Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Director Report Card: Sergio Leone (1971)

6. Duck, You Sucker!
Giù la testa / A Fistful of Dynamite

Ever since the conclusion of the Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone had been working on his dream project, an adaptation of “The Hoods” by Harry Grey. Other projects kept him busy though. After “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Leone was presented with a script about revolution in turn-of-the-century Mexico. He liked it, wanted to see it made, but didn’t want to direct it. Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah, and Leone’s assistant Giancarlo Santi were all considered but each realized that Leone just wanted to make the movie himself. The resulting film, “Duck, You Sucker!,” is the director’s most overlooked. Though a decent hit in Europe, in America the film was badly marketed, released under the non-representative title “A Fistful of Dynamite,” and basically forgotten for decades. After a series of quality home video releases, the film is finally getting its dues as one of Leone’s most evocative and powerful works.

In 1913, Mexico is a country besieged by political unrest, with a tyrannical government repressing a burgeoning revolution. Juan and his family of bandits have no need for revolution. His only need for the rich is when he steals from them. Chance circumstances has him meeting John Mallory, a former member of the Irish Republican Army and an explosive experts. Juan drafts Mallory in his quest to rob a near-by bank. A series of unexpected events has Juan and John working with the revolution, fighting for the people and fighting to survive.

Through his career, Sergio Leone’s films became increasingly political. The first two films in the Dollars Trilogy were totally apolitical before “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” introduced an anti-war element. “Once Upon a Time in the West,” meanwhile, dealt with the balance of power and money that makes things happen. “Duck, You Sucker!” is his most political movie yet. It allies itself with the peasants. An early scene has Juan brought onto a stagecoach full of rich folks. He’s presented like a circus freak. The passenger berate the poor as disgusting, impure, dumb, and like animals, with some old fashion racism thrown in too. The camera focuses on their mouths as they shovel more food in, their opinions filling the air like an ugly cacophony. The film makes it clear that the poor benefit neither from tyranny nor from war. In a scene that is both touching and funny, Juan says the people who benefit from revolution aren’t the ones that fight and end up dead.

The film declares its political alliance from its opening minute with a quote from Mao Tse-tung about how “the revolution is an act of violence.” “Duck, You Sucker!” was made in reaction to the growing population of Zapata Westerns. A late period variation on the spaghetti westerns, the Zapata western had heavy political slants that they engage in fully. “Run, Man, Run!” and its sequels are probably the best known example of this type of film. During the political upheaval in Europe during the late sixties and seventies, the films became popular. Leone, however, was not impressed with the way these movies glorified revolution. The director was determined to make a movie that showed revolution as the ugly act is that leaves many, many people dead.

Not everyone involved in the war effort is especially passionate about the political cause either. The first character we meet in “Duck, You Sucker!” is Juan. Played by Rod Steiger, Juan is bandit who does not take his new status as a hero of the revolution well. Juan is a scoundrel. He has no problem killing, as long as it makes him money. After robbing the stagecoach at the beginning, he effectively forces himself on the sole female passenger. (Though her reaction is somewhat difficult to read.) The character shares roots with Tuco and Cheyenne, as a dirty thief with an odd sense of honor. Greed motivates him but it’s not the only thing that matter. His family means the world to him, his six sons from six mothers and his elderly father. They are his crew, helping him pull off heists, and their bond throws them together. How an amoral seeker of gold, albeit one with a lot of love for his family, accidentally becomes a revolutionary is the vein of the film that powers the whole thing. Steiger doesn’t entirely master the Mexican accent but his performance is committed and powerful, with plenty of humor and pathos.

The other half of the central duo is James Coburn as John. As with Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Leone had wanted to work with Coburn for some time. He had been approached for both the Man with No Name and Harmonica. Mallory is better suited to Coburn’s talents then either of those parts. John is a bit of a rogue. He has an almost fetishic love of explosives and sure likes to blow shit up. As a revolutionary himself, he sympathizes with the struggling rebels of Mexico. Like Steiger, Coburn does not entirely nail the character’s Irish accent. Coburn’s impish smile fits the character’s mischievous sense of humor. However, his deep eyes suggests John’s inner pain and meloncholey memories. Coburn is ideally cast in the part and it might be my favorite performance of his.

