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I have a story also, a little simpler than yours. Many years ago, I had a friend, a dear friend. I turned him in to save his life, but he was killed. But he wanted it that way. It was a great friendship. But it went bad for him, and it went bad for me too. Good night, Mr Bailey.
~ David "Noodles" Aaronson refusing to kill Max
Today they asked us to get rid of Joe, tomorrow they ask me to get rid of you! Is that okay with you? 'Cause it's not okay with me!
~ Noodles expressing his honour and loyalty philosophy to Max
I like the stink of the streets. It makes me feel good. And I like the smell of it, it opens up my lungs. And it gives me a hard-on.
~ Noodles expressing his preference of street crime and gang loyalty over corporate greed and betrayal

David "Noodles" Aaronson is the main protagonist of the critically acclaimed 1984 gangster film Once Upon a Time in America.

He was primarily portrayed by legendary Academy Award-winning actor Robert De Niro, who also played Vito Corleone, Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle, and Jimmy Conway. He was also portrayed by actor Scott Schutzman Tiler, during the 1920's childhood flashbacks.

Despite being the main protagonist of the film, he is a great example of a tragic villain protagonist. He is a violent, ruthless gangster who steals, robs, and murders as a livelihood. He even commits rape at one point in the film, though he quickly feels remorse and guilt for it. However, he feels guilt for his actions and he ends up being miserable for 35 years and he did genuinely care about his friends, which puts him as a tragic and anti-villain. In 1968, he is called back for one last hit, building up to nearly four hours, where it is revealed that his supposedly deceased friend Max hired him to kill him since he was targeted by the Syndicate and was only willing to accept being shot by Noodles, as he betrayed him and murdered his friends, leaving his former best friend to live 35 years of misery.

Biography

1920s

According to the novel and film in which he appears, David "Noodles" Aaronson is born in the early 1900s into poverty in a Jewish enclave in Manhattan's Lower East Side. In 1920, when Noodles is age 14 or 15, he forms a gang with his friends Phillip "Cockeye" Stein, Patrick "Patsy" Goldberg and a young Italian boy named Dominic. Together the group "rolls" (robs) drunks in a bar run by local Irish-American mobster Bugsy, whose protection racket they help maintain. When about to roll a drunk, Noodles meets Maximilian "Max" Bercovicz. The two cross paths later, become friends, and together blackmail a policeman, forcing him to pay for their times with a local prostitute and to cover up their crimes.

When they begin to operate independently of him, Bugsy has some of the gang's underlings beat them and steal their money. Needing protection from Bugsy, Noodles and Max meet with the Capuano brothers, successful bootleggers, and show them a method by which the bootleggers might salvage crates of booze when tossed into the sea when the rumrunners cargo boats were confronted by the Coast Guard. Having been paid for their services in protecting the Capuanos' shipment, they stash part of their payment.

After stashing their money, the group is chased by Bugsy, who opens fire on them and kills Dominic. Enraged, Noodles stabs Bugsy repeatedly, almost disemboweling him. However, when Bugsy fires a round from his gun it alerts nearby police officers who then come to the scene. Noodles murders Bugsy and then takes on two police officers, stabbing one and then being battered unconscious by his partner. Noodles is then sent to prison.

1930s

After serving 12 years for the murder, Noodles is released from prison and picked up by Max. He returns to working with his gang. Mobster Frankie Monaldi gives the gang an assignment to rob a Detroit jeweler of some jewels together with 'Joe from Detroit' and then kill him. The gang does the job, Noodles has aggressive sexual intercourse with the woman who gave Joe the information needed to pull off the job, and they later shoot Joe and his gang in a car, with Noodles personally gunning down one of Joe's henchmen who had escaped the car and fled into a factory.

The gang becomes further involved with the Mafia, and Noodles become re-involved with Deborah, a girl from his old neighborhood with whom he had had a relationship. He goes with her on an extravagant date, but he is left feeling rejected after she informs him she is leaving for Hollywood. She kisses him on the car ride home, but he refuses to stop and rapes her in front of his chauffeur.

Max is eager to advance the gang's position, while Noodles has misgivings about what they are doing. After the repeal of Prohibition, Noodles leaves for Florida rather than join Max in working with the teamsters union. Max yields and goes to Florida with him, but then begins planning an impossible heist of the Federal Reserve Bank. After Noodles places an anonymous call, Max, Patsy, and Cockeye are killed in a gunfight with the police. Noodles' new girlfriend is murdered by the Syndicate, and Noodles hides out in an opium den. He escapes his pursuers and goes to retrieve the loot the gang had stashed years previously. When he finds the money gone, he flees to Buffalo, where he lives for 35 years under the name 'Robert Williams'.

1960s

Years later, Noodles returns to New York from hiding, having received a mysterious letter. He visits the mausoleum where his friends' bodies were moved and discovers a plaque dedicated to them by him (something he had not done) and a key to the same money locker he had found empty in 1933. In the locker he finds money and a note stating it is pre-payment for a murder-for-hire. He also receives an invitation to a party from a man called Bailey.

He learns that Deborah has become a famous actress, and while meeting with Deborah after a performance, he seemingly reconciles with her and she confesses that she has forgiven him. However, he also knows through his investigations regarding Bailey that Deborah knows who Bailey is and she is forced to tell him that Max is Bailey, when his son appears who looks like Max in his adolescent years. He breaks with her because of this. He also learns that Max faked his own death in the shootout with help from the Syndicate, killed his friends for that purpose, stole the money and became "Bailey", a very rich man currently under investigation for corruption. Bailey had left the money to hire Noodles to assassinate him - thus allowing Noodles to obtain his revenge, as well as to let Max, as "Bailey", die with dignity, because he knows he is finished because of this investigation. However, Noodles refuses. After leaving the party, Noodles witnesses the suicide of Max, who leaves the party after him and throws himself into a garbage truck, who drives past in front of Noodles.

Noodles feels happiness after this event and is in peace with his past now being able to move on with his life from now on without having to look back anymore, which he does.

Trivia

  • He is one of the many mobster characters portrayed by Robert De Niro, with others including Vito Corleone, Jimmy Conway, Sam "Ace" Rothstein, Johnny Boy, Al Capone, Neil McCauley and Don Lino.
  • He is similar to another character played by Robert De Niro, Jake LaMotta. They were both initially poor men growing up in the ghettos of New York City, and earned money through violence and ruthlessness (Noodles through criminality; LaMotta through boxing), before both becoming rich and successful. Both have perverted sides to them, as LaMotta dates and marries Vicki, who was 15-16 at the time, as well as the fact that he let a 14-year old girl disguising as a 21-year old into a nightclub, determining whether or not she was underage with a kiss. It's also known that LaMotta's real life counterpart was found guilty of raping a woman, Noodles rapes Deborah when she rejects him. Both ended up having their lives fallen apart due to their low-life ways, and they both come across as tragic villain protagonists. Also, both Raging Bull and Once Upon a Time in America are widely-acclaimed movies, considered all-time classics by many, and both are considered to be among the greatest movies of the 1980's, if not of all time.