For years, this film has grown in stature after being a passing failure in 1984. The reason is simple, the version that played in the U.S. was a butchered cut of the original vision of Director Sergio Leone. The widely hailed original cut that played in Cannes that year was also a truncated version since Leone had originally seen this as being two films of nearly three hours each. Very much like “Blade Runner”, “Once Upon a Time in America” actually has several variations that people have seen and commented on. There is apparently a version that was assembled and released in Italy two years ago that includes at least one scene with Louise Fletcher who is nowhere to be seen in any of the versions publicly shown prior to 2012.
In 1984, for some reason, I never saw the 139 minute version that the American studio distributed. It was originally released June 1 in the U.S. , and I would be preoccupied by Star Trek, Streets of Fire and the next week, Ghostbusters and Gremlins. I was also in the process of applying for a teaching position and interviewing [I did not get the job until the second time I applied the next year], so I was pretty busy. By the fall however, things were more calm and I saw in my hometown paper that the acclaimed version of this movie that had received rapturous reviews at Cannes before the disastrous opening in the U.S. , would be playing at the Century City Fox Theater for two weeks. I can’t remember all of the people who went but I had a distinct memory of my pal Steve Holland and a guy who had been on the USC Speech team when Steve and I were coaching as graduate students, Matt Chappa, both being there. I also know that it was the original version because the only way I have ever seen this film is in the non-sequential manner in which Leone had planned it.