BluRay/DVD Reviews

DUCK, YOU SUCKER

By • Jun 5th, 2007 •

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(MGM Home Entertainment) 1972
157 minutes color / 2:35 widescreen / 16:9 enhanced / Not rated
Dolby digital sound: English 5.1 surround & mono, French 2.0 stereo, Spanish mono
Two Discs

With the restored version of DUCK YOU SUCKER on DVD, Leone buffs will discover at last the truth about Sean. In the original US release, the character’s name was sung continuously on the sound track: Sean, Sean, Sean. Except he never seemed to appear.

This second coming of Sean not only makes things tidier but reveals a new depth of feeling. A similar deepening took place last year with the additional material from the director’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, transforming the bandit Tuco from an iconic loner into a family man.

DUCK, YOU SUCKER is probably the most maligned and least understood of Leone’s major films. The US version from 1972 was originally 138 minutes (as opposed to the 157 minute Italian print), then retitled A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE and shortened to 121 minutes. Not only were major sequences explaining character motivation cut, but hundreds of shots were excised or trimmed, with the editing completely altered. I remember afterwards standing in the August heat outside the theatre in Times Square shaking my head in confusion. Until now, the film has always seemed to me more like a cynical afterthought, an entertaining but half-hearted return to the themes and locations of the “Man With No Name” series staring Clint Eastwood.

It’s amazing what an additional twenty minutes can do. Accompanied by what may be Ennio Morricone’s weirdest score, the visual design and performances seem more intentional and surprisingly emotional. While filled with virtuoso action and typical gallows humor, there’s also a social and character-driven dimension here new to Leone’s cinema.

I love THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, but in many ways DUCK YOU SUCKER (in its restored Italian version, even with that abysmal title) is superior–though I’m aware such a statement is heretical. As John Kirk, who was in charge of the restoration, has said, this is now a completely different film. The images are earthier, yet more beautiful than what Leone has done before. The editing (filled with the characteristic close-ups of weathered faces) has a fugue-like precision that’s breathtaking to watch. There is a classical sense of light and texture, tempered by a compositional roughness, as in the image of a rifle breaking through the window of a Louis XVI-style portable john, while the camera elegantly pans from left to right. In fact, many of the later sequences (which deal with the rounding up of political prisoners), in their stoicism and visual terseness remind me, surprisingly, of Jean-Pierre Melville’s ARMY OF SHADOWS.

The film is set during the Mexican revolution of 1913, when the dictator Huerta made a last ditch attempt to keep power, throwing the country into chaos. Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), a peasant turned bandit, meets up with John Mallory (James Coburn), an Irish revolutionary and explosives expert who has come to Mexico looking for a something to believe in. Miranda’s dream is to rob the bank at Mesa Verde, an imposing, fortress-like edifice that Leone, in a shot from Miranda’s point of view, turns into the transubstantiation of Christ, a lyrically imposing bit of heresy only an Italian director could get away with. Miranda soon realizes he can blow up the bank with Mallory’s help. Since Mallory wants to stage a rebellion in the same city, a cautious alliance is formed that deepens into friendship.

Rod Steiger and James Coburn make the oddest of male-bonding buddies in all of 70’s cinema. Steiger (simultaneously salt of the earth and cerebral), uses his intimidating presence and contrasting vocal tenderness in a way that hasn’t been seen on the screen since his career defining moment as Brando’s brother in ON THE WATERFRONT. Coburn somehow withdraws into the dusty Almeria landscapes (a stand-in for revolutionary-era Mexico) to attain an almost transcendental aura, melancholy yet visceral. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten the sense of an actor as pure thought before, simply by becoming one with his environment.(Coburn’s Irish accent may drift in and out like a short-wave radio signal–what does Leone know about Irish accents anyway?–but I don’t mind.)

In this longer cut, the film is much darker in tone and more consistent, becoming a story about the vagaries of friendship and betrayal in a time of tempestuous social upheaval. It is also compulsively watchable, possibly the last expression of a popular Italian cinema that is violently engaging while also profoundly elegiac.

Visually, there is a logical progression from the heat of the day to an almost expressionist darkness that surrounds Leone’s carefully modeled faces, reinforcing the double themes of friendship and disenfranchisement. It also invokes the limpid nocturnal palette of John Ford’s THE INFORMER, which, according to Christopher Frayling’s commentary, was both the cinematic as well as thematic source for the film.

Another important addition is a quotation at the beginning from Chairman Mao: “A revolution is not a dinner party.” According to Frayling, this was a response to the cycle of Italian westerns (such as A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL) showing revolution as an entertaining and noble experience. Leone wanted to focus on the more unsavory and realistic aspects of war, especially the disruptive effects on individuals and communities. Whatever the political motivation, this thematic thrust deepens the narrative and characterizations.

Leone was famous for his research, and in terms of specific visual detail this is possibly the most realistic Mexican revolution ever put on film. At the same time, the imagery refers to the realm of myth, in particular the cinema of Leone’s youth. The town square of Mesa Verde, for instance, with its gilded, glowing bank in the center (it was built from scratch in an abandoned village near Almeria), puts one in mind of Orson Welles’ Xanadu, while the close-ups of Rik Battaglia’s mercenary brushing his teeth or adjusting a horse’s dust goggles evokes the silent cinema of Von Stroheim. I can’t help thinking this entwining of realism and myth is a reflection of Leone’s own experience as a young man in Rome during the street fighting before Liberation and the American movies that came after, bringing salvation in the form of gangster films and westerns.

Kudos to the people at DeLuxe for not only matching the look of the original theatrical release, but bringing out new depths of color and light. The consistently luminous and razor sharp transfer is especially surprising, as the film was shot in Techniscope, a fake anamorphic process in which a flat 35mm image was doubled and printed optically to fit the scope frame.

Christopher Frayling’s commentary is an immensely entertaining and riveting listen. He covers everything, from the Dublin pub where the flashback scenes of Mallory’s early life were shot (a large part of this footage was missing in the original US release) to what Leone was watching on tv when he died. I have the impression Sir Christopher would make a most sympathetic (not to mention knowledgeable) drinking companion.

The disc of extras is more of a mixed bag. Many of them feature Christopher Frayling and repeat information already covered in the commentary. For me the most successful is an eleven and a half minute piece written by Glenn Erickson. It goes into detail comparing different versions of the film (including lost footage that is illustrated through production stills) and explains the richer character motivations by including shots and sequences that were left out in the US version. Sean, it seems, is not Coburn’s John Mallory (which everyone thought during the initial release) but a character in the flashbacks played by David Warbeck. It’s very helpful to watch. I also enjoyed listening to John Kirk explain the more technical aspects of the restoration.


Extra Features: Commentary by Sir Christopher Frayling; Location Comparisons Then to Now; 6 Radio Spots; Theatrical Trailer; Featurettes: Sergio Donati Remembers; The Myth of Revolution, Once Upon A Time In Italy; Sorting Out The Versions; Restoration Italian Style.


Cast: Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Romolo Valli, Rik Battaglia, Franco Graziosi, Maria Monti, Vivienne Chandler, David Warbeck.

Credits:
Directed by Sergio Leone.
Screenplay by Luciano Vincenzoni, Sergio Donati & Sergio Leone.
Story by Sergio Leone & Sergio Donati.
Edited by Nino Baragli.
Photographed by Guiseppe Ruzzolini.
Music by Ennio Morricone.
Produced by Fulvio Morsella.

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