- Sergio Leone
- James Coburn, Rod Steiger, Rik Battaglia, Romolo Valli
- 157 min.
- Release Date
Up to 1971, Sergio Leone’s films suggested meaning through their operatic tone and lack of dialogue; silence, however long held during a standoff, adds implied depth without words. Zapata or “Spaghetti” Westerns can contain social commentaries (often on America’s capitalist obsession with money and the robbery thereof), but are primarily tooled for stylistic capacity. Often, political events are used as plot devices—for example, one feels the Civil War interlude in Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly may be out of place and that the brief political statements in these few scenes do not vastly affect the rest of the picture.
Not so with Leone’s last great Western, Duck, You Sucker (Giù la testa) formerly known as A Fistful of Dynamite, and what in Leone’s hopes would have been called Once Upon a Time…the Revolution. Opening titles show a quote from Marxist political leader Mao Tse-tung that reads: “The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing board or an embroidery; it can not be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence…” With this warning launches Leone’s most established, yet least personal film. After artistic and financial successes from his hugely popular ‘The Man with No Name’ Trilogy, Leone’s Duck, You Sucker humanizes his protagonists, otherwise skewed by Zapata temperament. It is also his most clearly political film.
In a meandering plot, much like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s, Leone introduces antiheroes galore. Rather than Tuco (Ugly) and Blondie (Good), we get Rod Steiger’s thieving Mexican Juan Miranda and his reluctant partner John Mallory—an ex-Irish revolutionary and explosives expert played by James Coburn. Together, in Leone’s grandiose, episodic Western style, the two seek to rob an idyllic bank in Mesa Verde. Like a diptych, another panel opens when their robbery plans go awry and thrust them deep into the Mexican Revolution of 1913, where Miranda’s false heroism brings him celebrity and Mallory’s explosives provide ample bang.
Duck, You Sucker has no single villain—no evil cowboy dressed in black to draw out a long-anticipated final duel. In addition to Mexican General Huerta (played by Italian-born actor Franco Graziosi), a German Colonel Federale played by French actor Antoine Saint-John appears throughout the film with barely a line of dialogue to sustain him. Leone needs but a few concise shots of Saint-John’s skinny, unsympathetic face to guide the viewer into hatred for the character. In true Leone fashion, this story is told through images. More visceral than any iconic line of dialogue (save for the title), a massive bridge explosion shot in super slow motion dropped my jaw as one of the most impressive examples of filmic pyrotechnics ever captured. Any complexity found in Coburn’s Mallory character is described in silent, soft-filtered flashbacks expressing in pictures his own revolutionary past (the final flashback has caused never-ending debates as to its meaning). These images, like the long-held close-ups found in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, contain all that needs to be said. Leone’s Western epics rarely follow linear, plot-driven storytelling; his narratives revolve around moods and feelings expressed by long takes and ambitious camerawork.
Critics of Duck, You Sucker or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly often point out how these films are imbibed with wanderlust, floating from scene to scene without a set path. Leone realizes that, during revolution or wartime, virtues are bought and sold for money or political righteousness. Tse-tung’s point was specifically that revolution is not organized or pleasant. There is neither “hero” nor “villain”. Mallory and Miranda are killers and thieves. One of the film’s first scenes includes the robbery and rape of aristocrats by Miranda’s peasant gang. Signifying the push-and-pull conflict revolution applies to its participators, Leone’s antiheroes often appear morally ambiguous, however sympathetic in comparison to the Federales. As viewers we must deconstruct what at face-value are two criminals, and with our efforts realize that this is a story about two men lost inside a greater political concept—an out-of-character concept for Leone’s work until then, and one that he would repeat thirteen years later in Once Upon a Time in America.
The phenomenal cast is headed by Western legend James Coburn, who had been contacted by Leone more than once in the past to star in A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West, but he refused both parts. Whatever the reasons for his reluctance, Coburn was finally convinced after receiving Henry Fonda’s stamp of approval on Leone, as Fonda had just finished working with the director on Once Upon a Time in the West. Eli Wallach was originally cast as Miranda but United Artists replaced him with Steiger. So impressed with his experience with Leone on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Wallach lingered around for much of the production, hoping to be recast as Miranda. Leone left Wallach to wait and the actor was ultimately ignored.
At first averse to directing the film, Leone eventually took the helm, but only after Peter Bogdanovich and Giancarlo Santi were denied the director’s chair by actor Rod Steiger. Ironically, it turned out to be one of the director’s most important films. Paramount produced Leone’s 1968 artistic masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West, arguably Leone’s best work, which flopped at theaters. United Artists, producers of Duck, You Sucker, hoped to avoid another 3-hour flop. For U.S. theaters, producers cut the film to 138 minutes and released it under the aforementioned A Fistful of Dynamite title. In various VHS and Laserdisc editions, this film’s running time has jumped around endlessly, anywhere from 120 minutes to 162 minutes. Restored to 157 minutes on a new MGM 2-disc DVD, Duck, You Sucker is now available in its most complete form yet on U.S. home video.
With themes running deeper than simply reinventing Western tropes previously reinvented by Leone on A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, Leone travels long distances from his Western debut to forage new ground (where he began by stealing the plot (and one suspects the storyboards) from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo without noting owed credit). Duck, You Sucker remains as grimy and ruthless as Leone’s previous Zapata films, cautiously exploring foggy notions otherwise clear in Westerns previous to 1960. Except, here Leone refuses to side with left-wing filmmakers normally associated with “Spaghetti” Westerns, and in fact speaks against fascism. Strangely for him, he conveys a humanist argument, one where individuals rather than ideas prevail.