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5 Reasons ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ is a Greater Film than ‘The Godfather’

22 March 2015 | Features, Other Lists | by Padraic Coffey

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA

Comparing works of art is an often self-defeating endeavour, and yet it is inherently compulsive when it comes to film.

Most critics compile a list of the movies which they have most appreciated in ascending order on any given year, and the Academy Awards – arguably the most universally recognised seal of approval for any creative field – are a constant source of controversy, with those shamefully overlooked far more likely to be mentioned in conversation than the times the Oscars actually got it right.

And yet The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s breakout film, occupies a strange space in the public consciousness, a consensus comparable with that of the sacred cows in Hinduism from where the idiom is derived.

It bridges a gap between the snobbish older generation of critics for whom every modern film is a debasement of the art form, and the younger generation of audiences who may have been forced to watch Citizen Kane in class once, but struggled to keep their eyes open. It is, by any standard, a classic.

To say another film is greater, however, is not a damning indictment. It is simply an acknowledgement that The Godfather is not the greatest film ever made. It is not even the greatest crime film ever made. A film which tackles similar themes in an aesthetically comparable way with ever greater success is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.

Leone’s film depicted young, poverty-stricken immigrant life in New York, as well as the rise and fall of criminal enterprise, buttressed by ensemble casting, stirring music and a demanding running length. Yet it is nowhere near as well-regarded as Coppola’s film.

The following are a number of reasons why the disproportionate affection for The Godfather, at the expense of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, is a matter which should be rectified, or at the very least debated, by any serious film fan.

 

1. The Godfather glamorises organised crime. Once Upon a Time in America shows it as it really is.

The Godfather (1972)

Arguably the greatest shift forward in progress for American cinema in the second half of the twentieth century was the ending of Motion Picture Production Code, colloquially known as the Hays Code in honour of Will H. Hays, head of the MPAA between 1922 and 1945. The Hays Code had meant audiences were shielded from all but the mildest profanity and violence on screen, with sex practically nonexistent.

It also had meant no crime could go unpunished, and characters who broke the law must be seen to repent before a suitably dramatic penalty, whether it was life behind bars or death in a hail of bullets. The onscreen tracts which bookended pictures like Howard Hawk’s Scarface or William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy were often laughably didactic (witness the rhetorical “What are YOU going to do about it?” in Scarface).

Chief among the many virtues of The Godfather, according it its devotees, is the non-judgemental attitude it takes towards its central characters. For once, gangsters were not anti-social hoodlums profiteering from a flagrant disregard for laws enacted to protect the common man.

They were sleek, elegantly-dressed family figures who operated according to a code of ethics. They may have lived on lavish estates, and been driven in luxurious vehicles, but their income came from honest, hard-working American capitalism, based on the age-old maxim of supply and demand, whether it be gambling, liquor or prostitution.

Which is all well and good if you want the audience to root for your protagonists, as Coppola and Puzo did. It has little to do with the reality of organised crime. Puzo admitted his sympathies for the Corleones when, reflecting on the success of the film, he attributed his decision to “[make] them out to be good guys, pretty good guys, except that they committed murder every once in a while”.

Roger Ebert said the same when he wrote, in his retrospective review of The Godfather, “Don Vito Corleone [played by Marlon Brando]… emerges as a sympathetic and even admirable character; during the entire film, this lifelong professional criminal does nothing of which we can really disapprove… we see not a single actual civilian victim of organized crime. No women trapped into prostitution. No lives wrecked by gambling. No victims of theft, fraud or protection rackets.”

Once-Upon-a-Time-in-America-childhood

The same cannot be said for the gang in Once Upon a Time in America. Their plight as enterprising criminals in Prohibition-era America may be compelling, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are extortionists, thieves, murderers and rapists.

The earliest crime we see all four commit on screen is the torching of a newspaper stand, in response to its proprietors refusal to pay local hood Bugsy protection money. As the civilian’s livelihood is incinerated, our ‘heroes’ gasp at the splendour of their handiwork.

This is not the honourable actions of Don Vito and his ilk; this is destructive, greed-driven aggression. And it only gets worse from there.

Later in the story, as adults, Max (played by James Woods), Noodles (played by Robert De Niro) and co viciously beat the staff of a jewellery store in a successful robbery. Noodles goes so far as to sexually assault an employee (one of two women he rapes in the film). Minutes later, they gun down the men who commissioned them for the job, and siphon the profits.

They even swap infants in the maternity ward of a hospital as a means of blackmailing a police chief, and shrug carelessly when the children’s actual identities are lost.

In The Godfather, the only fatalities in the lives of the Corleones are other, decidedly less ‘good’ criminals, such as the Barzinis and Tattaglias. Organised crime is seen as a phenomenon which exists independent of the world around it. In Once Upon a Time in America, we see the consequences of criminality in all its ugliness.

 

2. The origin of The Godfather is pulp fiction. The origin of Once Upon a Time in America is an autobiographical crime novel.

godfather book

When Siskel and Ebert gave a glowing ‘two thumbs up’ review of The Godfather upon its 25th anniversary re-release, both were quick to point out how Coppola had improved upon his source material, Mario Puzo’s novel. “This is a greater movie than it is a book”, insisted Siskel. “Well, that goes without saying”, replied Ebert. Indeed, The Godfather is often held up as the quintessential example of how to adapt a wordy bestseller without incurring the wrath of literary purists.

Very few literary purists were ever going to jump down Coppola’s throat, regardless of how the film turned out, for one almost universally-accepted reason: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is not great literature. A page-turner? Certainly. But a paragon of all that the printed word can achieve? Not in the slightest.

Puzo himself admitted as much many times. His preceding novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, had not been a success, with his publisher suggesting a greater emphasis on the Mafia would have attracted more readers. Puzo duly got to work, and within six months of its first publication, The Godfather sold 400,000 copies in hardback alone.

Tellingly, the next book Puzo was to publish was The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions, a non-fiction account of the writing of the book and its translation to the screen. Puzo was unapologetically frank; “I have written three novels. The Godfather is not as good as the other two; I wrote it to make money.”

Were Puzo demonstrating an admirable modesty here, it would be one thing. Many great artists have downplayed the strengths of some of their most beloved creations. Bob Dylan once claimed he was “never satisfied” with Blowin’ in the Wind, a “one dimensional” song he wrote “in ten minutes”.

But Puzo’s reservations about The Godfather were shared by the man who would helm the cinematic version. Coppola initially turned down an offer to direct The Godfather after reading fifty pages. “I thought it was a popular, sensational novel, pretty cheap stuff. I got to the part about the singer supposedly modelled on Frank Sinatra and the girl Sonny Corleone apparently liked so much because her vagina was enormous… I said, “My God, what is this…? So I stopped reading it and said, ‘Forget it’”.

Coppola only reconsidered the job offer because of the financial strain of American Zoetrope, the studio he co-founded with George Lucas, and wisely chose to excise the worst passages of Puzo’s text, including the aforementioned subplot about Lucy Mancici’s gynaecological surgery.

The Hoods, the book upon which Once Upon a Time in America is based, was certainly not short of its own sensationalism. “A notorious mob boss of the syndicate tells the full inside story of hired killing and crime operations”, screamed the first edition against a blood-red, gaudily designed cover image. The difference between it and The Godfather was its author’s motivation.

Hershel Goldberg (alias Harry Grey) prepared The Hoods while serving time in Sing Sing prison. It came from a place of authenticity, even if Leone questioned the realism of certain passages in the book, particularly after meeting Goldberg – ‘Noodles himself’ – in New York.

In adapting The Hoods, Leone wanted “to reconstruct the America of Harry Grey exactly as it was, through his eyes. Speakeasies, synagogues, opium dens and everything”.

It was only after meeting Goldberg that Leone realised that he did not conform to the image of mobsters depicted on screen. He was not “Paul Muni in Scarface or James Cagney in The Public Enemy…[he was] a poor man who had tried his luck, a long time ago, with a machine-gun in his hand and a Borsalino on his head: his destiny was to become obscure and miserable”.

Though Puzo no doubt researched the world of organised crime when writing The Godfather, he included errors such as the term “Don Corleone”, a clumsy mistranslation of how the word ‘Don’ is used in Italian (it’s closer to ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’ in English, meaning “Don Vito” would have been more appropriate). Such missteps were far less likely from an insider like Goldberg.

 

 

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  • Aaron

    Fine arguments. However, another masterpiece named “Goodfellas” is the king of all gangster films.

    • martin woyzeck

      I liked Good Fellas, but doesn’t come close,to Godfather or Once upon a Time in America, nor is it even close to being a masterpiece
      In general, I can think of 20 some gangster type movies that are better than Good Fellas. And I said I liked it, but thought it was overrated. Scorsese did much better films. Even his earlier Mean Streets

      • Agnimitra Sharma

        Then you didn’t GET Goodfellas my friend!!

        • martin woyzeck

          Oh, I got it fine. I know how to evaluate films,very well. It was probably Scorsese’s weakness movie. And especially with Ray Liotta in the lead, as he’s not a very good actor.
          You, my friend, obviously don’t have a good grasp of what makes a good or bad film. If you want me to school you on what makes a great film, let me know. I won’t charge the first time.

