The director’s cut of Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon A Time In America clocks in at a hefty three hours and forty-nine minutes in length. A sprawling tale starring Robert DeNiro and James Woods of how three friends from a Jewish ghetto rise to become powerful figures in New York City’s organized crime world, it has been heralded by many, myself included, as the director’s greatest work. And now Italy’s Bologna Cinemetheque L’Immagine Ritrovata lab is looking to restore some forty minutes worth of previously unused footage into the film.
Leone’s children, Andrea and Raffaella Leone, have secured the Italian rights to the film and are hoping to premiere the new cut at either Cannes or Venice in 2012. Further release plans for the extended cut are still being worked out.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Once Upon A Time has been altered. When he first embarked on the project, Leone envisioned the story as a pair of three hour movies. When it finally premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984, the project had morphed from that concept to a single 269-minute film that was then edited down to 229 minutes. For its US release, though, the film was horribly trimmed down to 139 minutes and its flashback structure was reassembled into a straight linear narrative. Needless to say, critics who saw both versions were outraged and panned the shorter cut. The incident left Leone so heartbroken that he never made another film over the remaining five years of his life. Leone’s 229-minute cut was finally released on home video where it found an appreciative audience.
I’ll admit to some trepidation to this idea. Every film’s editing is a delicate balancing act and the longer the film is the trickier that balancing act becomes. Inserting forty new minutes into a film that is already fast approaching the four hour mark will have to be done with the utmost care to avoid damaging the film’s pacing and structure. I’m not saying that it can’t be done. I think Tom Hanks’s That Thing You Do is pretty much one of the very few perfect movies of the 1990s and was aghast a few years ago when I heard that there was an extended cut being prepared. However, that extended cut surprised me by being even a bit better than the original. I am anxious to see if the same trick can be done with Once Upon A Time In America.