Wednesday, May 11, 2011

OVERLOOKED: Duck, You Sucker (1971)

In the annals of filmmaking there are some names that are uncontestable when it comes to their contribution to the craft. Whether it is through their ingenuity, execution, impact, or overall style there is a short list of filmmakers who always delivered the goods. Among this short list of uncompromising visionaries is famed Italian filmmaker, Sergio Leone. Spanning more than four decades as a filmmaker with only a dozen titles to his credit as director, Leone developed his craft for more than a decade as an assistant and second unit director in Italian cinema. This old school approach to filmmaking is seldom seen today, but shows in the quality of his work when compared to most contemporary and independent filmmakers who think because they like movies they can make one. That is simply not the case and no degree from the most prestigious film school can compensate for experience, which Leone had in spades.

From his first uncredited credit as an assistant director on
Bicycle Thieves (1948), Leone rose to prominence as an auteur in the 1960s with his highly successful Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)). The films, which featured American actors Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, all received distribution in the U.S. and opened Hollywood’s doors to Leone. In typical Hollywrong fashion they wanted to exploit the filmmaker and insisted that he continue with the western genre, which he helped revolutionize. Over the next eighteen years Leone developed another trilogy of historical action oriented dramas that appropriately began in the old west and ultimately ended in the late 1960s, incorporating one hundred years of character driven history. These films are Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Duck, You Sucker (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

Bookended by historically romantic fables, the middle chapter in this trilogy often gets overlooked by fans and filmgoers alike, despite having just as much merit and polished perfection as his other films. Content aside, fans of his work will recognize his technical craftsmanship instantly. From the opening shots, which lead into an establishing sequence, Duck, You Sucker is signature Leone. It is odd because initially Leone wasn’t going to direct the film, he was just going to produce. It was at the insistence of his lead actors that Leone directed the film.

The film stars Rod Steiger and James Coburn as a pair of culturally diverse renegades whom ultimately become partners and finally friends. Steiger plays Juan, a Mexican bandito whose only concern in life is for himself and his six bastard sons who act as his gang. All of this character development and back story is established within that first elaborate robbery sequence. Steiger’s cunning as an actor is a trait that he shares with his character, Juan. Overall his performance is reminiscent of Eli Wallach’s in Leone’s earlier picture, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966). In fact, Steiger’s portrayal of Juan is more like Tuco (from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)), fused with Daffy Duck and Speedy Gonzalez from the Looney Tunes. His eccentric, exaggerated enthusiasm, coupled with his self-centered, cut-throat sensibilities gives Juan a larger than life persona that dominates the screen.

Coburn, on the other hand, is constantly keeping Steiger’s character in check. His subtle entrance in the film, about 20 minutes in, quickly turns explosive – literally. Coburn plays John Malloy, an ex-IRA bomber who was fighting in the Irish revolution and wound up hiding out in Mexico. It is instantly understood that Malloy is a complete, total, and utter badass as he roams the desert alone, armed to the teeth with highly unstable explosives. A quick demonstration with a single drop of nitroglycerine is all it takes to get Juan’s, and the audience’s, attention. Shrouded in mystery, Malloy’s story is slowly revealed throughout the film in a series of flashbacks to his time in Ireland leading up to the revolution. His cool demeanor always prevails, exhibiting both confidence and intelligence. Strangely, his character seems to be in tune with the attributes of Bugs Bunny, also from the Looney Tunes troop. Together Juan and Malloy are a comical, destructive duo if ever there was one and watching their relationship grow over the course of the film is enough to warrant watching it, action and adventure aside.

As with all of Leone’s films, the one constant star, aside from the actors on the screen, is Ennio Moriconne’s score. Duck, You Sucker was the fifth collaboration between Leone and Morricone and despite the familiar elements involved, the score remains distinct from any of their previous work. Once again vocal arrangements were used as instrumentation to create an effective presence within the score, a method they had explored it in their earlier collaborations. The main theme is on par with anything Morricone composed for Leone’s more prominent westerns and is considered by some to have in fact surpassed his earlier achievements. Regardless, it is at least worth a listen and is capable of standing alone from the film.

Quite possibly the biggest reason for Duck, You Sucker not getting the recognition and acclaim of Leone’s other films is that it faced many makeovers upon release. The film was heavily cut to censor much of the political turmoil depicted in the scenes involving the Mexican revolution. The studio also wanted the film to have a broader audience and cut the film down further to acquire a PG rating. Upon being re-issued the film was given a new title. In the United States it was re-titled “A Fistful of Dynamite” to let audiences know there was some relation to the dollars trilogy. In Europe the film was re-titled, “Once Upon a Time…The Revolution,” to associate it with Once Upon a Time in the West, which had been very successful overseas. The only thing these efforts did was help the film fall into obscurity.

Thanks to restorative efforts Duck, You Sucker did make it to DVD in its intended presentation. Its funny to think of a film being censored for its content based on the context of the time in which it is made, especially when it is a history piece set 50+ years in the past. Films are supposed to be reflective of the time in which they are made. Its what gives them substance and creates a lasting impact. The filmmaker’s vision is the project’s foundation. Once it is compromised it is just a matter of time before the whole thing begins to crumble. Had the film remained consistent, both in title and content, then the audience would have accepted it easier.

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