Once Upon a Time in America
by Peter Babiak
Leone’s use of genre conventions in Once Upon a Time in America (1984) seems to locate his film well within the confines of the American gangster film genre. The film bombards us with a string of cliches that we readily associate with American gangster films. These cliches are evident in, but are not limited to, patterns of speech in the film (“Hold it boys, don’t shoot!”), patterns of nomenclature in the film (nicknames such as “Noodles”, “Patsy”, “Cockeye”, etc.), patterns of dress in the film (handkerchiefs worn as masks in a hold-up scene.), props appearing in the film (tommy-guns, antique cars, etc.), and patterns of action in the film (hold-ups, drive- by shootings, etc.). Because of this heavy emphasis of Leone’s on compliance with genre conventions, we readily accept Once Upon a Time in America as an American gangster film.
When we examine Leone’s use of theme in Once Upon a Time in America, however, we find the film quite subversive to the values of this genre. Leone is using an archetypal cultural genre in order to examine the impact of American cultural myth on American society. He does this by juxtaposing competing myth systems in American culture against their antitheses. By doing this Leone is able to examine the darker underpinnings of these easily recognizable myth systems. Leone’s criticism of American culture will be examined in this paper by identifying those archetypal themes that Leone explores in his film, by relating those themes to their larger cultural context and to the genre of American gangster films and literature, and by discussing how those themes are incorporated by Leone into various elements of his films’ structure.
Characterization and the “Noble Outsider”
The “Noble Outsider” is perhaps the definitive American culture hero and is the predominant cultural figure that we encounter in Leone’s film. The “Noble Outsider” is an archetypal figure who exists on the fringes of respectable society, yet who also ultimately defends society’s values. Examples of this figure in American culture range from James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer /Hawkeye (1841) to Shane (1953) to John McClane in Die Hard (1988). The character of Roy Earl in Raoul Walsh’s film High Sierra (1941) is an example of a “Noble Outsider” archetype occurring in a gangster film. Earl steals in order to cure the woman he loves of a crippling illness, shows compassion to a homeless woman, and is killed when he steps out of a cave he has hidden inside in order to greet his pet dog.
Like Roy Earl, the character of Noodles in Leone’s film is presented to us very much in terms of his sentimental side. As an adolescent, he sneaks into a washroom in order to read a Victorian romance novel. As an adult he has an entire seaside restaurant, complete with orchestra, opened during the off season in order to provide the perfect evening for the girl of his dreams. The gang that Noodles is a member of very much represents a society in microcosm in this film, and Noodles is the repository of its’ memory and values. The film is presented to us almost entirely from his perspective, and relates to us his memory of the history of the gang from its’ inception to its dissolution. It is Noodles’ fidelity to the memory of the gang that forms the crux of this film.
The association of Noodles with romanticism is logical, for the myth of the “Noble Outsider” is rooted in the medieval myth of the courtly chevalier, which in turn, is the progenitor for the myth of male prowess. The very same set of cultural assumptions that provides the basis for Noodles’ “chivalrous” behaviour toward Deborah therefore also provides the cultural underpinnings for violence and rape. Leone is scrupulously careful in presenting the darker side of Noodles’ character just as prevalently as he does Noodles’ “nobler” aspects. Noodles’ grief as an adolescent at the death of a friend expresses itself in the vicious murder of Bugsy and a cop. Noodles’ great unrequited love as an adult for Deborah expresses itself in rape. Although these behaviours seem wildly out of step with the motives that produce them, Leone is noting that they are part and parcel of the same cultural belief system.
The antithetical myth in American culture to that of the “Noble Outsider” is that of the “Company Man” or the “Economic Acquisitor”. The ideology surrounding this character suggests that he acquires wealth for himself and, as a by-product of this activity, brings prosperity to the community. Max represents this set of ideals in Leone’s film. It is Max who first brings prosperity to the adolescent gang by blackmailing the cop into “keeping an eye closed” for them and by making a deal with the local Cosa Nostra. Max also organizes the gang into an effective unit, realizing the aspirations of the more intelligent but less ruthless Noodles to fruition. While Noodles is in prison, it is Max who looks after his family. By the time of Noodles’ release, Max has acquired Fat Moe’s delicatessen and renovated it into a speak-easy, bringing the gang to a prominent position in the cultural life of the city.
