Once Upon a Time in America

Filmed in 1984, Once Upon A Time In America is a epic drama about the rise and fall of Jewish-American gangsters in New York at the beginning of the century through the 1960s. 

In real life, there was a group Jewish gangsters in Williamsburg during the 1920s' lead by the Shapiro brothers that ran afoul of the Brownsville Boys who later became known as Murder Inc. As a whole the Jewish Mob was known as quite vicious - enough so that the Italian Mafia depended on Jewish gangsters to enforce order. Lead by the likes of Kid Twist, Murder Inc. performed mob killings for the Syndicate who controlled the five families of New York City, otherwise known as the Italian Mafia.

In the early 1940s aggressive prosecutors like Thomas Dewey who later became governor of New York, helped bring an end to the terror and criminality of the Jewish Mob.

However during the span of Prohibition, gangsters as a whole enjoyed great economic gain. They seized control of the illegal sale of alcohol and distributed it their 'speakeasies' and gambling parlors.

Although it's a fictional story, Once Upon A Time In America gives us a glimpse of this time in America; gritty urban life, the struggle to preserve traditional values while trying to achieve an often elusive 'American Dream' of fortune and fame. The film also depicts a time when the mob was in control of amny aspects of everyday life; trade union leadership, the New York Waterfront, levels of law enforcement and local government, entertainment and many small businesses.


Please answer the following questions in your journals;

  1. List the differences in what New York City looked like in the film and what the city looks like today. Did you notice anything in particular?

  2. Did you expect to see a movie about Jewish gangsters? Did seeing this change any stereotypes or impressions you had?

  3. Did any of the neighbors filmed in the movie look familiar to you? Which ones?

  4. What did you think about the story being told in so few words?

  5. Max (James Wood) tells the trade union leader (Treat Williams), "This country is still growing up. Certain diseases are better to have when you are young." Considering the title of this movie, would you agree with Max's opinion?

  6. Do you think Moe's Gang are heroes or villains? Did Noodles' (Robert DeNiro) attempted date rape change your mind about his character?

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The failures of Prohibition

Information about Louis Lepke and Murder, Inc.

The relationship between Jewish and Italian Mobs

A amateur critique of Once Upon A Time In America

Review from Internet Movie Datebase

Rotten Tomatoes Review

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