This article explains elements of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, revealing the meanings behind it. We recommend you to read it only after watching the movie, and not before, in order to preserve the pleasure of the first vision.
The masterpiece of one of the most esteemed directors ever, from critics, audiences and colleagues in the industry, always at the top of the charts of the best films ever made; an example of a gangster movie that will close an era and open another one, often inspired by it; the refusal to shoot The Godfather in order to stay loyal to the ideas he would develop in this film; the eight hours of material selected by Sergio Leone after filming, reduced to less than four after several cuts that didn’t make the director happy; the legend that this film, especially during editing, contributed to worsen Leone health conditions, leading to his death.
There are numerous stories still living around Once Upon a Time in America, and not all them are clear and defined, as it’s common for one of the most ambitious and intense films in the history of cinema. But the one we always discuss after seeing the film for the first time is the story behind the ending scene.
In the final minutes of the film, the plot twist is revealed: Mr. Bailey (James Woods) reveals to Noodles (Robert DeNiro) a deceit that lasted 35 years: Max wasn’t dead the night Noodles saw the corpses of his gang, it was a trick to steal his money and his woman and run away, leaving him with all the remorses. But now Max/Bailey is in big trouble, his life is ruined and what he’s asking to Noodles, as a sign of repentance for the nastiest thing ever done in his life, is to be killed by his hands. Noodles’s response is negative: he doesn’t accept this version of reality, probably too painful to live with it. Max died that night, years ago, and Mr. Bailey has nothing to do with that story. That part of the dialog is one of the most mentioned quotes in the history of Cinema:
“Is this your idea of revenge?”
No. It’s just the way I see things.”
What happens next is the famous scene outside the villa: Noodles goes putside from a back door, he walks in the dark, passing by a big truck. The truck switch on the engine, and from the villa emerges a figure that seems (but we are not sure) Mr. Bailey. The truck starts to move slowly, hiding Mr. Bailey to Noodles’ sight, and in that moment a metallic screech fills the night. Mr. Bailey is no longer there, and Noodles sees the blades that crush the trash in the back.
They say that not even James Woods knows if his character jumped into the blades or just slipped away. Sergio Leone explicitly wanted to leave the ambiguity of that scene, and legend has it that the figure outside the villa is played by a stunt, not by Woods himself, to feed the doubts about the possible recognition. It’s a paradox: Noodles spends the whole film, and practically half of his life, to wonder what really happened that night, then he discovers a truth, he doesn’t accept it and he doesn’t even worry to check what happened in front of his eyes. Noodles has already decided what truth will accompany him for the rest of his old age, and he only wants to protect it from any possible interference.
Or maybe none of this really happened, and everything we saw during his elder age, in the villa and outside of it, is only the fruit of his imagination.
Because what we see right after is the lights of three cars from the 40s passing by in front of Noodles, in a time contradiction that is not explained (at that time we are in the 80s). And just after that comes the flashback, that maybe is not even a flashback: we go back to the tragic night when the gang is dead, when Noodles enters the opium den and tries to forget what happened. And then that close-up through the fabric, which reminds us Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West, and the mysterious smile that closes the movie. A smile that strides with the tragic history, a fake smile, induced by smoking, and even more fake because it happens when Noodles still doesn’t know his future. Maybe it’s inside that smile that Noodles imagines what we see in the movie, like an unconscious projections of his wish that his friend is still alive, and he should’t have any remorse about his death. A riddle that is still not solved, for which no one ever provided the infal solution. Not even Sergio Leone.
Because if there is one thing that certain films, that certain filmmakers want to communicate, it’s just this: the pleasure of cinema isn’t about understanding what happened, but it’s about immersing ourselves in the mystery, in the nuances of meaning, absorbing them as a fabric does with water, letting ourselves be penetrated by art, enjoying the conditions in which the film places you. Uncertainties and ambiguities are a absolutely part of that pleasure.