Once Upon a Time in
Note: Alison and Jeff are regular contributors to AboutFilm.Com.
June 17, 1999
Wow! As usual, I almost feel like I don't have to watch it again after reading your descriptions, though, of course, to be able to keep up with your analysis, I do! Since I haven't yet watched it again, I just wanted to comment on your description of the childhood scenes, because I adored them as much as you clearly did. In fact, I spent one Christmas Day taking a walking tour of the old Jewish Lower East Side just to see the parts of New York that Leone made come alive in those scenes. In some ways, it is still there, and he found it. That's one of my favorite periods of American history, and one I studied in depth in college, because, like those boys, we as a country had such a sense of hope, expectation, and anticipation that the future would bring wonderful things. If only because there was such a thing as the American Dream.
Those scenes are so portentous and so poignant, showing how that ideal becomes twisted by small actions and smaller inactions. How not just the lives of individual people can be changed because of them, but how the fact that so many individuals lives take turns down dark paths degrades the society as a whole. All of Noodles' surroundings are pretty much at the same state that he is--from the hustle bustle of Delancey Street, to the easy livin' of the speakeasy, to the final decay of the old neighborhood and life in New York and America in general.
As usual, I almost feel like I don't have to watch it again after reading your descriptions
Yeah, but that's just an illusion... probably because it takes almost as long to read my analysis as it does to watch the movie! When you do watch it, you'll see how many important things I left out. There's plenty more there than I covered... even with all those words, I barely scratched the surface.
I'd love to learn more about that early era (childhood scenes), because I don't really know that much about it... especially through your perspective. One thing I've always loved about period films is that the good ones give you a sense of another time and place, so they're a form of Time Travel. And we're among the first humans on earth to have this privilege. Isn't that amazing?
Thank you soooo much for your enthusiastic response to my ramblings. There's plenty more where that came from.
That's exactly why I love movies so much! Not just time travel, but the way they can transport you anywhere. However, because I've always been obsessed with history, I've held a special affection for that facet of movies. I will do what I can (most of my references are in storage, but I believe a good bit of it sank into my brain) to expound on the actual historical circumstances of the time. I may even go hang out and retrace some of the historical places I know down there, go to the Tenement Museum and the Hester Street Settlement House. Remember that conversation we had about the resonance of historical places and objects? You can feel it immensely in the Lower East Side.
Plus there's an interesting cultural layering going on there. The Jewish and Italian immigrants, who inhabited that section of the city from about 1880 to about 1930, have largely been supplanted by Asian (mainly Chinese) and Latin (mainly Puerto Rican and Dominican) immigrants. These new cultures have moved in over top of the old ones, the Asians taken the place of the Jews, and the Latinos taking the place of the Italians. You can see the layers of these various cultures stretching back over a century, with a Chinese restaurant next to Moishe's Knishery next to Abbatiello's pork store next to a latin bodega. The building that used to house the world's largest Jewish paper, and the only one published in Yiddish, still stands on Canal Street. It has Hebrew characters spelling out the paper's Yiddish motto (which my overloaded brain has forgotten) along the building's top. Then, down the side of the building are Chinese characters that spell out the philosophy of the new owners. It says "Jesus is the light and the salvation." Apparently it now houses some association of Chinese Baptists. But, even that kind of stuff all balances out. One of the oldest synagogues on the Lower East Side was originally a Methodist church!
Another interesting thing about that time period in American History and that neighborhood is how just small-time neighborhood kids grew to such fame and notoriety. I've seen the houses of Meyer Lansky, Jimmy Durante, Fanny Brice, Ernie Kovacs, George and Ira Gershwin, and Martin Scorsese, all in a ten-block radius (and that doesn't even scratch the surface!). On that walking tour I mentioned, we were shown the coffee shop where a few Jewish men used to gather for coffee and news. They eventually became the B'Nai B'Rith. When the neighborhood was largely occupied by Irish immigrants (with their own mobsters, known as the Five Points Gang), they were forever being beaten up and hassled by the mainly English descendents from "uptown" (basically Greenwich Village). Around that time, NYC decided it needed a police force, so the Hibernian Society (an Irish cultural association) marched down to City Hall, signed up, and became the New York Police Force, so they could be armed against the harassment of the English. This is where we get our stereotype of the Irish cop, which of course shows up in the movie, too.
