What Really Happened to David in Once Upon a Time in America. Plot analysis, meaning of the film, explanation of the ending, similar films.
Genre: Drama, Crime, Screening
Year of production: 1983
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Actors: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern
tagline: “As boys, they agreed to share their wealth, their lives, their creations. As men, they shared the dream of rising from poverty to power. They created an empire built on greed, violence and betrayal. Their dream will end like a mystery that refuses to die.”
Awards and nominations: In 1985, the picture received two Golden Globe nominations.
When the world saw The Godfather, Sergio Leone realized that the plot and meaning of Once Upon a Time in America, the idea of which he had finally matured by this time, would be based on completely different principles. According to the director, for many years he dreamed of debunking one of the main Hollywood movie myths, which since the 20s of the twentieth century depicted gangsters as good and noble guys in their own way. His four-hour picture turned out to be gloomy and tough. She masterfully argues with the Coppola dilogy and, unlike her, boldly says that there is no romance in the world of crime.
What is the movie about
Brief description of the content of the film “Once Upon a Time in America”. In the center of the plot is David Aaronson. More than thirty years ago, he was a gangster, but then, wanting to free himself from a criminal past, he moved from the Lower East Side to another area of New York.
Soon he receives a message that the old cemetery where his friends are buried is going to be demolished. An unknown person who sent a letter to David asks to move the graves of people dear to him. Aaronson realizes that the past he’s been running from for so long has caught up with him.
Robert De Niro played the role of David Aaronson. Frame from the film.
He returns to his native quarter and is surprised to find that the graves of his friends have already been transferred to another cemetery. Entering a large crypt, he sees a memorial plaque. Having familiarized himself with it, he is surprised to learn that he himself built the crypt. Perplexed and somewhat frightened, David discovers the key to the station’s storage locker… and surrenders to the flood of memories.
1920 New York Jewish Quarter. Then David was not yet Mr. Aaronson, but a guy called Noodles. Together with friends – Maximilian Berkovich, Patrick Goldberg, Philipp Stein and little Dominic, he stole, robbed and turned dangerous scams. With Maximilian (Max) they were great friends.
Soon enough, the teenage gang is noticed by members of an organized crime group. A little later, the guys save the smuggling of alcohol and get the first serious jackpot. The guys also have their first enemies, the most sophisticated of which is a criminal nicknamed Bugsy.
In one of the skirmishes, Bugsy kills Dominic, the youngest member of the gang. Deciding to avenge his friend, Noodles stabs the enemy with a knife and seriously injures the policeman who has arrived in time. After that, the young man goes to prison for ten years.
Having been released in 1930, Noodles is faced with a new reality – dry law reigns in the country. However, this does not prevent his gang from succeeding – it controls an underground drinking establishment. With great pleasure, Noodles returns to the dangerous criminal world. After a while, the group gains influence in the quarter, and politicians try to enlist the support of criminals. Noodles doesn’t like it, but Max, according to him, is tired of swimming in shallow water – he wants more. On this basis, friends seriously quarrel.
The role of Max was played by James Woods. Frame from the film.
Max also dreams of robbing the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Noodles, knowing full well that his friend was a little carried away, decides to betray. To save his friends from death in a shootout, he turns them all in to the police.
The next day, a report appears in the newspapers that Max and the rest of the group died in a clash with the police, and the body of the leader was burned beyond recognition. After that, unknown persons begin to hunt for Noodles. He hides in Chinatown and, having run into one of his pursuers there, kills him and takes with him the key to the cache in which he and his friends kept the “common fund”. Having reached the cell, Noodles is horrified to find that instead of money there are only old newspapers. Seriously frightened, he leaves New York for thirty-five years …
While in the crypt, the elderly Noodles also remembers his old love, Deborah. They met when they were both teenagers. He fell in love with her instantly, and she returned his feelings, but their relationship did not work out. The girl wanted to get out of the dark world in which she was, and Noodles knew no other life – the street was the meaning of his existence. They carried their feelings through their whole lives, but they were not destined to be together – Deborah not only loved, but was also afraid of the gangster. Wanting to be an actress, she told him more than once that she wanted to leave. One day, realizing that he was losing his beloved girl, the distraught Noodles took her by force…
Shaking off his memories, David takes the key, drives to an old cache and discovers a suitcase with a large amount of money. There is also a note in which a man who calls himself Minister Bailey says that he is hiring him and promises to pay even more.
Elizabeth McGovern as Deborah. Frame from the film.
Realizing that he is being played with, Noodles finds a woman Max once dated. She tells him that the wild robbery of the Federal Reserve Bank was only part of Max’s “cunning plan”. According to her, he did not want to live anymore and deliberately provoked a clash with the police. During this very difficult conversation for him, Noodles saw a photograph on the wall depicting some important gentleman and Deborah.
