In Sergio Leone’s valedictory film, every image, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris writing on John Ford in The American Cinema, is haunted by its “memory image on the horizon of history.” Ford is still Leone’s master, even in a film whose antagonists — “Noodles” Aronson (Robert De Niro) and Max Bercovj (James Woods) — pointedly recall the gangster movies Raoul Walsh made about friends who rise up from the same slum neighborhood and become foes because of class divisions.
Among the mysteries of Once Upon a Time in America: the interminable scene in which Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) removes the makeup from a face that apparently hasn’t aged in over thirty years; the garbage truck that carries Max out of the film (ground-up or still alive?), which rhymes with the junk wagon that carried him into it; the ghostly cavalcade of revelers that follows it, and the final zoom-in on Noodles, who has taken refuge from a life of death and betrayal in an opium den, as the drug kicks in and his face lights up in a savage grin. In Once Upon a Time in America Time is Leone’s subject more than ever. The film’s images are treasures, at once dark and luminous, recovered from the shipwreck of Noodles’ past.
That last image of Noodles, which Leone seems to have created to sum up his oeuvre, is on the simplest level a 35mm snapshot of the male animal’s brutish nature, but that doesn’t explain the sudden smile that appears on the face of this thug, a rapist and murderer, when the opium hits his brain, which raises for the last time the question that was first raised in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) of Leone’s attitude toward men, that “ancient race” evoked by “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) at the end of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
Without trying to dissipate the mystery, I can suggest a way of deepening it which doesn’t fall into the trap of feel-good idealizations, the theory of influence elaborated by literary critic Harold Bloom as a way of talking about Romantic poetry — applicable to all “post-Enlightenment art,” including that 19th Century invention, motion pictures. In my Cahiers du cinema eulogy for Leone I sketched out a Bloomean reading of him as a Romantic poet whose last film carries out the movement of internalization by which the Romantics turned quest romance into inner questing. Here the quest is fated to end with a darker achievement than any portrayed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, predicated on “reduced expectations” with a vengeance — a vision that once encompassed Ford’s Monument Valley has dwindled to the space between a gangster’s ears — and inexorably destined for defeat.
The central poem in the Romantic tradition, according to Bloom, is Robert Browning’s gloomy poetic monologue by a failed quest hero, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” which may also have been in Arthur C. Clarke’s mind when he conceived the monolith at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like the astronaut played by Keir Dullea in 2001, Noodles is a member of Roland’s doomed company, and his smile is eerily reminiscent of the smile on the face of the Star Child at the end of Kubrick’s film.
As Adrian Martin has shown in his BFI study of Once Upon a Time in America, the meaning of that smile hovers between fantasy (an opium dream?) and reality, between past (Noodles’ childhood? the film we have just seen?) and future (a prophetic vision brought on by the drug?), with no room in the middle for a living present. This happens to be a precise description of the “ratio of misreading” (a defense mechanism for creative forgetting) that ends post-Enlightenment poems, according to Bloom, who calls it “transumption”: a belated poet imagines that he is the predecessor of his great predecessor (Ford, for Leone and so many others), whose work would otherwise cripple his imagination.
I have argued elsewhere that Kubrick’s Star Child transumes all of human culture: the monolith was here before we were, and it continues to shape our ends. But Noodles’ drug-addled moment of transumption is a strictly personal matter. Hovering between past and future, he sees it all and embraces it with a savage smile.
Moments of timelessness like this occur at the end of many Ford films – Lincoln walking into his stormy future in Young Mr. Lincoln, Roddy McDowall seeing his past rise up luminous before him in How Green Was My Valley – and Leone’s transumption of Ford harks back to an older popular tradition than any John Feeney could have encountered in Ireland: what Martin calls the “arte povera” of Italian puppet shows.
My favorite scene in Once Upon a Time in America is the quintessentially Leonesque moment when one of the young gang members, waiting in the hall with the creamy cake he has brought to purchase a neighbor girl’s sexual favors, begins licking his fingers and ends up gradually eating the whole thing. The implications of the scene are chilling: the character dies in a brawl not long after, still a virgin, a life wasted. Scenes like this that play on duration (another, described by Martin, is the scene where Noodles rivets his colleagues’ attention by stirring his coffee with a spoon) are at the heart of Leone’s cinema, and they have as much to do with an arte povera as they do with the epic qualities imitated by Leone’s admirers all over the world.
But even though we tend to forget that the man who once signed himself “Bob Robertson” was himself the product of “an ancient race,” rich in Continental culture, Leone’s last variation on Fordean transumption ultimately recalls Nietzsche. In the Eternal Return the past is the future, eternally recurring, and one must have the strength to will both and laugh about it. Leone’s quest ends in an affirmation of exuberant nihilism
Harold Bloom, A Map of Mis-Reading (Oxford University Press, 1974)
Bill Krohn, “La Planete Leone,” Cahiers du cinema 422, July-August 1989
Bill Krohn, Stanley Kubrick (Masters of Cinema, 2010)
Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey (New American Library, 1968)
Adrian Martin, Once Upon a Time in America (British Film Institute, 1998)
Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 (Da Capo, 1996)