There are other actors and characters in “Duck, You Sucker!” but Steiger and Coburn are the stars of their show. The entire story is built around their relationship. When released in America as “A Fistful of Dynamite,” the movie was oddly sold as comedic. Calling the movie a comedy is more then a little disingenuous but “Duck, You Sucker!” is funny in spots. Upon realizing John’s skill with explosives, Juan imagines a religious banner over his head, reading “the Bank of Mesa Verde.” The back-and-forth the guys have is worth plenty of chuckles, especially when Juan finds John after missing his train. (Also funny: Mallory’s title-lending catch phrase. He frequently shouts “Duck, you sucker!” whenever a bomb is about to go off. What makes this is funny is, apparently, Sergio Leone believed this to be a common English phrase.) The friendship the two form is fraught at first, one solely of convenience. As their adventure goes on, they begin to rely on each other, liking each other’s humor. Both men realize the other is worth more then their appearance suggests.

In time, John is all Juan has. Though it starts off fairly light-hearted, the movie becomes darker in tone as it goes on. The turning point comes after Juan returns to his lair following a gun fight. The camera focus on Steiger’s face as he walks through the cave, his eyes watering. He mentions to John that he had never counted his family before. As the camera pulls back, we realize what has happened. John’s family is dead, executed by the military while he was away. Leone allows the scene to go on. He looks into the actors’ eyes, on the losses and sadness they’re feeling. The effect on the audience is immediate. From this point on, “Duck, You Sucker!” becomes darker, sadder and more violent. The men keep on fighting. Each other and the cause is the only thing keeping them going.

Surging beneath the film and powering it is Ennio Morricone’s score. As in previous collaborations, Morricone composes a different theme for each of the main characters. Juan is associated with plucking strings. Strange vocalizations, a toad-like croaking, also identifies with the character. John, meanwhile, has a more sweeping, romantic theme. An odd vocalization greets him as well. Halfway between a word and a sound, the chorus sings the name “Sean” repeatedly until it looses it meaning. (Sean is seemingly Mallory’s real name, if you’re wondering what the significance is.) Morricone’s music builds into a grand, melancholic theme. It’s perhaps my favorite score the composer has ever written.

As a war movie and a western, “Duck, You Sucker!” doesn’t lack action. As the alternate title of “A Fistful of Dynamite” suggests, the movie is filled with explosions. Coburn is introduced with a massive, dusty explosion that blows a hole in the mountain side. Later on, a church, a bank vault, a bridge, and a line of executioners all fall to John’s dynamite. The film concludes with a massive train crash, an impressive display of destruction. As for shoot-outs, the movie has got that too. Steiger’s break-in into the bank vault features some great sliding, sneaking, and shooting. An exciting moment has the two men pouring machine gun fire down on a bridge full of soldiers. By the finale, the film explodes into full-on war. Though less focused on chaos and gunfights then Leone’s other movies, “Duck, You Sucker!” is still likely to entertain action fans.

Another Leone trademark present in “Duck, You Sucker!” is the use of flashbacks. Throughout the film, we catch glimpses of John’s past. We see him frolicking with his best friend and his girlfriend, riding together and laughing. Morricone’s powerful, sad music plays over each scene, the flashbacks being otherwise silent. Through this device, and with zero exposition, we learn everything we need to know about the character. How he became involved with the revolution, why he left Ireland, and what those he lost meant to him. The final flashback even adds an interesting layer of ambiguity to the relationship John had with his best friend and the girl. It’s a poetic, beguiling choice and something that endlessly intrigues me about the film.

Lastly, “Duck, You Sucker!” looks gorgeous. As always, the director fills his movie with as many wide-screen shots as possible. A notable one is when a crowd of people swarm on Juan as he leaves a train. The epic action, with its crashing trains and explosions, are perfectly captured by Leone’s camera. The use of close-ups have never felt this intimate and personal before, the characters’ struggles and feelings being clear on their faces. As always, the contrast between the sweeping landscapes and the lingering close-ups marks the film as both a historical epic and a movie of great emotion.

The film ends tragically, suddenly, with a huge explosion. In the following silence, the survivor asks what he should do next. The title then flashes on-screen, answering his question. “Duck, you sucker!” Unappreciated for years, the film has quickly become recognized as one of the director’s many masterpieces. One of its several alternate tittles is “Once Upon a Time… the Revolution.” This neatly fits the film into the center of another trilogy, a trio of movies set during important historical events about hard men and the bonds they share. It's probably my favorite Leone film. [Grade: A]

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