That's exactly why I love movies so much! Not just time travel, but the way they can transport you anywhere.
Indeed! That's another thing that I love about movies. You get to peer into the mind of the filmmaker (at the very least), as well as into the world he/she is presenting. Isn't it rather sad that so many people miss the best aspects of what films provide? They just want a few thrills or a satisfying story, and then they flush it all away when they watch the next movie. For me, there are a hundred different ways to approach a movie, and the measure of my favorites is in how many of those ways the movie provides food for thought or experience. I can like (or even love) a movie that's just a thrill-ride or a good yarn, but those that capture my imagination on levels far beyond that are the ones I go back to again and again.
However, because I've always been obsessed with history, I've held a special affection for that facet of movies.
I love history too, but the funny thing is... I've probably been inspired to learn more about several eras precisely because I saw a movie that ignited my interest in them. So it works both ways. If I had it to do over again, I'd have followed my English degree with a graduate degree in history. It is by far my favorite subject!
June 17, 1999
For a first-time viewer, the first twenty minutes of this film are very trying. Characters are not introduced, scenes jump from one violent act to another, and there's that damn telephone ringing. Leone is joking with us eventually - the phone continues to ring as Noodles picks up, stopping eventually at the police station. Leone also lengthens the interval between rings. Just when we think we've heard the last one it starts up again. It becomes clear that the rings are in Noodles' mind, his memory flooded with a layer of images drawing him back to his perceived betrayal.
It's easy to see why this film spooked the distribution staff at Warner Bros. Its pace is languid, its structure labyrinthian, its protagonist supremely anti-heroic, and its story is ambiguous and light on resolution or satisfaction.
This is all true, though it's not anemicaly languid. Leone isn't stretching himself thin. He's careful to invest deliberateness in his characters' actions. As a result, scenes play out with exaggerated emphasis and import. Noodles spends a good couple minutes (it seems) stirring his coffee before answering a question. Patsy agonizes over which is more important: sex five minutes from now or a creamy pastry now. By drawing out their actions, Leone mythologizes his characters. It's significant that the film is titled Once Upon A Time... because it is a manufactured reality, informed by all the gangster pictures Leone saw as a kid. This weight--the larger-than-life icon status he imbues Noodles, Max, and Deborah - holds the picture together. They deserve a film of epic proportions.
Re: the flashback mechanism--you made a good point how the effect transports you deeper and more reliably than a linear story or one which substituted title cards. It has more the effect of real memory when Yesterday insinuates itself into the soundtrack and we realize we are back in 1968. The film structure has more in common with Citizen Kane than The Godfather. We see a mysterious ending, and spend our time discovering how he got there. As you noted, it emphasizes that the choices one makes are what defines one's life. As time passes it becomes more difficult to reverse your decisions. The effect of time on characters in the movie is significant.
[me] It's easy to see why this film spooked the distribution staff at Warner Bros. Its pace is languid, its structure labyrinthian, its protagonist supremely anti-heroic, and its story is ambiguous and light on resolution or satisfaction.
[you] it's not anemicaly languid. Leone isn't stretching himself thin.
Gosh, I hope you didn't think I was making that statement as a "criticism." I think the pacing is perfect, which is something I wanted to get into later. I merely meant that a big studio hack would watch it and think only in terms of the pacing being slow, regardless of how appropriate it is to the material. In fact, each of the characteristics I noted in that description are meant to be factual observations, not criticisms or complaints. I think they are elements that scare studios (witness the fact that Fox dropped The English Patient from production, forcing them to turn to Miramax), because studios believe that people are stupid and lazy and can only understand fast-paced, shallow, linear stories.
The film structure has more in common with Citizen Kane than The Godfather
True. But if that's in response to my reference, I mentioned The Godfather, Part II, not the original. Part II cuts back and forth between Michael's empire and Vito's beginnings, linking and contrasting the two on several levels. The original Godfather is linear, near as I can recall.
Noodles spends a good couple minutes (it seems) stirring his coffee before answering a question.
