Like a lot of people who love music and cinema, I was so sad to hear about the death of legendary composer Ennio Morricone. Even though he died at the age of 91, the idea of the death of someone who had created so many of the scores that I loved still hurt. As I read the tributes to him, I learned that he had composed over 400 scores for film and television in addition to 100 classical works. He was especially famous for his scores for the films of his director and former classmate Sergio Leone. When I heard of Morricone’s death, the first music of his that came to mind was from a Leone film. But it wasn’t the score to one of the famous Spaghetti Westerns that Leone directed. Instead, it was the music for Leone’s last masterpiece, a film that shows the great artistic heights Morricone could reach, but which raises questions of whether you can enjoy something that, despite its great musical and visual beauty, has scenes of violent ugliness that remain hard to watch. The film I thought of was Once Upon a Time in America.
Leone’s last movie was his first gangster movie. It tells the story of David “Noodles” Aaronson, a Jewish gangster who returns to his boyhood home of Brooklyn after 35 years in exile. As he tries to learn who is behind the mysterious message that brought him back to Brooklyn, Noodles journeys into his childhood memories of his first love Deborah and his best friend Max, memories that seem to matter more to him than his present-day life.
There are many things that separate Once Upon a Time in America from other gangster epics, but the one that I keep returning to is how it elevates the life of an average, often unlucky criminal and his friends to the level of operatic tragedy. One memorable example is a scene in which Patsy, a member of Noodles’s gang, buys a pastry to give to a neighborhood girl named Peggy in order to lose his virginity. But as Patsy, still just a kid, waits for her, he slowly but surely eats the whole dessert. Another filmmaker might have played jaunty, comedic music to accentuate the inherent humor in this scene. But instead this scene is accompanied by Morricone’s titular theme, a grand and pensive piece of music. In the long run of Patsy’s life, this moment probably won’t matter. In the future, Peggy will become his girlfriend, and Patsy’s willingness to commit brutally efficient murders will show that he has shed conventional decency. But in that moment, as he temporarily chooses innocence over experience, and affirms his humanity before succumbing to his criminal future, Patsy’s action feels like the most important thing he has ever done. This moving scene only has its full power because of Leone’s greatest collaborator: Morricone.
Despite the great cast of Once Upon a Time in America — Robert De Niro as Noodles, James Woods giving the best performance of his career as Max — its true star is Morricone. His pieces of music, such as the titular theme and “Deborah’s Theme,” give this film its key sense of melancholy majesty. His entertaining jazz songs “Prohibition Dirge” and “Speakeasy” perfectly complement the period-accurate visuals by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli and production designer Giovanni Natalucci. In addition, Morricone’s different orchestrations of “Amapola,” an opera piece by Joseph Lacalle, expertly charts the changing relationship between Noodles and Deborah as the years go on, and even seems to grow with them. Time and time again, throughout the now standard 3-hour-and-49-minute version (there have been different cuts of this movie throughout the years, but that is a story for another essay), Morricone creates the beguilingly mysterious beauty that makes Once Upon a Time in America so memorable.
But, sadly, there is more to Once Upon a Time in America than beauty. It is also full of ugliness. Some of that ugliness comes in the form of violence that is typical of the gangster genre, namely beatings and bloody shootings. But there is also a running current of misogyny towards its women characters that is disturbingly unpleasant. Despite some interesting female characters (including Young Deborah as played by Jennifer Connelly in her feature film debut), this movie depicts a culture of toxic masculinity, often expressed through casual yet disgusting acts or remarks, that culminates in sequences depicting brutal sexual violence against the film’s two most prominent female characters. These two sequences, one of which is so vile that I once fast-forwarded through it, do not feature a single note of Morricone’s music.
You might ask how I can enjoy this movie if it depicts such acts of violence against women, or how I can enjoy this film knowing that Leone’s meeting with auditioning young actor Diane Franklin became “inappropriate at the end” and led her to describe her experience with the hashtag “MeToo.” It’s a good question, and one that I grapple with every time I return to or think about this film. I become disgusted with the ugliness of its attitudes towards the majority of its female characters, and despise Noodles for sexually assaulting Deborah. I’ll always think that including rape scenes in this film was Leone’s worst decision as a filmmaker. You might suggest that I could simply listen to the soundtrack for Once Upon a Time in America and ignore the ugliness that runs throughout this film, and there are times where I would be tempted to agree.
And yet, there are things about this movie, not related to how it depicts acts of sexual violence and harassment against women, that make me want to return to it. They don’t excuse how horrible those sequences of sexual violence are, but at the same time, those sequences don’t cancel out the beauty of the film’s best images, such as the long shot of the type of bustling New York Jewish neighborhood that vanished with the 20th century, or the famous shot of Noodles and his gang as teenagers walking past the Manhattan Bridge. There are certain things about Once Upon a Time in America, such as its critical attitude toward the police, that remain relevant in 2020, even as its attitudes towards its women characters remain dated. But at the same time, the film seems to argue that Noodles’s abhorrent attitudes towards women — and what he does to Deborah in particular — helped ruin his life, and are part of why he is so unhappy in the 1968 scenes.
I find something different in this movie every time I watch it. One of the most intriguing things that I noticed for the first time on this viewing came when I watched the scene where Noodles and Deborah reunite in 1968. Morricone primarily scores this scene with “Deborah’s Theme,” symbolizing how Deborah’s strength and ambition triumphed over Noodles’s desire to keep her for himself. At the same time, Morricone expertly counterpoints “Deborah’s Theme” with “Amapola,” which accompanied Noodles and Deborah throughout their relationship and to which they danced on their only date. The music is faint, like a fading memory, but it is there. It suggests that, for all of Deborah’s horrible history with Noodles, there is still that old fondness she had for him as a girl, that violence and decades apart somehow never fully destroyed. It’s a complex scene, with complex music, and there are people who watch it who will not find it believable, or even offensive. They have every right to feel that way, and their feelings are just as valid as that of anyone else who sees this movie. But if you take this scene on the terms of the film, as the final conversation Noodles has with the only woman who could have made him happy but whom he deeply hurt in a way that he’ll never truly understand, it attains a devastating power that you cannot explain away.
There are many films for which people will remember Morricone. There are the famous ones, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West. There’s the underappreciated film The Mission, which Morricone felt he should have won an Academy Award for, and The Hateful Eight, for which he did win an Academy Award. But even if you do not feel comfortable watching Once Upon a Time in America because of its most graphic scenes, and/or grappling with the questions of watching problematic art that it raises, you should seek out Morricone’s score for it. Its intensity, versatility, and grand beauty make it one that I cannot help returning to again and again. It is a score that I have always adored, and treasure even more now that Morricone is gone.
Once Upon a Time in America was screened at IU Cinema in 2012 as part of the series Once Upon a Time… in Indiana. This series also included a screening of another Leone-Morricone collaboration, Once Upon a Time in the West.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.