Sergio Leone said this was his best film.
It is based on a novel by Harry Grey (pseudonym), who wrote a fictionalized account about his childhood friends and Prohibition gangster days.
In 1968, Leone actually met Grey in person. Leone biographer C. Frayling writes:
[After Leone and Grey met, Leone was] "convinced that the best approach to filming The Hoods would be to have the elderly Noodles revisiting his childhood and youth as a small-time gangster....The passage of time would be the central theme. The film would centre on the pivotal moment in 1933 when Noodles betrays his friends in order to save them, then retreats from the implications of his action.... (underline mine)I will warn you that this script isn't very pretty on the page and it is very, very long.*
However, if you're really serious, it is worth studying for those time cues alone.
ex. In the scene below, notice how the writers:
1) Get in exposition about the past
2) Raise the past to show it still lies between Noodles and Fat Moe today
The result is that the past becomes relevant to the present.
ex. "SCENE 23 FAT MOE'S : LIVING QUARTERS ADJOINING TEE LUNCH ROOM (1968) Interior. Night.
NOODLES notices the faded upholstery, the sense of neglect and poverty as he follows FAT MOE into the room off the deli.
NOODLES: I often wondered if you 'd taken that million dollars. Now I know. You're on your ass worse than ever. [He knows Moe & has been here before.]
FAT MOE has opened a door and turned on a light. He quickly swivels around to face NOODLES.
FAT MOE: But I thought you - [He thought Noodles was guilty.]
NOODLES: You thought wrong. The suitcase was empty.
Fat Moe steps back to let Noodles into his sanctum sanctorum, then follows him in. [They still trust each other.]
FAT MOE: Then who did?
NOODLES: That's what I been asking myself for thirty years." [Past questions are still unresolved in the present day.]
WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The past is relevant if you can show how it fuels conflict in the present day.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
by Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone
Based on the novel, "The Hoods," by Harry Grey
*Yes, 322 pgs. is too long. However, I think it works here, perhaps because of how the present and past are juxtaposed to play off each other.