"The Docks of New York" - Josef von Sternberg (1928)

Josef von Sternberg’s penultimate silent film, The Docks of New York (1928), was one of this master visual stylist’s most moody explorations of romantic fatalism.  Set on the New York dockside in the early 1900s, it tells the story of two aimless, disconnected souls who manage to make an unlikely connection.

The film’s story, written by Jules Furthman, who would collaborate with von Sternberg on seven later films, is relatively simple.  What makes the film last in one’s memory is its evocation of loneliness and isolation among characters whose dark-world horizons only extend to the next day.

Von Sternberg’s cinematic skills are conspicuously on display here, and they encompass more than his well-known virtuosity in the display of light and shadow.  There is also here a wonderful manipulation of dramatic pacing, whereby some moments are drawn out with melancholy languor, which are  punctuated by brief, explosive moments of dramatic violence.  Such is the way, we are led to believe, of life among the lower depths.

The Docks of New York's narrative passes through five successive stages concerning the improbable relationship of the two main characters.

1.  A Meeting by Happenstance
The beginning images show a steamship docking at New York’s harbor.  The fact that this film’s story is set probably at least twenty years earlier than its time of production is important for two narrative purposes.  Most shipping at that earlier time was still powered by coal-driven steam engines, whose furnaces were constantly fed by dust-covered, grimy coal stokers.  It is hard to imagine a more miserable occupation than having to work hard in such squalid conditions.  Also, the film is set in the years before US alcohol Prohibition [1], so the film’s audience was offered the titillation of seeing the working class engage in one of their limited opportunities for reckless indulgence.

The steamship docks at the waterfront, and the coal stokers are given leave to go ashore, with the stern, but probably fruitless, warning from the ship’s third engineer Andy (Mitchell Lewis) not to come back drunk.  The scene then shifts to a dockside bar, The Sandbar, where Andy and the stokers intend to spend their limited free time.  There Andy runs into his estranged wife, Lou (Olga Baclanova), whom he had abandoned three years earlier, and it is evident that there is no love lost between the two of them. 

Meanwhile stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft)  notices just after having disembarked from the ship that a young woman has made a suicidal dive into the harbor. He jumps in and rescues her, and then he carries the still unconscious girl over to an empty boarding room above The Sandbar. The establishment’s belligerent proprietors object to Bill Roberts’s peremptory possession of one of their rooms, and they summon one of their bouncers to oust the two intruders.  This is where we get an example of von Sternberg’s disjointed pacing.  Up to now (and in fact throughout) Roberts is shown to be a man of few words, and he does not initiate conflict.  But when the bouncer attempts to throw out Roberts, the powerful stoker throttles him in seconds and returns to his business.

Lou, who also occupies a room above The Sandbar, hears the ruckus and comes over to where the young woman, who will be revealed as Mae (Betty Compson), is lying.  She attends to the girl and orders Bill Roberts to go downstairs and get her a hot drink.

2.  Bill Attends to Mae
Bill goes down to the bar, where some more tough guys try to muscle him, but Bill throttles them in seconds, too.  He brings back a “hot toddy” and sees that Mae is now revived – in fact, unrealistically so, since her hair now looks beautifully coiffed as if she had just emerged from a salon.  Such is von Sternberg’s expressionistic dreamworld. Learning that Mae doesn’t have any clothing aside from her soaked dress, Bill goes down to a shuttered clothing store and pilfers some items to take back to Mae’s room. 

Mae is still despondent and suicidal.  She tells Bill, “you could of saved yourself the trouble an let me die”. Bill doesn't think that way. Although Mae seems to be a woman of “easy virtue”, she is beautiful, and Bill is instantly attracted.  He tells her that all she needs is a good time to cheer her up.

3.  The Party at The Sandbar
Bill and Mae go the crowded bar, and Bill quickly gets very drunk.  When Bill’s boss Andy sees Mae, he is immediately attracted and tries to push Bill aside; but he gets punched out for his efforts – noone pushes Bill around.  A ruckus ensues, and only the efforts of Lou and Mae manage to calm things down. 

Bill, now feeling his oats, announces to everyone in the bar that he intends to marry Mae (whom he calls “Nell”) immediately.  Mae happily agrees. A preacher (Gustav von Seyffertitz) from a nearby mission is summoned, and the next ten minutes of the film feature a raucous, drunken marriage ceremony. Again von Sternberg varies the pace, though, and when the marriage vows are exchanged, everything slows down while Mae solemnly promises to be a good wife.  The contrast between Mae’s concession to her interior innocence and the cynical surroundings of the drunken bar revellers is another von Sternberg touch that is likely to leave a lasting memory with the viewer.

4.  The Next Morning
But, of course, Bill was drunk that night and scarcely knew what he was doing.  After having spent the night with Mae, he intends to return to his ship and sail away.  While she is still sleeping, he leaves a “tip” on her night table and sneaks out of her room. 

When Andy learns that Bill has abandoned Mae, he quickly goes to her room and tries to have his way with her.  But Lou follows him into the room, and soon shots are heard (von Sternberg’s camera remains outside, and the gunshots are evoked by showing birds rustling form their perches). Hearing the gunshots and seeing the police come, Bill returns to Mae’s room, where Lou confesses that she was the one who shot her husband. 

Now alone again in Mae’s room, Bill confesses that he is incorrigible and never really meant to fulfill his marriage vows.  His ship is leaving in one hour, and he tells her,
“I never missed a ship in my life.”
 . . .
“You knew I was just a dirty stoker.”
Their parting is sad.  Mae offers to mend Bill’s torn shirt before he leaves, but her eyes are so teary she cannot even see well enough to thread her sewing needle.  Finally she loses her temper and angrily orders Bill out of her room.

