The Sunday Magazine: Le Tour de France

Every July since 1986 I look forward to the yearly running of the bicycle race known as Le Tour de France. Every year some of the greatest athletes in the world race for a little over three weeks riding throughout France. In even numbered years the riders travel the country in a clockwise fashion and in odd numbered years they go counterclockwise. The race is composed of twenty-one daily challenges called stages. The rider who arrives in Paris in the fastest time is the winner. Throughout the race the riders will ride by themselves in an individual race against the clock called a time trial. They ride up the side of impossible mountains in the Pyrenees and Alps with names like the Col de Tourmalet or L’Alpe D’Huez. They spend days riding over one hundred miles. No matter what today’s challenge is tomorrow presents a new one.


What sounds like it is an individual sport is actually an incredibly orchestrated team sport. Every rider who is in contention to win Le Tour is supported by eight other riders. Throughout the race these teammates bear the burden of chasing down riders from other teams if it seems like they are getting too far ahead. They pace their leader up the most severe climbs. At the end of a stage where there is a mad dash for the finish the best teams will co-ordinate to spring their leader free to sprint to the finish line. I have attended a few professional cycling events and I remember seeing this happen over the last half a kilometer as three teams had formed at the head of the pack, also called the peloton, and like the gates opening at a horse race three riders sprung from the crowd to battle for the finish line.


Greg LeMond receiving the Le Tour de France Winner's Trophy

Like most Americans my interest in Le Tour coincided with the rise of the first great American cyclist Greg LeMond. He had gone where no American rider had gone before joining the powerhouse, think Yankees, team Le Vie Claire where he was being groomed to succeed French legendary rider Bernard Hinault, nicknamed The Cannibal, for his ferocious competitiveness. In 1984 LeMond was supposed to support Hinault’s attempt to win a fifth Tour de France. It was clear throughout that race LeMond was the better rider but he buried his ambition with the tacit agreement next year Hinault would return the favor. The 1985 race was a soap opera of Lemond and Hinault vying for leadership of the strongest cycling team in the world. It wouldn’t be until two-thirds of the way through the race that LeMond would finally put Hinault behind him in terms of team leadership and the standings. That day he became the first American to wear the yellow jersey signifying the leader of the race. He would wear yellow all the way to the final finish line.

Back in 1984 it was difficult to follow the happenings in France. In 2015 there are so many ways for me to keep up it is facile to find out what is going on. There is now live coverage on American television. The official Le Tour website gives real-time updates throughout the race day. For the next month perfume gets shunted to being my second favorite French thing as Le Tour moves to the top for July.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Late Late Show with James Corden

If you haven’t figured it out previously it is obvious that I stay up way too late with the television on. The subject of late-night television might be the thing I’ve written most about for this particular column. As one who has enjoyed the form and the energy different hosts bring to their specific efforts we are currently in the midst of a seismic shift in the late-night landscape. By September 2015 only one of the major late-night shows, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live, will have the same host they had on September 2010. I have really been enjoying the way the shifting of the shows has changed the energy.

As I’ve written before the kind of hosts like David Letterman and Craig Ferguson who actively made fun of the genre have been my favorites. With both gone I was wondering if there would be one who replaced that style. I think the answer is the man who replaced Mr. Ferguson with The Late Late Show with James Corden.


Mariah Carey and James Corden

James Corden took over the slot in late March of 2015 that Mr. Ferguson had made popular. Mr. Corden has a very different personality as he radiates puckish charm. That charm carries him far as his taped bits have started to become next-day watches on YouTube. The most successful of these bits is one called Carpool Karaoke. It is where he gets a well-known musical star to carpool with him to work while they do karaoke to the passenger’s hits. In between singing Mr. Corden interviews them. The stars open up in unusual ways and the whole idea has come off incredibly well.

