Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Duck, You Sucker!
Duck, You Sucker! (or A Fistful of Dynamite) is one of Sergio Leone's oddest and most problematic films, and not just for the silly title. I've seen the 138 minute cut numerous times until my old VHS tape gave out last year, and in that form I always considered it one of Leone's lesser efforts. I finally got to see the extended 155 minute cut in my Topics in Film Class last fall (as part of a larger unit on Leone) and I loved it. A rewatch last night, however, confirmed that my problems weren't merely with the editing of the truncated version, but with the film itself. It's not in the same league as Leone's masterpieces - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the Once Upon a Times - and it's as frustrating and problematic as Once Upon a Time in America, and not nearly as rewarding. In Groggy-speak though, it's Leone's equivalent of Doctor Zhivago or Major Dundee - a fascinating film whose myriad flaws make it all the more interesting.
The film takes the general form of the Zapata Westerns, the subgenre of Spaghettis which transposed political issues of the '60s and '70s onto Mexico's various revolutions. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) is a grotesque Mexican bandit who comes across John Mallory (James Coburn), an IRA terrorist working in revolutionary Mexico as a miner/terrorist. Miranda decides that Mallory's "holy water" - he is a walking munitions dump, replete with nitroglycerin, dynamite and bombs of all sort - will be perfect for his plans to rob the Mesa Verde bank, and he none-too-gently persuades John to join him. Eventually they arrive in Mesa Verde, but when Juan robs the bank, he finds that it's been turned into a political prison for captured revolutionaries. Unwittingly drawn into the Mexican Revolution by his "friend", Juan finds himself in the cross-hairs of counter-revolutionary troops led by the brutal Gunther Ruiz (Antoine Saint-John), leading to an escalating amount of violence and brutality - with little or no hope of escape.
Leone's film is somewhat schizophrenic. It's obviously intended as a critique of the Zapata films, whose attempts at political commentary more often than not turned into juvenile, unconsidered Marxism (see A Bullet For the General for the most egregious example). The first half of the movie (save the bizarre and powerful opening scene) is more in line with Leone's adventurous and violent Dollars trilogy than the mature and elegiac Once Upon a Time in the West, but it takes an abrupt turn after the bank robbery and becomes a somber political film. Its nihilism, however, proves much more interesting than the sophomoric leftism practiced by most of its peers.
The opening scene is the most-discussed part of the film, and certainly worth examining. As Juan hitches a ride on a luxurious stagecoach, filled with a cross-section of upper-class society. The scene quickly turns into a grotesque parody of Eisenstein, showing extreme close-ups of the aristocrats as they eat and mock their fellow passenger. The political message of this scene is obvious and completely unsubtle; but lest we have too much sympathy with Juan and his peasant class, the scene is abruptly interrupted by a stage robbery - engineered by Juan's family. Juan's family robs the passengers and inflicts humilitation on them - stripping the men naked, raping the aristocratic woman (Maria Monti) who had earlier fantasized about the promiscuity of peasants like Juan, and they are ultimately dumped into a pig sty. Leone immediately stakes out his position, immediately perverting the revolutionary ideal - the simple peasant rising up against his capitalist oppressor - with an overt display of vulgarity and violence. It's a difficult scene to watch at times, but nonetheless it works, effectively foreshadowing what's to come.
Leone continually presses home the futility of revolutionary politics. Juan's big speech about the futility of Revolution is rather obvious but manages to be one of the most pointed things any film has ever said about this issue. Rejecting the romanticized view of his fellow Spaghetti directors - Damiano Damiani and Sergio Corbucchi most notably - Leone sees Revolution as something bloody, and ultimately futile. The movie reinforces this message with its almost endless scenes of massacre - most notably the death of Juan's family at the hands of Ruiz's men (unseen except for the tragic aftermath), the execution of men betrayed by revolutionary leader Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli), and the crane shot of prisoners being slaughtered en masse by the retreating Federales. There are perhaps a bit too many of these scenes, but they serve their purpose within the story. Revolution is a violent, bloody thing, with men like Villega benefitting as the proletariats and peasants die en masse. And only rarely is anything actually achieved but a repositioning of the status quo - as the futile cycle of coups and warfare that engulfed Mexico itself from 1910-1921 proved.