5.  A Change of Mind
Bill is back on the ship stoking coal as it sets out in the harbor.  Andy is there, too, barking out orders to the stokers. Living in this loathsome routine and environment again, Bill finally takes action.  He jumps ship, swims ashore, and finds his way to a courtroom, where Mae has been charged for stealing the new clothes she is wearing. She has just been sentenced to thirty days in jail, but Bill interrupts the proceedings, asserting that he is her husband and that he had stolen the clothes. The unsympathetic judge orders Mae released and sentences Bill to sixty days in prison for his impertinence. As he is being led away by the police, Bill turns to Mae and tells her that if she waits for him, he will never leave her again. Mae smiles hopefully and says she will wait forever.
Von Sternberg’s films are often situated in exotic, fantasy-laden settings – Morocco, Spain, Shanghai, Imperial Russia – where the surrounding circumstances are (to the viewer) mysterious and threatening.  Note that von Sternberg never travelled to these places; he conjured up everything inside the studio, where he could shape the shadow-laden atmosphere of his imagination without concern for documentary reality.  The principal characters in these stories are not given much psychological grounding (they rarely articulate what they are thinking or intend), but we empathize with them anyway.  As such, these films are prime examples of film noir,despite their exotic settings. The characters’ backgrounds are unknown and unimportant; and their futures are dim.  As Andrew Sarris said [2],
“His [von Sternberg’s] characters generally make their entrance at a moment in their lives when there is no tomorrow. Knowingly or unknowingly, they have reached the end or the bottom, but they will struggle a short time longer, about ninety minutes of screen time, to discover the truth about themselves and those they love.”

In these films, there is often an outer story of external action and an inner story concerning the relationship between the man and the woman whom fate brings together.  The outer story is often a war, or a revolution, or a spy mission, and this can serve up some excitement.  But von Sternberg ultimately brings our attention to the inner story, where the real action takes place.  In The Docks of New York this is taken to an extreme, since there is virtually no outer story; everything is the inner story in this film.

It is interesting to compare The Docks of New York with two other films that share some similarities with it: Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and Ingmar Bergman’s Port of Call (1948).  Carné’s film has the noirish features of a dark, gloomy seaport and lost souls, but the outer story is relatively complicated and dominates the story.  Bergman’s film, on the other hand, has even more direct similarities with The Docks of New York, since it is also about a seaman who eventually falls in love with a woman who has just suicidally thrown herself into the harbor waters when he had just come ashore. But Bergman’s film is more psychologically motivated than von Sternberg’s. The viewer is given much more information about what the character’s are thinking about in Bergman’s film. This might suggest in the reader's mind that the acting is less significant in von Sternberg's film, but that is not true.  The performances of the two main characters in The Docks of New York are nuanced and effective. We don’t think about the characters shown, instead we feel for them directly and immediately.

For example, George Bancroft’s’ Bill Roberts character is a ruffian used to getting his way with his fists.  And yet he often pauses in reflection and seems to contemplate his surroundings with  a wry smile.  He seems to be fair-minded, at least within the limitations of his own moral universe, and in the end he vows to do the right thing.  

Of course, as is usually the case in von Sternberg’s films, the affective focus is on the woman.  Betty Compson’s Mae character is interesting, because although she portrays a person who seems to have been hardened by circumstances, she evinces sensitivity.  Inside her sometimes caustic exterior, Mae is revealed to be an innocent young woman in search of love. And von Sternberg artfully reveals this interior, not with words, but by means of her emotive glances gorgeously ensconced in his chiaroscuro-sculpted cinematography. 

Von Sternberg intuitively understood that the film medium had the unique capability of evoking in the viewer not only a narrative understanding of how events progress in the world, but their emotional feelings, too. 

At the end, in that final shot, Bill and Mae have so little that they can actually count on for the future. But perhaps that is all we ever really have.

  1. “Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution”, Wikipedia, (20 April 2015).
  2. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, Directors and Directions 1929-1968, (1968), E. P. Dutton, New York, p. 76.

“Bicycle Thieves” - Vittorio De Sica (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette, 1948) is an Italian Neorealist film directed by Vittoria De Sica that not only represents the high point of that particular genre but is also still ranked today among the greatest films ever made. Because of its primal standing in the Italian Neorealist genre, it has ever since served as a model and inspiration for sympathetically minded filmmakers, notably some from Iran (e.g. Dariush Mehrjui, Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, and Jafar Panahi) and India (e.g. Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray).

As was characteristic of Italian Neorealist films, Bicycle Thieves concerns ordinary people in ordinary situations and was shot mostly on location with nonprofessional actors who were drawn from the working-class social milieu covered in the film.  The basic idea was, rather than retiring to the studio and conjuring up fantasy stories for escapist entertainment, to instead bring the (at-the-time cumbersome) filmmaking apparatus out onto the streets and capture the real world.  The basic situation covered in Bicycle Thieves is very simple: a poor man has his bicycle stolen, and he spends the better part of the next two days trying unsuccessfully to recover his bike. These are circumstances that any poor person could find him- or herself in, and we can all find commonality with the poor man’s plight.  (For more commentary on the cinematic aesthetics of Italian Neorealist films, see my two articles on the subject, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: 'Open City" and 'Paisan'” [1] and “Subjective Realism in the Italian Film” [2]). 

Of course there was more to Italian Neorealism than attempts to capture “reality”.  It was motivated and driven by important sociopolitical considerations, as well.  Just after World War II, Italy was recovering from years of extractive fascist misrule and a devastating world war.  The economy was in ruins, and there was massive unemployment and poverty.  So the basic social problems facing society were of fundamental concern to the intellectual and artistic communities. And the dominant ideas and proposals that were presumed best to address these issues came from Marxist (and related Hegelian) thought.  Filmmakers in the Neorealist camp were consequently bent on showing social reality in a way that could facilitate making the social changes that they thought were required. Indeed, De Sica’s longtime collaborator and co-creator, screenwriter Cesare  Zavattini, was a member of the Italian Communist Party, and his agenda was to use cinema in furtherance of desired social evolution.  This was what primarily fired the great excitement about Neorealism at the time, and the early critical reviews of those films often focused on this sociopolitical perspective. Today, however, people often see these films without being inflamed by the social perspective.

So one can look at Bicycle Thieves as a Marxist-inspired social tract or simply as a story about an individual’s personal journey.  The great thing about this film is that it works on both dimensions, as I will attempt to describe below.  And this overlapping and resonating two-level perspective is often what characterizes great literature and art.  In this case the achievement of the combined two-level perspective was perhaps the fortunate outcome of the Zavattini and De Sica collaboration, each of whom probably leaned to one side of the duality.