I sort of knew I was going to like the show when at the beginning of his second week he ventured outside of the studio onto a surrounding residential street and found someone to allow them to film the show in their living room. Guests Jeff Goldblum and musician Beck sat on a real couch and performed. The episode ended with a visit by zookeeper Rick Schwartz as he brought the typical zoo animals into the house for a visit.

talking hawaii fiveo

Since then he became a human piñata for Cinco de Mayo. He has visited a juice bar and a kosher market to give a regular employee a break while he takes over. But my very favorite bit is his send-up of the shows that talk about other television shows like Talking Dead. Ever since David Letterman went off the air in May the network has filled that slot with repeats of the crime procedurals that network shows. The Mentalist was that show for the first week of June and the cold open for the show that week was a bit called Talking Mentalist. They would send up all fo the conventions of these shows talking about shows you’ve just seen. They would have one of the bit part actors who only had one scene as part of the panel. The very best of all of this came on the night they had the man who hosts Talking Dead, Chris Hardwick, as a guest and they included him in that night’s Talking Hawaii Five-O.

I have always looked to the late-night shows to provide a pleasant funny companion for the wee hours of the morning. I am very happy to invite Mr. Corden to share that time with me on a regular basis.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Firefly

I don’t think you can be a card-carrying geek if you don’t have something you are very passionate about that the rest of the world is not quite as passionate about. Coupled with this is an often Quixotic need to tilt at the vox populi windmills trying to find people to join you. For many geeks my age our first quest to resurrect Star Trek saw success beyond our imagination. Once Star Trek took off we mostly found a world where things geekly were more accepted. Even so there were still pockets of resistance. I decided that there was a little show called Firefly which I wanted to champion.


Firefly is a story of how a broadcast network sometimes just doesn’t understand what they bought. Fresh off of producing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Fox network picked up Joss Whedon’s next series. The series was pitched as a western in space. Following a band of space cowboys who worked on the fringe of the known universe and the legal system. Mr. Whedon created a rich universe and nine well-drawn characters. With Mr. Whedon’s television series there is a build up throughout the run of episodes which leads to a crescendo. It is slow building at first. That slow build was not appreciated by the overseers from Fox. They insisted on showing episodes out of order. Getting viewers to watch a serialized science-fiction show is tough asking them to fill in missing pieces that they hadn’t had the opportunity to see was not a recipe for success. Firefly could not be rearranged as if it was a police procedural with a crime of the week. Mr. Whedon’s universe was more intricate than that. To show you how bad it was the pilot episode the one which introduced the relationships between our nine characters was shown as the eleventh (!) episode. It wasn’t until it was released to DVD that we were able to watch the episodes in the correct order.


Then a funny thing happened once people had the chance to watch this quirky little series of fourteen episodes in one sitting it started to thrive. In what was a forerunner of binge watching a series Firefly was just short enough to reward a few nights of watching. All of a sudden our little corner of the universe was getting more populated. It got so populated that Universal the studio that produced the series took a chance on a movie version just two years after it was canceled. That movie called Serenity was unable to make enough money to break even at the box office. It showed that even though there were more fans there weren’t enough to sustain a movie franchise.

Since Firefly many of the creative people involved have gone on to greater success. Nathan Fillion who played Captain Mal has found his niche playing detective fiction author on Castle. Joss Whedon of course is the director and writer of the two Marvel’s The Avengers movies. Morena Baccarin who played Inara was in three seasons of Homeland. Adam Baldwin would take much of his Jane personality to his five season stint on Chuck. That’s just a few credits. The cast regularly talks about how much fun and camaraderie was present on the set. They have also embraced the fans called Browncoats. There are none of them who shy away from the fan community and that makes all of us band together more tightly.

If you’ve run out of things to watch in your streaming queue give Firefly a try and if you want to come be a Browncoat, you know where to find me.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Matisse Cut-Outs

When an artist can seemingly create art from nothing it is seen as a supreme compliment. In perfume circles the creation of the iconic Rochas Femme under World War 2 conditions by Edmond Roudnitska is an olfactory example of this tenet. Ella Fitzgerald could take nonsense syllables and turn them into a special version of jazz known as scat singing. Great artists have an innate need to create. My favorite example of this comes from artist Henri Matisse and the final works of his career.

