Robert De Niro as David “Noodles” Aaronson, mob bootlegger and violent ex-convict
New York City, December 1933
Film: Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Costume Designer: Gabriella Pescucci
83 years ago today, the 21st amendment was ratified to officially repeal Prohibition, delighting a thirsty American public but leaving many criminals who had made their fortunes from bootlegging effectively “unemployed”. This Mafia Monday post checks in with Robert De Niro as a mobster coming to terms with what that means for his career and personal life in 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America.
Before becoming Martin Scorsese’s poster boy for headlining mob movies in films like Goodfellas and Casino (see last Thursday’s post), Robert De Niro starred in not one but two crime-centric epics that used the better part of three hours using America’s criminal past as a microcosm for its own history. His role as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II in 1974 shot him to the top of Hollywood’s most-demanded actors. Ten years later, he took on the complex role of “Noodles” Aaronson in Sergio Leone’s even more complex cinematic tome Once Upon a Time in America.
Based on Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods, Once Upon a Time in America follows the lives of four young Jewish criminals from their teen years in the early 1920s through the height of their criminal career at the end of Prohibition, effectively exploring relationships and friendships, greed and lust, masculinity and insecurity, and the role of crime in America’s foundation. The non-chronological narrative leaps around from 1921 to 1933 with cuts to 1968 that may or may not be the elaborate dreams of an opiated Noodles.
Having served nearly a dozen years for killing a ruthless racketeer that murdered the youngest member of their teenage criminal enterprise, Noodles is released from prison during the waning months of Prohibition. Max (James Woods), the group’s ambitious de factor leader, has grown quite successful in the underworld with the rest of Noodles’ criminal comrades, and his grandiose dreams for further success draw an almost immediate contemptuous divide with the simpler and newly paroled Noodles.
When the two hear the news that Prohibition is coming to an end, Max immediately begins putting plans into place for an even more lucrative and dangerous criminal enterprise… leaving Noodles at a conflicted crossroads on the eve of repeal.
What’d He Wear?
Noodles wears a charcoal gray flannel suit with thin red chalk stripes that – perhaps coincidentally – evoke the image of his friends’ blood spilling out that evening against the dark pavement streets. Notably, he is the only one of his friends (and, in fact, one of the few men at the party) who is not wearing a tuxedo or any sort of black tie ensemble.
The three-piece suit exudes a comfortably loose fit yet attractive look that was desired in the early 1930s. In its feature “The Evolution of Men’s Style: 1933-Now” published in August 2008, Esquire established that the ideal men’s look in the autumn of 1933 followed the concept of “bigger was better, with double-breasted suits, full-cut trousers,” seen perfectly exemplified by the full cut of Noodles’ double-breasted suit.
Noodles’ suit jacket has wide, full-bellied peak lapels that sweep across his torso with their sharp points aiming toward the jacket’s padded, roped shoulders. The double-breasted front has six buttons with two to close. The hip pockets are jetted and Noodles wears a white linen pocket square that just barely emerges over the top of the welted breast pocket. Each sleeve ends with three buttons on the cuff. As one would expect on a double-breasted suit jacket – especially in the ’30s – the back is ventless.
The suit’s matching waistcoat closes fashionably high on his chest with six buttons down to the notched bottom. Best seen when he removes his jacket in the opium den, Noodles’ vest has four welted pockets and a solid charcoal gray shiny back lining.
Noodles’ fully cut trousers are styled as one would expect in the 1930s with double reverse pleats, cuffed bottoms, and a long rise that is high enough to be well-concealed under his vest. The trousers have belt loops which go unused as Noodles appropriately prefers to sport a set of black suspenders (braces) that fasten with brown leather hooks to buttons sewn into the inner waistband of his trousers.
Noodles wears a pale blue dress shirt with white stripes shadowed on each side by a thinner blue stripe. The front placket closes with white buttons. The double cuffs are squared with teardrop-shaped green jadeite cabochon links on yellow gold back plates, similar to some vintage cuff links that can be found online.
Noodles’ shirt has a very long point collar with minimal spread. When wearing his suit jacket and vest buttoned, the large collar is the only part of the shirt visible other than the cuffs. Shirts with these details are very difficult to find, especially in the current day that seems to so widely embrace slim cutaway spread collars. I did some online digging and found Matt Deckard Apparel’s “Paramount Collar” shirt which, coincidentally, features an almost identical stripe pattern as Noodles’ shirting in Once Upon a Time in America. The shirt was aptly named to reflect the great style of stars during the ’30s and ’40s studio era in Hollywood. (Browsing through the Matt Deckard Apparel photo page on Facebook yields many impressive shirts and outfits that certainly evoke the days of Cary Grant and Clark Gable.)
Noodles’ silk tie is a series of swirling pattern of cream, gray, and black Deco-style delights on a bold red ground that nicely calls out the red stripes of the suiting. Though moderately wide below the knot, the tie quickly swells out to an extreme width at the blade, which ends well above the waistline in a style that would later be exaggerated by the “kipper tie”. Vintage ties like this can often be found on eBay.
Noodles wears a pair of black leather cap-toe oxfords with black dress socks. His socks get more screen time than usual due to his opium den’s opulent insistence on shoe removal for premium comfort.
Noodles’s dark gray felt hat is the typical business headgear of the era, a wide-brimmed fedora. There is a wide black grosgrain ribbon around the base of the high, pinched crown.
To combat the chilly air of a December night in New York, Noodles wears a heavy black and white herringbone wool double-breasted overcoat that extends long below his knees. The coat has short but full-bellied peak lapels with a black velvet collar, swelled edges, and a buttonhole through the left lapel. The lapels end high above the six-button (three-to-close) front. There appears to be a welted breast pocket, and Noodles stuffs his newspaper in the left hip pocket. Both set-in sleeves have functional 3-button cuffs at the end. It is structured for an athletic silhouette with a high belted back and – like the suit jacket below it – wide, padded shoulders with roped sleeveheads. The single vent in the back does not extend all the way up to the belt, which is likely just above his natural waist line.
Noodles wears a simple but classic gold oversized tank watch on his left wrist, a very popular style in the 1930s and 1940s. The rectangular face is white or off-white with no sub-dial. The strap is dark leather, likely black.
On the third finger of his left hand, Noodles wears a large round yellow gold ring with a green set oval stone, matching his green-and-gold cuff links. I was able to find a gold-plated costume version online for less than $6.
Since her impressive period work in Once Upon a Time in America, costume designer Gabriella Pescucci has contributed to elaborate productions like The Age of Innocence and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and television series like The Borgias and Penny Dreadful.
Go Big or Go Home
Noodles and Max had been sparring since they first met, proudly arguing over pickpocketing proceeds. After a dozen years apart, Noodles’ prison time has humbled him while also arresting his emotional development; on the other hand, Max’s seemingly unstoppable success instilled a dangerous and ruthless hubris that values financial success and political power above all.
Thus, that climactic night in early December 1933. Prohibition is coming to an end, sent off by a bacchanal at Fat Moe’s speakeasy. The booze is flowing and the band is blasting a boisterous tune that began as a dirge-like take on “St. James’ Infirmary” before exploding into celebration.
Patsy (James Hayden) and Cockeye (William Forsythe) are cheeky and jovial as ever while Max is razor-focused on his goal of squeezing every last dime out of Prohibition before it ends. Under Max’s aggressive leadership, this means a final liquor run… the proverbial “one last job” that has doomed so many cinematic anti-heroes. The simple Patsy and Cockeye couldn’t care less, but this show of hypermasculinity is taking its toll on Max and Noodles. Only the comparatively level-headed women in their lives, Carol (Tuesday Weld) and Eve (Darlanne Fluegel), see the futility in their mission. Ever sensible, Eve asks Noodles: “Why are you going out tonight? Why bother now that Prohibition is almost over?”
Noodles and Max both know that the night isn’t going to end in bringing back a truck full of booze to unload to clients. Noodles rattles off a non-response about interested buyers, but his continued response indicates an understanding that he doesn’t know what the night is going to bring: “I’m not gonna be home tonight. I’m not gonna be home tomorrow either.” The end of the night will either find him dead or in jail, and he’s ready for either outcome in order to try to save his friends.
Always thinking he’s a few steps ahead, Max finds Noodles in their office after the latter has called to tip off the cops. Max’s subtle move of adjusting the phone’s misplaced handset nods to his knowledge of what Noodles has done, but that he forces himself to play the game:
You know, I’ve been watching you all night, and you’ve been drinking like a fish. Trying to get your courage up? We’re only bringing in a shipment of booze, it’s got so you’re even scared to do that.
Max then goes a step further:
Maybe you just better stay home tonight. With Eve.
In Max’s mind, the worst thing for a man to do is display the feminine trait of fear. (Max has evidently forgotten that Eve is the most reasonable character!) Noodles doesn’t take the bait, of course. The major difference between he and Max is Noodles’ frequency of putting friendship over his own personal desires, so he merely sighs and assures Max that “everywhere you go, I go too. Remember that.”
Had the conversation really been about merely going out on a liquor run, it would have ended there with Noodles’ assurance. But Max has a longer game. He continues by implying that maybe he ought to “dump” Noodles – a serious threat in this world, as that would undoubtedly involve Noodles’ death. Seeing the forest for the trees, Noodles can’t help but to shake it off: “You’re really crazy.”
For Max, that’s the last straw. Not only is he deeply insulted when his intelligence and stability is threatened, but Max can’t fathom a man not standing up for these perceived insults and threats. Since Noodles won’t start the fight, Max is forced to knock him out on the spot while insanely shouting to defend his sanity: “Never say that!”
What to Imbibe
Most of Once Upon a Time in America‘s celebrations are fueled by G.H. Mumm champagne, and the Prohibition “funeral” is no exception. The guys pass around Jeroboam bottles of G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge 1933… despite the fact that the 1933 vintage wouldn’t be available until several years later.