Actually, this was one of my favorite moments in the film. Noodles isn't waiting to answer a question, though. The situation is this: Noodles has just shown back up to the club after his horrible episode with Deborah. Max is furious with him, because he's disappeared for a few days... but mostly because he's disappeared with Deborah. Then it's revealed that he followed up the seaside resort debacle with a few days in the opium den, as one of the other guys had tried to rouse him there but failed. So Max is in a major snit, but he hasn't blown up yet. Noodles sits down and asks for a cup of coffee, and then begins to stir it. And stir it. And stir it. Which beautifully emphasizes the tense silence in the room.
As the camera cuts around to the other characters, you can see that they are afraid to speak because they know what's about to happen. Max goes into a tirade about "letting women get in the way of business." And then he unloads on Carol (Tuesday Weld). The "pacing" of that scene is perfect, because the longer he stirs the coffee in absolute silence, the more we realize that Max is about to blow, and so drawing it out maximizes the tension and suspense for the audience.
I'm just elaborating on your points, not criticizing them. You're right--I just wanted to clarify "languid" a little more as I saw it. Similarly, I wanted to point out that Once Upon a Time in America shares something with the biographical mystery of Citizen Kane. Most people tend to compare Once Upon a Time in America with the Godfather films, but those films cross generations in their stories whereas Once Upon a Time in America and Citizen Kane focus on one man's life. You are quite right in noting the similarity of connectivity between past and present in The Godfather, Part II and Once Upon a Time in America.
Not to worry... I didn't think you were disputing me, but rather that I hadn't made my own points clear (which I probably hadn't!). I should have come right out and specified that those characteristics are what make the movie great, regardless of what some dork at some studio might think of them.
As for parallels to the Godfather movies, I think it's sort of interesting that the narrative structure of Part II bears some resemblance to Once Upon a Time in America, but the overall aim and the content of of the original Godfather (one man's fall from grace by choice), is closer to the aim and content of Once Upon a Time in America.
As for your parallel to Citizen Kane... agreed! In fact, you could argue that it is the "mirror image" of Once Upon a Time in America, because it is the examination of one man's life through every key perspective except for his own. I wish more filmmakers would take a chance on complex structures. It's not impossible to make a "popular" film that plays around with time or perspective. From what I recall, Pulp Fiction did rather well at the box-office for a movie that cost so little to produce.
[cont'd response to your original analysis]
His early 20th century "childhood" sequences are particularly amazing for the art direction, which is as scruffy and sooty as it is quaint and beautiful.
I liked how each time period had its own color. As messy and chaotic as the 1921 scenes were, they glowed warmly with a yellowed hue - like looking at an old parchment. Whenever Noodles gazed upon Deborah (both young and old), the camera went soft-focus to show his care for her. The later scenes in 1968 are darker and colder - Max's place is more opulent but less vibrant than their old hangout. Everything has ossified.
De Niro is marvelous in this film.
He's the glue that holds the film together. Without the gravity of his speech and movement in his later years, the film would lose its power. Leone's style of facial close-ups is especially helpful here, to let us reflect on De Niro's eyes which house history.
James Woods is also terrific as Max, his energetic slickness just barely masking the deep emotions that reside so close to the surface.
Woods perfectly displays an outwardly cocksure upwardly-mobile guy who is tormented by insecurities (perhaps traceable to impotence?). I love the scene where he feels the need to prove how little Carol means to him. He thinks he's showing strength and loyalty, but he's revealing self-doubt and fear.
I agree with your assessment of all the other actors as well. McGovern appears to have been cast for her looks, though her aloofness is appropriate. Connely seemed more like a real person though (and she does a better Elizabeth McGovern impersonation than Elizabeth McGovern does).
Though unspoken and never fully developed into an overt revelation, Max primarily sees Deborah as a rival for Noodles' love.
This is very probable. Perhaps even Max's impotence is due to that he really doesn't care for women, but is too ashamed of his homosexuality to pursue it. Pauline Kael mentioned in her review that she thought the scene after Bugsy and his thugs beat Noodles and Max contains some homosexual undertones in the way that Max crawls towards Noodles reminding her of Lust in the Dust. Again, the theme is making a choice and living with it--right or wrong, defining oneself by your conscious choice.
I liked how each time period had its own color. As messy and chaotic as the 1921 scenes were, they glowed warmly with a yellowed hue--like looking at an old parchment.
Yes! The childhood scenes do glow... especially the earlier ones where the memories are more warm and pleasant and hopeful. I ought to go back and look at the shots of the harsher memories --such as the shooting of Dominic--to see if they're different in terms of the color scheme or lighting. This is one of those elements that I most admire in a film... because you realize that every frame and every facet of the look and mood has been thought-out and planned. None of it is LAZY or careless. Each piece is designed to fit together with the others in a seamless whole, and to express something on subliminal levels while dealing with the overt content of the scenes.
Without the gravity of his speech and movement in his later years, the film would lose its power. Leone's style of facial close-ups is especially helpful here, to let us reflect on De Niro's eyes which house history.
You know... I wonder why this is not often mentioned or recognized as one of his finest performances?? I understand that he's a great deal more visible in the Scorsese films and a few others, but this performance is really heartbreaking... and that's not something you'll often say about a DeNiro role. Usually he's playing characters so edgy that deep sympathy is something the audience has to wilfully afford them despite their more prevalent characteristics. Noodles is really a very quiet and thoughtful guy at heart, and though he does many reprehensible things, he never totally loses his humanity. I'd really rank this performance in his top four or five... and that is saying a lot when it comes to DeNiro! The rest of the world seems to have ignored it. How sad....
I love the scene where [Max] feels the need to prove how little Carol means to him. He thinks he's showing strength and loyalty, but he's revealing self-doubt and fear.
Me too! It's funny, but guys like him never seem to notice how obviously pathetic and weak they look. But I think that's true of bullies in general. It might simply be my personal prejudice, but every time I've seen a man (or even a woman) fly off the handle and have a hissy-fit of this type, I cringe at how much he/she is humiliating himself/herself.
One thing that's also interesting about Max (as played by both Woods and the younger actor) is that he really does convey affection and sweetness at times. You'd probably like him if you didn't get to know him well enough to "know" him. Even at the end, the look he gives to David ("his" son) is full of genuine warmth. He's a very sad character, indeed.
Re: Max's possible homosexuality/attraction to Noodles --
Again, the theme is making a choice and living with it - right or wrong, defining oneself by your conscious choice.
Excellent point! Max may well have thrown away his own chance at inner-peace and true happiness by "proving his manhood" in much the same way that Noodles does, but from a very different angle. He too may have closed the door (in this case, a closet door) and relegated himself to becoming something that will make him immune to social disapproval in the form of being seen as weak... because isn't a gay guy the ultimate in UNmanly to those who pass such judgments? In a weird way, his own drive may be as sad a state of personal affairs as that of Noodles. He's definitely a fascinating character.
Pauline Kael mentioned in her review that she thought the scene after Bugsy and his thugs beat Noodles and Max contains some homosexual undertones in the way that Max crawls towards Noodles reminding her of Lust in the Dust.
I didn't notice that... but if you watch it again, look at the way he looks at Noodles in almost every scene. Among the "childhood" scenes, there are several notable moments. One that I found particularly telling is the look he gives Noodles after he's pretended to disappear under the water (in the booty retrieval scene), and then pops up in the boat after Noodles has begun to frantically search for any sign of him. If he gave that same look to a girl, we'd all know what it meant.
And despite our reservations regarding their involvement in organized crime, we can't help admiring their ingenuity. Because that is the essence of the American Dream as we envision it... a country where anybody with a better idea and the wherewithal to apply it can elevate himself to a new station in society.
This is an excellent point. That "good ol' American know-how industriousness" is so highly esteemed in our culture that even when put to criminal use we can't help but admire it. Particularly ingrained in the American psyche is the story of the hard-working immmigrant who pulls himself up from his bootstraps with a clever idea and persistance. Max is the ethos of American capitalism. He always wants more. We are founded on egalitarian ideals, but our drive to differentiate ourselves from the pack collides with the more social "something for everyone" orientation of European economic culture. As you points out, Social Darwinism has its downside--the weakest are killed, in this case little Dominic.
The weaving of the narrative threads together is so beautifully structured that each piece leaves questions dangling even as it closes in on answering others.
