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Duck You Sucker!: Special Edition

The Sergio Leone Anthology

The most striking fact of Sergio Leone's career is its brevity. He officially directed just seven films (although he did some uncredited work and some scene pickups throughout his career, and trained as an assistant director on Bicycle Thieves). His official directorial debut was 1961's Colossus of Rhodes, which is mostly ignored today. But every title after is canonical: There's the "Man with no Name" trilogy, which was followed by Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker!, a gap of 13 years, and then his final effort, 1984's Once Upon a Time in America. Even directors as revered as Martin Scorsese or John Ford could not claim such a batting average. Thus, part of the appeal of 1971's Giu la Testa ("Duck You Sucker!") is that it's the most underrated of Leone's works. When released in the United States, it failed to connect as his previous westerns had, and thus it was re-titled "Fistful of Dynamite" to tie in with the "No Name" trilogy, while the original running time of 157 minutes was shorn down to 138, and then 120. Until now, there hasn't been an authentic release of the full, uncut version (even the Laserdisc version ran a few minutes short). It's also easy to see why a western about the Mexican Revolution didn't have the cultural impact of Leone's earlier films: He was making an expressly political film about the cultural tumult of the era, and Duck was meant to be a commentary on both the horrors and the romanticizing of rebellion.

Opening with a quote from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung about the unpleasant violence of revolution, the narrative begins with a colony of ants being pissed upon (which is as heavy as the metaphorical content gets). The urinator is Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), who thereafter boards a stagecoach, saying he needs to visit his dead mother. Of course this is a ruse, and he and his family stop the coach and steal all the valuables, and then Juan rapes the sole female passenger. Juan then runs across John Mallory (James Coburn) riding on a motorcycle. Curious, he shoots out one of John's tires. John warns against such shots, since his pockets are lined with dynamite and he also has some nitroglycerine. Juan sees the connection of their names and (more importantly) John's explosives as a chance to rob a real bank. John goes on without him, but the two catch up to each other, and John is persuaded. What Juan doesn't know is that the bank is now being used as a political prison, and in saving all the captured inmates, he becomes a revolutionary hero. John is also part of Zapata's movement — in fact, he's an IRA member on the run from local authorities, and he's nothing if not amused by Juan's now pivotal role in the struggle. Juan pays a price for his involvement, but learns to hate the enemy, while John is motivated by guilt at events that the film flashes back to before any final revelation — much as in Once Upon a Time in the West.

*          *          *

Like Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Duck You Sucker! is made interesting partly by its troubled release. Leone was trying to expand the "spaghetti western" genre he made famous while using it to comment on the world at large. He was frustrated with phony radicals, and he was looking to reveal the genuine violence of revolution, and in particular the irony of such struggles, which make heroes of murderers. Such points to part of the reason why Sergio Leone has been embraced by the public and critics alike: There's always more going on in his films than just set-pieces and great action. Duck You Sucker! is about the evolution of the western genre, turning from Civil War refugees and Old West gunslingers to the early 20th century and gunmen who were never all that noble to begin with. Leone was still working with his regular support staff, with the score here by Ennio Morricone (their partnership remains one of cinema's greatest), while his innovative use of voices as score is brilliant. The usually difficult and prickly Steiger gives a great comedic performance in a role that was modeled on Eli Wallach's Tucco character in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (in fact the role was originally written for Wallach), and the strange partnership with Coburn works — Steiger's energy meshes well with Coburn's iconic reserve. Few actors could do so much with so little, and Coburn has one of cinema's great, iconographic faces. But that Duck You Sucker was mangled and lost only adds to its value. This is the rarest gem of a short directorial career.

MGM's two-disc DVD release of Duck You Sucker! offers a very good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track alongside the original mono mix (DD 1.0). This complete, restored version offers few opportunities to note what was cut and what wasn't — it's uniformly excellent, considering the movie's troubled reception. Extras on Disc One consist of a commentary by Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, while Disc Two kicks off with several featurettes, including "The Myth of Revolution — Sir Christopher Frayling discusses Sergio Leone," which is a bit more Sucker-specific than the title suggests (22 min.), "Sergio Donati Remembers Duck You Sucker!" (7 min.), while "Once Upon a Time in Italy (The Autry Exhibition)" offers a tour of a museum presentation of Leone artifacts that was scheduled to open in 2005 (6 min.), which indicates just how long this DVD was delayed. "Sorting Out the Versions" reviews multiple cuts of the film and deleted scenes (12 min.), "Restoration Italian Style" offers insights into how this most recent version was arrived at (6 min.), while "Location Comparisons" shows 2004 vistas of the film's locations (10 min.). Also included are six radio spots, the film's theatrical trailer, and bonus trailers. Dual-DVD keep-case. Also available in the eight-disc digipak "The Sergio Leone Anthology."
—DSH



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