In any case no matter what the overall goals may be about presenting a revealing social reality, it is always necessary to have a well-structured narrative.  And this is what Bicycle Thieves definitely has. It can be viewed as progressing through seven unequally-spaced stages, we will call them “acts”, that describe the experiences of the protagonist in his quest to recover his bicycle.
1.  A Crucial Bicycle is Regained and then Lost
The first section of the film establishes the situation of the main character, Antonio Ricci (played by Lamberto Maggiorani) and the problem he faces.  He is one of a large number of unemployed workers desperately seeking jobs from the government employment office.  One day he is fortunate enough to be offered a job as a bill-poster, provided that he has a bicycle.  He curses his fate that he has recently been forced to pawn his Fides bicycle (virtually his only possession of any value), but his caring wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), comforts him by pawning her dowry – the  family’s set of bed linens – so that they can recover the bike from the pawn shop. The Riccis live in a small apartment with their two children, 8-year-old Bruno (Enzo Staiola) and a baby.

In a few brief shots, we get a feeling about their happy married life.  On one occasion Antonio discovers that Maria has paid a “clairvoyant” woman (a seer) who charges small fees for her fortune-telling.  He laughingly scolds her for indulging in such superstitious nonsense.

Early the next morning Antonio takes Bruno to where he works helping out at a petrol station.  Then he eagerly sets out to work on the new job, where a coworker shows him in just a couple of minutes how to paste up a poster on a building wall – we can see that this precious job doesn’t take much skill.  Shortly thereafter while Antonio is up on a ladder preoccupied with pasting a movie poster to the wall, disaster strikes when a young man wearing a German WWII cap (Vittorio Antonucci) steals his bicycle.  Antonio gives chase, but the thief’s accomplices lead him astray, and the thief gets away. 

Antonio files a complaint at the police station, but the officials there tell him they have no resources to look all over the city for a stolen bicycle.  They will record the stolen bicycle’s serial number, but it is up to him to find it.  Something so crucial to his own existence doesn’t measure up in their accounting.  At this point the basic problem has been established, and it is evident that the authorities won’t be of much assistance.

2.  Comrades Try to Help
Before going home that night Antonio goes to a local meeting hall and seeks out his friend Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda), who is conducting rehearsals for an amateur music-hall show. At the same hall, a workers political party is also holding a meeting to discuss with their constituents the catastrophic labor situation in the country. A party leader remarks,
“A welfare check solves nothing.  It just humiliates the worker and doesn’t help anything."
This calls attention to a key theme in this film that is alluded to at both the personal and the social levels: the significance of basic dignity to a man’s life.

The more experienced Baiocco tells Antonio that stolen goods are usually quickly sold away at the  Piazza Vittorio flea market and that they must intercept such a sale immediately before it is too late.

Since Antonio didn’t come home for dinner, Maria, having heard about the bike theft from Bruno and now looking for him, finds him in the meeting hall and asks what happened. Antonio in his frustration unjustly accuses her of whining, and she cries.  This is the last time in the film that Maria appears, but her importance to Antonio shadows over the rest of the story.  It seems that Antonio’s deep sense of his own self is to be a good husband for her.

The next morning Baiocco and some recruited friends go with Antonio and Bruno to the Piazza Vittorio market, where a hopelessly vast multitude of bicycles, probably many of them stolen, are on sale.  Antonio finds a Fides bicycle being repainted and has to summon the police to examine its serial number, but it turns out to be a false lead.  After further searching, Baiocco advises Antonio to rush over to the Porta Portese Market and have a try at looking there for the bicycle.

3.  A New Lead is Found
From here on the relationship between Antonio and Bruno becomes key.  On the trip to the Porta Portese market, a rainstorm develops, and Antonio and Bruno dash through the downpour for cover under the eave of a building.  When Antonio finally looks ever at Bruno and complains about his soiled, wet clothing, the frustrated boy, who has been trying to keep up with his dad, yells in frustration, “I fell down!” The spirited young boy has been constantly shown gazing up at his father and trying to be a good helper, but his efforts have gone unrewarded.  Antonio is aware of this but has other concerns on his mind.

At the market, Antonio then notices the thief wearing his telltale cap and talking to an old man.  The thief gets away, but Antonio and Bruno follow the old man into a church that is offering communion and food to the indigent (who are mostly just interested in the food).  Much to the annoyance of the church officials, Antonio grabs the old man and aggressively interrogates him, eventually learning the street where the thief lives.  However, in the commotion of the church ceremony, the old man also manages to get away from them. 

4.  Antonio and Bruno

As they search for the old man outside the church, Bruno asks his father why he let the old man get away.  In frustration with his own failure, Antonio rudely slaps his son, bringing the boy to tears.  This is a memorable moment showing the breakdown of Antonio’s world.
Antonio then tells Bruno to wait for him by a river bridge so that he can go off to look  for the old man more quickly.  However, after running away for a few moments, he hears a crowd yelling in back of him that a boy is drowning. He rushes back to the bridge and is relieved to find that the endangered boy (who is saved) is not Bruno. Antonio finally starts thinking that there are more important things than the lost bicycle. He decides to spoil his son (and himself) a bit and take him to a tavern for some food.

At the tavern, Antonio orders some food and wine, even offering some wine to his young son. But after observing a wealthy family at a nearby table having a feast, he becomes morose again about his own impecunious circumstances and wonders what will become of them.

5.  Visit to the Seer
As a measure of Antonio’s desperation, he finally decides to go to the seer Maria had visited, an old woman whose advice he had earlier sensibly dismissed as rubbish.  At the clairvoyant’s meeting room there is a long queue, but the cheeky Bruno butts in the line and gets his father a seat at the front. However, when Antonio talks to the woman, the only “wisdom” he can get from her is what Baiocco had told him earlier: that either he will find the bike today, or he will never find it.

6.  The Thief Found
Outside the seer’s quarters and walking on the street, Bruno astonishingly spots the German-cap-wearing thief again. He chases him down the street and into a brothel, where the thief tries to hide.  Antonio rushes in, grabs him, and forcefully drags him out, but a crowd of bystanders soon gather round them.  It turns out that the thief is from that neighborhood, and the bystanders press around Antonio showing their readiness to stick up for their local inhabitant.  It looks like a brawl will develop, but Bruno runs off and brings back a policeman to restore order.

The cop is sympathetic, but he privately explains to Antonio that (a) he has no other witnesses concerning the theft and (b) the entire neighborhood will testify in favor of the thief.  So Antonio has no case to make with the justice system.  Disconsolate, Antonio grabs Bruno and they walk away as the neighborhood bystanders issue a chorus of catcalls behind them.

