Re: Once Upon a Time in America / its five versions

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: rec.arts.movies.past-films,
Date: Wednesday, February 04, 1998 10:28 PM

Mohundro wrote in message <01bd31f1$f8a3b6c0$68d36ccf@default>…
>This is a film event. The time shifts are a bit dizzying but the overall
>effect is pretty stunning. I came out of the theatre sure I'd not seen a
>great film but equally sure it was a film I'd not forget easily. It is
>well worth seeing but I assume that you saw the 3 hour 47 minute cut (as
>did I). If the timelines and flashbacks are a challenge to follow in that
>cut, one can imagine how impossible it might be to track the 2 hour 19
>minute version which was also released in the U.S. I suspect it was
>released only for television viewing but I'm not sure. The 3 hour 47
>minute cut has been available on videotape. The original director's cut
>(which may have been released briefly in Europe) is reputed to have been
>about eight hours! Perhaps some film buff can confirm that, and has even
>seen that cut.

The 2hr 20min original American release put the events into chronological order, which ruins the meaning of the movie. In all of the other versions, the film opens with Robert DeNiro at his moment of betrayal, followed by scenes of him 35 years later, where he is revealed to be a man whose life has been wasted, who is bored and uninvolved and who remarks that he has been "going to bed early" for 35 years. The flashbacks show us how he reached that stage. Although I can't say too much about what was cut (although Elizabeth McGovern's 1968 reunion with DeNiro was cut [preview audiences were confused that she hadn't aged, having failed to properly read what that meant], as were bits of business), all of the crucial plot scenes are in it, and the main reason that this rearranged version is an artistic travesty is because the scenes had never been paced for a chronological presentation; the early-century scenes inside the delicatessen are confusing because the locale was being seen by the audience for the first time at that point in the story in that version of the film, yet later there are "plodding" shots establishing the delicatessen because these "later" scenes had been intended to be shown first.

The 3 hr 46 minute version has been released on widescreen laserdisc (the older 4:3 ratio laserdisc is two minutes shorter), and is the version that received rave reviews after its showing at a New York film festival prior to any American theatrical release. The 3hr 46 min cut could not qualify for an "R" rating, which is why two minutes were removed for the American "long" version released a few months after the "short" version. Thus, the "long" version is not the complete version, but is close enough. (About half of the cut footage was taken from the rape in the taxicab, which actually seems shorter in the complete version because there are not the jarring cuts. The act is one of brutality and animalistic stupidity, of oblivious self-destruction on the part of the rapist, in both versions.) It is this 3 hr 44 min version that was released to cable television, to VHS, and to the non-letterbox laserdisc.

Thus far three versions have been described. These three are the most common. There are TWO other versions.

The American television version runs about 3 hrs 10 min, was prepared by NBC for showing in two 2-hr time slots (on successive nights), and has since been shown via syndication on local stations. NBC used both theatrical cuts to compile their cut, and to their credit, they did retain the flashback structure for the most part. In making their cuts, however, they sometimes put flashbacks in slightly different locations than they had appeared in the theatrical release. Although the information about the characters is conveyed in more-or-less the same sequence, the changes in the start-points of the flashbacks robs the flashbacks of the random-association quality that they had. In the complete film, it is the flying frisbee in 1968 that links within DeNiro's mind to a memory that begins with a frisbee in the 1920s; likewise, engulfing water in 1933 had linked to a news report of a car being dragged from a waterfront in 1968. These were fiddled with by the television editor. The television editor also snipped all profanity and all references to drugs, not just removing words but whole lines. Characters who had spoken WITH each other now seemed to talk PAST each other. The removal of the references to narcotics was also peculiar, given that the complete film actually conveys a subtle anti-drug theme; DeNiro's life is ruined because a drugged stupor had caused him to fail to see that the people around him were manipulating him.

The final version to be mentioned is an Italian television version at 4 hrs 25 min. It is said that no English-language equivalent footage exists of the footage unique to this version. In any event, Sergio Leone did not envision these scenes as part of theatrical presentations, and an eight-hour cut seems unlikely to have been intended. ("Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola had an eight-hour cut of "Rumblefish." Perhaps that film has been confused with Leone's.)

David Hayes


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