In 1941 M. Matisse was diagnosed with cancer and following successful surgery was left confined to a wheelchair. For most that would have been enough of a hurdle to their output that it would be understood of there was no more. M. Matisse instead turned back to the tools of childhood, scissors and paper. This work produced during this time are referred to as The Matisse Cut-Outs.

matisse-nice 1952

Henri Matisse in his studio in Nice, France in 1952 (Photo:

M. Matisse had learned about the techniques of paper patterns, pinning, and scissors from his childhood among weavers in his hometown of Bohain-en-Vermendois. To allow himself a palette of colors to work with he had his assistants color white paper with various gouaches. Then he would begin the process he himself referred to as “painting with scissors”. As he would cut things out he would lay them out with pins. Constantly moving them around on the wall of his studio until the desired effect was achieved. Then his assistant would affix them with glue to a surface.


Blue Nude II by Henri Matisse (1952)

My first experience with them was at the very end of the massive Matisse retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1993. The final gallery contained these soaring blue silhouettes of a nude woman. I was immediately drawn to them but I also could feel there was something different. They weren’t painted. When I read the legends surrounding these I found out these were massive collages. When I got close you can see the lines of the sheets of paper overlapping. You can see the tiny pinholes as the paper was re-positioned on the wall before being finally glued down. The one pictured above Blue Nude II from 1952 is the one which clued me in to this phase of M. Matisse’s career.

Until his death in 1954 M. Matisse would create primarily with scissors and paper. He would design stained glass windows for churches. In one case he also designed the priestly vestments. The first set of works were collected in a book called “Jazz”. The original sets of colors M. Matisse chose to work with were the ones which would look good when translated to the printed page.

M. Matisse is quoted as saying, “Only what I created after the illness constitutes my real self: free, liberated.” I think that is why I am so enchanted by them because that sense of personal liberation seems so patently on display. M. Matisse found that freedom while in a wheelchair with paper and a pair of scissors.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

As I am now firmly in my mid-50’s it is surprising what things make me feel my age. I find more and more often it is pop culture things which really remind me how much time I’ve been kicking around. The one that has me looking way back is the 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Mainly because through the industrious detective work of baseball writer Larry Granillo and a Chicago Cubs baseball game shown during the movie he was able to pinpoint the infamous skip day as June 5, 1985. Thirty years ago. Thirty years ago, how can that be? I used to give my parents grief for watching movies thirty years old and now that I am their age I’m doing the same thing. Yeah I’m feeling my age. The movie which is making me feel my age; that seems ageless.


Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was the fourth movie directed by John Hughes. In his first four directorial efforts he was focused on the high school experience. Starting with Sixteen Candles, followed by The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science; he had delved into that world completely. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off he was now placing his characters at the end of high school facing the uncertain future. The lead characters decide to take a “day off” because in Ferris’ words “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Over the next hour and a half Ferris, his best friend Cameron and his girlfriend Sloan have every student’s version of a skip day ever imagined.

ferris cast

(from l. to r.) Ferris (Matthew Broderick) Sloan (Mia Sara) Cameron (Alan Ruck)

The actor chosen to play Ferris is much of why this movie is still talked about so many years after its release. Matthew Broderick so inhabited the role I imagine many people would think Mr. Broderick was Ferris and want to participate in his charmed life. Mr. Hughes asked Ferris to break the fourth wall and throughout the movie he speaks directly to the audience. It is this one-sided conversation that provides the necessary insight into Ferris’ choices. This is about having fun but this is also the last time for him to get the attention of his two closest friends. This is Mr. Broderick’s breakout role on the movie screen. He was able to give some depth to what looks like something so shallow. That also has a lot to do with the words Mr. Hughes put into his mouth as he was also the writer for the film as well as the director.

