New Perfume Review Vero Profumo Rozy Extrait de Parfum- The Pensive One

One of the things that makes independent perfumer Vero Kern so interesting is that she releases three different versions of each of her perfumes. What is special about this way of composing perfume is it is very similar to a visual artist or musician doing variations on a theme. If you have the skill you can give the person an experience with similar signposts but a different destination.

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Anna Magnani

Last year Ms. Kern released the Eau de Parfum and Voile D’Extrait versions of Rozy. Her muse for this perfume was Italian neorealist actress Anna Magnani. The Eau de Parfum was an intense version befitting the screen persona of Sig.ra Magnani. The Voile D’Extrait was the opposite as it captured a joyous explosion of an intelligent woman laughing. I thought the Voile D’Extrait was the best perfume I tried in all of 2014. When I attended Esxence I met with Ms. Kern and she pressed into my hand the final version of Rozy the Extrait de Parfum.

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Vero Kern

I have to admit I think Rozy Voile D’Extrait is such an amazing piece of perfumery it was difficult to start my process of getting to know Rozy Extrait de Parfum. If I am going to continue with my version of the olfactory Three Faces of Anna the Extrait de Parfum is the pensive one. This is a perfume which is full of complicated interiors. As I would wear it and follow one set of notes to another I often found myself taking a very different path as it seemingly changed its internal architecture like an Escher lithograph. Nothing exemplifies this more than the supporting amount of tuberose she uses in the heart. As I am continually circling the central rose a bit of indolic funk would cause my focus to waver. Drawing me in a different direction. There were days where I felt the tuberose was a figment of my imagination. There were other days it let me catch it and enjoy the skanky rose accord it formed. The entire Extrait de Parfum has pleasures like this to discover.

The Extrait de Parfum opens on the same notes that the Voile D’Extrait does but instead of bursting to life this time they are kept deeper and more focused. That means the peach and cassis, leavened with a bit of melon provide a core from which the central rose can flower upon. The peach in particular stays around a little bit longer and it provides a rich fruity contrast to the rose. Honey again provides texture but as less of a provocateur and more of an enabler for the rose. It is during this part of the development that the indoles played mind games with me. This all closes out with sandalwood, labdanum, and vanilla providing a final destination after a variable trip.

Rozy Extrait de Parfum has 14-16 hour longevity and very modest sillage.

I have been home from Milan for almost six weeks and I’ve spent at least one day a week examining Rozy Extrait de Parfum. I finally had to write all of this down because I feel that I will never cease discovering something new each time I wear it. There are very few perfumes which reward this kind of scrutiny. That Ms. Kern has finished off what is probably her strongest set of fragrances with this perfumed brain teaser is why I consider her one of the very best perfumers working in the world right now.

Disclosure: this review was based on a sample provided by Vero Profumo.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Atelier Cologne Oud Saphir- Never Say Never Again

I grew up on the James Bond films. I’m pretty sure there was a time in my adolescence I believed I could be James Bond. Throughout the 1960’s there was only one James Bond, Sean Connery. Mr. Connery did the first five 007 movies. Then he quit for 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” only to return to do 1971’s “Diamonds are Forever”. After that movie was released he said emphatically that he would never play James Bond again. Until he did in 1983’s “Never Say Never Again”. One should always be careful about using the word never especially when speaking to people who will record those things. Certainly Sylvie Ganter-Cervasel co-owner and creative director at Atelier Cologne probably regrets the time she told me there would “never” be an oud perfume at Atelier Cologne.

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Sylvie Ganter-Cervasel and Christophe Cervasel

That assertion was made in the very earliest days of Atelier Cologne’s existence. One of the things I’ve admired about Mme Ganter-Cervasel and her partner in life, and business, Christophe Cervasel is the consistently evolving vision which has become a brand characteristic. Two years ago one of those evolutions was the creation of the Collection Metal. The idea was to work with rare materials and again re-define what it means to call something a “cologne”. It is only natural that an oud perfume fits in with this definition. The newest release is just that, Oud Saphir. If the brand has been ever-creating itself one thing which has remained a constant are the perfumers who create for Mme Ganter-Cervasel. Ever since the original five releases they have only used two. For this “never” perfumer Jerome Epinette signs his 15th perfume in the Atelier Cologne collection.

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Oud Saphir opens with the slightly twilight kind of citrus opening which has become a hallmark of the Collection Metal. In this case bergamot is given depth with ambrette and bite with pink pepper. It is shaded beautifully by M. Epinette as it sets you up for a deeper cologne experience than normal. Jasmine cut with the metallic green of violet leaves come next and they are placed on a plush leather accord. M.Epinette uses one of the most transparent leather accords I regularly experience and in Oud Saphir it is just the right amount of heft to support and not overwhelm the jasmine. This transitions into a base where M. Epinette wisely chooses to use an oud accord instead of the real thing. Honestly this is more the norm than not. In the case of trying to form a cologne around oud too much of the real stuff would have trampled this construction underfoot. By using an accord M. Epinette was able to again find the appropriate shading of oud to match the volume of the rest of the development. A bit of birch wood provides some of the more characteristic rough edges of oud without being oud. It all finishes with a light flight of vanilla over all of it.

Oud Saphir has 12-14 hour longevity and above average sillage.

As I wore Oud Saphir I started to realize it had some connection to my James Bond analogy. Oud Saphir is the most formal of the Atelier Cologne creations to date. When I’m looking at the perfume vault for something to wear underneath my tux during gala season I never even think about one of the Atelier Colognes. Oud Saphir has now filled this gap as I can definitely see myself wearing this under my formal wear, sipping a martini as I scan the crowd for enemy agents. I am very pleased that “never” has turned into Oud Saphir it is everything Atelier Cologne stands for.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Atelier Cologne.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Farewell to David Letterman

I am the person late-night television talk shows were invented for. For most of my adult life I have ended my day by watching one of the late-night shows. It is my way of putting my mind into neutral prior to going to sleep. This habit began in graduate school for me. After working in the lab for 16-18 hours I desperately needed something to help me shut down. Back in 1982 that dose of necessary laughter came courtesy of a show called “Late Night with David Letterman”. For the last thirty-three years Dave has been a near constant in my daily life. In a few days that will all come to an end when he broadcasts his final show on May 20, 2015.

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David Letterman

As I’ve watched the final shows I have been reminded of how many people got their start through being on Dave’s stage. Many of the biggest stars of the last thirty years have warmly reminded Dave of his importance to them. What is great about Dave is you can tell it makes him uncomfortable to hear the praise. He deflects and diminishes his role as talent scout but it exists. The emotion of the people who have shown up as the show winds down is testament to that. It is that reluctance to take credit for his influence which is what has always made Dave so appealing to me as a viewer. I always felt like he considered his whole career a mistake which someone would eventually become aware of and take it all away.

In the early days that attitude would allow him to go for unusual laughs when he was doing Late Night with David Letterman at 12:30 AM. He knew the audience awake at that time might want something different and he delivered that. For me I can pinpoint the exact moment Dave became important to me. It was December 19, 1984.

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I was working hard to finish my degree and I wanted to head home for the Holidays with a key reaction done leaving me only the final steps. Instead because of my impatience I pushed too far, too fast, and lost weeks of work. Happy Freaking Holidays! I was mad at myself, mad at the world, mad at everything. I sat down sullenly on top of my bean-bag chair and switched on Dave. What I was greeted with was instead of the traditional Late Night opening a logo which said this was “Christmas with the Lettermans”. Over the course of the episode everything about the typical Christmas television special was destroyed via comedy.

We met Dave’s fake family including his wife, their three kids, and Dave’s older brother Darryl. The only girl in the family is the “princess” who gets everything she asks for. The youngest son in a running gag, per family tradition, has to go procure the family Christmas tree. In the middle of the cold December night in New York City. It doesn’t go well. There were two guests as well, Pat Boone and Brother Theodore. Pat Boone came on to promote his own Christmas special airing in a couple of days. For much of the time he was being interviewed it was difficult to figure out if Mr. Boone was in on the joke. It wasn’t until later when he sets Dave up by asking him what Christmas means to him that you knew he was in on it. Dave gets up and has an internal reverie with himself. The kind that usually leads to the star of the show discovering the true meaning of the holiday. Not here. Dave’s stream of consciousness leaves him standing under the office mistletoe hoping for someone to walk by. Dave’s bandleader Paul Shaffer has to remind him his “family” is back in the studio, in the dark. It was this that turned my mood around. I was standing under my own mistletoe hoping for some action while forgetting what was left behind in the dark. While laughing I was also getting much needed therapy.

Dave has been my guy from the beginning. I disliked Jay Leno because, rightly or wrongly, I felt he stole The Tonight Show from Dave. I think we are in a golden era of late night television with the two Jimmys, Conan, Seth, and James all providing that final bit of distraction before closing your eyes. For the next few nights I’m going to enjoy the man who made those guys' shows possible. Thanks Dave, I’m really going to miss you.

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Dana Valor- My Heritage Brand

Over the last couple of years we have seen a number of older, mostly French, perfume houses be revived. These have been called heritage brands. Certainly every brand that existed in the early part of the 20th century is part of the heritage of perfumery. When it comes to my heritage the roots of my love of perfume come from what my father wore, Dana English Leather. If you speak to almost any baby boomer about what fragrance their father wore English Leather would be mentioned a lot. For me it defines a certain particular American aesthetic in the post-war years.

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After 2007 it seemed like Dana had stopped making new fragrances. The tentpole perfumes which created the brand still were available but it seemed like management had thrown in the towel as far as being competitive. Even I had forgotten they existed. Then I saw the list of this years Fragrance Foundation nominees and in the category Fragrance of the Year Men’s Popular there was listed Dana Valor. I wanted to find out more. As luck would have it I met Terrence Moorehead the CEO of Dana at the Fragrance Foundation Finalists breakfast. After speaking with him I really got the sense of a man who wants to make Dana a player in their sector of the market. I was given a sample of Valor and I was hopeful it would be good. It’s not only good it feels relevant.

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Carlos Vinals

Perfumer Carlos Vinals was the man behind Valor. The brief was to make a fragrance which “celebrate(s) our troops and champion(s) the American dream for a new generation.” Mr. Vinals decided a slightly boozy citrus Oriental composition would fit the bill.

The early moments of Valor have some similarity to the early moments of English Leather as lemon, bergamot and lavender are up front for both. Mr. Vinals makes sure to take a quick left turn away from too much similarity and to that end he adds a crisp green pear to it. It adds some sharper lines around the citrus and makes it pop a little more. As we move into the heart a swoosh of cardamom leads into a bourbon accord. This is not a full on alcoholic haze, it is much lighter in feel. It has the bite of a good bourbon without leaving teeth marks. The lavender remains and this mixture of the cardamom, and bourbon with it is quite enjoyable. Valor heads into a typical Oriental finish with patchouli, amber, cashmeran, and vanilla combining to create a warmly bolstering foundation.

Valor has 12-14 hour longevity and above average sillage.

When speaking with Mr. Moorehead I know there is more to come from Dana. Valor is a great first step at putting a quintessential American perfume brand back on every perfume lover’s radar.

Disclosure: this review was based on sample of Valor provided by Dana Beauty.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Brecourt Off to Ibiza- Simply Good Fruity Floral

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Regular readers know that if there is one category of fragrance I have the most difficult time appreciating it is fruity floral. My biggest issue is that the fruit and the florals are usually layered with all the finesse of a jackhammer. They tend to meld into a syrupy sweet mess that I just find irritating. The ones that work for me are perfumes which accentuate fruit or floral and let the other support the leader. One member of this class of fragrance which has done this recently has been Brecourt Off to Ibiza.

