Robert De Niro portrays the lead of the small group of kids and later men who slowly rise the ranks in a bootlegging operation during Prohibition in New York City. De Niro was not nominated here even though he certainly is a very popular actor with the academy having won twice and being nominated many times before and after this performance. This film though was unable to get a single nomination. This is probably due to the fact that it was a box office flop, as well there was a bit of a controversy over the short version which apparently was very poorly edited into a mess of the film.
De Niro is no stranger to gangster roles, and as he did in The Godfather Part II and later in Goodfellas he shows prowess in this role as Noodles. De Niro in the scenes that take place after Noodles is released from prison and he joins his friends to rise not only in the organization but as well in the power structure of the city portrays the part of Noodles very much to the point most of the time. De Niro makes it clear that Noodles is very very ready to be a gangster to the fullest extent and does not have any qualms about pushing right forward with his friends to the top no matter what it takes.
De Niro as usual has a certain suaveness in the role. He does not overplay though as there are certain scenes which would contradict the rest of his characterization. De Niro though effectively shows that Noodles is a competent capable man right for his time and place. In these earlier scenes there is always a certainty within De Niro though expresses well the passion behind Noodles that pushes himself and his friends forward in the underworld without much hesitation. He presents Noodles as a skillful and capable gangster as he pushes through the film.
There is something that De Niro does not avoid in this performance though, which is muck of being the criminal. De Niro is very blunt in his performance in this regard. There is not any hesitation shown in Noodles whether he is killing a man, committing any sort of horrible violent, and to some degree even raping women. De Niro makes it clear that Noodles is very much into his amorality. It frankly would have been easy to try to gain more sympathy, but De Niro does this instead giving what is probably a far realistic portrait of a gangster. This does not mean that he portrays Noodles one dimensionally though.
There is some sort of conscious that De Niro puts in just the right glint that he brings into his performance. This never stops him from committing any of his acts of violence though, instead De Niro is able suggest only that Noodles does think about his actions at times, after the fact not before, particularly in the scene where he rapes his old sweetheart. De Niro is good becuase he does not go and just show Noodles to be guilt stricken, Noodles is still very much into his behavior as a career mobster, but he effectively does portray just the smallest speck of regret in his acts, only the smallest though, although this works well with another part of his performance.
This hint of his morality comes in a far deeper fashion in the scenes that take place after Noodles returns to town after having informer to the police on his friends, seeming like he needs to settle some of score although he is quite unaware of what that is. De Niro is very strong in these scenes showing a very changed man in Noodles. He is a different man, and De Niro effectively shows that that small bit of morality has grown on him turning him into a far more somber man than before. De Niro crates a moving portrait of this aged gangster who violent history is far behind him, and he is only left to reflect on the mistakes that he had once made.
These scenes later in Noodles life De Niro is very very quiet in them and reflect well the haunted feeling he has over his past actions. De Niro very best scene is when he confronts an old friend, and it is a particularly powerful moment. There would have been many ways to portray the scene as it could have been far more anger filled, or anguish filled. Instead De Niro leaves a much stronger impact by showing that any feelings like that are far past Noodles. It is a heartbreaking scene because De Niro only shows Noodles as really understanding what has happened more than anything else. He truly presents a grown and properly sorrowful poignant portrayal of this man.
I suppose I should mention that this film does not portray the three time section of Noodles's life in chronological order. It jumps around between the segments therefore De Niro is shown to be instantly in the two roles of the differently aged Noodles. There is not any sort of disconnect between the two. It is the same man in both places. De Niro though makes this memorable through the fact that he shows that this is the same Noodles, but even though it is not directly portrayed he vividly brings to life just how changed Noodles has been over his experiences. De Niro effectively carries this powerful epic with his great performance.