Posted on Thursday, March 10th, 2011 by Russ Fischer
Purists can argue over the identity of Sergio Leone‘s most enduring classic — I’d go with Once Upon a Time in the West — but there is little argument over which of his films had the most rocky path to a proper release. Once Upon a Time In America, starring Robert De Niro and James Woods, was drastically cut for the American release in 1984, which reportedly saddened the director to such a degree that he did not make another film before his death five years later.
The same version that played Cannes in 1984, running 229 minutes, was finally released years later. And now there are plans to restore up to forty additional minutes in order to create the longest cut of the film yet.
Sergio Leone initially envisioned Once Upon a Time in America, which spans decades as it depicts the rise within New York crime of three kids from a Jewish ghetto, as two three-hour films. The 229-minute version that eventually premiered at Cannes and was authorized by Mr. Leone was trimmed to 139 minutes for the US release. That cut is nearly unwatchable, and critics who saw both versions deemed it a tragedy. Other versions were available over the years — a three-hour cut that hit TV in the ’90s, and a 227-minute version that was nearly identical to the Cannes cut.
A great deal of footage was shot and never used, and Italy’s Bologna Cinemetheque L’Immagine Ritrovata lab is now planning to digitally restore 40 minutes of footage to create a new cut of the film.
The director’s children, Andrea and Raffaella Leone, have bought Italian rights to the film and will hopefully premiere the new cut at either Cannes or Venice in 2012. Various releases thereafter — VOD, possibly an Italian theatrical release — are being explored.
I don’t really know how to feel about this — the extra footage would be wonderful to see, but I would almost prefer it to be presented as a standalone feature. That probably wouldn’t be as much of a financial draw, however. And there are a few places in the film, even in the longest cut, where it seemed like something was missing, and this new edit could fill in those gaps. As long as the work is done artfully — and much of the work done at the Bologna Cinemetheque L’Immagine Ritrovata is quite artful — this could be an event.
And for the historians — does Once Upon a Time in America have the longest instance of a ringing phone in cinema history? There are almost four minutes early on in the film where a ringing phone provides a sonic backdrop, and gives the first hint at one character’s guilt over his actions. It is a maddening audio trick (and the film even teases audiences partway through with the possibility of the phone being answered) but also a powerful one. The entire 229-minute cut is streaming on Netflix and I highly recommend giving it a look. [Variety]