(1971) dir. Sergio Leone
Duck, You Sucker, known alternately as both A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time… the Revolution, both titles more easily associated with the brilliant director and co-writer of the film, Sergio Leone (he of A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) as well as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984)), is perhaps one of the lesser recognized of his films. I’d seen it more than a decade ago on video and on some whim put it back up on my queue.
This newest DVD version of the film has an excellent commentary track by a British film historian and Leone biographer who has much to offer. I do not make a practice of listening to commentary tracks on the whole unless its a historian or critic, and even then, I rarely listen to it all. I ended up hanging in with this one longer than I had intended. It was quite enlightening.
The film is set during the Mexican Revolution, featuring a peasant bandido (Rod Steiger) and his tribe of sons and fellows who happens upon an ex-IRA explosives expert (James Coburn) with whom he tries to team up with to rob a bank. Dupe after dupe, duper gets duped and Coburn’s character tricks Steiger’s character to join in the revolution, which is what has brought him to Mexico in the first place.
Though the film starts with the polemic words of Mao Tse-Tung “(a) revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence…”, the film has a somewhat subversive attitude about revolution and socialism, though it’s is clearly set against fascism. The political subtext is quite significant and surprisingly erudite and intelligent.
Of course, I love Leone for his visual surprises, his visual language, contrasting extreme close-ups with wide-angle shots of open desert and grand vistas with huge crowds. It’s truly epic, as his films increasingly were. But some of the visual play is so clever and pleasing. In one shot, the camera starts looking in the distance about a set of peasants who are about to be executed by shooting. The camera pans slowly over to the left, moving away from the violence while the voice-over of the commandante is counting off the orders of execution. The camera happens upon some posters that bear the image of the current presidente, the figurehead of the soon to be toppled government. But, as soon as the camera settles on the poster, a pair of fingers start ripping the poster from the side, tearing a stripe across the president’s face, which is funny enough, but then Steiger’s face appears, peering through the newly cut slat to view the execution.
It’s a lot to describe, sure, but it’s that type of visual play that tells the story all the way through. Leone plays the story and scenes out with turns of fate, holding off on the really telling element until the drama has paused, tricking the viewer. His play is alive in the relationship of Steiger and Coburn, who both are quite great despite some largely painful accents.
It’s a pretty brilliant film. It’s fun, but not without depth. In some ways, it feels much darker than Leone’s other Westerns (though I haven’t seen Once Upon a Time in the West in an even longer time. I recall it being quite dark.) Leone is a brilliant filmmaker, one of my favorites.