Allusions

Allusions

Once Upon A Time In America contains a number of references to cinematic, literary, and artistic works:

Gangster Films
Degas's Dancers

 


Gangster Films

There are many allusions in the film to Hollywood gangster and crime films from the 1930s through to the 1950s. The film is Leone's homage to the gangster film just as his Once Upon A Time In The West is an homage to the western. Leone's biographer Christopher Frayling lists some citations:

from the Chinese theatre (The Lady from Shanghai, 1948) to the contract killing (The Killers, 1946) to the gangster revisiting his childhood neighbourhood (Angels with Dirty Faces, 1938; Dead End, 1937); with one protagonist feeling nostalgic about the anarchic early days (High Sierra, 1941), the other becoming increasingly megalomaniac (White Heat, 1949) and both having to confront a complicated new world of unions and politics (Bullets or Ballots, 1936). The suitcase at the subway station recalled Cry of the City (1948) and The Killing (1956); Noodles' relationship with Deborah resembled Eddie Bartlett's with Jean Sherman in The Roaring Twenties (1939), and the elderly Noodles' arrival at Senator Bailey's Long Island party mirrored Police Sergeant Bannion's arrival at the affluent mansion of Mike Legarna, head of the crime syndicate, in The Big Heat (1953). The switching of the babies ('We're like the Lord God Almighty') chimed with the mid-1930s 'moral' cycle of gangster films, where the roots of gangsterdom - nature or nurture - were explored. The misogyny of the gang, who behave like overgrown little boys obsessed with their cocks, belongs to a long tradition: from Tom Powers pushing a grapefruit into Kitty's face (The Public Enemy, 1931) to Vince emptying a coffee percolator over Debbie's face in The Big Heat. The inscription 'Your men will fall by the sword' was a variation on the opening of Little Caesar (1930): 'For they that take the sword shall perish by the sword' (Matthew 25.52).

Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death (Faber and Faber 2000), pp. 422-423.

 

Scarface

Tony Camonte is an archetype of the gangster psychopath with an obsession with glamorous blondes (see also The Public Enemy), which finds echoes in the character of Max in Once Upon A Time In America. Scarface's juxtaposition of brutal violence with low comedy is also a feature of Once.


Little Caesar

The strongest reference in Once to Little Caesar is again in the character of the ambitious psychopath. Max is just a more sophisticated version of Rico. But there are also similarities between Rico and Noodles: like Rico, Noodles is a gangster from humble beginnings who feels uncomfortable in the big time, both of them preferring 'the smell of the streets'.

 

The Public Enemy

The theme of boyhood friends engaging in petty crime growing up to become gangsters, which is so strongly expressed in Once, finds its classic experssion in The Public Enemy. In the latter, Tom and Mat move up in the crime world thanks to selling alcohol during Prohibition. A more specific parallel is the scene where Tom calls Mat away from his girfriend, just as Max calls Noodles away from Deborah on two occasions.


Angels with Dirty Faces

This film also follows two boyhood friends as they grow up in a life of crime in early twentieth century New York. In both films, at a pivotal moment in their youth, one of the friends is caught by the police and sent to juvenile prison. Noodles's imprisonment mirrors Rocky's in Angels. In both films, the event changes the boys' friendships forever. In Angels, only one boy becomes a gangster while the other goes straight as a priest. While Max of course does not go straight, he and Noodles never quite see eye-to-eye again.

 

The Roaring Twenties

Noodles and Deborah's relationship is reminiscent of that between Eddie and Jean in The Roaring Twenties. Like Deborah, Jean is set upon a show business career on the stage and like Noodles, Eddie is infatuated with her but his love is only partly returned. Eddie is coarse like Noodles, while Jean is refined like Deborah.  Other allusions:  Max's psychotic "don't you ever say that to me again!" in response to a mild insult is exactly like Eddie's; the gang in Once make their pitch to a spaghetti-eating gangster in much the same way that Eddie does.


A thread on the Sergio Leone Web Board discussed some more references in Once to classic gangster films. Here are some quotes from that discussion. (The original can be found here.)

Angels with Dirty Faces: "in AWDF, just before the two characters are about to break into a freight train car as boys, they talk about going to Florida and going swimming. In OUATIA there are two references to swimming which are used as sort of "relief" scenes after Noodles and Max have words. After the hit on Joe Minaldi, Noodles drives the car into the water so they can take a swim. Also after the disagreement in Jimmy's hospital room, Max goes after Noodles and suggests he accompany Noodles to Florida for a swim. The swimming in OUATIA also refers back to the fall in the water when the gang were boys fishing the liquor out of the harbor." "Tom ends up taking the rap for the attempted theft of the freight car and goes to a reform center. His incarceration definitely affects his growth; contributes towards his progression to a life of crime. This has similarities to Noodles' experience."

Little Caesar: "Rico’s boys give him a pocket watch at the banquet honoring him. The platinum and diamond pocket watch was stolen by his gang. In OUATIA, Noodles and gang take the pocket watch of the drunk. Max will hold on to the watch and take it out in the final scene with Noodles." "Rico admires Big Boy’s desk and furnishings during their meeting together and comments on how much it must of set him back, reminiscent of Max and the Pope’s throne he purchases. He answers Noodles questions concerning the throne and points out how much he spent on it." "Rico shares same view of women as Max. Women are dames and molls. He has no interest in women. “What does it ever get ya?” He sees Olga, love interest of Joe, as a threat to his business. In his view, once in a gang one can never leave. Furthermore, Joe cannot be a member of a gang and have a relationship with a woman. In this way the Rico/Joe relationship mirrors the Max/Noodles relationship." Little Caesar "depicts Rico as being unfulfilled and empty after achieving his superficial goals. He commands his own gang, he has the fine clothes and jewelry, and he has the “admiration” of his boys....yet there’s something missing. The emptiness seems to increase his appetite for more.... setting his sights on becoming the next Big Boy. Big Boy is portrayed as being above the law, and untouchable. Neither Rico or Max can ever obtain Big Boy status. Like Rico, Max’s lifetime pursuit of power and wealth brings about his own downfall and results in a meaningless, empty life."

 


Song of Songs

The second time young Noodles tries to spy on Deborah dancing, she catches him and makes him sit while she reads from the Song of Songs, interspersing her terse comments. Below is Deborah's recitation of part of chapter 5 of the Song of Songs, which is the seventeenth book of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. Alongside is the original version, from the 1917 Jewish Publication Society of America version, which is the most common translation. (Available here.) Deborah either has a different translation from the 1917 version (but I have not been able to find a translation the same as the one Deborah reads) or is translating/ amending it herself.

My beloved is white and ruddy.
His skin is as the most fine gold.
His cheeks are as a bed of spices.
Even though he hasn't washed since
last December.
His eyes are as the eyes of doves.
His body is as bright ivory.
His legs are as pillars of marble.
In pants so dirty they stand by themselves.
He is altogether lovable.
But he'll always be a two-bit punk.
So he'll never be my beloved.
What a shame.
10 'My beloved is white and ruddy, 
pre-eminent above ten thousand.
11 His head is as the most fine gold,
his locks are curled, and black as a raven.
12 His eyes are like doves beside the water-brooks;
washed with milk, and fitly set.
13 His cheeks are as a bed of spices,
as banks of sweet herbs;
his lips are as lilies, dropping with flowing myrrh.
14 His hands are as rods of gold set with beryl;
his body is as polished ivory
overlaid with sapphires.
15 His legs are as pillars of marble,
set upon sockets of fine gold;
his aspect is like Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.
16 His mouth is most sweet;
yea, he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved, and this is my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem.'

Later as adults, after Noodles and Deborah have dinner at the seaside restaurant, they sit on the sand and talk. Noodles tells her that thinking about her was what got him through his time in prison. And he recites chapter 7 of the Song of Songs, reproduced below. Again the original is alongside. Noodles's version is much different from the 1917 JPS Tanakh, which may be due to a faulty memory or doing his own translation/ amendments.

How beautiful are your feet
In sandals, O prince's daughter
Your navel is a bowl
Well-rounded with no lack of wine
Your belly, a heap of wheat
Surrounded with lilies
Your breasts,
Clusters of grapes
Your breath,
Sweet-scented as apples
Nobody's gonna love you the way I love you.

2 How beautiful are thy steps
in sandals, O prince's daughter!
The roundings of thy thighs are like
the links of a chain,
the work of the hands of a skilled workman.
3 Thy navel is like a round goblet,
wherein no mingled wine is wanting;
thy belly is like a heap of wheat
set about with lilies.
4 Thy two breasts are like two fawns
that are twins of a gazelle.
5 Thy neck is as a tower of ivory;

8 This thy stature is like to a palm-tree,
and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.
9 I said: 'I will climb up into the palm-tree,
I will take hold of the branches thereof;
and let thy breasts be as clusters of the vine,
and the smell of thy countenance like apples;

Martin Eden

In one scene, the young Noodles locks himself in a toilet and reads a battered book. The camera deliberately reveals the book's title as Martin Eden by Jack London. Here is a summary of the book:

A novel by Jack London, published in 1909. Martin Eden, a labourer who was once a sailor, has a questioning mind and has undertaken a programme of self-education. He aspires to a higher sort of life, such as that personified by Ruth Moore, a college graduate and the daughter of a wealthy family. He works hard to succeed as a writer, and his work reflects the influence of Herbert Spencer's ethical theories. Although his friend Russ Brissenden, a socialist poet, believes in his work, he has no success. When a newspaper calls him a socialist Ruth deserts him. Then one of his books brings him both fame and money. Ruth seeks him out, but he realizes her true nature and turns away from her. He becomes depressed, and Russ's suicide makes matters worse. He grows to despise the society that has finally honoured him, and he commits suicide on a sea voyage.

The Wordsworth Companion to Literature in English (Wordsworth Editions 1994) p. 599.

Noodles shares Martin's aspiration for self-improvement, though Noodles does not work hard at it. For both, this aspiration is motivated by a woman. A further parallel is Noodles'/Martin's melancholy over Max's/Russ's suicide.

In a recent novel, Umberto Eco writes:

Jack London's Martin Eden caught my eye, and I turned mechanically to the last sentence, as if my fingers knew what they would find there. Martin Eden, at the height of his fame, kills himself by slipping out through the porthole of his steamer cabin into the Pacific, and as he feels the water slowly filling his lungs, he gains, in a final glimmer of lucidity, some understanding, maybe of the meaning of life, but "at the instant he knew, he ceased to know."

Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Secker and Warburg 2005), p. 129.

This indicates a slightly different parallel. Martin's final glimmer of understanding is similar to Noodles's in the opium den that ends the film. Does Noodles know, but also cease to know, that Max is not really dead? The final words are similar to a favorite phrase of Leone's: "I say it here, and I deny it here."

Martin Eden is in the public domain and electronic editions are available for free from the Internet Archive. An edition published in 1916 that has the same frontispiece illustration that is in the one that Noodles reads in the film is here.

 


Degas's Dancers

In interviews, Sergio Leone as said that the scene where the young Deborah dances in the backroom of the diner is influenced by Edgar Degas's paintings of ballet dancers.

 
Edgar Degas
Ballet Rehearsal on Stage 1874 Oil on canvas

Edgar Degas
Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer
c. 1881 Bronze, silk, satin ribbon, hair


Email: secretary'at'onceuponatimeinamerica.net