Then, after years in the wilderness, Leone got to make his gangster film. The story of two star-crossed shtarkes (Robert De Niro and James Woods) rising from the gutters of Jewish Williamsburg to rag-trade racketeering and the lavish splendor of a palatial speakeasy above Fat Moe's Deli, Once Upon a Time in America (1984) is brutal, inventive, and daringly cerebral. Closer in mood to Coleridge's Kubla Khan than to Coppola's Godfather, it made for a stunning swan song.
Beginning with a mystery and ending in an opium den, Once Upon a Time in America hopscotches from 1933 to 1968 to 1921 back to 1968. All is vanity peplum grandiosity, spaghetti western savagery, the so-called American dream. It's not Leone's greatest movie, but who else could have conceived an action flick in the form of a reverie? The brute delicacy with which the resurrected artist took leave of his medium was the greatest miracle of all.
Once Upon A Time: The Films of Sergio Leone at the American Museum of the Moving Image, 35th Ave and 36th St, Astoria, 718-784-0077, Aug 21 through Sept 5.