Perfectly illustrated in the elliptical ending, which takes us back to the beginning of the film. This is as good a time as any to raise a couple of confusing plot questions I have. Whatever happened to Joe Pesci's character? In the version I watched, he's last seen hanging around the elevators after Noodles and Max visit Jimmy Conway (Treat Williams). I'm not sure I ever grasped the whole union subplot anyway - like it's part of some even larger movie.
At first he deflates, but soon the lifetime of pent-up frustration and rage at her rejections seems to fill every molecule of his body and soul. In the limo scene, her advances are met with coldness. And the degree to which fury consumes him can be seen in the tightness of his face and the hollow void in his eyes
I got the sense that he was terribly unsure how to act. Noodles seemed so immediately horrified by his own actions and mystified by what spurred them. He suddenly reverted to a desperate childish impulse to take her, without thought of consequence. Never again would he act without considering the ramifications.
June 20, 1999
Dana & Jeff,
So, 14 hours later, I finally get around to posting my thoughts...
This is probably the 3rd time I've watched this movie in its entirety. Though there were huge sections I'd forgotten entirely, just the fact that I knew the narrative structure helped immeasurably in understanding the film. It made more sense to me than it has before, leaving only a couple of questions this time around!
The first, Jeff already voiced, "What the heck happened to Joe Pesci's character?" I guess it really isn't important. I think Pesci was there merely to show the level of corruption the Union leader was involved in, which all comes to a head at the end of the movie. In case we weren't aware that the unions were mixed up with the mafia historically, that would clue us in, and explain why the potential witnesses were dying in car bombings or committing suicide, and why Max is so desperate.
The only other plot point I had a problem with was Deborah getting together with Max. That made no sense to me. It seems strange to me to say that a movie this long seemed to have left out something, but where in either of their character developments is there room for that? I suppose Noodles' comment, "Youse two are both the same, that's why you hate each other so much," is a bit of a hint, but is that really much to go on? Of course, all sorts of things can happen in 35 years, but that kind of bugged me.
I thought the ending--at least on this viewing--was perfectly clear. Max had set up the garbage truck in case Noodles didn't come through. Noodles didn't, so that's how Max solved his problems (or, at least, it looks that way from Noodles' perspective). In seeing Max "die" again, Noodles is transported back to the night he saw Max "die" before, which is where we were at the beginning. Noodles fled to the opium den to escape the terrible image of his friends lying dead. I certainly don't think it was all an opium dream. Though, the wonder of this film is that there is so much room for interpretation, and I am perhaps being too much of a literalist to imagine all the other possibilities.
The time motif was great, but I wouldn't call time the "protagonist." It was definitely a major player, though. I think my favorite moment dealing with all the Time symbolism was when Noodles returned the key to Moe's clock. Moe winds the clock that hadn't run since Noodles left 35 years before. Despite all the ways time has moved on, the life of the character Noodles stood still for 35 years, while David Aaronson lived as Robin Williams (!).
Dana--I completely agree with your assessment of Max and Noodles' relationship, and especially that one shot in the water. It was totally a love story at that point. How homoerotic it was, however, I can't say. While the self-loathing gay thing adds an interesting potential layer to things, I think that often times it's overstated that when friends of the same gender have an intense relationship, it automatically has to be sexual. I think friendships can take on aspects of love affairs without having that sexual aspect. Love is love, and it begets jealousies, expectations, and all manner of hurt feelings, just as it begets joy, trust, and partnership.
I think Noodles has actually dealt pretty well with things. He seemed less haunted to me on this viewing than he had before. Though he clearly still holds a significant part of that world in his mind, he has lived as someone else for so long, he's basically become that person. By continually referring to Max as Secretary Bailey, he is refusing to put himself back in the old relationship. Not, as Max accuses, to get back at him, but just because it's not his world anymore. He wasn't the person who was betrayed by Max anymore, so he doesn't feel the need to strike back at him. He still has his memories, of course, but I got the impression that he hadn't actually been wallowing in them lo those many years, they just all came flooding back when he went back to the neighborhood.