7.  The New Thief
Walking home, Antonio and Bruno go by a football stadium where a huge number of bicycles have been parked outside. At his wits’ end, Antonio succumbs to temptation and decides that his only choice to save his family is to steal one of those bicycles for himself. He grabs one parked outside of a building, but he is quickly tracked down by onlookers and held for the police to grab him. When the bike owner sees Bruno crying, though, his heart softens, and he asks the supportive bystanders to let Antonio go.
Reduced to being what he despises – a thief – and totally humiliated in front of his own son, Antonio has now reached a new low.  The closing shot shows Antonio grimly walking away, with his crying son walking along beside him and clasping his hand.
So each of the seven episodes of Bicycle Thieves begins with an opportunity to pursue, and each ends in failure or discouragement.  Nevertheless and taken collectively, these seven episodes can be viewed on the social plane or on the individual plane.

The social perspective was what attracted early critical attention, and this focus was partly driven by the film’s principal screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, who forcefully articulated this point of view.  In an essay written during this period, Zavattini argued that whereas Hollywood artificially first constructs a narrative and then tries to give it a convincing (real-looking) window-dressing, what we should really do is find narratives naturally situated in real life [3].  We should start with the real, not just begin with an artificial story and then bedeck it with real backdrops and method acting.   The idea is that when we start with the real, we naturally incorporate all the contextual circumstances that characterize it.
“Neorealism has perceived that the most irreplaceable experience comes from things happening under our own eyes from natural necessity.” [3]
But Zavattini goes further than just emphasizing starting with the “real”.  He feels Neorealism must not only start with that, but it must also sustain Neorealism’s motivating moral impulse.  In fact he seems to prefer injecting analysis from a social perspective into whatever narrative one may start with.

Andre Bazin, a major French film critic and co-founder of the famous film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, went further still and entirely dismissed the personal perspective. In a 1949 article, he argued that Bicycle Thieves “takes on meaning only because of the social (and not psychological or aesthetic) position of the victim” [4]. Bazin in fact seemed to think that Neorealism was fundamentally anti-narrative, and he hailed features he took to be inherent in Neorealism – the disappearance of acting, the disappearance of mise-en-scene, and even the disappearance of the story. By this I presume he means that everything should be natural and organic, not artificial.  In the last analysis, though, I don’t think Bazin really understood the true nature of narrative (story).  In fact I think Bazin, writing in 1949, was actually reacting to cinema’s still-close connection with (and derivation from) theater, which of course necessarily had artificiality as part of its presentation.  Over the ensuing years since that time, cinema has broken free from any restrictive bonds with stage plays and has certainly not abandoned narrative expression, but instead explored its further reaches.

In spite of these skeptical comments from the critical community concerning the use of narrative techniques, De Sica did employ effective cinematic narrative techniques to tell the story of Bicycle Thieves.  There are notable tracking shots, for example when Antonio and Maria come home on the first day. There are effective action cuts, such as when Antonio slaps Bruno and when he surprises his son momentarily off taking a leak.  There is effective use of cross-cutting, for example when Antonio agonizes over whether to steal the bicycle at the end.  And the musical sound track has a melancholic tone that pervades the overall viewing experience.  These techniques support the storytelling on both the social and the personal planes.

The Social Level
On the social level we can view the narrative as progressing through various aspects of Antonio’s interactions with institutional mechanisms in society.

  • In Act 1 Antonio interacts with several government institution mechanisms that are intended to support the populace: the government employment office, the municipal pawn shop, and the police station.  In this connection there is a revealing shot at the municipal pawn shop showing the vast number of bed sheets that have had to be pawned by indigent families – a direct indication of a dysfunctional economy.  In each case that is shown, these institutional organizations, despite their foundation on good intentions, seem unable to provide support for a poor man in need such as Antonio.  These organizations are faceless and mechanical and consequently unable to get at the underlying root of the society’s problems.
  • Act 2 shows support coming from the workers party cadres and Antonio’s fellow working-class comrades.  But they, too, are unable to solve his problem.
  • In Act 3 the Church is shown in connection with its interactions with the poor, but the efforts depicted in the film seem ineffective and out of touch. A symbol of this ecclesiastical remoteness is presented when Antonio and Bruno take shelter under the eave during the rain storm.  They are quickly joined by a group of seminary students also seeking shelter, several of whom are conversing in German rather than Italian.  There’s no way to make a connection with the Church here.
  • In Act 5 Antonio even seeks help from those in society who are cynically purveying magic and superstition, for a price. This is an extractive social element that lives off ignorance and misery.
  • In Act 6 Antonio interacts with the policeman about his problem.  But the policeman informs him that the rules of evidence are such that nothing can be done for him.
  • Finally in Act 7 Antonio turns against society itself and all the social institutions that have failed him.  But this, of course, is not a solutions, and he fails here, too.
The overall message on this level is that more fundamental social change is necessary, as was argued by the workers’ party spokesman.

The Personal Level
Irrespective of all the supportive social theory, however, it is on the personal level where this film achieves greatness. And De Sica’ great accomplishment was to artfully employ cinematic expression so as to reflect the relatively introverted Antonio’s turmoil by means of his loved ones, Maria and Bruno.  In particular on this personal plane, Antonio’s relationship with Bruno, his alter ego, becomes the ultimate central focus, because Bruno’s heartfelt concerns reveal Antonio’s inner turmoil.  From this perspective the narrative goes through another progression, this time concerning Antonio’s pursuit of justice and the loss of his dignity. 
  • Act 1 emphasizes Antonio’s personal life at home with his wife and children.  In this context we are shown his soaring aspirations and belief that he can elevate himself and his family in society.  When his bicycle is stolen, his faith in common morality lead him to seek justice, but the police station official offers little assistance.  Antonio will have to solve his problem on his own.
  • Act 2 shows sympathy from his working-class friends, but again after this episode he realizes that he is on his own.
  • Act 4 returns Antonio’s attention to his closest relations, in this case with his son Bruno.  After slapping his son, he realizes that he, himself, has committed an injustice, and he tries to make amends.
  • After the failures shown in Act 5 and Act 6, Act 7 shows Antonio, who had up to this point been his son’s model concerning the quest for justice, abandoning justice and disgracing himself.
This final act was the ultimate degrading experience, and the film shows how society drove a basically good man to this point of self-destruction. 

As it turns out, Antonio’s loss of his own dignity is more disturbing than his material poverty. And this is reflected and magnified by what happened to his son Bruno. His father was the guiding light of his entire world and hence a fundamental constituent of Bruno's own being.  This beacon from which he had got his bearings was now shattered, which was not just sad but undoubtedly terrifying to the young boy.  This is the real tragedy that we are witness to at the end of the film.

