Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (Blu-ray)

Robert DeNiro as David “Noodles” Aaronson.

Director Sergio Leone, best known for spaghetti westerns like The Good, The Bad & The Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars, turned down the chance to direct The Godfather to work on his own mobster epic, Once Upon a Time in America. Ultimately, it took ten years and six script writers from Italy and the U.S.to get the film made. When Once Upon a Time in America made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984, the audience stood and cheered. Unfortunately when the film arrived stateside, it had been cut from its 229 minute runtime, down to just 152, leaving audiences confused and Sergio Leone heartbroken.

In 2011, Warner Brothers released the 229 minute Director’s cut on Blu-ray, and it quickly became apparent why the audience at Cannes had been so excited by the film thirty years ago. Now, Warner has released the Extended Director’s Cut. Containing an additional 22 minutes and coming in at a 4 hours and 11 minutes, this is one of the rare cases where more is more; Once Upon a Time in America moves from classic to masterpiece.

The opening sets the tone: a helpless woman gets two bullets pumped into her, followed by a bloody, brutal beating as gangsters look for David Noodles Aaronson (Robert DeNiro). On the run, Noodles heads to Buffalo, N.Y., where he hides out for the next 35 years. He returns to his Lower East Side neighborhood and reminisces about his childhood in the early part of the century with other Jewish kids. They’re mostly fellow thugs, who beat up drunks and engage in petty crime. One day, Young Noodles (Scott Tiler), meets Maximilian ‘Max’ Bercovicz (played by Rusty Jacobs as a kid and James Woods as the adult). They form what they believe will be a lifelong friendship. Along the way, he remembers old friends “Patsy” Goldberg (James Hayen), “Cockeye” Stein (William Forsythe) with whom he ran a speakeasy and committed various crimes, including extortion and murder. Never far from his thoughts, had Deborah Gelly (Elizabeth McGovern), the girl he’s loved since forever, though his own actions destroyed any chance he might have had with her.

As Max waits to learn his fate, he recalls the good and the bad of his life. Women came and went (there are also a couple of brutal rapes), lots of gunplay and frivolity. DeNiro is quiet and understated, which is incredibly powerful because Once Upon a Time in America is first and foremost an examination of his characters innermost emotions, something DeNiro has proven to be very skilled at in his long career.

Before Leone died in 1989, he claimed to have shot 10 hours of footage for the film. One of the most interesting additions to the Extended Director’s Cut is a scene featuring Louise Fletcher (who doesn’t appear in previous cuts) as a cemetery manager who, in 1968, tells DeNiro’s character (who believes he is responsible for the death of his friend, Max (James Woods) that “he” paid for a mausoleum supposedly containing the remains of Max and two others.

As the scene ends, there’s a scene of a black limousine that we soon learn belongs to the shamed secretary of commerce. As seen in previous versions, this person turns out to be Max, who stole Noodles’ money and faked his own death. This whole thing is very 1930’s, opium den induced. Like many of the added scenes, this is a direct result of Noodles’ feelings of guilt.

While longer isn’t always better (Heaven’s Gate, another flop of the era, that was dramatically cut and later restored, comes to mind), in the case of Once Upon a Time in America, the additions serve to fill in some important gaps in the non-linear storyline and help to gain a greater understanding of Noodles Aaronson.

Scanned in 4K and presented in and presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Warner’s transfer is generally decent given its age and the shooting styles employed by Leone. Issues occur when evaluating the 22 minutes of additional footage. While every effort was made to make the additions as seamless as possible, they stand out rather obviously, having originated from lower quality prints. Both the color timing and contrast is completely out of place with the rest of the film and more source damage is evident. Apart from that, the presentation offers a filmic appearance. While there is a slight bit of crush, this is a fine transfer.

The audio has been remastered into 5.1 and included on this Blu-ray DTS-HD Master Audio. Dialogue is clear throughout. Surround activity is minimal, with only some very light support for the film score and some mild localized effects. LFE is non-existent, but the track has sufficient depth and fullness, along with some very good detail in the upper frequencies.

English SDH, French, Spanish, Japanese, German SDH, and Italian SDH subtitles are available.

The following extras are included:

  • Excerpt from Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone (SD, 19:36) I wish the entire documentary was included.
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2:39)
  • Teaser Trailer (SD, 1:34)
  • Insert: A one page insert explaining the re-edit and transfer process. The notice also appears at the start of the film.

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