Whatever happened to Joe Pesci's character? In the version I watched, he's last seen hanging around the elevators after Noodles and Max visit Jimmy Conway (Treat Williams). I'm not sure I ever grasped the whole union subplot anyway - like it's part of some even larger movie.
I think the function of Pesci's character is to serve as shorthand for what Leone assumes Americans already "know" about the mafia and its involvement in organized crime (the diamond heist and hit he solicits for) and political infiltration into American unions. There may be more plot out there that didn't make it into the final cut, but I think the general point Leone is trying to make is there if you reflect on the ramifications of what we do see happening in the movie. The government is aligned with big business, and thus the workers have no power and no rights. So they unionize and strike. But the strikes are met with unchecked brutality from business, which is condoned and supported by the government, as in... the police chief has sent his officers into the factory to allow the scabs to cross the picket line and work, effectively rendering the strike moot. Desperate, the union is only successful when its political backers bring in mafia thugs (including Noodles and Max, etc.) to do the dirty work that the laborers will not do. The mafia isn't doing this because they deeply care for the plight of the working man, however. They intend to create a dependent relationship between the unions and the mob. By becoming the muscle and using terrorism to win the strike, the mob corrupts the union (in terms of ideals) and leaves it in a state of indebtedness. The deal that is discussed with the lawyer (that Max likes and Noodles doesn't) is the eventual dominance that the mob came to have over shipping unions such as the teamsters. By buying up trucks and trucking outfits, the mob would be "managment," with its thumb squarely on top of its labor by maintaining its control of or influence in the union. Ultimately, unions gathered enormous political strength by becoming a "voting bloc" that was larger than business. Thus, the union (mob) had a tremendous voice in national politics. And because they controlled the labor force, the unions also held tremendous power in manufacturing and service industries. They still do, by the way. The waste disposal and construction industries in NYC are merely the most famous examples.
I think part of the reason that Leone wants to squeeze this in is to set up the heights to which Max rises, the depth of the scandal that's erupting in the Bailey affair, and the fact that the truth will be eradicated by the mob before it can be known... aided by the congress because they too are involved in the corruption. In other words, Leone is lamenting the irony of the "rise" of the working man being a minor function of the development of a corrupt and criminal power structure that permeates all levels of government and business. Bailey is a functionary of the mob. They faked his death, and gave him a new identity. It can only be assumed that he's used his position of power as Secretary to aid their concerns. He must be killed, lest his identity surface and reveal his allegiance and what it means. Which only proves Noodles' original point about the dangers of having a "boss." Max has reached the top, but he's never been his own man. And he won't live long enough to become that, either. Whereas Noodles has become his own man by eschewing ambition (whether because of fear or clear-headed reason or some combination of the two), and thus he is the one at peace. He is the genuine success. The last thing Noodles says to Max is that he hopes the investigation blows over because it would be a shame to see a lifetime of work go to waste. Which, on some deeper level, it has already. And of course, Max can be seen as a microcosmic metaphor for the larger question of the American Dream, what it means, and what it has come to... questioning the degree to which unbridled ambition has caused this society to embrace corruption in order to have what they have in the world. If that makes any sense....
If I'd been able to finish watching Hoffa, I'd get more specific on the history. Unfortunately, the visual bombast of Danny DeVito's direction sent me screaming away from that movie about 40 minutes in. Oh, well....
June 20, 1999
The only other plot point I had a problem with was Deborah getting together with Max. That made no sense to me.
I'll take a stab at this. Deborah is an unmarried young actress, heading to Hollywood to become a star. Noodles rapes her, from which she becomes pregnant. Somehow, Max (now installed as a wealthy businessman in San Francisco) discovers this information and adopts her baby, who is the David that we see as an adult in the last act. Thus, Max salvages her shot at stardom (which she achieves), and takes care of raising her child as a "widower," which gives him control over her. She returns the favor be acting as his public relations person (remember the nursing home photo?) and by tying herself to him to maintain a relationship with David. Thus, Max appropriates her, knowing that she was the one thing Noodles wanted most. Another goal achieved!
That's the way I read it, anyway.
In seeing Max "die" again, Noodles is transported back to the night he saw Max "die" before, which is where we were at the beginning. Noodles fled to the opium den to escape the terrible image of his friends lying dead.