The modern company man, however, has been described as “the beast of no nation”, by people who contend that the only loyalty the company man displays is to the acquisition of wealth, a contention that the examples of the Bronfmanns, the Reichmanns, and Donald Trump would seem to support. As an adult Max is obsessed with the acquisition of capital and the consolidation of power within a system that distributes wealth only to those who prove themselves ruthless enough to obtain it. Sentiment and loyalty do not fit in to the capitalist equation, and Max cynically discards the brotherhood he was once sworn to protect as a useless impediment to the progress of his career.
Sexuality and the “Quest for Love”
Like the “Noble Outsider” archetype, the myth of the “Quest for Love” also permeates American culture, and also stems from the medieval courtly material. However, in American mythology, the myth of the “Quest for Love” becomes associated with the pursuit of happiness mentioned in the preamble to the constitution, causing the Quest’s logical end to be perceived as a goal to be achieved rather than as a relationship to be established. Its most famous occurrence in American culture is that of Scarlett’s pursuit of Ashley in Gone With the Wind (1936). It appears in gangster folklore in Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely (1942) as Moose Malloy’s searches desperately for his lost girlfriend Velma, in The Great Gatsby (1925), Jay Gatsby’s quest for Daisy is also related to gangster lore, although Nick so completely romanticizes his version of events that we only see Gatsby’s obvious connections to the underworld twice.
Noodles’ quest for Deborah takes place in a world where real love simply isn’t possible. Leone extrapolates the world of the film from the larger context of American culture. In this world, we are presented with only two types of sexual activity; sexual violence and prostitution, activities which fall along the ideological lines drawn in the characterizations of Noodles and Max. As the embodiment of male prowess, Noodles prefers that women submit to his physical force. Max, as an economic acquisitor, uses wealth as an instrument of seduction. These character traits are also in line with mythical norms in American society which suggest that there are three kinds of women, nice girls who you take home to mother, sluttish girls who deserve to be raped because they “ask for it”, and gold-diggers who are really just glorified prostitutes.
The first sexual image we see in the film—that of a woman’s breast being caressed by the barrel of a pistol—is violent in nature, yet the woman appears to be aroused by it. During the hold-up scene at the jewelry exchange, Carol begs Noodles to violently rape her, and is portrayed as very much enjoying his decision to do so. The development in adolescence of Noodles’ attitude towards women, is very much portrayed in terms of his predilection for rape. When alone with Peggy in the washroom he forces her against a wall while grabbing her breast, and is delighted to find that she enjoys it. Noodles is a product of a set of cultural assumptions that tells him that women enjoy sexual assault, hence his rape of Deborah, the woman he “loves”. He simply doesn’t understand that she doesn’t enjoy this, and takes her screams and terror for granted as part of “normal” lovemaking. Although the first sexual image we see in the film is violent in nature, the first completed sexual act we see is one of prostitution—reflecting the early stages of Max’s developing capitalism. Max purchases sex for Noodles twice in the film, once when Noodles loses his virginity to Peggy, and once when Noodles is released from prison. This is done in concert with Max’s early belief in economic prosperity as a commodity to be shared by the community. As Max increasingly assimilates the values of capitalism however, his use of prostitution changes. He later uses his status as Secretary Bailey to acquire Deborah, in essence using wealth to “hoard” Noodles’ girl where he previously would have “shared the wealth”. This act also implies that Deborah, who has been built up as the “nice girl” in this film, really differs from a hooker like Peggy only in price.
There are two seeming exceptions to this rule of ideological importance as a determinant of sexual orientation. Both Noodles and Max manage to form caring, adult, relationships with women early in the second act of the film. Far from suggesting that real love is a possibility in this world, however, Leone is using the portrayal of these relationships to highlight its impossibility. The relationship between Noodles and Eve is terminated when she is killed as a target of violence directed at him. The relationship between Max and Carol is terminated when he fakes his own death and arranges for her to be placed in a sanatorium. The endings of these relationships are in accordance with the character styles of these men—the consort of Noodles becomes a victim of violence whereas the consort of Max is sacrificed to his bid for economic ascendancy.
