Monday, September 12, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Duck, You Sucker!" (1971)

Like a lot of Sergio Leone's films, "Duck, You Sucker!" has some big ideas lurking beneath a gaudy facade of violence and miscreant behavior. This is personified by the character of Juan Miranda, an illiterate bandit who likes to pass himself off as a meek peasant, but is quite cunning at his craft and, in his own brutish way, has a better grasp on human nature than his learned would-be betters.

"Duck," set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, was the Italian master's final Spaghetti Western and his second-to-last directorial effort. He lay fallow for 13 years before making his final picture, 1984's "Once Upon a Time in America." This served as a bookend for "Once Upon a Time in the West" from 1968.

This movie is usually slotted as the middle picture between those two, and indeed an alternate title sometimes used is "Once Upon a Time... the Revolution." Frequent collaborator Sergio Donati pitched the story to Leone while he was still filming "West." Certainly there is some thematic continuity between the two that is a bit forced when applied to "America."

But "Duck, You Sucker" also hearkens back to Leone's early Westerns, and the film was largely issued under the title "A Fistful of Dynamite" to better evoke memories of the Clint Eastwood hit. Juan's character is essentially an extension of Tuco from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" -- a sniveling thief with (deeply) hidden reservoirs of nobility.

Eli Wallach, who played Tuco, was hired for the Juan role but the studio decided he wasn't a big enough name. Wallach, who'd dropped out of another part to play for Leone, ended up suing him.

Juan is played by Rod Steiger, who's about as Mexican as I am (or Wallach, for that matter). But the character actor of German, Scottish and French stock was a classic screen chameleon who played all sorts of nationalities and creeds throughout his long and illustrious career, from European Jew to Italian-American mobster to Deep South bigot. So his casting is not as disagreeable as it might seem at first to modern sensibilities.

Besides, Leone's Spaghettis were marked by a flippant tossing aside of national boundaries, shooting stories set in the Americas on locations in Spain using largely Italian casts and crews, with actors speaking their own native language on-camera with dubbing taking over as needed.

James Coburn plays Juan's counterpart, John Mallory, an Irish IRA revolutionary on the lam after some explosive troubles back home. John is an expert in dynamite, nitroglycerin and pretty much anything else volatile. He himself presents a serene, nonchalant exterior, in contrast to the little baubles he whips up to blow up anything bothersome to him.

Their first meeting takes place about 20 minutes into the movie, after Juan has robbed a stagecoach of spoiled rich folks. Juan employs a gang comprised of his six sons, ranging in age from about 8 to 18, all by different mothers, along with his aged father and an indeterminate gaggle of add-on banditos.

Juan has used his ruse of the dumb, barefoot peon to beg entry to the coach, where he is continually insulted and his kind compared to loathsome beasts. Leone swoops his camera in for an uncomfortable series of extreme close-ups as the people gnash their food while letting loose a barrage of unpleasantries.

He gets his revenge by taking them for literally everything they've got, setting the men to march bare-assed up the road, as well as the (implied) rape of a snooty woman.

Having commandeered the elaborate coach for his roaming home base, Juan and his gang are bewildered when John comes motoring by on his bike, ignoring their threat as if it weren't there. Juan puts a bullet into the motorcycle to stop him, and John responds by coolly sauntering up and blowing a hole in the roof of Juan's royal carriage.

Juan is convinced not to plug the upstart Irishman because he's festooned from stem to stern with explosives, along with John's warning that the resulting boom would be big enough "they'll have to change the maps." After a little more back-and-forth, the thief hatches a plan to enlist the wayward bombardier, who's come to Mexico to work in the mines of a silver oligarch, to help him knock over the bank in Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde...

The very words evoke a hallucinogenic vision in Juan's mind somewhere between glory and salvation. Everything from the gates to the spittoons are made of gold, he promises. The vault is spilling over with money. Never mind that he's recalling a boyhood visit decades ago. You make the holes, Juan promises, and I'll fetch the money to split 50-50.

