Italian director Sergio Leone never saw the American version of his final film, the 1984 gangster epic "Once Upon a Time in America," starring Robert De Niro.
Leone had already made painful trims in his favored four-hour-plus version to get the running time down to 3 hours and 49 minutes for its presentation at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and for European release. But the nonlinear drama was reedited in chronological order and slashed to just 2 hours and 19 minutes by the studio for its U.S. release. The heavily truncated version was a box-office failure.
(The longer cut was shown in the U.S later that year and has been the version in circulation ever since.)
"He never considered it a version of his movie," said his daughter, Raffaella Leone, by email. "To be able to ruin such a masterpiece, it's a record that, for sure, is better to forget, and of which we hope everyone will forget."
Over the decades, the critics and the film's admirers, including Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, hoped that the epic's missing scenes would be discovered and reconstituted into the film.
Their dream became a reality two years ago when a digitally restored 251-minute version that includes 22 minutes of missing sequences was unveiled at Cannes.
U.S. audiences got their first opportunity to see the extended director's cut last week at the New York Film Festival, and this week Warner Home Entertainment released the Blu-ray and DVD.
"To bring back to the screens that movie in its original version has been very difficult and time consuming," said Leone, a costume assistant on the film and currently co-president with her brother Andrea of the Leone Film Group. The Leone children were involved in the restoration process.
"But finally reaching our goal after so many years has been a huge satisfaction — a homage to my father that was due and that we all strongly wanted. This is the movie that our father showed us when he finished editing 'his' movie."
Leone, who died in 1989 at the age of 60, had redefined the western genre with his "Man With No Name" trilogy (1964's "A Fistful of Dollars," 1965's "For a Few Dollars More" and 1966's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"), the 1968 epic "Once Upon a Time in the West" and his rediscovered 1971 "Duck, You Sucker!"
He brought his unique artistic vision to "Once Upon a Time in America," which was based on "The Hoods," Harry Grey's 1952 novel about Jewish gangsters during the Prohibition.
Weaving back and forth in time from the 1920s through the 1960s, the sumptuous action-thriller revolves around gangster David "Noodles" Aaronson (De Niro) and his friends in crime, including the wily Max (James Woods), operating in a rough Jewish neighborhood of New York's Lower East Side. Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly, Treat Williams and Tuesday Weld are also featured in the film that was shot over nine months in Paris, Italy's Lake Como, New York, Rome, Miami, Venice, New Jersey and Montreal.
The film was restored by Cineteca di Bologna at film laboratory L'Immagine Ritrovata in association with Andrea Leone Films, Scorsese's the Film Foundation and Regency Enterprises, with funding provided by the Film Foundation and Gucci.
The restoration was an international affair. The original 35-mm negative, conserved in the archives at 20th Century Fox, was scanned at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging and sent to L'Immagine Ritrovata, which handled the frame-by-frame digital restoration.
Scorsese's own personal print, which was conserved at the Museum of Modern Art, was used as a reference for the color correction that was "respectful to the original look of the film," according to L'Immagine Ritrovata director Davide Pozzi.
The most complicated aspect of the restoration was re-incorporating the missing scenes. The original negative of these sequences no longer exists. So the Leone family, said Pozzi, gave them "cans with small reels — not a complete print — containing the cuts."
Among the sequences reinstated is Louise Fletcher's chilling cameo as a mysterious cemetery director who encounters the elderly Noodles in 1968.
"It's fascinating to see it," said Pozzi.