But this doesn't explain the smile. It's the way he smiles that makes the ending so enigmatic. If he's lying there doped up and pondering the dead bodies of his friends, what does the smile mean in that context? It's so unexpected and incongruous to the circumstances, which is why it's almost impossible to reconcile with a literal reading of the narrative up to that point. It's the weirdest ending imaginable! Which is why it's so cool.
How homoerotic it was, however, I can't say. While the self-loathing gay thing adds an interesting potential layer to things, I think that often times it's overstated that when friends of the same gender have an intense relationship, it automatically has to be sexual. I think friendships can take on aspects of love affairs without having that sexual aspect.
Excellent point, and I agree with you that such intimacy is not at all automatically sexual in nature. But in this case, I'm not merely making the leap from platonic intimacy to sexual intent. The reason I think homoeroticism is implied as a possiblity has more to do with the cumulative information we get about Max than with any specific moment. There are, of course, the looks he gives him and his possessiveness, but that's not all that Leone throws in. When they're still young, they catch the cop with Peggy (slut-in-training), and part of their blackmail deal is that the cop will "pay their way" with Peggy. Noodles does his business, but when Max tries, he can't get it up. Then there is his deliberate intrusion into the relationship with Deborah. Also, he doesn't appear to acquire a girlfriend until Carol "chooses" him. His utter loathing of women in general seems clear throughout, and the fact that he ends up owning Deborah seems to be more a grab at control and a victory over Noodles than an expression of desire. I'm not saying that my interpretation is the right one! But I do think there are several little pieces of the picture that hint at Max's complex attachment to Noodles as being more than just friendly. I probably favor the idea simply because it makes the story just that much more interesting if it's true. What can I say? I'm addicted to drama!
June 21, 1999
Re: The question of the dumptruck
I'm not going to pretend to know, but I'll tell you how it looked to me. The garbage truck is there to remove Max's body after Noodles kills him. But Noodles doesn't kill him. (Unlike Alison, I got the impression that Max is still alive and well when the truck leaves... but only because I couldn't make out anything resembling blood or body parts in the back of the garbage truck as it's blades are churning.) Anyway, what I thought the truck was there for (in terms of audience effect) was to present a very threatening presence awaiting Noodles upon his exit... and Noodles seems to wonder if it's "for him" as well. When it starts up, and begins to move toward him, he appears to wonder if it's gonna run him down (and so did I). But it doesn't. It just keeps going. I got the impression that this meant that there was no greater plan to go after Noodles. That it had been Max's single-handed (as in nobody else knew) sole intent to tell Noodles the truth and offer him revenge as both an act of control over his own fate and as an act of reconciliation through confession. What's really interesting is that the truck's tail lights morph into the headlights of that 30s car at the head of a line of similar vehicles, carrying a bunch of partying teens/young adults who appear to be in costume approximating the precise era when he fled NYC. The radio is blaring "God Bless America," and the cars and kids seem almost ghostly. As they recede in the distance, they're replaced by the (also somewhat ghostly) images of the Chinese theatre's shadow-puppets, which is another kind of approximation or representation. Are those kids in the cars really there? What does all of that mean? I guess it's an interesting transition back to the 1933 opium den scene because it evokes the time so literally. But what did you guys make of that detail? Were his ghosts finally disappearing into the darkness and leaving him behind to live in peace?
June 21, 1999
Deborah is an unmarried young actress, heading to Hollywood to become a star. Noodles rapes her, from which she becomes pregnant.
I thought along these lines the first couple times I saw the movie, too, but this time I didn't think so. The kid may or may not have been Deborah's son, but it was most assuredly Max's (for this, I'm only going on the fact that they used the actor who played young Max, rather than the actor who played young Noodles to represent him). Also, despite the crappy "old" makeup jobs in the movie, it really didn't seem like they were trying to make that kid appear to be 35, so the dates are all wrong. So, while Deborah's story about Bailey and his wife dying in childbirth may have been a fabrication, I don't think it was as far from the truth as the other scenario would have been.
(me) In seeing Max "die" again, Noodles is transported back to the night he saw Max "die" before, which is where we were at the beginning. Noodles fled to the opium den to escape the terrible image of his friends lying dead.