Noting the continuity of their names, he offers to dub their new gang "Johnny & Johnny." Maybe they'll even take their act north to the United States afterwards, mi amigo, where every little town has a ripe bank, Juan coos agreeably.

It's a fake brotherhood that eventually develops into a real one, as two men with nothing left to lose become unwitting heroes in the Revolution. Turns out the bank in Mesa Verde is housing nothing other than political prisoners these days. John knew this, having hooked up with the head honcho of the local insurgents, a physician named Villega (Romolo Valli).

With Juan tricked into heroism, the two debate the merits of the revolution. John is the sort who needs a cause to fight for, while Juan demands to know what the endeavor will gain for himself, and by extension the common man. The book-readers whip the peasantry to take up arms against injustice, he says, but after all the blood is spilled their lot never changes. They've just exchanged one set of overlords for another. He'd rather just grab the loot and go.

"What about me?" is Juan's repeated lament. At first comic, it takes a poignant turn when the "uniforms" slaughter his entire family.

John has his own history of loss and woe, as shown in flashbacks to his days in Ireland. Shot in gauzy slow motion, they depict a young John romancing a beautiful lass with a best friend joining in their revelry. Later this friend betrays him to the British, and John guns down both police and informer. David Warbeck plays this role, outfitted with a large prosthetic mole on his forehead, both to make him physically distinctive and provide a target for John's avenging bullet.

This experience is replicated when Dr. Villega is captured by the uniforms and tortured to identify revolutionaries before the firing squad. John eventually confronts Villega about his betrayal, but declines to judge him, even proclaiming him a "grand hero of the revolution" with his dying gasp.

Disillusion may be John's bread and butter, but he recognizes the importance symbols hold for others. He'd rather not make Juan drink from his own bitter cup. Let the good doctor, who sacrificed himself aboard a locomotive loaded with John's dynamite, die with grace.

"Duck, You Sucker" contains some of Leone's most ambitious camera work, including a crane shot of a mass shooting of political prisoners that deserves an iconic place in his filmography -- lines of soldiers firing down into long, deep pits of dying men, who scramble like ants set on fire by a lonely boy exploring his capacity for malevolence.

I also loved how he framed little throwaway scenes, such as Juan bidding good-bye to his sons as he and John prepare for a seemingly futile two-man assault on a column of army soldiers. As Juan embraces the boys, Dr. Villega watches on serenely while John loads a machine gun with a belt of bullets.

Any competent director can compose a great shot for the big "wow" moments in a movie. I love it when a filmmaker sneaks in elegant mise en scene when we're not looking.

As always, the great Ennio Morricone provides the score, and it's a testament to his prodigious creativity that the man never seemed to repeat himself after 500+ soundtracks. It's a combination of orchestral instruments, tinny sound effects and post-verbal singing ("shom, shom" is as close to formal language as the lyrics get).

I'm always astounded how Morricone can slalom from silliness to violent tension to grandiosity, often within the space of a few bars of melody.

It's probably the most non-political film ever made about a revolution, casting all sides of the Mexican conflict as amoral and power-hungry. It's the sort of film an angry young man makes as he transitions into middle age, and Leone, then in his early 40s, clearly evokes a sense of pointlessness that was bound to be interpreted as counterrevolutionary.

Unsurprisingly, the film was banned in Mexico until 1979.

There isn't even really a bonafide villain, though Colonel Reza (Antoine Saint-John) comes closest, an Army officer who hunts the pair after they double-handedly destroy his entire command. (John rigs a bridge with explosives, then he and Juan use machine gun fire to drive the soldiers underneath it for cover, than kaboom.)

Reza has a very Nazi SS look and feel to him (despite being played by a Frenchman), another example of Leone deliberately mixing up nationalities and political causes to suit his cinematic aesthetic.

A failure at the time of its release, "Duck, You Sucker!" has since been rediscovered by audiences and critics -- including this one -- as one of Leone's best films.

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