Note that although I regard dignity to be important, I do not believe that dignity is an objective human right. Even though dignity has been (inappropriately) enshrined in the “UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights” [5], it is really a personal regard, not an objective attribute, and I have commented on the unsuitability of dignity to be a human right in connection with my review of The Last Command (1928). As Arthur Schopenhauer commented long ago, the concept of dignity is “the shibboleth of all empty-headed moralists” [6]. Steven Pinker, referring to the “stupidity of dignity” has made similar comments about the misuse of this term in connection with human rights [7]. In fact dignity refers to a state, like happiness, to which we aspire, but its attainment can only be judged at the personal level and so cannot be a universally recognized right.  Nevertheless, society should provide institutional mechanisms that provide an environment in which dignity and happiness can possibly be attained by all participants.  A more realistic social perspective that takes off from and develops this point of view has been adopted by Amartya Sen in connection with the “Capability Approach” [8].

De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves does not really offer a solution to this problem, but it turns our gaze sympathetically in the proper direction so that we can see the wide-ranging scope of what is wrong and begin making meaningful changes.  For telling this story so movingly and so well, it continues to deserve its ranking as one of the great films.

  1. The Film Sufi, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: 'Open City" and "Paisan'”, The Film Sufi, (2008), http://www.filmsufi.com/2008/11/aesthetic-considerations-of-two.html.
  2. The Film Sufi, “Subjective Realism in the Italian Film”, The Film Sufi, (2009), http://www.filmsufi.com/2009/01/subjective-realism-in-italian-film.html.
  3. Cesare Zavattini, “Some Ideas on the Cinema”, Sight and Sound, 23:2 (October-December 1953), 64-9, edited from a recorded interview published in La Revista del Cinema Italiano 2, (December 1952), translated by Pier Luigi Lanza.
  4. Andre Bazin, “Bicycle Thieves”, What is Cinema? Vol. II, edited and translated by Hugh Gray, (1949/2004), University of California Press.
  5. “United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights” (1948), http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.
  6. Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality, (1837/2005), Dover Classics, p. 51.
  7. Steven Pinker, “The Stupidity of Dignity, Conservative Bioethics' Latest, Most Dangerous Ploy”The New Republic, Wednesday, May 28, 2008.
  8. “Capability Approach”, Wikipedia (April 2015).

Vittorio De Sica

Films of Vittorio De Sica:

“Once Upon a Time in America” - Sergio Leone (1984)

Once Upon a Time in America (C’era una Volta in America, 1984) was the last film that Sergio Leone directed and also his most monumental achievement.  This epic production about young Jewish gangsters in early 20th-century New York City pushes the boundaries of cinematic expression in several dimensions and remains as breathtaking today as when it was first released.  Leone’s previous directorial outing had been Duck You Sucker (Giù la Testa, aka A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, 1971), and although he had been active in the film industry over those intervening years, he had stepped out of the limelight and seemed to be preparing the foundations for his masterpiece.  He had even turned down an offer to direct The Godfather (1972) so that he could concentrate on his own conception of American underworld society.

Societal themes had not really been part of Leone’s original claim to fame, which had been based on epic man-to-man encounters in the American Old West with his “Dollars" (aka “Man With No Name”) trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).  But after those early successes, Leone’s vision broadened to incorporate the social dimension, and his subsequent, and final, three films, sometimes referred to as his “Once Upon a Time” trilogy all include a perspective on significant social dynamics that have affected modern society:
  • Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) incorporated an implicit view of how the spread of industrialization, symbolized by the railroad, was bringing the desirable social sense of corporation to the individual-centric Old American West.
  • Once Upon a Time… the Revolution (1971) included a perspective on the intellectualized undergirdings that support modern revolutionary impulses.
  • Once Upon a Time in America looked at the rise in America of organized crime in the form of the “Syndicate” (aka the National Crime Syndicate) [1].
Leone was inspired to take up this latter theme by reading the semi-autobiographical novel The Hoods (1952) by Harry Grey (real name: Herschel Goldberg). He then set about preparing his elaborate shooting script and assembling his production team, which included his invaluable collaborators, Tonino Delli Colli [2] for the cinematography and Ennio Morricone for the music. The cinematography and the music, of course, are essential aspects of Leone’s aesthetics and are what make his films stand out in the viewer’s memory.

As usual with Leone’s (and Delli Colli’s) cinematography, there are atmospheric and scenic wide-view tracking shots, here of cityscapes, that are adroitly combined with character closeups of the principals involved.  Also as usual, much of Morricone’s musical score was composed and recorded before production so that Leone could employ it on the film set to inspire the acting performances.  The music also included the wistful and evocative pan-flute tones of Gheorghe Zamfir.  The musical themes create a pervasive melancholy atmosphere throughout the film and are present both diegetically (performed on camera in the story) and non-diegetically (heard on the soundtrack).

Despite the film’s aesthetic virtues and lengthy production period, however, it was not a success at the box office.  After a 10-month period of shooting in 1982-83, Leone planned to make two three-hour films for commercial release.  Producers pushed him to shorten this, though, and he eventually released a 229-minute version for distribution in Europe [3].  For the American release, producers further forced, against Leone’s wishes, a drastically re-edited and shortened (and much criticized) 139-minute version, which turned out to be a commercial disaster.  Perhaps because of this box-office failure, Leone did not direct another film.

The story of Once Upon a Time in America revolves around the interactions of three principal characters from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and it covers three widely-separated time sequences that span a period of almost fifty years.  Although there are a number of dramatic and violent events in the story, the key elements concern the nature of these characters and how they affect each other.  We see them interacting when they are teenagers, when they are in their twenties, and when they are in their sixties.
  • David “Noodles” Aaronson (played by Robert De Niro) is a gangster and almost the exclusive center of focalization in the story.  He can be violent, even murderous, when frustrated, but he has his sensitive side, too.  Although he wants to be wealthy, his primary value is friendship and loyalty.  When we watch this story, we are viewing a person who is basically a ruthless animal, but who wants to be human.
  • Max Bercovicz (James Woods) is also a gangster and something of a senior partner to Noodles.  He also values friendship, but his overriding ambition trumps everything else, and he is more calculating and conniving than Noodles.
  • Deborah Gelly (Elizabeth McGovern) is a young woman from Noodles’s neighborhood who dreams of winning fame as a dancer and actress.  She is the object of Noodles’s romantic desires, and she fancies him, despite his shady life as a hood.

