Today I clocked the running time of the final showdown between “Harmonica” and Frank in Once upon a Time in the West. From the moment that they begin to circle each other and Ennio Morricone’s music starts, until Frank hits the sand, dead, the single-shot duel last eight and a half minutes. I’d like to see an American film try something that outrageous today.
Watching both Once upon a Time in the West and Once upon a Time in America so soon after viewing Leone’s very first film as director, The Colossus of Rhodes, is a jarring experience. I started to re-watch Once upon a Time in America only minutes after completing Colossus. I didn’t get all the way through it—it’s close to four hours long—but it’s such a hypnotic work of cinematic art that I managed to plow halfway through it before I realized it was one a.m. and I should get to bed. I’ve never loved a gangster film as much as Once upon a Time in America, and that includes the first two Godfather films. Leaping from the competent director behind The Colossus of Rhodes to the genius who spent twelve years crafting Once upon a Time in America is like skipping from The Comedy of Errors to Hamlet.
As much as I revere Once upon a Time in America, it’s a film I feel hesitant to recommend to friends. First, because of its length, I’m asking someone to make a significant time investment. Few of us can find a block of time to watch a four-hour movie. Second, it’s a bizarre film, and not everyone will react so enthusiastically to its ritualized pace and fluid use of time. Viewers expecting a standard look into the structures of organized crime will find Leone’s dream-like meditation on friendship and the passage of time baffling and maybe frustrating. Finally, the rape scene in the movie is incredibly disturbing. The second rape scene. When you have to identify which rape scene you are talking about, the movie obviously is one that will turn away some folks. The infamous rape is essential to the story, but it’s a harsh and difficult sequence to get through. I’ve occasionally skipped over it while watching the whole film because it’s so upsetting—and then feel ashamed of myself since that robs me of the film’s complete experience and diminishes the impact of a later scene (the “Age Cannot Wither Her” encounter in the theater dressing room) that I think is the strongest in the movie.
There… if you’ve never seen Once upon a Time in America, considered yourself warned. Now go rip open a four-hour hole in your sked and watch it.
“Noodles, I slipped.”