The film nonetheless has a number of flaws which prevent it from reaching the status of Leone's masterpieces. One of the movie's biggest problems are the villains and supporting characters. Gunther Ruiz (Antoine Saint-John, of The Wind and the Lion), the presumably German officer who provides our main antagonist, is a weakling with little screentime and few dialogues; the most menacing thing he does in the film is viciously brush his teeth. His henchmen are pushovers, making Darth Vader's Stormtroopers look competent by comparison, thus creating little dramatic tension in the later parts of the film. Other seemingly important characters - Rik Battaglia's revolutionary general, Franco Graziosi's crooked Governor - flit in and out of the story seemingly at random, without making any real impression. Our main characters and Villega are interesting personages, but the world they move through is full of ciphers. Perhaps that's the point - the Revolution is the villain, not any individual - but the fact that Leone sets up such characters and then abandons them (without their having much to do to begin with) proves problematic.
Another problem is that the film suffers from serious problems of pacing. The film's first hour or so is leisurely build-up, establishing characters and conflicts, but as it makes it shift into more serious territory it stumbles a bit. The movie jumps quickly from John and Juan's battle with Ruiz at the bridge, to the grotto massacre, to the night-time executions, with little transition between these scenes. The individual scenes are powerful enough, but the quick transitions between them seem jarring and disconcerting; only during John and Juan's train journey does the film fully regain its footing. John's flashbacks are also a bit overdone - the final one in particular goes on beyond all reason and goes from poignant to ridiculous. The movie also has a few odd moments of cartoonishness - most notably Juan's vision of John with a Bank of Mesa Verde banner glowing above his head - which are jarring and don't seem to have much purpose, amusing as some of them are.
Technically, Leone is at the top of his game. He makes wonderful use of editing and juxtaposting close-ups with landscapes throughout. He handles the action scenes with aplomb and the more intimate sequences are also skillfully directed. Although Giuseppi Ruzzolini is not quite a distinguished a cinematographer as Tonino Delli Colli, he still manages to make the rugged Almerian plains eerily beautiful, as well as the beautifully shot Ireland sequences. Ennio Morricone's eclectic and decidedly quirky score - especially the jaunty Sean Sean Sean theme sequeing into Edda Dell'Orso's beautiful soprano - is a bit jarring at first but contributes beautifully to the film.
Rod Steiger gives a decidedly grotesque performance as Juan. His character certainly comes across as a pale pastiche of Eli Wallach's Tuco, only more vulgar and overtly violent. Steiger indulges his hammier instincts, with a ridiculously comic accent. And yet, Steiger manages to draw some pathos out of his character - not surprisingly, the scene where he finds his dead sons is remarkably affected - not the least because Steiger's mouth is shut for most of the scene. Still, his realization during the bank robbery that he's been the victim of a cruel joke by Mallory (as he finds vault after vault of political prisoners) and the poignancy of his final plea - "What about me?" - as he's left alone in the midst of a Revolution he doesn't believe in and never wanted is remarkable.
More impressive, in spite of a no-less embarrassing accent, is James Coburn. His John seems throughout to be a nihilistic dilettante, lacking any real motivation as he flits around Mexico on his motorcycle. His suicidal destructiveness, embodied by his arsenal of explosiveness, is his defining characteristic. As the film progresses, however, and the flashbacks become more clear, we discover the source of his personality - burned out by an aborted revolution in Ireland, in which he was betrayed by his best friend (David Warbeck), he is a bitter, disllusioned shell of a man with nothing to live for. However, as he sees the massive human toll of the revolution - most notably on his unlikely friend Juan - John regains some sense of purpose, and ends up going out in perhaps the ultimate blaze of glory. Coburn's given only a handful of comparable performances (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid comes to mind), and in spite of his accent is a marvellous, convincing and very human John.
The rest of the cast isn't worth mentioning, with one exception. Romolo Valli gives a layered performance as the dignified Villega - like Gabriele Ferzetti in Once Upon a Time in the West, this veteran Italian actor serves as a reserved ballast to the more flamboyant American co-stars, and like Ferzetti he gets many of the film's best dramatic moments - most notably being forced to watch the executions of the men he's betrayed.
All things considered, Duck, You Sucker is a fascinating film, however problematic. The film's message is its title - the only sane course of action is to keep out of all things political, lest you lose your head. But as Leone hopes to show, even this nihilistic recommendation isn't really possible. The key ultimately is survival - and that is difficult enough without ideological baggage.
Rating: 8/10 - Highly Recommended