There are two key and conflicting relationships in the story:
  1. RM – Noodles’s relationship with Max, which is such a strong bonding that it is almost like an asexual love affair.  In some ways this relationship symbolizes Noodles’s sense of camaraderie with all his close male companions.
  2. RD – Noodles’s relationship with Deborah.  In every one of the key RD scenes of the film, Noodles wishes for an affectionate response from Deborah, but he never quite gets it.
The story unfolds in a nonlinear, serpentine fashion, and these intertwined relationships are so compelling that they sustain the viewer’s interest throughout.  The three separate time periods shown, which I estimate to be in 1921, 1933, and 1968, are interspersed and not shown in chronological order, and the degree to which the earlier scenes represent flashbacks is not always clear.  However, the key relationship scenes in the film,  identified in the following  by RM# and RD#, are presented in chronological order. In general, Leone uses the technique of “slow disclosure” to develop a scene, whereby the context of some scenes is only understood gradually as the viewer pieces together information details that are presented  over time.  In any case, the story is presented in nine unevenly apportioned sequences.
1.  1933-4: Aftermath of the Shootout

At the beginning of the film, a young woman, Eve, who turns out to be Noodles’s girlfriend, is accosted and murdered in her apartment by gangsters who are looking to find Noodles. They also savagely beat up a restauranteur and friend of Noodles, “Fat Moe” (Larry Rapp), in order to find his whereabouts. (These are among the few scenes in the film that do not focalize on Noodles.)  Noodles at this moment is in an opium den that is upstairs to a Chinese shadow-puppet theater.  In his opium daze, Noodles recalls a phone call he had earlier made to the police that led to a shootout killing of his criminal partners, whose names are identified as Max, Cockeye, and Patsy. 

Waking up from his opium daze and escaping the thugs, Noodles visits the beat-up Fat Moe, and after killing one of the thugs still lurking on the scene, takes from Moe's place a key to a railroad locker containing a suitcase.  When Noodles retrieves the suitcase, he is shocked to find it empty. But evidently he feels the need to get away. Apparently seeking anonymity, he then buys a one-way ticket to Buffalo, New York.

2.  1968-1: Noodles Returns to New York City
A much older Noodles in 1968 is seen in the same train station, so we can guess that the earlier sequence was a flashback reminiscence on the part of Noodles.  Noodles goes to visit Fat Moe on the suspicion that Fat Moe had stolen the loot that was supposed to have been in that suitcase years ago. Quickly seeing that he was wrong about Moe, they exchange pleasantries.  Asked what he has been up to over the past thirty-five years, Noodles merely says that he has ‘been going to bed early.”  We never do learn anything about that period of Noodles’s life. 

Noodles does say that he has recently received a cryptic letter that indicated he has been found, and to find out what that means is why he has returned to New York City.  Then he looks into a back storage room of Moe’s restaurant and lapses into a reverie of the past.

3.  1921: The Teenage World of Noodles
The next hour of the film covers life the period when Noodles was 15 or 16-years old.  Noodles leads a small gang of delinquents consisting of himself and three others: Patsy, Cockeye, and Dominic, and they spend their time making pocket money by rolling drunks and carrying out punishments on deadbeats who owe money to loan sharks.  In one of their operations they run into another teenage tough, Max, who appears to be a couple of years older than Noodles.  Although Max and Noodles are potential rivals, Max quickly warms to Noodles, and they become close comrades (RM1).

Noodles admires Moe’s sister, Deborah, who spends her time practicing her dancing lessons.  She sometimes encourages his glances, but she puts him down as a common street thug who doesn’t aspire to the respectability that she wants (RD1).  

On another occasion when she is alone minding her parent’s restaurant, she invites Noodles in and reads poetry to him from the romantic biblical text Song of Songs.  But as she reads, she interpolates into the lines some of her own snarky comments about Noodles:  
“He is always lovable, but he will always be a two-bit punk, so he will never be my beloved.”
Still, she seems to like Noodles, and they come together for a kiss. When Max interrupts them, however, she is turned off by his punk relationships, and she sarcastically tells Noodes to “go on, run; your mother’s calling you.”  Noodles joins Max outside the restaurant, but the two of them immediately run into a rival gang of older boys led by another thug, “Bugsy”, who proceed to attack them and beat them to a pulp. When the beat-up Noodles tries to return to the safety of the restaurant, though, Deborah refuses to let him in (RD2).

Nevertheless, with the spirited participation of Max now leading them, their little gang has increasing success in their criminal capers.  They loyally decide to share all their plunder and stash it in a suitcase to be stored in a railroad station locker (the same one scene in Act 1). 

But they are operating in a dangerous world, and they have another encounter with Bugsy, who guns down Dominic on the street.  Overcome with rage at seeing his buddy killed, Noodles sneaks up on Bugsy and stabs him to death, and also stabs a cop who has come to intervene.  Noodles is arrested for murder and spends the next twelve years in prison.

4.  1968-2: Noodles at the Cemetery
The film now transitions forward to 1968, with Noodles visiting an upscale cemetery, where an elaborate mausoleum has been erected commemorating his former colleagues Max, Cockeye, and Patsy.  Noodles sees a key hanging on the inside wall and correctly guesses that it can be used to open up the old railroad station locker that had stored the gang’s suitcase full of loot.  When he goes there and opens up the suitcase, this time he finds it is full of cash, with a mysterious message indicating it is an advance payment. 

So Noodles figures he is being set up for something – but by whom and for what?

5.  1933-1: Noodles Rejoins the Gang
Another transition moves the film back in time to a short time before Act 1, perhaps 1932 or 1933. Noodles is released from prison and is welcomed back by his loyal friend Max, who provides him with a hooker for his immediate gratification (RM2). Max, now a successful rum-running gangster in the US era of alcohol prohibition and working with Cockeye (William Forsythe) and Patsy (James Hayden), takes him to a party at Fat Moe’s establishment, which is now a speakeasy.  There he meets the girl he had been dreaming of while in prison for the past twelve years, Deborah, who is now grownup and glamorous.  In a truly brilliant scene of tentative interaction (RD3), Noodles fishes for a warm reception from his dream love.  She is hesitant about saying that she missed him while he was locked up, so he has to coax something out of her.  
Noodles: “. . . you mean you weren’t counting the days?”
Deborah: “of course I was”
However, when Max summons Noodles for a private meeting, she again tells him,
“Go on, your mother’s calling you." 
But then she adds,
" . . . . it’s good to see you again, Noodles”
Max immediately arranges a meeting for the gang, now including Noodles once more, to engage in a diamond heist in Detroit for upper-level gangsters, Frankie (Joe Pesci) and Joe (Burt Young).  They pull of the heist, and when they return and go to an abandoned wharf to exchange their diamonds for a payoff from Joe, they massacre Joe and his men.  Noodles is shocked and disturbed by the double-cross, but Max explains that it was all part of Frankie’s plan.  Noodles expresses his concern to Max that their customary gang loyalty is being replaced by a corporate gangster mentality that dissolves trust (RM3).  This is where the film begins to make allusions to the rise of the “Syndicate” that began to emerge in the US at about this time.  The Syndicate was a criminal coalition that moved from illegal alcohol sales to a widespread infestation of American business and politics, including labor unions.