(you) But this doesn't explain the smile. It's the way he smiles that makes the ending so enigmatic.
I see what you're saying, but I read that as just his physical response to the opium. Opium, from what I've heard, produces an intense euphoria (before it makes you nod out and have bizarre dreams). Again, perhaps too literal a reading of what was going on, but that's what I saw. Once he goes into the dreams--the part we see at the beginning--that's when the horror of the images comes flooding back.
I agree with you that such intimacy is not at all automatically sexual in nature. But in this case, I'm not merely making the leap from platonic intimacy to sexual intent. The reason I think homoeroticism is implied as a possiblity has more to do with the cumulative information we get about Max than with any specific moment.
I agree that it's definitely a possibility. I guess I was responding more to vorn's Kael quote--which review I haven't read, so I don't know how hard she hits that note--and the swiftness with which many reviewers that I read (that's what reading alternative newspapers gets you!) are quick to see homoerotic subtext everywhere, whether it exists or not. There is no doubt that Max was seriously f'ed up where women were concerned, for all the reasons you mention and more.
As far as the depiction of women, I think that in many ways, it was just realistic. Women were treated like shit in that day and age. It was disturbing and harsh, and showed us an underlying viciousness in the protagonists than the killing of people that "needed killing" (whether for jobs, or because they were ‘bad' people seeking to thwart the aims of Our Heroes) would.
However, I don't know enough about Leone to figure out whether he was championing it or deriding it. I have such a hair-trigger response to these things, emotionally, that it's pretty hard to figure out, when someone shows such brutality so clearly, what they're trying to say about it. My response was loathing, but that's what my respoonse would be anyway. I'll have to think on that more.
June 21, 1999
The kid may or may not have been Deborah's son, but it was most assuredly Max's (for this, I'm only going on the fact that they used the actor who played young Max, rather than the actor who played young Noodles to represent him).
I didn't notice that at all! Just goes to show that I "saw" what I wanted to see when Noodles looked at the son from the doorway of the dressing room.
Also, despite the crappy "old" makeup jobs in the movie, it really didn't seem like they were trying to make that kid appear to be 35, so the dates are all wrong.
Well, Deborah should be at least 60 in those later scenes, and she sure doesn't look it. Though both Noodles and Max seem to have aged appropriately (quality of make-up aside....).
So, while Deborah's story about Bailey and his wife dying in childbirth may have been a fabrication, I don't think it was as far from the truth as the other scenario would have been.
Wasn't her story about Max's wife dying in childbirth that it was more than 30 years ago? I guess when I combined my subconscious wish for the kid to be Noodles', plus Deborah's apparently less-than-accurate "age," plus the story about the wife dying in childbirth so long ago... I put all the factors together to add up to what was the most melodramatic explanation. I don't know what that says about me... but it sure is proof that you should always take everything I say with a big grain of salt!
June 21, 1999
Because we've entered Noodles' world and story through the portal of his mind, there's no telling what this last shot means. Is the "future" portion of the narrative a construct of his imagination? An act of penance (loss of money, exile, etc.) followed by resolution and redemption and the undoing of his culpability in the death of Max? Is it his imagined future... the one he hopes to live through? Or is that last shot simply indicative of the moment when the drug kicks in and pulls him out of the world he has created, giving him relief and peace, however false? Or is it the moment when he realizes that - with Max and the others dead - he is finally free of that life, and a (presumably) wealthy free man, to boot? This is, after all, a shot that would precede his discovery of the empty suitcase in the locker. Or is he merely smiling at the distorted Noodles that he sees in the mirror (who looks, by the way, a heck of a lot like the "aging" Noodles because of that distortion)?
How's this for a terrible answer: it is all of these and it is none of these. I think Leone wanted to strike a note of ambiguity and unreality at the end. He probably didn't have a specific reason for Noodles to smile, but liked the way it could suggest any number of things. I even thought it might be a painful smile, almost a cry. Clearly Noodles' life changed on that fateful day - he went from a freewheeling man on the make to a fellow who "goes to bed early" for thirty-five years. His future might not literally have been an opium dream, but must have seemed less awake than his preceding formative years. Noodles goes into hibernation like Rip Van Winkle.
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