Narrative Structure and the “Lost Brotherhood”
Probably stemming from the biblical myth of the Garden of Eden, the modern myth of the “Lost Brotherhood” is elegiac in nature, focusing on a social pact made at a time of relative innocence which is later disrupted at a time of “coming of age”. Also appearing in the medieval courtly material, most notably in the Arthurian saga, it is recurrent in American culture. It can be found in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981) as an explanation for the enmity between Christatos and Columbo, and can also be found in Ben-Hur (1959) as an explanation for the enmity between Judah Ben-Hur and Messala. Its classical appearance in an American gangster film is seen in Michael Curtiz’s Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) where two friends are chased by the police as children. One of them is caught and becomes a gangster whereas the other escapes and becomes a priest. In a final gesture of tribute to the former friendship the gangster acts like a coward when he dies in the electric chair.
The narrative focus in Leone’s film is entirely upon the moment at which the social pact is disrupted. The narrative structure of the film is cyclical—the film begins and ends with the moment of the dual betrayal. Between these two presentations of the moment of social dissolution, Leone simultaneously creates two antithetical betrayal myths: the myth of the “noble betrayal” as related to us by Noodles’ recollections, and the revisionist myth of Max’s treachery towards the gang as it unfolds in the film’s present. These antithetical myths create a tension between the “past” and “present” in the film’s narrative structure that must be resolved . Noodles’ memory of the past is incongruent with his experience of the present. The film’s narrative attempts to restore a lost equilibrium.
Underscoring this is the imagery with which Leone accompanies the flash-backs and flash-forwards that the film is structured around. The transitions between past and present are portrayed dynamically and are evocative of the relationship between the two. The first transition occurs as the adult Noodles peers through one side of a window in the bus depot. Leone quickly cuts to a shot of the elderly Noodles looking through the other side of the same window. The second transition occurs as the elderly Noodles looks through the peep hole that he used to spy on Deborah as an adolescent. Leone cuts from a close up shot of Noodles’ eyes as an elderly man, to a shot of Deborah dancing as an adolescent, to a close up shot of Noodles eyes as an adolescent watching Deborah. These types of transitions suggest that all of the actions that are portrayed as part of the film’s “past” are dynamic and interrelated with those events we see in the film’s “present”.
The myth of the dissolution of the brotherhood as Noodles constructs it for us is elegiac, glorious, and tragic. Constructed entirely out of Noodles’ memory of the past, it is the archetypal story of the bond formed in youth that in adulthood brings great joy and prosperity, until something goes horribly wrong. Noodles assumes responsibility for that “something that went horribly wrong”. As he understands it, he turned the gang in to save Max’s life, but everyone except Noodles was killed in a confrontation with the police. The gang’s money disappeared somehow, erasing all traces of the gang’s impact on the social world. This myth system leaves Noodles as the sole repository of the gang’s memory. Although in turning them in Noodles has technically betrayed the existence of the brotherhood, he did so in the name of the ideal of the brotherhood, which is mythologically more important.
The antithetical myth of the dissolution of the brotherhood as revised for us by Max in the film’s present is, by comparison, cruel, sordid, and meaningless. As an adolescent, Max forms a gang that will enable him to acquire considerable amounts of capital and power by the time that he is an adult. As time progresses, Max finds the gang that had previously been his greatest asset now limiting his bid for power, so he cynically has them killed in a staged shootout with the police. Max has not only betrayed the existence of the brotherhood, he has completely violated the ideal that the brotherhood was founded upon , going so far as to manipulate Noodles into being the catalyst that will ensure the success of Max’s deception. Max destroys the gang by using Noodles’ belief in the sanctity of their social bond as the instrument of the destruction of that bond.
The “Vigilante” and The Final Resolution
Currently, the archetypal figure of “The Vigilante” is one of the more popular to be found in American culture, and represents a darker side of the noble outsider. The “Vigilante” is usually a shadowy figure who redresses social wrongs when social systems are unable to do so. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is presented as a vigilante figure, as is James Bond in Licence to Kill (1989). Raoul Walsh’s film The Roaring Twenties (1939) incorporates vigilante mythology into its narrative—the character portrayed by James Cagney agrees to take the rap for the gang believing that they will look after him when he gets out of prison. When he is released, he finds the gang has no intention of fulfilling their promise, so he avenges himself by murdering the character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. The popularity of vigilante figures is in their appeal to the American right wing—justice is dispensed with a single shot at no expense to the taxpayers.