          • Jules Neuman

            Have to agree, Goodfellas is a great movie. It’s a comedy and has some of the best acting/characters in a gangster film. It probably influenced The Sopranos as much as anything. You are off the mark with this one.

  • DXW

    It’s sad that you spent so much time on this, because you’re flat out wrong.

  • guest

    Public Enemy came in 1931 and it will always be greatest gangster movie of all time. It was way ahead of its time.

    • martin woyzeck

      I like d Public Enemy, and like many of the gangster films from the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, that are rarely mentioned.
      But would never put it in the greatest gangster movie of all time.
      You are exaggerating quite a bit.
      I I laugh whenever people use superlatives like ‘the greatest or ‘the worst’, to think that will give your opinion more credibility.
      Personally, I don’t find anyone credible, especially critics ,who can only say ‘the greatest’, or the worst’, without giving very detailed, specific reasons for what one thinks makes it the greatest.
      What did an actor do to make a good or bad performance, what did the camera do?
      Without that, ones opinion has very little credibility.
      I could list at least 10 other gangster movies of that era, as well as later films, that were better.
      You should see the original Scarface with Paul Muni.
      Definitely dated in some respects, but accepting the time era, it is a great gangster movie, and Paul Muni gave a brilliant performance. He completely absorbed and transformed into Scarface. It was a very in-depth performance.

    • Still D.R.E.

      Lil Ceasar has to be mentioned too came out the same year Edward G Robinson

  • gustavomda

    I think arguments that don’t relate to the movies themselves make no sense.
    The Godfather has been used to promote video games. So what? That doesn’t affect the movie in any way.

    • kthy

      It does affect the perception of the movies in some manner. Thanks to cultural osmosis, countless of parodies and other things, it might hard for newcomers to straight-up be blown away by Godfather.

      I mean, some of the movies’s most memorable quotes and moments are probably universally recognized by people who never saw them, and if they go on watching the movie, much of the charm could be lost.

      There certainly is a benefit in going into a movie “blind”, with no previous ideas of its subject or motifs.

    • D Isaacs

      The fact that the source novel is better/more authentic for OuaTiA is also hardly evidence that the later film is better. Still, I give the author of this article credit: it’s well written and offers a lot of interesting info.

    • Tyler

      Agreed. It’s like saying Scarface isn’t good because it sold some t shirts.

  • Brandon Thompson

    Also Once Upon Time has the better score,
    the better De Niro performance,
    a James Woods career highlight
    It’s not even Leone’s best movie (and neither is The Godfather for Coppola)
    Also the cinematography is better in Once Upon a Time, I have trouble seeing most the frame in the Godfather while watching it.

    PS Leone’s best is Once Upon a Time in the West and Coppola’s best is Apocalypse Now

    • martin woyzeck

      Liked both these movies, couldn’t really compare. Actually I would consider Once…….in America to be his best, his masterpiece.
      But Godfather wasn’t Coppola’s best. I agree , I think Apocalypse Now is his best, and one of the best movies ever. Not mentioned a lot, but think I would put it as Coppola’s second best movie is ‘The Conversation’. It’s not in the epic, glossal level of Godfather or Apocalypse, but felt it went deeper, had more depth, and a powerful message.

    • Gordon Morgans

      My two favorite films of all time (I like you, dude)

    • loa

      Let’s put aside the fact that those argument has to little to do on how good a movie is .
      de niro best performance (NO)
      James Woods career hightlight (NO)
      Once Upon a Time better cinematography that Godfather (HELL NO)
      There is no good or bad cinematography. It’s suitable or not .
      (sorry for bad english)

  • While I do love The Godfather I & II, I tend to think that Once Upon a Time in America is the better film as it has a great score, gorgeous photography, masterful editing, and James Woods’ performance.

  • Pete Howell

    Arguments don’t get much more invalid than this.

  • Satish Kumar Nayak

    6. Sergio Leone > Francis Ford Coppola

    • Heavenly Man

      7. Ennio Morricone

  • David Hollingsworth

    Once Upon a Time in America is probably the best film I have seen in a long, long time. It’s not just a story of crime but also friendship and how lives take a certain pathway. Not all Lower East Side residents turned out to be hoods. This I know for a fact because I have served with some in the military and worked with others as a civilian. Some were Jews, some Italian, and others yet Puerto Ricans. Like you said, the Godfather glorified Mafia life and in the movie I even found myself rooting for them until the end as Michael’s baby was being baptized and he was “renouncing the Devil and all his works” and his mob was out wasting other bad guys. Maybe this was Mr. Coppola’s way of subtly condemning this kind of life. Who knows? Only Mr Coppola. Anyway, well done.

