For decades now, the vividly violent, emotionally rich Westerns of Italy’s Sergio Leone have thrilled film lovers—take that most prominent of movie geeks, Quentin Tarantino, who is set to fulfill a career-long dream with next month’s release of Django Unchained, his so-called spaghetti Southern. Hard as it is to believe, though, there was a time when almost no reputable critic would be caught dead taking these films seriously. Christopher Frayling, author of 1981’s landmark Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, was the exception. “Everyone thought I was completely mad,” Frayling, 65, tells us from his home in London, with a delighted cackle. “But the world has since caught up.”
Frayling, knighted in 2001, is only too happy to share his wealth of anecdotes and insights on the recent Gucci-funded restoration and rerelease of 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America—which is not even a Western, but a New York City gangster drama, Leone’s stab at critical prestige, and his conscious career summation. “Leone was really going for the Big Statement, making a movie for art,” Frayling says. “He wanted to do for gangsters what Once Upon a Time in the West [Leone’s 1968 classic] had done for the Western. It would be a huge epic, one that referred to just about every Hollywood gangster movie that had ever been made. But it would also be about how myths have a hold on us—like all his films, actually.”
Inspired by a late-1960s read of Harry Grey’s autobiographical Jewish-mob novel, The Hoods, Leone spent years trying to secure financing for the project, with little to show for it. Still, the director’s core collaborators were fully on board, including legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who wrote his voluptuous score a full seven years before the movie was shot. “Morricone once reminisced to me that he’d call Leone periodically and play him some of the main themes on the piano down the telephone,” Frayling recalls, “just to keep morale going.”
Eventually, with the casting of Robert De Niro, the film gathered support and, after ten months of shooting and a lengthy postproduction period, Leone delivered a dense 229-minute cut to Warner Bros.—almost 100 minutes longer than his contract specified. The scissors came out. “I think it was the editor who’d just done one of the Police Academy films,” Frayling adds of the reordered, mangled version that went out in the U.S. “It really did break Leone’s heart. He was only 55, but he began to look like a very old man.” The director died five years later, unvindicated.
The original 229-minute version to screen at Film Forum isn’t new—this is the edition that European and home-video fans have known for years—but the restoration, performed this year by Bologna Cinematheque, is. At last spring’s Cannes, an even longer, 256-minute version debuted, adding a lengthy death scene from Antony and Cleopatra that Leone had chosen to cut. (Frayling’s verdict: “I adore Elizabeth McGovern, but she was not a Shakespearean actress.”) Warner Bros. has since taken this extra-extended cut out of circulation for unspecified legal reasons, but the version that NYC viewers will be able to see is attraction enough, the British authority believes. “It’s a great movie, but it’s a tough movie,” Frayling offers. “It’s unusual for a central character to be so unpleasant. You’ve got to get used to that: He’s a shit. Leone made fairy tales for grown-ups. When he was a kid in the suburbs of Rome watching James Cagney movies, he felt that somehow, as the cliché goes, they weren’t making ’em like that anymore. And he wanted to make ’em like that anymore.”
Once Upon a Time in America opens Fri 23 at Film Forum.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf