Re: Once Upon a Time in America

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: rec.arts.movies.past-films
Date: Wednesday, August 05, 1998 4:59 PM

I wrote:
>>The scene conveys that James Woods commits suicide
>>by going into the back of the dump truck. As you may recall,
>>in the previous scene, Woods had asked DeNiro to kill Woods,
>>giving DeNiro the satisfaction of obtaining revenge for
>>years of betrayal, at the same time precluding Woods from
>>being killed shortly thereafter by the union thugs who don't want
>>Woods to testify in the union-funds scandal… .

Jim Harwood responded to me in message
>I never thought Woods committed suicide in this scene. He walks through the
>gate and out into the street, approaching DeNiro's character. He's in the
>foreground and the garbage truck is in the background. Would he do this if he
>was planning to jump into the back of the garbage truck, which is in back of
>him? The garbage truck then starts, passes in front of Woods and then we never
>see him again.

b/r vinik wrote in message <>…
>I wonder, however, if Max was just making it appear to Noodles (and us)
>that he was killing himself, when in fact he was carrying out another
>creative escape (after which he'd assume yet another new identity).

I've looked at the scene again and do not see how the details discussed in others' posts make a substantive difference -- although Woods' walking direction poses a question.

When Woods emerges from his mansion, he is positioned to the right of the front bumber of the truck. The truck begins to move forward, but -- as Jim accurately reported -- Woods moves forward too, until after the truck has traveled many yards, it's back end is beyond where Woods would have been. (The truck was moving faster than Woods so the truck would eventually be ENTIRELY in front of Woods, assuming Woods maintained the slow speed we saw him travel and which his advanced age would indicate.) At that time, Woods is no longer to be seen.

The tall, solid walls that surround the mansion pose an obstacle to Woods' escaping on the passenger's side of the truck. Had he gone to the driver's side of the truck, DeNiro would have seen Woods. Had Woods gone backwards, he would have had to cover enough distance to been out of DeNiro's range-of-sight once the truck ceased to obstruct DeNiro's vision.

So where did Woods go? If not into the grinders at the back of the garbage truck, where else?

Jim, your question about Woods' walking forward instead of immediately walking toward the rear of the truck, is a good question. Might the director Sergio Leone have instructed actor Woods to walk forward and let the truck drive further before its back end had reached Woods, in order that the audience would see that the entrance to the mansion had become too far away from Woods to have allowed him to sneak back onto the walled grounds during those moments when the truck was obstructing the view of the wall and entrance? (Might it also be that Woods' character wanted DeNiro's to see that Woods' was not giving himself that escape path?)

Jim Harwood also wrote:
>I think that someone else tossed Woods into the garbage truck,
>he didn't just jump in. It is already established that Woods is expecting to
>be killed and that he would rather have DeNiro do it than a stranger.

Woods said in his last conversation with DeNiro that DeNiro was the only person who had the right to kill Woods, apparently owing to Woods' wronging of DeNiro and the extent of the betrayal.

Jules57 <> wrote:
>Wow! I always assumed that Max committed suicide because of
>his comment about the Feds breathing down his neck, and also
>because Noodles refused to take him out of his misery. But now that
>I think about it, someone as ruthless as Max is by definition so
>egotistical that suicide would be unlikely. Jim, your theory
>makes perfect sense!

Concerning Woods' character (Max) being too egotistical, consider the following:

1) Deborah, in her one, strained conversation with DeNiro before the party, tells DeNiro that "Mr. Bailey" (e.g., Woods/Max) is troubled, Deborah saying so in a lump-throated voice that tells us that she fears for his life. It also comes out in this conversation that Deborah has been and still is the mistress of the secretive "Mr. Bailey," so Deborah ought to know about his emotional state.

2) Max, for all his eagerness to be independently rich, chose to pursue his objective by going into dubious partnerships with organizations. DeNiro had tried to discourage him ("You're the guy who said he didn't like bosses"), but Max continued to trade independence for group power. We saw the first signs of how this could turn on the members when Woods and an unknowing DeNiro conduct a contract killing on "Frankie" (during the diamond sale); DeNiro again objects to the possible consequences, telling Woods "Today they ask us to get rid of Frankie, tomorrow they ask me to get rid of you." At the end of the movie, Woods' turn to be sacrificed has come and he knows it. The movie is delivering on the message it planted much earlier, that the persons who conducted the contract killings would themselves fall victim to contract killing. A deadened egotism was no protection against ill-chosen alliances.

David Hayes


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