Sergio Leone Retrospective
Wednesday 7/23 2:00pm
The original trailer for Duck, You Sucker!, advertised under its alternate title, A Fistful of Dynamite
If the notion that Sergio Leone has, among the lesser known works in his filmography, a movie called Duck, You Sucker!, starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger, and that AFI is showing the uncut version featuring almost 40 minutes of footage originally lopped out for being too violent, profane, or politically sensitive, does not cause you to get out your calendar and plan your week around being able to catch a screening, then I’m afraid we have very different cinematic priorities, mi amigo.
For those who are unfamiliar, Spaghetti Westerns are Italian-made films, usually set in the historical western U.S. and often featuring one American star. Though the genre continues to influence filmmakers to this day, the initial batch of films under this umbrella were made in the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. Either because of language and cultural barriers or due to more purposeful motives on the part of the filmmakers, these movies subverted and updated the motifs of classic American westerns by making their protagonists more complex and conflicted, themes and conflicts less black-and white, and violence and other questionable content more graphic.
Duck, You Sucker is not only a prime example of a Spaghetti Western, directed by one of the genre’s seminal and most iconic figures, but also of a ‘Zapata Western,’ a sub-genre named after the peasant revolution leader Emiliano Zapata, including films set in and around Mexico during the time of the Mexican Revolution and featuring more overt political themes. The general character template for these movies, according to Wikipedia, consists of 1) an ignorant native bandit with a gang or family that symbolizes the importance of community to the native and provides expendable characters for action sequences; AND 2) an American or European outsider who is very knowledgeable about the politics of revolution and uses the native and his skills for personal gain.
In Duck, we are introduced to the native Juan Miranda (Steiger)—a very rough looking, seemingly dopey and bumbling Mexican migrant—through the film’s opening shot of a stream of his urine hitting an ant nest. He is immediately contrasted with the genteel, mannered group of wealthy passengers on a coach that, along with Juan and his family, factor into a fantastically engaging and suspenseful opening sequence. I don’t want to give away any surprises, but we soon learn that Juan is much savvier, and even less morally scrupulous, than originally meets the eye.
The story gets underway when the Miranda clan crosses paths with former Irish Republican Army freedom fighter and explosives expert John Mallory (Coburn). Realizing that they are each other’s analogues (even having essentially the same name) and that John’s considerable skills will be of use, Juan convinces John to team up with him to carry out a raid on the Mesa Verde National Bank. Initially only interested in his own financial gain from the robbery, Juan gradually becomes caught up in the events and bigger picture of the revolution.
Though Spaghetti Westerns had previously been a blind spot for me, in a relatively short period of time last year I saw five Sergio Corbucci films (Sergio must be Italian for, like, John; the co-writer on Duck is named Sergio Donati), including The Great Silence and Django, to which Tarantino’s Django Unchained paid very explicit homage in its first act. Remarkably, Duck was my first Leone film (I plan to rectify this travesty promptly) and the only one I was able to make it to during AFI’s retrospective.
I find it necessary to put these caveats on the table before I mention that I was genuinely surprised by the way that Duck took such a serious turn toward the philosophical, the political, and the empathic in its second half, after what I found to be a more expected adventurous, humorous (albeit darkly so), playful first half. Once the action moves past the bank robbery, itself the setting for a nifty twist, Juan (and the audience) begins to become aware of the gravity and tragedy of the Mexican government and army’s subjugation of and violence toward the revolutionaries. As the situation begins to affect Juan’s family and as his friendship with John deepens, he begins to develop a real sense of wanting to find his place in the cause.
Upon its U.S. release in 1972, a hefty chunk of the film was cut out for aforementioned reasons; when it initially flopped at the box office, it was re-released with its title changed from Duck, You Sucker (the ominous line uttered by John when he’s about to detonate explosives) to A Fistful of Dynamite (in an attempt to capitalize on Leone’s earlier hit A Fistful of Dollars). At its full original length of 2 hours and 40 minutes, there are a few saggy stretches and a handful of slow-mo, soft focus, flashback sequences of John’s time in Ireland that weigh down the proceedings more than offer much insight into present circumstances. But these shortcomings were more than made up for by some jaw-dropping set pieces (like the explosion of a bridge that Mexican troops are crossing); Ennio Morricone's simple but effective, almost proto-synthy score; and Leone's effortless knack for visual storytelling. Shots like the one above, of Juan spying from behind one of many ubiquitous portraits of Governor Don Jaime through a slit he's sliced in the canvas, call attention to themselves in a manner that is not always to my liking in other films, but in this case they are so striking and inventive that they end up being sheer pleasure.
Recommended, but I would recommend even more enthusiastically Corbucci’s The Great Silence, to date my favorite Spaghetti Western that I’ve seen. Looking forward to further exploring this genre!
James Whale is best known for directing the first two entries in the Frankenstein franchise, but his career includes a handful of lesser known films dealing with World War I, no doubt inspired by his time as an officer in the British Army during that conflict.
AFI is screening three of them this week, Journey’s End (1930), Waterloo Bridge (1931), and The Road Back (1937), an adaptation of Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet On The Western Front, as part of their Cinema and the Great War series.
If you’re interested in James Whale, you must see, if you haven’t already, Bill Condon’s 1998 film Gods and Monsters, starring Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave, and Ian McKellen as Whale.