6.  1968-3: Noodles Recollecting
The aged Noodles is watching TV in 1968 and notices that a politician shown on the screen is a former labor leader, Jimmy Conway O’Donnell (Treat Williams) that he was acquainted with back in 1933.

7.  1933-2: Falling in with the Syndicate
The 1933 story continues with Max’s gang now getting involved with protecting a labor union led by Jimmy Conway O'Donnel from corporate thugs. Noodles, though, is drifting away from the group and trying to get closer to Deborah. He decides to make his grand gesture and offer himself to her.  He rents an entire posh seaside resort during the off-season and takes Deborah there for an exclusive dinner. (RD4)  Deborah tells him,
“You’re the only person that I ever cared about.  But you’d lock me up and throw away the key, wouldn’t you?”
Noodles says, “yeah, I guess so.”  Deborah responds sadly, “the thing is, I probably wouldn’t even mind.”  Later, lying down on the beach. Noodles tells her,
“Every night I used to think about you.” . . . “Nobody’s gonna love you the way I love you.”
But Deborah’s ego refuses to let her abandon her dreams of being a star.  She tells Noodles that despite her feelings, she is leaving the next day for Hollywood.  Noodles is wounded by this rejection.  On the way home in the chauffeur-driven car, after she kisses him, he brutally rapes her in the back seat.  This frustration-driven act of animality ends their relationship, and he silently watches her leave on the train the next day.

Noodles returns to the gang office at the speakeasy, where Max and the others express  their displeasure over Noodles’s having lately neglected their activities (and hence falling short in terms of gang loyalty) while he was attending to Deborah.  This is shown via a dramatically effective silence, with only the sound of his spoon stirring Noodles’s coffee cup, while the gang scrutinizes him suspiciously.  But with Deborah now out of the picture, Noodles re-engages with the gang. 

With US Prohibition coming to a statutory end, Max, always looking for more new and ambitious criminal operations, now concocts a plan for the gang to rob the heavily guarded Federal Reserve Bank in New York.  Both Noodles and Max’s hooker girlfriend Carol (Tuesday Weld) know this will be suicidal, but they are unable to dissuade Max, who appears delusional.  Carol urges Noodles to save Max’s life by tipping off the police about an upcoming criminal heist so that they can be captured and jailed.  This would entail about 18 months in prison for all of them, but would save them from getting killed in a shootout.  Noodles sees this as a comparatively minor act of betrayal that would actually be a life-saving gift to Max, and he decides to do it (RM4).

At a party later at Fat Moe’s speakeasy, Noodles goes into the office and make that fateful police call that was shown in Act 1.  Just afterwards Max comes into the office and after going ballistic over what appears to be a trivial remark from Noodles, knocks his friend out cold with his gun.

8. 1968-4: The Final Encounters
The scene now shifts to 1968 with Noodles still trying to find out what it means to be “found”. He manages to track down his dream love, Deborah, who is now a prominent stage actress. Appearing in her dressing-room doorway, he asks, “aren’t you going to say anything?” He is still looking for the right response, but once more he doesn’t get it.  He tells Deborah that he has received an invitation to a party from a certain "Secretary Bailey", a wealthy and prominent political figure who is now under criminal investigation.  She urges him not to go to the party, telling him that all we have in life is our memories, and if he goes there he won’t have those anymore.  At this, Noodles tells her that he has already discovered that she has been Bailey’s mistress for years (RD5).

Noodles then goes to the party, and when he meets Bailey in his private room, he sees that Secretary Bailey is in fact Max!  Max/Bailey reveals that he had committed the ultimate betrayal back then – he had organized the shootout that killed his buddies Cockeye and Patsy, had faked his own death, and had stolen the gang’s money to start out a new life with a new name.  He had stolen Noodle’s life – his money, his girl, and subjected him to a lifetime of guilt feelings over the false belief that his phone call had killed his friends.  In fact the massacre had all been arranged by Max, and even the cops had been in on it.  Max’s knocking out of Noodles after that fateful phone call had been his preconceived act to keep his friend out of the upcoming massacre.

Now Bailey (Max) knows that he is targeted to be killed by the Syndicate (he knows too much), and he figures that he is already a dead man. The only honorable death for him is to have Noodles kill him instead – as a vengeful payback for his betrayal of Noodles (RM5). He gives Noodles his gun and tells him to shoot.

However, Noodles refuses to do it, and even refuses to acknowledge the truth of what has been revealed to him.  He tells Max
“Many years ago I had a friend, a dear friend.  I turned him in to save his life.  But he was killed.  But he wanted it that way.  It was a great friendship.  It went bad for him.  It went bad for me, too.”
Noodles walks out a back exit onto the street, where there is garbage truck waiting.  Looking back at Max/Bailey’s house, he sees what appears to be Max come out.  But his view of the man is obscured by the garbage truck, which has begun to move.  After the truck passes, the man is no longer to be seen.

9.  1933-3: The Opium Den
The final scene returns to the time Noodles visited the opium den above the Chinese shadow-puppet theater just after the fatal shootout.  He begins smoking the opium, and with his eyes closed, he smiles.
Once Upon a Time in America’s labyrinthine and multilayered narrative leaves viewers with some open questions, and two of them in particular stand out and have been widely discussed:
  1. What happens to Max at the end of the film?
  2. What is the meaning behind Noodles’s smile in the final shot?
I will come back to these two specific questions below, but first there are some other, more general topics to consider.