Our perception of Noodles changes throughout the course of Leone’s film as our understanding of the events of the past is modified. Noodles is first portrayed as a potential object of vigilante justice, yet by the end of the film he has progressed to a potential instrument of vigilante justice. Yet Noodles refuses to kill Max when the opportunity presents itself. Rather than avenge the memory of the brotherhood, Noodles is attempting to reaffirm it, for Noodles bases his cultural identity in the myth system that the gang represents.
Cultural myth is of crucial importance to our lives because it is part of the process by which we establish our identities as human beings and derive meaning from our lives. Max is facing the end of his life and, as a result of his betrayal of the gang, has lost both his personal and his cultural identity. His new family name (Bercovitz has been anglicized to Bailey) and his obvious wealth (he wears a tuxedo and lives on a huge Long Island estate) now visually identify him as a member of the successful economic acquisitor class that is sanctioned by American society. He has exhausted the possibilities of capitalism only to find himself emotionally and culturally barren. Max believes that, in allowing Noodles to avenge his betrayal of the gang, he can reconnect himself to the myth system that contains his foregone identity.
As a product of capitalist ideology, however, Max believes that he can somehow buy his way back into his cultural context. He first erects a huge mausoleum as a sort of shrine to the memory of the brotherhood, and then offers Noodles, the only other surviving member of the gang, a fortune in cash in payment for Noodles’ murder of Max. But a cultural identity cannot be bought, it has to be lived and believed in, something which Max has become far too cynical to do. Noodles appears here not as the vigilante that Max would like him to become but as a disciple of the memory of the gang who refuses to accept, despite the evidence to the contrary, that the integrity of the gang’s memory has in any way been compromised. Noodles insists on referring to Max as “Secretary Bailey” during this scene, although he realizes that it really is Max who he is talking to. He is making a conscious decision to remain loyal to the values of the gang, which specifically would forbid him from killing another gang member, no matter what the circumstances.
In their final conversation Noodles and Max are desperately trying to preserve the meanings of their lives. Max hopes to reconnect himself to the brotherhood by allowing Noodles to become a vigilante, whereas Noodles strives to maintain the integrity of the brotherhood’s memory by refusing to acknowledge that Max has destroyed it. It is this final attempt for meaning in their lives, however, that ultimately renders both of their lives meaningless. Max is trying to reconnect himself to something which had been previously destroyed, whereas Noodles is awash in a sea of nostalgia for something that he now knows never really existed. The film ends with their mutual destruction. Although there is ambiguity as to whether Max leaps into a pulverizer or merely pulls another disappearing act into another identity, he has lost at his bid to reestablish his true sense of identity, and therefore feels his life is wasted. Noodles once again withdraws into his memory of the past, which is now coupled with his memory of a trip to the opium den. Max’s reliance on capitalist mythology has led him to an ultimately empty existence, whereas Noodles’ reliance on gangster mythology has proven an opiate that continues to blind him to the truth of his life.
Leone employs themes that are recurrent in American culture in order to subvert the value systems of that culture. Leone achieves this subversion of myth in two ways: firstly by juxtaposing competing myth systems against one another in order to invite ideological comparisons between them; and secondly by showing us the darker implications inherent in the myth systems that he presents. The myth system that Noodles represents appears absurdly idealistic in contrast with that of Max which appears at the same time as opportunistic and ruthless. The value system of Noodles is also linked to violence and rape, whereas the value system of Max is linked to the devaluing of human relationships.
Leone is portraying a cultural problem which has no easy answer. Cultural myth is an integral part of the process by which we define ourselves. If we lose our connection to myth, we lose our sense of personal identity, rendering life a meaningless sequence of events. If we maintain our connection to myth too strenuously, life becomes a series of fantasies that have no relation to the outside world. There is also the problem of the content of the cultural myth system. A society whose ideological structures give rise to violence and rape or the devaluing of human relationships surely needs to question the tenets on which those structures are based. Leone stands outside of the American cultural mainstream, and has the objectivity necessary to examine the implications of American cultural myth on American life. Once Upon a Time in America n a film that attempts to begin the process of questioning those tenets.
CineAction n.72, March 2007, pp.65-69