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The movie Once Upon A Time In America is lavish in its cinematography. But the end unwinds without a satisfying resolution.

I have a hard time understanding everything beyond when De Niro's character arrives at the dinner party at the end. What was up with the trash truck scene? Are we to infer that his life really ended in the opium den, and that everything that happened afterward is only delusion?

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Max/Senator Bailey (Woods) invites Noodles (De Niro) at the party because his political career is about to end, swept up by scandals and frauds and wants his old time friend, with whom he has a 'debt of honor', to kill him before he is completely ruined.

When Noodles refuses to do so and to even acknowledge that Max and Bailey are the same person (it would mean for Noodles to acknowledge also that almost his entire life has been spent in the illusion of a friendship that was never real), the only choice left for Max/Bailey is to kill himself, possibly by throwing himself on the turning blades of the trash truck. This is by the way only suggested by the sequence in which we see Max/Bailey, then the truck hiding him when passing in front of him, then the empty street where Max/Bailey was previously standing after the truck has passed. Or Max/Bailey could also have gone back in his mansion ...

As for the final scene, the one with De Niro's enigmatic drugged up smile (which has been compared to Leonardo's Mona Lisa smile), it is open to the viewer's interpretation. It might mean that everything that happened after Max's death (the faked one) is just an opium induced dream/hallucination by Noodles, or it could be just a flashback. But in that (also) resides, in my opinion, the outstanding beauty of one of my favourites movies.

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There's no doubt that the 60s scenes are Noodles while he is dreaming/drugged up. I think there is an extra layer to this movie that I haven't seen anyone discuss. Why the frisbee? Why the garbage truck at the end? We all focus on the visual of the frisbee and the truck. Instead, focus on the sound. Why? Because while Noodles is dreaming, the world around him does not stop. The thugs are still coming after him. How does Leone represent this? The frisbee as a visual makes no sense. It's late, desolate, and all of a sudden a hand just snatches a frisbee from around his head. But, as a sound, it could be something that Noodles has to reconcile in his dream. His brain hears the sound of a punch or a bullet near his head in real life and includes it in his dream. Leone used the bizarre frisbee as a clue to make us question what it represents. I think the same idea applies to the truck. Noodles hears the sound of the truck in real life while he is dreaming and it becomes a part of his dream. Why? Because Noodles in real life is about to be disposed of by the thugs who have found him in the den. Max is already dead. The story ends when Noodles is tossed in the truck and ground up.

Why the smile? To clue us in that Noodles thinks he has figured out what really happened. Max faked his death. Then the dream/1960s scenes go on to play out how Noodles thinks it would all play out. He even goes so far as to bring a son into the story. Why? Why does he need to see the son? To know that the son didn't resemble him, i.e., his rape of Deborah didn't result in a child.

I could be wrong. I need to go back and test my theory, but I think it ties everything up nicely which is what Leone would have done. He worked on this story for years and put many layers into it so, that we would watch it over and over. Each time you watch it, another question comes up that requires you to watch again.

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