• Once Upon A Time In America (Extended Director’s Cut)

    Released by: Warner Brothers
    Released on: September, 2014.
    Director: Sergio Leone
    Cast: Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Mc Govern, Danny Aiello, James Woods, Jennifer Connelly
    Year: 1984
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    The Movie:

    James Woods said that he felt Sergio Leone ‘died of a broken heart’ because of what happened to his original vision for what would be his final film, 1984’s Once Upon A Time In America. His sprawling epic was chopped down by Warner Brothers into a messy two hour and ten minute cut that left out loads of intended character development and other important scenes. In 2004 Warner Brothers did release a two and twenty nine minute version that restored some of that footage but this still wasn’t what Leone was after. Now, thirty years after the movie hit theaters, a two hundred and fifty one minute version has been made available with the additional twenty-two minutes of material taken from faded archival positives and cut into the previously released 2004 cut of the film.

    The film takes place in New York City and introduces us to David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson, a Jewish resident of New York City. In the 1920’s He winds up getting a gang together and even as kids, these guys prove to be both tough and ambitious. Soon enough, they’ve got rackets going all over lower Manhattan where they live and he falls for a pretty dancer named Deborah (Jennifer Connelly as a youth and Elizabeth McGovern as an adult). As time goes on Noodles becomes an adult (and is then played by Robert De Niro) and he partners up with a man about the same age as he named Max Bercovicz (James Woods). Again, we see Noodles, with help from Max, expand his criminal empire and as prohibition becomes an issue, they’re ready to take full advantage of it. Decades later, in the late sixties, we see how Noodles has aged after running his black market operation for the better part of a half century, and while he lived the good life he’s now ready to take care of some loose strings from his past.

    All of this occurs through flashbacks and at an incredibly deliberate pace but even here, at well past four hours in length, Once Upon A Time In America is an enthralling and riveting experience. So layered and detailed is the storytelling on display that our attention never wavers and while the running time may seem daunting at first, after watching the extended version as presented here it’s hard to imagine the need to sacrifice even a minute of footage for the sake of pacing.

    The performances are fantastic across the board. De Niro is as good here as Noodles as he’s ever been as is Woods, both men delivering extremely impressive work and giving their very layered, multi-faceted characters plenty of believable life. The story’s nostalgic tones weaves through their collective story in interesting ways and the film is edited so as to accentuate these remembrances. It’s never sappy, instead it’s heartfelt and on top of that it helps to really build the narrative structure in ways that make these guys easy to relate to. Sure, Noodles may be a big shot tough guy now, but when he was a kid he peeked at a girl sheepishly the way many boys do. The human element of this epic, sprawling tale cannot be overstated. While Woods and De Niro do much of the heavy lifting, there are some stand outs in the supporting cast – McGovern and Connelly (in her feature debut) are great here and look for interesting work from Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello and plenty more. Olga Karlatos of Fulci’s Zombie infamy also shows up in a quick cameo!

    On top of that the film is filled with amazing camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (the same cinematographer Leone used on both The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West). The film never looks less than perfect in terms of composition and lighting and the camerawork expertly captures all of the attention to detail afforded to the wardrobe, sets and locations. Add to this a remarkably moving score courtesy of Ennio Morricone it’s easy to see, with the level of talent involved in this picture, why it would turn out as well as it has. As to the new material, here are some of the key scenes that have been put back in (described somewhat vaguely to avoid spoilers):

    -in the sixties Noodles talks to the head of a cemetery (Louise Fletcher in a brief and previously excised role) and in doing so notices a black limousine some ways away.
    -In the thirties, Noodles drives a car into the water and after that, certain characters look for him, Max in particular and it ties into their childhood.
    -back to the sixties, Noodles sees what happens to the aforementioned limousine.
    -In the thirties, Noodles briefly talks to his chauffeur before going on a date with Deborah.
    -Noodles rapes Deborah and then heads to a bar and gets drunk, meets a hooker named Eve and then has an intimate and very specific encounter with her. This leads into a quick bit where Deborah walks across the train station and is seen by Noodles as she leaves.
    -In the sixties, Deborah performs in a stage version of Cleopatra, Noodles is in the audience.
    -During the party at the estate, Max argues with a union leader named Jimmy O’Donnell (Treat Williams).

    This material helps to explain certain character actions and motivations that are, in earlier versions, a little foggy. They don’t really interrupt the flow of the film at all and strengthen both the narrative and the character development in appreciable ways. This is a better version of the movie for having this material in it, which brings us to the presentation…


    Once Upon A Time In America arrives on Blu-ray in a two disc set. The first disc contains the newly created director’s cut, the second disc contains the 2004 cut. The second disc is identical to the single disc release that Warner Brothers gave it some years ago and it looks quite good. Colors are very good, black levels are solid and detail is definitely there and surpassing what standard definition could provide. The same compression artifacts that some complained about at the time are here again, but overall it’s quite a good transfer.

