You talk about striving for excellence – to a guy like me, Sergio Leone is just about the highest level of excellence any director could aspire to. He took the western genre, which had grown stale and conservative, and injected it full of his Leone brand cinematic steroid and turned it into an unstoppable super soldier version of the old beast, one so powerful it became its own genre that is still worshipped and studied by cult movie watchers to this day. All he did was five westerns bookended by a gladiator picture and a gangster epic. But those westerns contributed so much to the Badass Cinema I worship to this day that they might as well be considered its legal guardians.
Think about it: the stoic Clint Eastwood persona of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which he parlayed into an entire brilliant career and which spun off into a hundred bastard sons in the action genre, from Steven Seagal to Daniel Craig. The epic cinemascope wide shots showing the vastness of the desert, cutting to the extreme closeups on some ugly bastard’s squinty eyes, surrounded by wrinkles and lines of sweat. The ingenious use of sound – buzzing flies, some piece of metal somewhere clanging in the wind, the clicking of guns, and of course the legendary Ennio Morricone scores that are forever glued to any memory anybody ever had of these movies. Leone’s style is like a drug, it heightens all your senses. You feel like a blind man whose hearing becomes more powerful to balance out the loss of the eye sight, but then you get the eye sight back for some reason and the super-hearing stays so you go watch some westerns.
To me it seems like Leone must’ve had film spooling through his veins. He’s the definition of a guy who mastered the idea of camera angles, of sound, of music, of pacing. When I talk about what I love in movies, what I think is too often missing from movies these days, this is it – this CINEMATIC (all caps) feel, this god-like mastery of visual storytelling.
So what the fuck was I thinking NOT having seen DUCK, YOU SUCKER (also known as A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE)? This was Leone’s last western, available as an import DVD for a while but only recently released in a restored version in the US, the first time the full 157 minute Italian cut has been in English.
Now I’ve finally seen it and it’s not at all what I expected. It has all the qualities I described above, but it’s not like the Man With No Name movies. It starts out funnier and ends up darker. It’s as epic as ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (probaly my favorite Leone movie) but it’s also very political. The heroes get involved in the Mexican Revolution, and it’s Leone’s way of saying the revolutionaries of the ’60s were full of shit. I’d like to think he’s wrong, but he paints such a vivid picture of the messiness of revolution. Like Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK you see the weaknesses of people you assume are idealists and the horrors of violence even when it’s for a good cause.
But it’s also a damn good western with a weird set of protagonists. What if I were to tell you that the movie stars Rod Steiger as a Mexican (Eli Wallach style)? And that he does a good job? And that he partners up with James Coburn as a motorcycle riding Irish dynamiter?
Their first encounter is a classic. Steiger and his family have just stolen a fancy stagecoach from some upper class pricks. Suddenly a weird dude drives by on a motorcycle. Steiger is an asshole, so he shoots one of the tires out.
Coburn gets off the bike. He looks like some kind of post-apocalyptic nomad, his face covered in goggles and a handkerchief, his lanky body exaggerated by a weirdly cut trenchcoat. They have the kind of long, silent stare down that is associated with Leone and spaghetti westerns in general. This is what happens between men in the old west when one man shoots another man’s motorcycle tire out for no reason. These type of guys are always looking for fights. Always looking for stupid excuses to prove their masculinity and physical dominance.
After the long stare, Coburn strolls up to Steiger holding what appears to be a cigar, but is actually dynamite. (precisely one fist full of it.) You think he’s gonna get in his face but instead he pulls the cigar out of Steiger’s mouth, uses it to light his fuse, and walks past him like he doesn’t even see him. He tosses the explosive onto the freshly stolen stage coach and says “Duck, you sucker!” just before it blows a hole in the roof. An eye for an eye, a roof for a tire.
The politics are in there starting with the opening shot, which is Steiger peeing on an anthill. And then throughout the movie you see how the upper classes pee on the lower classes’ anthill. Not even the revolutionaries are innocent – Steiger says a revolution is where the people who read books say they need a change and then get the people who don’t read books to kill each other. You know how it is. Motherfuckers always peeing on an anthill.
But at the same time this is a really funny movie. Steiger’s dream is to rob the bank at Mesa Verde, so when he sees Coburn’s skills with explosives he tries to rope him into it. But when they get into town it turns out Coburn is involved in the Mexican revolution. They go to rob the bank as part of a coordinated series of attacks. And it’s funny to see Steiger get more and more disappointed as every vault he opens is full of political prisoners instead of money. Not only does he not get the loot, but Coburn gets to make fun of him calling him “a grand hero of the revolution.”
One point of confusion with this movie is the title. I think most Americans prefer the more badass sounding A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE, but it is kind of a misleading title since the feel is much more ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST than A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. DUCK, YOU SUCKER, it turns out, was Leone’s preferred title. It’s said at least 4 times in the movie, usually John warning Juan that he’s about to blow something up. So to me it emphasizes the friendship angle of the movie. But it relates to the Italian title which was something more like “KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN,” a double meaning for ducking the explosion and staying out of trouble during political upheaval. And his biographer says that Leone for some reason thought Americans went around saying that all the time.
The extras on the new DVD are kind of funny because they’re so contradictory. The biographer paints DUCK, YOU SUCKER as Leone’s big, personal political masterpiece, but the writer Sergio Donato says there’s “very little Leone” in the script, that he wanted Peter Bogdanavich to direct it, and tells a story about Steiger being pissed because Leone kept trying to pawn off directing duties on somebody else.
You know what’s sad, this movie was made in 1971. His next movie ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA wasn’t until 1984, and then that was the last one.