Max also offers Noodles a celebratory cigar during their office confrontation, but I can’t confirm the maker from the label seen on screen.
How to Get the Look
As Noodles Aaronson, Robert De Niro looks every bit the part of a stylish, well-to-do “businessman” in the early 1930s, avoiding flashiness and dressing appropriately for the weather and situation.
- Charcoal gray flannel suit with thin red chalk stripes:
- Double-breasted 6-on-2 button jacket with wide peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, ventless back
- Single-breasted high-fastening 6-button vest with four welt pockets and notched bottom
- Double reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Pale blue white-shadow-striped cotton dress shirt with long point collar, front placket, and squared double/French cuffs
- Red vintage silk wide-bladed tie with cream, gray, and black swirling Deco design
- Green jadeite cabochon teardrop-shaped cuff links on yellow gold back plates
- Black fabric suspenders with brown leather hooks
- Black leather cap-toe oxfords/balmorals
- Black dress socks
- Dark gray felt wide-brimmed fedora with black grosgrain ribbon and high, pinched crown
- Black-and-white herringbone wool double-breasted 6-on-3 button overcoat with peak lapels, black velvet collar, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, functional 3-button cuffs, half-belted back and short single vent
- Vintage gold tank watch with plain white rectangular face on black leather strap
- Yellow gold ring with green jadeite cabochon setting
Once Upon a Time in America is lighter on gun violence than some of its mob-themed contemporaries, choosing to retain its usage of firearms for dramatic purposes. Whether it’s Beefy and his mobsters using their gun barrels to intimidate women like Eve and a topless patron of the opium den or a shocking turn of events like Max carrying out a double-cross with a tommy gun, Leone is not meaningless with the appearance of guns in his film.
Having escaped the massacre of his friends during their “one last job” liquor run, Noodles returns to Fat Moe’s to find its corpulent owner victimized by Beefy’s gangsters. We don’t know who Noodles is, but we know this isn’t what he wanted to see. A gunshot rings out and Beefy’s henchman who was guarding Fat Moe falls dead, revealing Noodles holding a smoking FN Model 1910/22 pistol.
The FN Model 1910 was a natural progression in John Browning’s designs. Browning essentially dominated semi-automatic pistol design in its infancy during the first decade of the 20th century, designing the FN Model 1900, the Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless, and the .25-caliber subcompact “vest pocket” pistols that would be produced by both Colt in the United States and Fabrique Nationale in Belgium. The blowback M1910 incorporated the standard Browning striker-firing mechanism and “triple safety” (grip, magazine, external lever) in a compact package with a then-novel barrel-surrounding operating spring that would eventually become standard on similar compact pistols like the Walther PPK and Makarov PM. Like the Walther PP series and Browning’s earlier-designed Colt “Pocket Hammerless” models, it was available in both .32 ACP and .380 ACP and enjoyed a long production timeline; the Model 1910 was produced continuously by FN Herstal for 73 years until 1983.
A larger variant – the Model 1910/22 as seen in Once Upon a Time in America – was developed in 1922 and increased the capacity to eight rounds of .380 ACP (from six in the standard M1910) or nine rounds of .32 ACP (from seven in the M1910).
This photo was posted in an RPF forum, taken at a 2006 exhibition where it is stated to have been used in Once Upon a Time in America. The pistol is the FN Model 1910/22, visibly differentiated from the earlier Model 1910 by its longer barrel. As Noodles is the only character to use a pistol of this type on screen, it can be determined that this photo is of his weapon.
Originally available only in Europe (a departure for John Browning’s designs), the FN Model 1910 found its way into the hands of many European assassins and anarchists of the early 20th century. Most famously, FN Model 1910 pistols chambered in .380 ACP were used by the “Black Hand” members who conspired to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, with Gavrilo Princip’s pistol with serial number 19074 carrying out the fatal deed on June 28. FN Model 1910 pistols were also used by Paul Gorguloff during his assassination of French President Paul Doumer in 1932 and three years later when Carl Weiss allegedly shot and killed Louisiana Governor Huey Long in Baton Rouge, in a rarer example of the FN Model 1910 finding its way into the U.S.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Sergio Leone’s original cut ran 269 minutes long but was unfortunately cut down for a wider release (without Leone’s involvement) to the more conventional length of just over two hours, losing much of the context and importance and creating a mishmash of violence and leading to heavy criticism. Eventually, the original 229-minute version that had been released in Italy was discovered for the film to receive the appreciation it’s due, and Scorsese is currently working with the Leone estate to restore the full version and deliver Leone’s vision to modern audiences. (The original script, however, was 317 pages. At a page per minute, that’s… a long movie.)
Also, Harry Grey’s 1952 novel The Hoods was the source novel for the story. As the real-life basis for Noodles, Grey’s work may be of particular interest for Once Upon a Time in America fans or readers of American criminal history.
Everywhere you go, I go too. Remember that.