    As to the director’s cut, it is presented framed at 1.85.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition and the original footage definitely looks superior to the additional material. Of course, what will interest most people in this new release is that newly inserted footage and as it was taken from the only surviving elements this is likely as good as it’s going to get. The new footage looks flat, it doesn’t have much color at all, detail isn’t nearly as strong and contrast is sometimes completely blown out. There isn’t much print damage to note and the footage has been cleaned up as best as it can be, but again, don’t expect the new material to look great, it doesn’t, but it’s great to finally see it put back into the film regardless. As to how this new scan treats the original material, however, that’s a different story too. That material differs in its color scheme compared to what we see in the 2004 version. The colors aren’t as bright or bold and it’s as if they’ve tried to make the footage that was previously available better match the newly added content with the new color scheme. It’s a pretty noticeable change and one that some might not be too happy with. The irony is that detail in the original footage is definitely more impressive here than on the theatrical version and advancements in compression technology would seem to have helped clear up some of the artifacts that plague the first release.

    The audio for the theatrical cut is again identical to the single disc release, so you get an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track and then Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks in French, Spanish, Japanese, Italian German, Polish Czech and Hungarian. The extended cut also contains an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track while offering Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound options in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track in Spanish. Subs for the director’s cut are offered in English SDH, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Japanese.

    Audio quality on both versions of the movie is solid. The additional footage on the longer cut is more seamlessly integrated than the video aspect of the presentation, though there is still a noticeable drop in quality if you listen for it. Aside from that, the score sounds excellent and the sound effects quite good. Dialogue is clean, clear and audible throughout.

    Aside from the two versions of the movie, this release also includes the twenty-minute excerpt from the Once Upon A Time: Sergio Leone documentary, a teaser trailer and a theatrical trailer. For the theatrical cut of the film, we also get a very detailed and in-depth commentary provided by Richard Schickel. All of these extras were carried over from the previous Blu-ray release but if you haven’t heard the commentary before and are interested in learning more about the film, this is a great way to do it. Schickel stays on target throughout the track and offers up plenty of history and interesting facts about the story, the cast, the locations and of course about where Leone was at personally and professionally while working on what would turn out to be his final film.

    Both discs also include animated menus and chapter selection and are housed inside a Blu-ray case that fits inside a slipcase alongside a book containing some writing on the film, some history of its release and some details on what went into getting it into the version we have now with this set.

    The Final Word:

    It’s great to finally see the additional material that was once removed from Sergio Leone’s epic Once Upon A Time In America reinstated back into the film as it is here in an effort to more closely appropriate his original vision for the movie. As to the merits of the transfer, the fact that this longer cut is visibly drained of color is sure to be a sticking point for some, and understandably so. The original Blu-ray is included in this two disc set as well, with what we can assume is the proper color timing intact, and the differences are obvious. The movie definitely does play better in its longer form, however so this is a bit of a mixed bag. The booklet is a nice inclusion though and all of the extras from the previous release are included on the disc with the theatrical cut, making this the one to own unless a version of the longer cut is made available with better colors. The film itself remains a masterpiece.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps from the extended cut!

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps from the 2004 cut!

    Comments 4 Comments
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      I picked up the 2004 version blind and loved it until the last twenty minutes, when suddenly a couple of things ceased making sense. I saw the Blu-ray recently and passed it up, but reading this review has spurred me to go out later today, pick it up, and give it another chance.
    1. Lalala76's Avatar
      Lalala76 -
      I love the film and I was very impressed with the blu-ray, regardless of the different colour timing. Have said it before but to me it kind of worked. The film itself I guess you have to see at least a couple of times before things start to fall into place, especially as the story moves back and forth between 3 timeframes.
    1. John Bernhard's Avatar
      John Bernhard -
      Nice write up. Watching the 2004 version now with commentary before I go for the new restoration.This simply gets better & deeper everytime I revisit it ( starting with the butchered version when it was first released ) and really looking forward to the new footage. Shame there is more footage that will most likely eventually be cleared for inclusion on the next incarnation of this title, but for now happy to take what we can get.And I feel just rotten about how this was mistreated in the US of A, causing Leone so much pain...it's a freaking masterwork.
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      I found the BD today for $12.98. So I picked it up. Now to find a block of time to watch it without interruption.