Peering Into the Past – A Scene from Once Upon a Time in America

Note: Few films move me as profoundly as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and in this post I describe an overwhelmingly powerful scene that literally seizes me with a paralyzing sense of melancholy. This is the first in a planned series of posts on the film, the intent of which is, in part, to account for this uncanny emotional resonance. 
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“All that we have left now are our memories.”

After 35 years in exile, Noodles (Robert De Niro) has returned to his childhood stomping grounds, specifically to Fat Moe’s Lower East Side restaurant, a place with special meaning for Noodles because it is where his enchantment with his beloved Deborah began. After a brief reunion with Moe, Noodles is left alone with the ghosts of his past:

As the first few aching notes of Deborah’s Theme begin, Noodles walks over to an old photo of Deborah hanging on the wall. Leone holds on a close-up of adult Deborah’s beautiful young face for a few seconds, and then slowly pans left-to-right 180 degrees * , stopping on a close-up of the aged Noodles, half shrouded in darkness, gazing pensively at his lifelong but now long lost romantic ideal. The familiar surroundings of Fat Moe’s place, with all of the mementos of yesteryear adorning the walls, seem to reanimate the ghostly Noodles, and as the wistful Deborah’s Theme continues to build, he moves slowly but steadily through the main room of Moe’s, drawn as if by compulsion toward a rendezvous with his past. The clock that has just been reactivated by the key Noodles returned to Moe ticks insistently over the music, signifying that time has started anew for Noodles – and that it’s running out on him too. Soon he reaches his destination: a bathroom door! But doors in Once Upon a Time in America are rarely just doors; this one happens to be a doorway to Noodles’ past. As he opens the door, the majestic soprano voice of Edda Dell’Orso soars on the soundtrack, deeply enriching the wistful Deborah’s Theme, and lending poignant, aching expression to Noodles’ unfulfilled romantic yearnings. With the sense of melancholy now palpable, the elderly Noodles struggles to step up on a toilet in order to reach a peephole in the wall above it. After steadying himself, Noodles removes a plug from the peephole, and suddenly the glowing light of the past illuminates his old, fading face. He pauses for a moment, as if bracing himself for what he’s about to see, and then slowly moves his head toward the bathing light. Leone cuts to a reverse angle shot of Noodles’ watchful eyes framed by the peephole, while the camera ever so slowly zooms in until Noodles’ eyes fill the screen. The shot is eerily reminiscent of the tight close-up of Harmonica’s eyes during the climactic duel in Once Upon a Time in the West, but these are not the piercing eyes of a Western hero bent on revenge, but rather the tired, weary eyes of a sad, lonely, beaten old man trying to come to terms with the distant memories that both haunt and sustain him. Peering almost half a century into his past, Noodles’ eyes dart back and forth as if he really were watching his beloved but unattainable Deborah dancing in the backroom among the brooms and empties that long ago day…and then, suddenly, …as Deborah’s Theme segues seamlessly into the period song Amapola, the old regretful Noodles, worn and withered by time, becomes his youthful, altogether more hopeful self – who is actually watching what old Noodles can now see only in his mind’s eye.

Only Leone could make such a haunting moment out of seemingly nothing more than an old man going to the toilet! This great scene, which holds an ineffable emotional power of Proustian proportions, establishes the film’s elegiac tone and deftly encapsulates its mournful theme about the ephemeral nature of time. It also represents a sublime example of Leone’s operatic style. Notice how the movement of Noodles, the pacing of the editing, and the tempo of the music blend together seamlessly, as when Dell’Orso’s voice is introduced just as Noodles opens the door, or when the slow zoom into old Noodles’ peering eyes segues into the childhood flashback just as the nostalgic Deborah’s Theme ends and the jaunty Amapola begins.

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*Similar panning shots echo poetically throughout the film, notably the left-to-right pan from Noodles to Deborah after she locks him out of her life, and the right-to-left pan from Deborah’s mirror image to Deborah herself when she says “Age can wither me, Noodles” during their 1968 encounter. The poetic symmetry Leone achieves with these pans is hauntingly moving.

Note: My next post on Once Upon a Time in America will explore the numerous parallels among the three time periods, and how they contribute to the film’s cumulative emotional power.

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