As with Leone’s earlier films, the expressionistic decor and atmosphere created by his misc-en-scene is compelling, but Leone's artistic expression now encompasses a new feature: the subtlety of the acting.  The performances of James Wood and Robert De Niro, as the two main figures, are outstanding.  De Niro is particularly good, precisely because he reins in his well-established capabilities for emphatic expression and presents the image of a more thoughtful person trying to figure out how to navigate through a violent and confusing world.  To be sure, Noodles can be deplorably violent when provoked.  But he (as presented by De Niro) also evinces a more hesitant and introspective side in his interpersonal dealings.  This representation of a tentative groping for something helps sustain our interest throughout the long story.

In addition, the teenage actors in the lengthy1920 sequence (Act 3) of the film are also very good. They work effectively as an ensemble and create their own little society of teenage hoods. Moreover the physiognomies of several characters that are performed by different actors in the chronologically later sequences are surprisingly well matched, especially those of Fat Moe, Patsy, and Cockeye. 

On a higher plane there is the societal perspective that Leone brings into consideration, and it is interesting to compare Once Upon a Time in America with Once Upon a Time in the West in this respect.
  • In Once Upon a Time in the West there was a somewhat elegiacal representation that the brutal, often savage, individualism that characterized the Old American West was gradually giving way to a more civilized and orderly form of social interaction.  This was symbolized by the relentless westward extension of the railway tracks, which facilitated the introduction of and linkage to more cooperative and normative-based ways for people to interact.  Thus the spread of the railway signified the decline of the Old West, but it also represented something that transformed American society in a positive way.
  • In Once Upon a Time in America, there is an indication that crime was gradually becoming corporatized and directly wired into the business end of American society via the Syndicate.  This transformation was ironically triggered by the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, which prompted the criminal underworld leaders, such as Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, to expand and organize their operations into a crime machine.  The suggestion, as presented in this film, is that loyalty and brotherhood were diminished by this process of syndication. And clearly the infestation of American society (reaching into high levels of government and trade unions) was something that transformed American society in a negative way.
What Once Upon a Time in America is fundamentally about, however, is not just social transformation but something deeper, and perhaps darker. It is about the basic narrative construction of reality [4,5,6]. I have discussed this idea concerning narrative structure of "reality" in connection with reviews about some other films: Memento (2000), Blow-Up (1966), and The Passenger (1975). The basic idea is that we all understand the world around us in terms of the narratives we construct from our experiences or from narratives that we have heard about.  Even our most fundamental sense of temporality is based on narrative, as described by Paul Ricoeur [6].  Most importantly in the present context is the fact that we understand ourselves in terms of the narratives that we construct about ourselves.  Deborah emphasizes this point to Noodles in Act 8 (1968-4: The Final Encounters), when she tells him that all we really have is our memories (i.e. our stories about ourselves).  She is warning him that if he goes to visit Secretary Bailey, his self-understanding (and hence his self) will be destroyed.  

The most essential narratives that we construct about ourselves concern (1) personal relationships: our interactions with the people we hold most dear and (2) the social world: our operations and interactions (our “personal journeys”) that establish our standing in the social world around us.  In terms of self-constructed narratives, we can see their operation with respect to the three principal characters.
  • Deborah always wanted to be a star actress.  This was the narrative that she had constructed for herself, and she wasn’t going to allow her personal feelings for a hood like Noodles to interfere with her envisioned narrative scheme. She was determined to live out that “social world” narrative, because that, to her, was her essential nature.
  • Max was an opportunist. Like Deborah, he treasured his personal relationship narrative with Noodles, but he was willing to sacrifice that in order to climb up as a major criminal in his social world narrative.  When things got too hot for him, he chose to construct an entirely new social-world narrative for himself and sacrifice his relationship-narrative with Noodles.
  • Noodles was primarily interested in his personal relationship narratives.  His social-world narratives were of secondary importance.  Thus when he spent 12 years in prison and another 35 years in Buffalo, as far as he was concerned, nothing of much significance happened to him, and so the film doesn’t even cover that material. Although Noodles is shown sometimes to be a killer and a rapist, the film presents his struggles to hold on to his self-narrative based on his personal relationships.  When Max presents him with information that would destroy his self-narrative, Noodles resists.  He still reveres Deborah and praises her for having become a star, and he refuses to vengefully kill Max.  To condemn them would be to deny who he is.
In this context we can return to the two open questions I mentioned earlier. 

What happens to Max? 
Since this film is really about narrative, Leone has left the viewer with (at least) three possible narratives to account for what has happened. 
  1. Max kills himself by throwing himself into the grinding augers of the garbage truck.
  2. Max is somehow killed by unseen Syndicate assassins hiding in the garbage truck.
  3. Max makes a previously-planned escape by boarding the garbage truck that is operated by some confederates.  In this scenario, Max is commencing the construction of yet another new self-narrative.
Take your pick.  Ir seems that Leone is challenging the viewer to make out his or her own narrative conclusion on this point.

What is the meaning of Noodle’s smile in the final shot? 
Again, narrative considerations lead to multiple possibilities [7].
  • One could argue that everything that happens diegetically later than the opium den scene is a drug-induced dream on Noodles’s part.  He unconsciously concocts this dream to salve his guilt about his complicity in the deaths of his comrades.  A number of commentators have adopted this viewpoint, but I don’t hold to it..  For Noodles to construct this dream, he would build a new, demeaning narrative that would perhaps be worse than his existing self-narrative.
  • Or perhaps one could say that the opium put Noodles into a conscious state enabling him to see his real future.  This would only be plausible if Noodles were to wake up from the dream and have no memory of it during the chronologically later sequences.
But I think there is a third possibility concerning the meaning of that closing smile that is more compelling. We could construe this shot to be Leone’s cynical final wink to his audience – that life is no more than a Chinese shadow puppet show. By making this parting gesture, Leone is alienating his viewers from their immersion in the foregoing narrative and thereby making a comment about the nature of narrative, itself.

  1. “The National Crime Syndicate”, Wikipedia, 6 March 2015.
  2. Tonino Delli Colli was also the cinematographer for films directed by Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Federico Fellini.
  3. The version of the film that I saw for this review was 221 minutes in length.
  4. Roger Schank and Gary Saul Morrison, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory)  (1995), Northwestern University Press.
  5. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, in Narrative Intelligence (2003), Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers (eds.), John Benjamin Publishing Co.
  6. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vols. I- III, (1983-1985), University of Chicago Press.
  7. Roderick Heath, “Once Upon a Time in America (1984)”, Ferdy on Films (accessed 8 April 2015).