With once upon a time begin most stories from the past. Even this one looks through a keyhole in a man's past: a past of many complexities – friendship, crime, choices, love and guilt. And even though he is not a man easy to like, his complexities evoke a heartfelt sympathy.
The movie begins in the 1930's, which is presumably the present. From there we journey into the future of the 60's and look back into the past of 20's. (The transition from one period to another is nothing less than poetic). In the present, Robert De Niro as Noodles is being hunted by gangsters after something terrible has happened and his partners are found dead. He first hides in the opium den of a Chinese theatre and later escapes, to return to the town 30 years later. It is here, that he begins to tumble into his childhood and then to his adulthood, his memories interspersed and often triggered with episodes from his old age.
A child criminal, Noodles finds a friend and partner in Max and they move on to bigger crimes. On growing up they form another gang of Jewish mobsters, earning money off prohibition and robberies. Their friendship is often marred by their ideological differences, which continue to widen. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Noodles played a role in the deaths, something which had been thus far suggested by the miserable look of guilt in old Noodles' face. The story then comes back to the 60's, where Noodles has been called to the town for a last job. As he tries to track the person who is trying to hire him, and to meet his childhood sweetheart, he stumbles upon people and facts that steal his past away.
A widespread interpretation of the movie is that it is an opium dream, a theory triggered by an enigmatic last scene in which Noodles is seen smiling after an opium shot, presumably after he has discovered the deaths of his partners. In the story, through subtle and later direct references Max is shown in a negative color, which is interpreted as Noodles justifying the incident and unburdening himself of the guilt in his dreams. This is definitely an interesting and inviting interpretation, though not the one I had after watching the movie. I think the dream theory would take away some of essence of the movie, and make it less about guilt, betrayals, seduction into crime and more about transference of guilt.
Whatever be the interpretation, the movie is a work of brilliance. If you have the patience to sustain the first half hour, which is confusing and annoying it with its shrill telephone rings, the movie will draw you in for the remaining 3 hour 15 minutes. The background score by Ennio Morricone pulls the movie together, and says more than dialogues. It is this music which expresses Noodles' terrible guilt and then his unspeakable sorrow, and gives the feeling of ethereality, which also could be an inspiration for the dream theory. As I remarked earlier, there is a constant shuffling between times, and each shuffle is seamless and beautiful. Despite its slow pace there is a tension in the movie, which is borne out of a strong plot: the mystery of deaths, the mystery behind Noodles' new assignment, the friendship and rivalry between the two anti-heroes. The slow pace is deliberate, and gives space to art in the surrounding action. The photography is beautiful, especially the scene in the accompanying picture (also used on all film posters) – the old America is artfully created to make an impressive, epic image. Robert De Niro gives a wonderful performance, as does James Woods. Both Max and Noodles are not great men – they are petty criminals with no heroic qualities, people you would like to dislike for their unseemly atrocities – esp against women. It takes a stronger skill to portray such pitiable creatures than to portray heroes or evil villains. Their childhood portrayals are also as powerful and convincing as the adult ones. Everyone else has so much as not performed at all, which is also because none of them get much screen share, apart from Elizabeth McGovern. Despite the length of role given to her, she does a very ordinary task, particularly incomparison to Jennifer Connelly who plays the younger Deborah (Noodles' childhood sweetheart) and looks angelic.
It is intriguing that cinema continues to remain fascinated with and nostalgic about crime. The legend of Robinhood never leaves the stories about gangsters, even when they commit horrendous crimes like rape their girlfriends. The movie and the audience continue to feel for them, to cry over them and experience their desolation with a sense of loss.