No matter how many times you immerse yourself in Sergio Leone’s languid, lovely and lengthy ode to Lower East Side mobsters (more specifically, mobster films), the same questions always float through your frontal lobe like Prohibition-champagne bubbles: Is Noodles (Robert De Niro), the film’s protagonist, a tragic, Gatsby-like figure or merely a majestic Jewish version of his paesan Method hoods? Do the stellar performances from De Niro and James Woods make up for the amateurish acting of their younger counterparts? Is this dense dissection of the American Dream really just one druggie’s opium fever dream? Did Leone make a genuine masterpiece or simply the most Proustian gangster movie ever?
What’s indisputable is that Leone’s project was both a personal labor of love and an attempt to out-Godfather Coppola’s Godfather saga, complete with extravagant tommy-gun slaughtering, sweeping Delancey Street–diaspora shots and some seriously chronologically skewed hopscotching between time periods. That last part is where the Italian director’s baroque approach to genre flicks becomes downright visionary (the endless ringing-phone transition!), which naturally meant it was the first thing to go in the Great Studio Cutting Room Massacre of ’84; though Leone’s longer version has been readily available for eons, the digital-cinema-package restoration adds a layer of visual luster that emphasizes the movie’s burnished take on memory and the past. Seen today, this rise-and-fall chronicle will make you nostalgic—not for the days of New World shtetls and Borsalino-wearing bad guys, but for an era when giants walked the earth and made excessive epics with scope, substance and a true sense of cinematic grandeur, once upon a time.