Duck You Sucker (1971)
Dir. Sergio Leone
Written by: Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati, Sergio Leone
Starring: Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Romolo Valli
I can’t believe I hadn’t watched this great Western until today. I’ve been a big fan of Sergio Leone since I was a teen, but his final Western, Duck You Sucker, had eluded me until a few years ago. I fell in love with Leone when I was 17 and I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for the first time. I was taken by the grandiosity of the film, its famous, epic Ennio Morricone score, Leone’s unique approach to montage and framing, and the performances of its titular trio as three outlaws whose paths are set on a collision course. I instantly wanted more films like this one, and I sought out the rest of Leone’s “Dollars trilogy,” Leone’s first three films which all starred Clint Eastwood in one of his early signature roles. I eventually tracked down Leone’s last two films, as well, Once Upon A Time in the West and Once Upon A Time in America, with the former becoming another of my very favorite films of all time, along with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Duck You Sucker, however, was a film that I didn’t even know existed until I was in my early twenties, and it was introduced to me as a somewhat “lost” Leone classic. Unlike Leone’s other films, this film was not as well received outside of his native Italy, so it didn’t gain wide distribution, and was difficult to screen until a series of remasters of Leone’s catalog in the 2000s led to its restoration and re-release on home video. I picked up a copy of the film on DVD at an FYE store that was going out of business in 2014 and it sat on my shelf, unwatched, for the next few years. When I conceived of the idea for this project, I just decided to wait until Duck You Sucker’s time came up for my initial screening. I’m glad to have finally gotten around to it, because this is a movie that I’d been anticipating for a long time, and I wish that I wouldn’t have waited so long to watch it because it is every bit as entertaining as any of Leone’s other masterful films.
Duck You Sucker, or A Fistful of Dynamite or Once Upon A Time in the Revolution, depending on which version of the film you’ve seen and where, is set in the 1910s during the Mexican Revolution. It opens with Juan Miranda (Steiger), the head of a family of bandits, waylaying a stage coach and robbing its wealthy, Anglo occupants of their belongings and money. While the family are counting their spoils, they hear a series of explosions in a nearby canyon, and a masked rider on a motorcycle emerges from the smoke and rubble. The rider is John Mallory (Coburn), a former bomb maker for the IRA, who has fled his home country and sought refuge in Mexico. Seeing John’s proficiency with explosives and noting the similarity of their names, Juan suggests that their meeting must be destiny, and attempts to convince the Irishman to help him and his family break into the National Bank in Mesa Verde. John is committed to the revolutionary cause in Mexico, and sees an opportunity to use Juan in service to the revolution, so he allows him to believe that he is on board with the robbery. When the unlikely pair of allies arrives in Mesa Verde, they find it occupied by the army and meet with other revolutionaries, led by Dr. Villega (Valli), who is orchestrating a coordinated attack in the town. Juan and John hit the bank, along with Juan’s family, as a part of this attack, but when they start blowing open vaults, they find them stuffed with political prisoners instead of cash and jewels. Juan is incensed at being tricked, but finds himself lauded as a hero of the revolution when the attack is over for his role in freeing hundreds of prisoners. With the revolutionaries on the run after the attack, Juan and his family stay with John, although the former expresses some distaste for revolutions in general, noting that though it is academics who theorize social revolution, it is the poor who are actually called to enact it with violence and loss of life. Despite these reservations, Juan helps John to destroy an army detachment by blowing up a bridge, but while Juan is away from his family, they and dozens of other revolutionaries are slaughtered by the army. Juan is heartbroken, and strikes out on his own, though he is quickly captured and is facing a firing squad. John arrives just in time to save his friend, with a well-placed stick of dynamite, and his trademark cry of, “Duck, you sucker,” and the two escape on John’s motorcycle, recommitting themselves to the revolution, and to vengeance for Juan’s murdered family.
For fans of Leone’s films, Duck You Sucker should feel familiar, as it borrows elements from his previous Westerns, and is dripping with Leone’s unmistakable directorial aesthetic. Leone’s unique vision of the American West (primarily captured through substituting Italian and Spanish locales), is evident from the first shots of the film. The sun-drenched landscape, and the sunbaked people who exist within it are similar to the ones we’ve seen in Spaghetti Westerns before. Juan and John form the same sort of unlikely duo that we’ve seen in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, teaming up to achieve a certain goal despite their differences in motive, and their initial distrust. Leone’s films are often peopled by outlaws, grifters, and malcontents, and these two feel right at home in that world. Juan is essentially a stock Leone character, one that would often by played by Eli Wallach, and John is a variation on the Man With No Name character made famous by Eastwood, although Coburn does put a unique spin on the trope. I don’t say all this to make Duck You Sucker seem derivative, because it takes these familiar elements and uses them in service of a narrative that is more nuanced and cynical than those of Leone’s earlier films, but to say that it is yet another example of a masterful filmmaker having established, and honed, his cinematic voice. Where Leone’s famous close ups and quick zooms were once mere stylistic tricks, highlighting the grimy, gritty nature of his version of the West and helping to create kinetic effects within his often still visual compositions, here they are often used in ironic counterpoint. Leone is retaining his visual style, but flipping its intended meaning on its head in service of a larger narrative argument that he’s making throughout the film.
