More mysterious than ever, Sergio Leone’s ode to (condemnation of?) revolution is said to be the centerpiece of his three ‘Once Upon a Time’ movies linking western violence to the modern age of brutal politics and ruthless gangsterism. Crudeness rubs shoulders with sad and beautiful images as Leone takes on a theme he claimed not to like very much. The writers Donati and Vincenzoni show him the way while James Coburn and Rod Steiger bring to life the non-narrative moments of what becomes a broad, mural-like epic.
Duck You Sucker (A Fistful of Dynamite)
KL Studio Classics
1971 / 157 154, 138, 120 min. / Giù la testa, A Fistful of Dynamite, Il était une fois … la révolution / Street Date March 6, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: James Coburn, Rod Steiger, Maria Monti, Rik Battaglia, Romolo Valli, Antoine St-John, Vivienne Chandler, David Warbeck.
Cinematography: Giuseppe Ruzzolini
Film Editor: Nino Baragli
Art Direction: Andrea Crisanti
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Written by Sergio Leone, Sergio Donati, Luciano Vincenzoni
Produced by Fulvio Morsella
Directed by Sergio Leone
I’ve spent more time than I should pondering the whys and wherefores of this Sergio Leone epic. . . it is said to be the big movie he really didn’t want to do. Yet I find it his most interesting, once one gets beyond surface thrills (where it probably ranks below the previous Dollars trilogy). Sir Christopher Frayling detects a resonance with the Italian experience in WW2: outside armies are in control of a country and horrendous massacres are committed, one even in a cave setting. Thanks to offhand remarks that have been repeated as gospel, even the meaning of the lyric “Sean Sean Sean” has been twisted around. And Leone’s own revisions of the picture for certain markets, removing key flashbacks, have mucked-up the debate on which version was director-endorsed.
In 2003 MGM Home Video finally settled on Duck You Sucker as the film’s official title on the company’s books. It’s the one Leone chose for the original American release, where it even provided a mocking joke for the last shot of the film. Now the title has reverted to A Fistful of Dynamite again. It must have taken a concerted effort to do this — perhaps the marketers thought the word ‘Fistful’ associated it better with the Dollars trilogy. Or, knowing how marketers think, perhaps ‘Duck you Sucker’ sounded too much like a porn title. That’s a reach, but I’ve heard some pretty strange reasonings in Home Video meetings. Ah well, Fistful of Dynamite isn’t a bad title, and I long ago stopped caring too much about other people’s horses in other people’s races.
Duck You Sucker/A Fistful of Dynamite was a big release in Rome 1971, with a beautiful stereo soundtrack. In America it was pushed off as summer action filler and heavily trimmed beyond UA’s official trims — removing the odd Chairman Mao quote at the beginning, removing a couple of dialogue lines where revolutionaries blame their troubles in part on American corporations. Like all of Leone’s westerns after the first Fistful success, it is structured around a past tragedy that the hero keeps revisiting in his mind. This storyline moves slowly from one major set-piece to the next, delaying Irish bomb-maker John Mallory’s entrance for more than fifteen minutes.
The revolution is well underway in Mexico, with a local tyrant using imported German officers to lead government troops. Apolitical peasant Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and his rag-tag family of bandits rob and rape the decadent rich. When he meets expatriate Irish revolutionary and explosives expert John Mallory (James Coburn), Juan suggests a team-up to rob a fancy bank at Mesa Verde. Only in mid-robbery does Juan discover that the bank is now being used as a political prison; when he frees the patriots he becomes an overnight revolutionary against his will. After the successful annihilation of an entire government brigade, mercenary officer Gunther Ruiz (Antoine St. John) captures the rebel leader Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli). The information Villega discloses leads to a terrible slaughter. Only John knows that the doctor is an informer, a fact he keeps to himself … for he is haunted by guilty memories of his own experience in Ireland. Villega isn’t the only rebel that betrayed his own ideals.
When one sees a movie a great many (too many?) times, the things that seem important and good about it change. As a visual artist Sergio Leone never lost the ability to energize his screen. Certain static scenes aside, Giù la testa plays extremely well. We’re knocked out by the film’s often expansive canvas — just when it seems like it’s going to be a small-scale film about two guys on mules the screen opens up to include giant panoramas, such as a train station overrun with period soldiers and civilians. Murky historical incidents become giant massacres that remind us of Nazi atrocities. The basic conflict as as simple as the Coyote and the Road Runner. The wily John Mallory finds it easy to manipulate the petty avarice of Juan Miranda to his grand revolutionary cause: “Tierra y libertad!” A final nighttime battle evokes war on a grand scale: crashing trains, machine guns, no mercy.
Leone of course made his reputation by re-interpreting the themes of American westerns as corrupt from the inside out; his Man With No Name is an equal opportunity double-crosser who charms through style, not morals. The organizing lesson of Spaghetti Westerns was that Life is Cheap, that men with guns spare nobody for sentimental reasons. When Leone made his gun-downs into an amusing circus of six-shooters, our reaction as an audience was to laugh at the cynicism of it all. Fair enough.
There’s no moral high ground in Giù la testa either. John Mallory has a serious death wish going and sees nothing wrong with dynamiting a few hundred ‘uniforms.’ I always thought it interesting that the ‘radical, socially reviled’ poet-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini rejected the basis of the May ’68 strike. At the violent demonstrations he saw in Rome, Pasolini sided with the police over the demonstrators: to him the beleaguered cops were lower-class working men trying to to their jobs, whereas the protesters were mostly privileged upper-middle class kids.
Leone wants us to laugh but also to cry at the killings, depending on what unburied bodies are left behind. Leone’s meditation on revolution is essentially conservative — Giù la testa preaches that fighting to change the status quo only results in misery and death for poor people. Pity poor John Mallory and Dr. Villega, the soured idealists. The movie finishes with a major anti-revolution statement, going so far as to say that Juan and John would have done more good saying Catholic rosaries than making bombs. So is nobody granted permission to try to wrest ‘land and liberty’ from the wicked rich?
The ‘haunted’ backstory in Giù la testa has also been short-changed for relevance. If one really compares it to the classic John Ford version of The Informer, it carries the big clue defining John Mallory’s character. The problem is Leone’s crazy lack of continuity. Even the longest versions of the show suffer from huge narrative gaps. Deleted scenes would have told us that Dr. Villega is not a voluntary traitor but a more sympathetic victim of torture. The film’s Ireland flashbacks are so brief and under-detailed, that I believe they’ve frequently been incorrectly interpreted.
All we are told about the past in Ireland is that revolutionary comrades Sean Nolan (David Warbeck) and John Mallory shared a ‘Jules & Jim’- like relationship with the same girl, Coleen (Vivienne Chandler). In the crucial betrayal scene, we see the Black & Tans bring the bloodied Sean into a bar, where he points out his buddy John for them, like a Judas. Therefore, Sean is the ‘bad guy.’ John’s slo-mo execution of his best friend is initially seen as tragic justice: informers must die. John’s present disquiet comes from his memory of this violent act.
But if the killing of Sean was justified, why is John so haunted by guilt? He’s certainly not a traitor to his cause. Why should the Kropotkin-reading idealist flounder all over Mexico, recklessly dynamiting soldiers in another country’s war? John is not guilty, so why does he consider himself such a failure? Why does he so strongly identify with the weak Dr. Villega?
The answer is in The Informer: John Mallory corresponds to Liam O’Flaherty’s tragic hero Gypo Nolan, who informs on his best friend Frankie Phillip for money. Leone’s flashbacks withhold key information from us, namely, how did the English capture Sean Nolan in the first place? In keeping with The Informer, I think the hidden secret is that John informed on Sean. It wasn’t for money like Gypo Nolan, but because Sean stole his girl.
This poorly-told fact is what gives the story its depth. It’s also why the lyrical slow motion romance flashback is presented at the end of the film, out of sequence — it reveals John’s motivation for betraying his closest friend. Note that, in the flashback, when Coleen stops kissing John and turns her attention to Sean, the music segues to Ennio Morricone’s ‘grim’ theme, the same cue as used in the betrayal in the bar. That indeed makes John guilty as Hell, just like Gypo. That’s why John identifies so closely with Dr. Villega, and why Villega’s betrayal at the firing squad triggers John’s memory of the massacre in the bar.