Outside of the obvious 1980’s things like no cell phones Ferris Bueller’s Day Off still works today. I think it speaks to the timelessness of many of the themes explored in the film. I will admit that I have made sure to keep an eye on the life going on around me so that I don’t “miss it.” I believe it is that curiosity which has brought me to the place where I am in my life right now. Despite it being thirty years on there is still more than a little of Ferris in my heart and my head. While thirty years is a long time there has been a lot to see and I treasure all of it.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Early Summer 2015 Playlist


I’m not sure what it is about the summer but I want both my books and my music to be less challenging. I want books which are plot-driven page turners not necessarily full of intricate prose. Although those two aims are not mutually exclusive. For music I want things I can sing along to, pump my fist, play air guitar, and tickle the pretend keyboard. These are usually trifles but they find themselves on repeat on my playlist because they are full of infectious hooks and lyrics which are repetitive. There is also one thing I’ve noticed about my summer playlists is that there is an older song, or two, which re-surfaces in my consciousness and I want to hear it as much as I used to.

Top of the Colognoisseur pops is Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance”. It has been out for over a year but like the best summer songs it has caught fire just at the right time. Lead singer Nicholas Petricca was inspired by the 80’s acts The Cars and Pat Benatar. There is a very tangible first wave vibe to it that obviously appeals to one like me who lived through it. I suspect this is going to be the dance floor anthem this summer.

Another lyrical hook that I’ve been mumbling under my breath for the last month is from “Hold Back the River” by James Bay.

I am a sucker for a spectacular video which accompanies a great pop song. The new “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift is all of that in spades. The video is a cross between Kill Bill and Fifth Element featuring an array of some of the most recognizable women in entertainment playing badass assassins. This has only been out for a couple of weeks and I’m all over this.

The two older songs on my current summer playlist are “Sometime Around Midnight” by The Airborne Toxic Event and “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind. Sometime Around Midnight is one of the rawest break-up songs ever performed but despite the unhappy material I am compulsively playing the guitar riff on my fake Fender. I don’t think Semi-Charmed Life is ever far from being included on any summer playlist I’ve ever compiled because it might be my single favorite chorus to sing in the car at the top of my lungs.

The new single by Pitbull, “Time of Our Lives” is another one that gets me moving my feet to the beat.

“Hold My Hand” by Jess Glynne is exactly what I want from Pop-inclined R&B. With a killer keyboard riff perfect for playing on the steering wheel of the car.

Giorgio Moroder has been behind so much of my favorite music and his recent renaissance shows he hasn’t stopped being relevant. His new album Déjà Vu sees him working with a roster of today’s stars. The title single featuring Sia was just released. It is full of synthesizers which dig into my head matched with Sia’s distinctive voice.

Shawn Mendes is the latest You Tube music star. He has crafted a four part story of a break-up. The third part is called “Stitches” and it is the one which has found the repeat button on my playlist.

Imagine Dragons have been a playlist fixture from their inception and the newest release “Shots” is more of the same fantastic style of music they have been producing.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Carl Hiaasen

As I mentioned in my first The Sunday Magazine this series was inspired by the magazine section that came with the Sunday paper. My love of this section came from my boyhood newspaper The Miami Herald or as we called it The Herald. The Sunday Magazine was called Tropic and inside the regular writers for the daily paper were allowed to do something different. Tropic was the birthplace of Dave Barry who will be a name familiar to many. My favorite writer I discovered in Tropic was a man with a savagely funny way of looking at South Florida and the tourist business which supports so many in that area. His name is Carl Hiaasen.


Carl Hiaasen

Mr. Hiaasen started writing for the newspaper in 1976 in the capacity of investigative reporter. His job most of the time was to dig deep and find out the truth behind the latest big lie being told by a politician. In South Florida that kind of work would lead you into a real-life theatre of the absurd. He is quoted as describing it this way, "The Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout. And you'd be surprised how many of them decide to run for public office." As a way of evening up the score with those who kept getting away with everything Mr. Hiaasen started to write novels. This time because he was in charge the forces for good would carry the day.


I was ay my favorite mystery bookstore in NYC, Murder Ink in 1986 when the owner told me she had an advance copy of a first novel by a reporter from The Herald. I remembered some funny columns by this Hiaasen guy in Tropic and I thought it had a chance to be pretty good. The novel’s name is “Tourist Season” and it tells of a small militant group who has the goal of starting so much mayhem the tourists will stop coming. When I read a book it is rare that I laugh out loud, usually a slight chuckle. Mr. Hiaasen tickles me into laughing so hard I close the book for a moment. Some of it is because growing up in the area the insanity just hits home with me. I was so sure this was only hysterical to someone who lived there I never thought anyone else would get it. Thankfully I was wrong.


Mr. Hiaasen has had an incredibly prolific career publishing thirteen novels and five young adult novels. All of them feature colorful villains and even more colorful protagonists. One who carries over through many of the books is ex-governor Clinton Tyree who after being forced into selling a wildlife preserve while in office to developers decided to resign. He disappears but re-surfaces as Skink through many of the novels. He is often the anti-development chorus to these novels delivering that message laced with humor. The latest novel released last year called “Skink-No Surrender” was the first to actually feature the usually supporting character.

All of Mr. Hiaasen’s books are full of everything insane about South Florida in general and he skewers all. For his take on Disney World 1991’s Native Tongue covers that ground. 2010’s Star Island takes on our celebrity obsessed pop culture.

As you start to assemble your beach reading for this summer Mr. Hiaasen is a good addition to your beach bag.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: St. Louis Cardinals

When people ask me why my favorite baseball team is they are usually surprised to hear me answer the St. Louis Cardinals. It would be easy to expect after living in Connecticut and Massachusetts that it would be one of the teams from the Northeast. That might have been true but what made the Cardinals my baseball team is easier to explain, they were my father’s favorite team.

Because they were my father’s favorite team we would always take trip up to St. Petersburg to watch Cardinals Spring Training. This was back on the 1960’s and when we went to spring training games we could stand just outside the foul lines. You could hear the players. They were accessible I was able to get autographs signed with a smile. Things have changed so dramatically from those times now. I wonder if I was a child now if I would be as big a baseball fan as I am. Those years were great as this was a cherished father-son tradition. It also turned into one of those times I disappointed my father in a deeply emotional way.


We had gone to spring training in March of 1967. Like every other spring training I had brought a new baseball to have all of the current Cardinal players autograph it. I was able by the end of our week to have a ball with all of the signatures on it. The Cardinals would go on to win the World Series that fall. My father would proudly look at that ball and remark that that is the entire Championship team there.

Sometime after that we were playing baseball in the street out in front of my house and it was a tie game when our game ball ended up on top of the warehouse roof. We didn’t have an extra. Except I remembered there was a perfectly good ball on my bookshelf. Yes this is going where you thinking it’s going. I went and got the autographed ball and we played with it. On an asphalt street. You can imagine what the ball looked like after we were done with it. I replaced the ball in its customary place and didn’t give it a second thought.

It would be a couple of days until my father was talking to me and his eyes drifted over to where he expected to see the autographed ball. Instead he was greeted with a chewed up ball where there was maybe a few lines of ink still visible. He looks at me and asks where the ball is. I point at it and say right there. I could see all of the dominos falling in my father’s mind as he put it all together. It was one of the rare times when he looked at me I could see the emotion in his eyes as he wondered if his son was a fool. I would say I was a child and he was an adult and leaving that ball in the hands of a child leads to poor decision making.

For many years afterward that ball would come up in conversation accompanied by my father’s shaking head. All of this made me a die-hard Cardinals fan because they were our team. Every year as another season begins I think of my father….and about that ball.

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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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