brought Clint Eastwood to life as a popular actor, and made a masterpiece of western, “Once upon a time in the West”, created the master of all gangster films “Once upon a time in America”. The son of the cinema pioneer director Vincenzo Leone (known as Roberto Roberti or Leone Roberto Roberti) and the silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Valerian), and a classmate of his later musical collaborator Ennio Morricone, Sergio Leone grew into cinema. So absorbed into filmmaking, watching often his father work on the film sets that he dropped out of law school to start his film career at age 18. He started working in cinematography, and became an assistant to Vittorio de Sica in filming “The Bicycle Thief”.

Once upon a time Sergio Leone: The Last Great Filmmaker

Sergio Leone, a genius in filmmaking, even in his commercial spaghetti westerns, he was not void of cinematic techniques and innovations. Influenced from the early silent era of his parents’ works, his films are dominant with visual elements, slow camera moves, extreme close ups with emphasis on the looks mixed with long shots. These techniques within his action films either westerns or his gangster masterpiece, “Once upon a time in America”, leave the viewer sinking in the moment and absorb in the details, anticipating the creeping up actions and surprises. These camera techniques of frame freeze, slow movements, extreme close ups and moreover long sequences such as ringing the phone for ever in this film, emphasizes on the important of an event in the lives of the characters or the specific moment in the story of the film.


Starting well and early from age 18, Sergio was stalled when in 1959 was drawn into action films directing when the original director of the film “The Last days of Pompei” Mario Bonnard fell ill. Then came another sword action film of “The Colossus of Rhodes” in 1961 before his switch to making his popular and box office hits of the spaghetti westerns. To conclude his westerns in 1968, he created “Once upon a time in the West” that showed his talents beyond box office to the film critics as well. Then perhaps thinking of creating his masterpiece away from westerns, he ran into reading the autobiographical novel “The Hoods” by Harry Grey (Harry Goldberg or “Noodles”) a member of a Jewish gang that grew in the New York City ghetto, Sergio Leone decided to meet the author and make the film. Finally he met with Harry at a Manhattan bar in late 60’s, and thereafter a few times more in 1960’s and 1970’s to understand America through the author’s living experience. Turning down the offer to direct “The Godfather” by Paramount Pictures, he pursued his own project from then on until its completion in 1984, an endeavor of almost 20 years.

This time Sergio knew that a masterpiece takes a great deal of time and effort, so over about 20 years strenuously researching and preparing himself for making “Once upon a time in the America”. This long haul effort and determination alone is commendable. From 8 to 10 hours of film footage that Sergio shot, he concluded 6 hours with the plan to make it in two parts of three hours each. But by the force of the producers who wanted it only as one single film, he edited the film to a final single film of 269 minutes. This being about four and a half hours, was further cut to 229 minutes (3 hours and 49 minutes) that was released in Europe, but the US release was further cut into 139 minutes by the producers against the director’s wishes, that was a disaster.

“Once upon a time in America”: A Conclusion to Cinema

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The Greatest films of all time: 11. Once upon a time in America (1984) (Italy)