Brecourt is the line founded by Emilie Bouge in 2010. Mme Bouge’s grandparents ran a perfume business in Grasse but would eventually close it down before she could continue. Mme Bouge would make her return to the family perfumery business with the founding of Brecourt. There are fifteen fragrances in the line and they cover an impressive spread of styles. All of them have been composed by Mme Bouge. In her bio on the website she mentions that she is looking to create a fragrance with contours. I have enjoyed the shapes of many of her earlier releases with the deep darkness of Farah my favorite. Off to Ibiza is the complete opposite of that perfume. Mme Bouge wants to create a bit of happy fun in a bottle capturing that anticipation as one prepares for a trip to Ibiza.

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Emilie Bouge

Off to Ibiza opens with the fruit as raspberry and watermelon act their roles. Mme Bouge keeps them on the light side. She also captures some of the watery nature of the watermelon with a bit of an aquatic accord. That aquatic accord provides the interstitial tissue to bridge to the single floral in Off to Ibiza, peony. Peony is not used nearly enough in perfumery. What Mme Bouge does with it in this fragrance makes me wonder why. Peony has a dewy floralcy similar to rose de mai. It also has a simplicity to it which also appeals as its fragrance manages to be enticing and buoyant. The peony in Off to Ibiza picks up on both the watermelon and the aquatic accord to combine into a larger accord that feels beachy to me. It all ends with a wash of white musks and sandalwood for a clean finish.

Off to Ibiza has 8-10 hour longevity and above average sillage.

I really was surprised at how much I liked Off to Ibiza. I think it is because Mme Bouge keeps it extremely simple but uses some less used members of the fruity floral fragrance community. It all adss up to a very pleasant olfactory trip.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Campomarzio 70.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Orlov Paris Star of the Season- Dominique’s Diamond

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When I got to Esxence this year there were a couple of new lines which were high on my list to try. I am usually drawn to these new brands because of the perfumer they are working with. In the case of the new Orlov Paris line that was the case. Dominique Ropion is one of my favorite perfumers especially when he is working for a niche brand. Orlov Paris was premiering five new perfumes by M. Ropion at Esxence. I think the collection as a whole is very strong but there is one which I just couldn’t wait to spend some more time with, Star of the Season.

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Star of the Season Diamond

Each of the perfumes in the Orlov Paris collection is based on a famous diamond which is also the name of each perfume. The diamond Star of the Season is a 100.10 carat diamond which was bought for a record price of $16,548,750 at auction in 1995. That is still the world-record for the highest amount paid for a single piece of jewelry at auction. When I think of diamonds I think of brilliance and sparkle. When I look at the picture of the Star of the Season above I see something which has mutable shades of blue much the way the ocean changes color in relation to the sky. I think M. Ropion looked at this diamond and also saw the deep violet color captured within and decided to make a crystalline iris perfume. I find Star of the Season to be sort of like gazing into a huge cut diamond and each day I wore it I was drawn by different facets and nuances as I allowed the olfactory brilliance to draw me in.

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Dominique Ropion

Star of the Season opens on a bold rose note as a sort of traditional harbinger of luxury. This is a dewy pure rose with the spicy core kept deep in the background. The orris comes next and it is a rich rooty iris. This also has its more common powdery elements dialed way back. It is earthier and M. Ropion adds patchouli to keep it tilted that way. Over time the earthy qualities fade and just the iris remains in all of its glory. It has a shine to it like it is those violet colors diffused through its namesake jewel. There is a quality of being captured in a crystal lattice which is what has made Star of the Season stand out for me. This all eventually settles onto a base of creamy sandalwood and warm vanilla.

Star of the Season has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

As he has done with all of the perfumes in the debut collection for Orlov Paris M. Ropion has discovered shades of brilliance to display. Star of the Season is the deepest of those shades and perhaps that is why it has captured so much of my initial enthusiasm. I can easily say that Star of the Season is the star of the inaugural Orlov Paris collection.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Orlov Paris at Esxence.

Mark Behnke

Editor’s Note: Orlov Paris will be available starting in July 2015. For those attending the upcoming Sniffapalooza Spring Fling. Orlov Paris is going to exclusively debut the collection at a champagne, caviar, and perfume reception on the evening of Saturday May 16 at the end of day one of Spring Fling.

Dead Letter Office: Salvador Dali Le Roy Soleil- Two Great Minds, One Lost Perfume

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In previous entries of this series I’ve told the story of perfumes which have failed because they couldn’t find their audience. This time I’m going to tell you about a perfume which had two opportunities separated by 50 years to try and find its audience. That it was the product of two of our greatest creative minds, Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali, makes it all the more noteworthy.

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Le Roy Soleil c.1947

The story of the perfume called Le Roy Soleil starts in 1947 as Mme Schiaparelli wanted to celebrate the end of World War II with a perfume which paid homage to Louis XIV. For the bottle she turned to her collaborator of over ten years, Salvador Dali. As you can see in the picture above the bottle was housed in a hinged seashell which contained a bottle topped with a sun containing a face etched onto it. This was released in a limited edition of 2000. The bottle was produced by Baccarat. It will surprise nobody that the bottle has become one of the most desired for perfume collectors. The disappointing part of all of this is the perfume inside the bottle is an afterthought. I can find no record of the perfumer who worked on it. It is described as “luxurious”, “regal”, and “devastating”. I did buy some of the juice in a 1946 bottle from the person who won an auction for it. It had clearly been exposed to the air and sunlight too long as all that remained was a muzzy vanilla and musk.

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Fifty years later, in 1997, the perfume line which carried M. Dali’s name announced the release of Le Roy Soleil. According to the press release it was based on the original as re-interpreted by perfumer Philippe Romano. This is the version I first experienced. Le Roy Soleil in 1997 was all about pineapple in the early going. M. Romano could have tried to show some restraint but instead he turned the top notes into a fruit fiesta as papaya, apricot, and lemon join the party. These top notes reflect the incredible brilliance of those fruits exploding to life. To turn down the sunshine cinnamon and clove grab ahold of it and shade it a tiny bit. Rose and jasmine add a bit of different shading. Pineapple is one of those odd perfume notes which is far too easy to make syrupy and overwhelming. M. Romano finds a way to avoid that making it light and bright. The base notes are a set of transparent musks over vanilla and sandalwood. This part shares some similarity to what I smelled in the 1947 spoiled sample.

Le Roy Soleil has 8-10 hour longevity and prodigious sillage.

Why did the 1997 version fail? I was unable to find a reason in my research. It definitely wasn’t because the packaging wasn’t spectacular as you can see the 1997 bottle was also quite beautiful. I am going to speculate it is the pineapple which typical consumers don’t appreciate as much as I do. If I ever tried to make a list of top 10 pineapple perfumes ever I think I’d struggle mightily to fill that list up. It isn’t even the aesthetic as Le Roi Soleil Homme released a year later is still in production. As hard as it may be to believe Mme Schiaparelli and M. Dali couldn’t quite shake up the perfume world in the same way they did the fashion world.

Disclosure: This review based on a bottle of 1997 Le Roi Soleil I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Providence Perfume Co. Provanilla- Castaway Vanilla

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There is a group of independent perfumers who I adore for their ability to poke and prod at the common perfume tropes. Natural perfumer Charna Ethier of Providence Perfume Co. is one of those unafraid to take the banal and try to make it something less so. I have to admit I forgot this when I opened my package from her with her latest release in it. As I finally revealed my sample from within its bubble-wrapped cocoon the name, Provanilla, made me groan a little inside.

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Charna Ethier

Vanilla is low on my list of favorite featured notes because it is used so often in such an obvious way. It is either the sweet confectionary type. Or the evocation of the vanilla orchid carrying a more floral sweetness tinged with green. It has the ability to overwhelm anything around it and that’s what turns it boring. That was my frame of mind as I sprayed a bit of Provanilla onto a strip. That’s when I was reminded not of the hundreds of boring vanilla perfumes out there but Ms. Ethier’s skill at bringing me around to seeing something new.

Provanilla is a mix of five different sources of natural vanilla which provide the spine of Provanilla. What Ms. Ethier does is to tie up her five vanillas and throw then overboard to wash up on an isolated tropical island. The two components which create the Cast Away vibe are coconut pulp and a melon-based aquatic accord. Provanilla is a fantastic example of Ms. Ethier’s adventurous aesthetic.

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Provanilla opens with the rich mix of the five sources of vanilla. This is a unique blend of vanilla because Ms. Ethier uses her own vanilla tincture to bind the vanillas she is using together. It makes it different but it is still vanilla. It is the melon-based aquatic accord which completely transforms Provanilla. It adds an incredible watery quality to everything. The vanilla accord bobs along on top of the water and once it finds shore it lands on top of a lovely bunch of coconuts. More specifically the pulp of the coconut which provides both complement and contrast to the central vanilla. The watery aquatic accord is still here too. I loved this tropical watery vanilla and it wears so easily without being uninteresting. Only in the base do things return to a sense of normalcy as eventually myrrh and balsam provide the base notes.

Provanilla has 6-8 hour longevity and very slight sillage.

I don’t know how many times it will take for Ms. Ethier to show me something different from that which I think I know well. Provanilla has perhaps provided the strongest proof yet of Ms. Ethier’s ability to completely change my thinking about a note.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Providence Perfume Co.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Le Galion Vetyver- A Reflection of the Past

One of my favorite discoveries at Esxence in 2014 was the revival of the Le Galion line of perfumes. Owner Nicolas Chabot has done an amazing job of restoring these perfumes to life so a new generation of perfume lovers can discover them. The perfumer who was behind the original Le Galion was Paul Vacher. M. Vacher is one of those ghosts from the time when perfumers were not spoken of. Once he formed Le Galion he was no longer quite as hidden. Le Galion eventually went out of business. Until a couple of years ago when M. Chabot stepped in. Last year at Esxence he premiered nine perfumes, all re-interpretations of M. Vacher’s originals. They were one of the most buzzed about brands at Esxence in 2014. Which made me wonder what the follow-up would be.

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Nicolas Chabot (Photo: Sylvie Mafray)

The answer is six new releases, five of which are brand new creations. As it was a year ago I was very impressed with the continued evolution of the Le Galion brand. I will be reviewing all of the new perfumes over the next few weeks but before heading into the new there was one last nod to the past, 1968’s Vetyver.

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Thomas Fontaine

M. Chabot’s partner for much of this olfactory architectural restoration has been perfumer Thomas Fontaine. M. Fontaine is becoming the best modern perfumer at finding a way to use contemporary materials to retain the feel of the past which is what he does very well with his re-work of Vetyver.

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Vetyver was definitely a product of its time. When I entered the booth at Esxence this year the poster above greeted me on one wall. The very 60’s woman holding a pistol and a bottle of Vetyver are like a visual time capsule. Vetyver thankfully is not as mired in the past. It does have a bit of that Austin Powers-like Shagadelic vibe very early on. As it develops the 60’s get left behind especially when Vetyver moves into the middle and end phases of development.  

The early moments of Vetyver are like an homage to the classic men’s powerhouse fragrances of the 60’s and 70’s as bergamot and mandarin are blended with nutmeg and coriander. The opening moments of Vetyver will remind you a lot of those perfumes. It has such a strong evocation of the time that I was worried the rest would feel as dated. Instead it uses the same ingredients which might have made up the next phase of those dated fragrances and instead re-balances them for a much different effect. Petitgrain, verbena, and lavender were also normal running partners to spicy citrus openings. M. Fonatine takes those ingredients and instead of ramping up the intensity into a knockout punch he turns it into a caress. The lavender forms the first light touch with tarragon and clary sage used to accentuate the herbal nature. Verbena is also kept feather light and is bolstered slightly by a precise amount of petitgrain to accentuate the lemon nature. This all leads to one of the more interesting appearances of vetiver I’ve tried recently. M. Fontaine brings the vetiver forward and allows it to have the next part of the development to itself. With a grouping of notes only slightly more intense than the ones used in the heart he shades Vetyver darker but more twilight than midnight. Sandalwood and tonka bean provide some depth and sweetness. Musks go for that slightly earthy effect that goes so well with vetiver as a note.

Vetyver has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

Vetyver is a good example of the care M. Chabot and M. Fontaine have taken in updating M. Vacher’s perfumes into the 21st century. As I wore Vetyver over these first few warm days I noticed how different it was than many of my other vetiver fragrances. This speaks volumes about how to effectively bring the past into the present. Le Galion has done that extremely well.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Le Galion at Esxence 2015.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Once Upon a Time in America

Back in 1984 I had started my first job and like many I was very excited to buy this new technological advance the VCR. For me it opened up an opportunity to see some movies I had not seen. What was also cool about that time was the stores that rented videos were often run by people who were also passionate about movies. I had one of those kind of stores I used in those early days of home video. When I would walk in after work the owner, Stephane, would happily show me what he thought was worth checking out from the new releases. This day he held up a title I recognized, “Once Upon a Time in America” by director Sergio Leone. I started waving my hand saying I had seen it in the theatre and it sucked. He smiled and said you haven’t seen this version. As I focused on the box I saw the words “extended cut”. Stephane told me that this was the real version of the movie and it was amazing. I trusted him so I took it home expecting to be ejecting it in a few minutes. Instead I was introduced to one of my all-time favorite movies and one I would place on a personal top 10 of best movies ever. How did it go from “sucked” to Top 10? That’s a story of moviemaking back in the 1980’s.

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Sergio Leone is best known as the director of the so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” shot in Italy using the Mediterranean countryside as a stand-in for the American West. The movies starred Clint Eastwood and together form a version of the Western where our hero was as far removed from the upright honor of any Western character played by John Wayne as could be. What these movies did portray was a sort of rogue’s honor. These deeply flawed heroes had their own, verging on nihilistic, code that they adhered to. After his last release in 1971 he seemingly had stopped making movies. Then I had read he was doing a movie about Prohibition-era gangsters starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. I was there opening weekend. I walked out of the theatre wondering if Mr. Leone was losing his mind as the movie made no sense. Characters showed up out of nowhere. Others did things without seeming motivation. I just knew what I had hoped would be awesome, sucked.

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Robert De Niro

Once Upon a Time in America premiered at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. Once the lights came up it received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the festival goers. That version was 229 minutes long. The American distributor The Ladd Company was concerned that the length of the movie would limit its box office potential. Because they had the right to edit the film for American release they removed 90 minutes reducing the running length down to 139 minutes. Imagine any movie you like having a third of it removed by, in essence, accountants. Of course that version sucked.

By the time I was putting in the first of two cassettes in my VCR at home I had the 229-minute version. I had a cinematic marvel which drew me in and has never let go. The longer version takes you through the childhood of petty criminals Max (James Woods) and Noodles (Robert De Niro). The entire first act is played by child actors and shows how this rogue’s honor is formed. As Prohibition arrives these now young men, and played by Mr. Woods and Mr. De Niro, build an empire based on their speakeasy. They gain more and more influence and power but can never really attain the things they want most. When Prohibition ends, their empire starts to crumble and this time they are not quick enough to adapt. A tragedy happens causing Noodles to flee the country. He returns as an old man in 1968 because he received a letter which seemed to know more about him than anyone should. He returns to his old neighborhood to figure out what happened.

JamesWoods2CTA

James Woods

This is a movie dense with visual motifs foreshadowing much of the movie’s plot. Many of the scenes which have the most impact are when these amoral men try to become what they perceive as civilized only to revert to their amorality. Mr. Leone was unflinching in the way he portrayed some of these scenes they are difficult to watch and brutal. Because the characters are portrayed so vividly you feel the attempt to reach out for something more only to fail. In the final act Noodles explains to the man who brought him back the code he lived his life by and why he wouldn’t do what was being asked of him. Even at the end the rogue’s honor code was the only way he could live his life.

I’ve been purposefully vague about the plot because there are a lot of wonderfully crafted plot turns which should be experienced upon viewing.

I would say the performances by Mr. Woods and Mr. De Niro rank among the very best of their career. In the longer version there is nothing out of place. Last year for the 30th Anniversary of the release of the film an additional 22-minutes were added and this was supposedly the version Mr. Leone had wanted to release. If you like great moviemaking “Once Upon a Time in America” should be in your video queue.

Mark Behnke