  • Harsha Raman

    I think Once Upon A Time in America wrapped a whole life of a man in a package. A complete coherent package. And in the end, you are left with a gasp of shock and a wry smile at life as the credits roll up with a smiling De Niro in the background.
    I think this is where the triumph of Leone’s dream work lies. An absolute artistic masterpiece.

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      You narrowed it down in a very simplistic way.

      • skybluestoday

        Au contraire — I think it’s a sharp summary of this endlessly enigmatic work.

        • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

          Yes, of course, I know is sharp too.

  • Jugu Abraham

    I stated the same view on my blog almost 9 years ago, giving somewhat different reasons http://moviessansfrontiers.blogspot.in/2006/09/14-late-italian-director-sergio-leones.html

  • tia

    I don’t agree at all! I mean, I love, love, LOVE both of the films, and there are a lot of things to be weighed as to which is better, but come on! These arguments make no sense!

  • Still D.R.E.

    Goodfellas is better than Godfather in my opinion I have never seen Once Upon a Time… before

    • José Abel Salazar Lizárraga

      Watch it whenever you can.

  • Still D.R.E.

    This movie is not better than The Godfather but it is an outstanding movie and you can see where Tarrentino gets the out of place story in Pulp Fiction from

  • Qualiarella18

    plz, join this cinema forums 😉

    http://www.welikecinema.com/

  • yelnaX

    “4. The Godfather
    was a Hollywood blockbuster which earned more than any film had before.
    Once Upon a Time in America was butchered by its studio and buried for
    years.
    5. The Godfather
    brand has been used to sell everything from video games to balsamic
    vinegar. Once Upon a Time in America has not been used to market
    anything other than itself.”
    How do those arguments make a film better? That’s like me saying a street performer in my street is a better performer than bob dylan because he’s poor or not as well known. We’re talking about the films themselves not what happened to them.

  • Gordon Morgans

    Film is art and art is subjective. Why put down the Godfather man? Both of these are great films, phenomenal! I personally OUT in America best, and Sergio Leone is my favorite director but that’s just me. The Godfather is a masterpiece. These two films are incomparable that they’re so good!

  • Anup Viswanath

    First of all no movie is abov below or equal 2 any other movie……

    Taste of Cinema shuld kno better than comparin 2 classic
    1. Both movies had awesom cast
    2.Both movies had music that won hearts
    3. Both movies had gr8 directors
    4.Both movies had influenced many other movies
    5.Both movies had ppl v c….who get influenced by money,power etc
    6.Both the movies had charactr definition
    7. Godfather had 3 parts while Once Upon a Time in America had one lengthy part which was cut by the studio which led to its failure

    U cant compare Sergio Leones ideas to that of Cappolas or vice versa bcz they r 2 entirelt different ppl frm entirely different background………even childrn born of same parents tend 2 b different……….

    Its illogical 2 compare 2 masterpieces…..Let it remain classics all time without comparison without debate

  • Darren

    Weak arguement. By claiming a film is better due to its glorification of something ‘bad’, then you are judging a film’s morality, not its quality.

  • Thanks to Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone

  • Alejandro Caballero Salas

    Once Upon A Time in America is a great movie, but sincerely I don’t think that any of this 5 “reasons” are valid as “reasons”. It’s like someone says that War and Peace is a great book because it was published in certain kind of paper.

  • Tyler

    I don’t see how the source novel, sequels, marketing gimmicks, or money taken in, or really even the way the film treats its main characters (as if Goodfellas, which is often called the best crime movie, doesn’t glamorize these guys) makes the film, the actual movie, not great or less than it should be. This is a movie lauded, highly highly lauded by Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa. I am as a big a Serigo Leone admirer as you will find – but this is just a listing of grievances which don’t really have to do with the actual movie at hand. The two movies are also very, very different.

    • Tyler

      Also, did you start off the review by calling Orson Welles boring?

  • Ronnie Banerjee

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this comparisons article, very interesting points. Once Upon a Time in America is an absolute masterwork of cinema; it is art in motion. A surreal and dreamlike cinematic experience, embodied with the ingredients that make it the supremely epic film that it is, including love, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, the passage of time and the mystery of memory.

    I created this video tribute to the film which features Scott Tiler Schutzman (who played “Young Noodles,”) it’s an interesting promo worth checking out for those who appreciate, understand and value this magnificent film:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSyMRlQbYSk

    Noodles, I slipped…