Noodles finds her and learns that she has become an actress after all. She owes her career to her patron, Secretary of Commerce Bailey, with whom she has a son, David. A little later, Noodles meets a young man and realizes that he is like two drops of water similar to Max …
Explanation of the ending of Once Upon a Time in America. Near the end, Noodles finds “Minister Bailey”, who is actually Max, and dates him. An old friend confirms that many years ago he, who was tired of the street to death, really betrayed his friends and pulled off this robbery scam. Then he stole a common fund, legalized himself and started a new life as Minister Bailey.
However, the past relentlessly pursued him and eventually overtook him. He is under investigation, he is pursued by competitors. Not wanting to play by the rules imposed on him, he decided to evade responsibility by repeating the same number as in his youth, but this time – for real. He hired Noodles to kill him. The point is that in this way he wants to atone for his guilt before Noodles: because of him, all these years, David considered himself a traitor and lived under the yoke of guilt. Max assures Noodles that he is not in danger for the murder.
Tuesday Weld played the role of Carol. Frame from the film.
Terrified, Noodles refuses and rather abruptly tells “Minister Bailey” that he doesn’t know him and that he doesn’t owe him anything. Max insists, saying that he is a traitor, and asks for retribution. To this, Noodles objects that in his youth he had a best friend, whose name was Max, but he died long ago. Wishing “Minister Bailey” to get out of business, he leaves. After a while, Max slips out after him and disappears near a garbage van working nearby.
In the last mise-en-scene, Noodles again recalls the 1930s. While in Chinatown, he takes a puff of opium and smiles blissfully.
Leone’s film is 40 years old, and the meaning behind Once Upon a Time in America’s ending is still mind-blowing. It’s all the fault of the final scene, which breaks the whole concept of the picture. What’s happened? Noodles lived to old age or died in youth?
Viewers in their analysis of the picture offer the following interpretation. Noodles comes to the den and smokes opium – no one has died yet, and the group has not broken up. After a while, they will wake him up and say that they are looking for him … That is, at the end of the film, a moment of irrevocable happiness is shown.
The mise-en-scene with the garbage truck seems interesting – it has a hidden meaning. The doomed Max, whose entire life has been garbage, disappears. How it happened is completely irrelevant.
Some viewers believe that Noodles got revenge on Max by his refusal to kill him. But this is not so: Noodles just became different. He accepted himself, his past and forgave Max. And he couldn’t live with it. Because if they had switched places, he would have acted completely differently.
There is a story about how, after the premiere, a viewer approached Sergio Leone and asked what really happened to Noodles. He looked at him carefully and asked: “Do you really want to know this”? Without another word, the spectator left.
The meaning of the film
The film Once Upon a Time in America is based on the book by Odessa-born Harry Gray (real name Herschel Goldberg), who was known as an almost direct participant in the bloody gangster clashes of the Prohibition era. The idea of the book, in which the author, while serving his sentence in Sing Sing, surprisingly vividly outlined all the “charms” of the criminal world, turned out to be close to Sergio Leone.
Talking about what the essence of the film is, the director said that he was making a movie about the futile attempts of a person to fight against time. And indeed, the heroes (more precisely, anti-heroes) of his tape strive to become the masters of time. However, as the plot developed, it became clear that in relation to the members of the criminal group, it is inexorable …
However, it is foolish to think that “Once Upon a Time in America” is a leisurely, truly epic canvas that only talks about crime. This is more of a complex drama about interpersonal relationships – the gangster “shell” only enhances the effect and tragedy of everything that happens.
The entire narrative of the film is divided into several time periods that reveal the life path of the protagonist for forty years. During this time, the worldview and the universe can radically change, but memories never disappear without a trace. The simpler and easier a person lived, the brighter they are. The situation is quite different with those who tried to play with the fates and lives of others.
The painting by Sergio Leone clearly demonstrates how you can become the strong man of this world from a street boy, and then, with no less speed, expose yourself to a blow and disappear into oblivion. Was the game worth the candle? David Aaronson made his conclusion.
Some viewers call “Once Upon a Time in America” a parable film. And indeed, this “gangster” picture digs very deep. She tells not only how the thought that he is behind the board corrupts a person, but also talks about such simple things as love, friendship and betrayal. And one of the hard conclusions that can be drawn after watching it sounds like this: it is always the closest ones who betray. And not everyone has the opportunity to commit non-revenge in response.
Frame from the film.
Here are a few films similar in meaning to Once Upon a Time in America:
- Public Enemies (USA, Japan, 2009). John Dillinger is a dangerous gangster and the idol of all the humiliated and offended. One day, an FBI agent gets in his way.
- “Gangster” (USA, UK, 2007). Richie Roberts is an honest cop. Having attacked the trail of the Harlem criminal authority, he is trying against all odds to bring the matter to an end.
- “For a Fistful of Dynamite” (Italy, 1971). Two bandits plan to rob a bank. But everything doesn’t go according to plan.