Though he claims that he did not intend to make a political film, I don’t see any other way of reading Duck You Sucker. From the outset, the film asks its audience to consider issues of race and class, as they pertain to political revolution. Even setting aside the film’s epigraph, a quote from Mao about the necessity of violence in revolution, which was, predictably, excised from the film’s U.S. release, Duck You Sucker is still the most overtly political of all of Leone’s films. The opening stage coach scene, in which Juan is racially abused and mocked by a coach full of well-to-do Anglos, including a priest, is a perfect example of Leone using his trademark style in the service of this politically motivated criticism. The scene is shot in typical Leone fashion, utilizes a lot of quick cuts and eyeline matches, and a camera framing that is steadily bringing us closer and closer to the subjects. As the racial animus that the wealthy passengers are directing towards Juan starts to reach a head, Leone opts to cut to close ups of their mouths, gorging on food, spitting flecks of it from their lips with each invective. Leone visually links the ugliness of their attitudes and speech to their disgusting manners, undercutting the veneer of polite society that they pretend to live within. Also, in predictably Leone-ian fashion, Juan gets the better of his fellow passengers through some underhanded trickery. He allows them to hurl their insults, and plays the role of the stupid Mexican well, knowing that just around the bend, his sons are waiting to ambush the coach and turn the power dynamic on its head. After being called an animal and a brute by the racist travelers, Juan is happy to oblige their stereotypes as he callously robs, beats, and strips them, leaving them for dead in the desert.
While the film, and by extension the filmmaker, doesn’t make an overt political statement, there are more than enough indications throughout as to where the audience’s sympathies are intended to lie. We are repeatedly shown the suffering of the individual and of the oppressed at the hands of the wealthy and those in positions of state-sanctioned power. Though I do believe that Juan’s rejection of revolutionary action, which convinces the intellectual revolutionary John to throw away his Bakunin, should be taken as the sentiment closest to Leone’s own feelings about war and revolution, I think that in this narrative the film is clearly favoring one side of the conflict over the other. The film has the highest body count of any Leone film, by far, and it depicts scores of both soldiers and citizens being killed, but only affords opportunities for pathos in the killings of citizens and revolutionaries. When an entire army battalion is dispatched of in the bridge explosion, they are as ants, crushed underfoot and easily forgotten about, but when Juan’s family and the rest of the rebels are murdered in their beds, the camera makes it a point to linger on their faces, humanizing the dead and evoking strong pathos and sympathy within the audience. Leone said that he didn’t intend anyone to read the film literally, and that the Mexican Revolution should be considered allegorically, but the repeated evocations of revolutionary conflicts across the globe doesn’t really allow for any reading of the film aside from a political/social one.
But, even if one chooses not to consider the film’s larger arguments and political implications, it’s a masterful Western in the Italian style. Though he certainly wasn’t the first Italian filmmaker to evoke the American West, Leone firmly established the Spaghetti Western aesthetic, and the genre found its Platonic ideal in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Once again, Leone perfectly captures the Spanish countryside, filming breathtaking vistas and deserts that stand in for Mexico. His images are, as usual, underscored by Ennio Morricone’s breathtaking music, providing perfect accompaniment and counterpoint to the images. Morricone has scored some of my favorite films, and the themes in Duck You Sucker rank among his finest work. And, of course, the film features some strong performances from its leads. Despite not always seeing eye-to-eye with Leone, Steiger turns in a great performance as Juan Miranda, allowing an intellectualism and cunning to shine through the character’s motivating greed and avarice. Coburn plays John Mallory as a world-weary, but not resigned, intellectual. He often seems bemused at the circumstances that have led him halfway around the world, but he rarely wanes in his principled dedication to revolutionary action. The two actors play off of one another well and make the unlikely bond between Juan and John feel not just realistic, but deep and true. By the film’s end, it’s clear that these characters have grown not just to respect one another, but to feel a close affinity and kinship with one another, despite their differences. Leone has maintained that the film is ultimately about their unlikely friendship, and that the revolution is just the setting that allows that story to take place, and if one wants to read the film that way, he or she certainly wouldn’t be disappointed, either.
I really can’t say enough good things about this movie. I’m kicking myself for not watching it sooner, because I think that I would have more insightful criticism to provide if I had a couple more screenings under my belt. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where Duck You Sucker should fit in the larger context of Leone’s filmography, and of the Western genre, as a whole. It’s a film that sees a legendary director starting to expand his palette while truly refining his signature style. Once Upon A Time in the West, the film that directly precedes this one in Leone’s body of work, is truly an elegy for the American Western, and felt like it was closing a chapter on the director’s career. So what, then, is Duck You Sucker? I think that it’s an example of Leone trying to work out other artistic and narrative concerns within a familiar milieu. If the West of his earlier films represented a filter through which to understand Americanism from the perspective of an outsider, then should we read Mexico and the Revolution in Duck You Sucker as a filter through which to explore and understand human relations and power dynamics, generally? I’ll need a few more viewings to truly settle my own thoughts on this movie, and I’m sure that I’ll take that opportunity as soon as I’m able, which makes me really happy. Part of what I was hoping to do in this project was to potentially reassess my relationship and understanding of movies with which I was intimately familiar, through unfamiliar juxtapositions, or meeting a film text at a totally different point in my life. In this case, watching a new movie has helped me to reexamine my thoughts in regards to a filmmaker that I felt I was already intimately familiar with. Finally introducing myself to Duck You Sucker was a real pleasure, but the most fun thing about it was how it started the process of helping me rethink my own understanding of Leone’s cinema. It felt like putting in a final puzzle piece and completing a picture. Of course, now I have the inspiring challenge of making sense of what that overall picture means to me.