Frankly, either this interpretation has to be true, or the final 3- minute slo-mo flashback doesn’t belong in the movie. Its function is to upend the meaning of ‘who betrayed whom.’ Perhaps Leone removed it from one version because he realized that he hadn’t fully conveyed its meaning to viewers.
That’s how I read the movie now. The lyric ‘Sean Sean Sean’ refers not to John Mallory, but John’s lost buddy, Sean Nolan. The scene where John seems to answer to the name Sean, is really him coming out of one of his memory nightmares, thinking of the comrade that he betrayed, that will always haunt him. John is doing all these reckless, suicidal things in Mexico in an attempt to atone. Remember the little gold cross: this is a Catholic movie.
Giù la testa then, is a reworking of The Informer: how does a guilty revolutionary deal with his own sin of betrayal? Leone’s Dollars films are great fun, but their significance is only ‘genre deep.’ I especially favor this picture for its emotional depth and sense of values. Most viewers prefer the less complicated Leone, who only asks us to worry about which gunman will cheat his partners and ride away with the bags of gold.
A final question about Giù la testa / Duck You Sucker / A Fistful of Dynamite: with all the money the Dollars trilogy was making it’s too bad that Leone and his producers stuck with Techniscope, the grainy half-frame format that was good for saving money but inappropriate for the epic direction Leone was taking. Sure, original Technicolor release prints looked pretty good, but Techniscope is only a little bigger than two 16mm frames set side by side. A full-frame anamorphic 35mm format could have been blown up to 70mm. If Leone wanted his pictures to be three hours long, his producers should have pitched them as Road Show extravaganzas. Imagine Ennio Morricone in 6-track stereo!
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Duck You Sucker (A Fistful of Dynamite) is a happy release for this fan — the show looks good, and at 157 minutes is the longest cut that I’m aware of. The Techniscope image is grainy but consistent; the transfer appears to be the same as from ten years ago.
Spread out in a 2.5-hour playing time, Giù la testa is also enjoyable as an Ennio Morricone concert. Perhaps Leone’s continuity sense went lax when he began editing his movies as background illustrations for Morricone’s operatic music, allowing the Maestro’s compositions to play uncut. I’m not complaining, as these are unique moviegoing experiences. The sudden change to the ‘grim’ theme as the flashback barges into that Irish bar is an unforgettably gripping moment.
The on-screen title for Kino’s disc has re-reverted back to A Fistful of Dynamite. It only appears at the end; the opening main titles sequence has always had an empty hole where a title card belongs. Maybe it’s time to lobby for the French title, Once Upon a Time. . . the Revolution. At least that would align this show with Leone’s other ‘once upon a time’ epics.
Kino has piled on the extras. They begin with Christopher Frayling’s intense commentary, and a newer one by Leone aficionado Alex Cox. Then come the four or five featurettes I edited for MGM around 2003 or 2004. Frayling’s featurette-lecture on Giù la testa is one of the best things I’ve seen him do. Kino has correctly transcoded them from NTSC 30fps to HD 24, avoiding the mess they made of their latest disc for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. So I feel better about that one. In addition to various galleries, trailers for all the MGM Leone holdings, etc., the disc carries Brian Trenchard-Smith’s informative Trailers from Hell commentary.
So many shots to fall in love with — do you like the three-minute slo-mo flashback kissing scene in Ireland? — many viewers find it interminable. To me the flashback is all-important in that it explains what the whole movie is about. I think it’s a marvelous change of pace for a director who had already done everything he could with cynical gunslinger action.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Duck You Sucker (A Fistful of Dynamite)
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Excellent 5.1 Surround & 2.0 Audio
Supplements: Audio Commentaries by Alex Cox and Sir Christopher Frayling, Featurettes: The Myth of the Revolution, Sergio Donati Remembers, Once Upon a Time in Italy (The Autry Exhibition), Sorting Out the Versions, Restoration Italian Style, Location Comparisons. ‘Trailers From Hell’ with Brian Trenchard-Smith, 2 Animated Image Galleries, Reversible Art, 5 Radio Spots, Trailers for 5 Sergio Leone Westerns.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 6, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Brian Trenchard-Smith’s take on the Leone classic: