Once Upon a Time In America appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Most of the image looked pretty good, though the addition of poorly “restored” footage hurt the end product.
I’ll look at the “original” footage first, as those pieces dominated the movie. Sharpness was positive. Only a smidgen of softness appeared, as the film remained tight and well-defined most of the time. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, and I witnessed no signs of edge enhancement. Source flaws were mostly absent; I saw a gate hair but not much else.
As one often finds in period flicks like America, the palette tended toward a sepia tint much of the time. Within those dimensions, the colors looked fine; they didn’t stand out but they seemed positive. Black levels also seemed deep and tight, while low-light shots appeared clean and accurate.
If the whole transfer looked like the material from the original film, this’d be at least a “B+” image. However, the added 22 minutes seemed so ugly that they dragged down my overall grade to a “C+”. The additional footage was VHS quality – and bad VHS, at that, as these seemed soft and fuzzy. These sequences also showed pale, green colors. The extra shots failed to integrate in a smooth manner and became an active distraction.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of Once Upon a Time In America seemed pretty mediocre. Essentially the soundfield offered glorified mono. Most of the film remained heavily anchored in the front center, though a few occasions broadened the mix moderately. For example, scenes in the speakeasy displayed decent general ambience, and various vehicles moved across the spectrum to a mild degree.
Music also featured light spread to the sides, though stereo delineation remained weak. Surround usage appeared spare at best, as I couldn’t discern a single instance of noticeable activity from the rear speakers.
I didn’t really mind the restricted scope of the soundfield, mostly due to the movie’s age; to be sure, many flicks from 1984 featured Dolby Surround audio, but it wasn’t quite the given it is today. Unfortunately, America lost some points due to the quality of the audio. Speech remained intelligible and reasonably concise; a bit of edginess occurred, but not enough to harm the track severely. I noticed some poor looping but that also wasn’t a substantial problem.
Music could favor low-end a little too much, but that side of things was usually fine. Highs were pretty crisp and clear, and the score was generally vivid. At times, effects showed some distortion, but those instances didn’t become problematic. The effects demonstrated their age but seemed fine for the most part. Nothing about this track excelled, but it was adequate given its vintage.
Though the audio for the restored sequences didn’t match with the original sound, those moments didn’t distract as much as the poor visuals did. In these sequences, the audio could be distant and thin, but given the limited scope of the original soundtrack, these elements matched a bit better. Or maybe I was just so distracted by the awful visuals that I didn’t feel as bothered by the audio – whatever the case, the extra 22 minutes provide bland sound but not to a fatal degree.
How does this 2014 Blu-ray compare to the a 2011 Blu-ray? Audio was identical except for during those added 22 minutes. The iffy quality of the extra footage impacted overall quality but not to a substantial degree.
The poor visuals found in the extra 22 minutes became the biggest problem with the 2014 BD’s image, but that wasn’t the only change from the 2011 disc. The movie got a new 4K scan – and a slightly changed palette. While the 2011 image favored amber/sepia at times, these tints more clearly dominate the 2014 presentation, and other hues became less dynamic. These alterations weren’t radical, but they gave the 2014 version a more restricted palette.
On the other hand, the 2014 disc offered superior definition. I saw mild softness at times during the 2011 presentation, but those elements tightened up for the 2014 release. The 2014 disc offered better sharpness but came with altered colors, so it was a wash.
Fans can decide choose which version to watch, as the two-disc package includes both the theatrical edition (3:49:19) and the new Extended Director’s Cut (4:11:09). Personally, I’d recommend the shorter film. While the longer one comes with better sharpness, I like the more natural palette of the 229-minute edition and prefer the absence of the added footage. Not only do the extra scenes look terrible, but also they don’t contribute important story/character information. The 229-minute cut remains the stronger one.
Alongside the film’s theatrical cut, we get an audio commentary from Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel. He provides a running, screen-specific piece. Schickel’s commentaries tend to be erratic, but this was one of his better discussions.
Overall, Schickel offers a nice exploration of the movie. He gives us some background for the flick and its director, and he attempts to explain a few changes from the original novel, though he never read it, which limits his ability in that vein.
Schickel provides some useful interpretation and character analysis as well. At times, he does little more than narrate the flick or simply praise it, and the commentary drags on occasion. In general, though, Schickel tells us a lot of useful material and makes this a worthwhile listen.
Somebody make sure Paul McCartney doesn’t hear the commentary, though. The ex-Beatle always worries that his former songwriting partner has overshadowed him, so McCartney clearly wouldn’t be happy to hear Schickel incorrectly refer to “Yesterday” as a John Lennon tune.
In addition to two trailers, we find piece of a documentary called Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone. This 19-minute, 36-second segment features clips from America along with archival materials and interviews with Carla Leone, Raffaella Leone, Francesca Leone, Quentin Tarantino, writers Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Leo Benvenuti and Stuart Kaminsky, producer Arnon Milchan, and actors Scott Tiler, James Woods, and James Coburn.
Because it includes bits and pieces of a longer program, “Time” occasionally seems a little fragmented. However, it usually goes acceptably smoothly. It gives us some information about Leone’s early interest in The Hoods, the development of the script, the making of the flick, the edited US version, and its reception. We also hear a bit about Leone’s death and his legacy. The best moments come from some plot reflections offered by Woods. A few other good notes appear as well, but “Time” suffers somewhat because it occasionally feels more like a eulogy than a documentary.
Odd note: the “Leone” featurette appears on both discs on this set. Also oddly, it runs two seconds shorter on the theatrical disc than it does on the Extended Director’s Cut platter. The former throws in one of the two trailers found on the EDC disc as well.
Finally, the package includes a hardcover book. It features a Martin Scorsese-penned letter about Sergio Leone as well as text about the film, biographies and photos/art connected to the movie. It delivers a useful little piece.
Not much appreciated in its day, Once Upon a Time In America has garnered much higher status in the years since then. Personally, I think the movie has its moments and seems generally interesting, but it falls far short of honest greatness. The “Extended Director’s Cut” is the inferior version of the film with a weaker visual./auditory presentation.
Happily, this package includes the original edition as well, so it becomes the best Blu-ray for fans to get, as it lets them choose which cut they prefer. Fans who already own the original Blu-ray will probably want to pass on the Extended Director’s Cut, though, as I don’t think it merits purchase on its own.
To rate this film, visit the Special Edition review of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA