A ”Sucker” for Sergio Leone
It’s not every western that begins with a quote from Chairman Mao, followed by Rod Steiger peeing on a bunch of ants. Then again, Sergio Leone was not just any filmmaker. The roly-poly Italian director, who single-handedly resurrected the genre in the ’60s with the three spaghetti westerns he made with Clint Eastwood, may not have grown up anywhere near Monument Valley, but he knew how to mythologize (and de-mythologize) the Old West better than anyone.
Of course, most movie buffs have already seen Leone and Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), especially if you get TBS. Not to mention Leone’s greatest film, Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). But the new Sergio Leone Anthology box set also includes one of the director’s more obscure spaghetti westerns: 1971’s Duck, You Sucker. And even if you don’t particularly dig the genre, but have a sweet tooth for really hammy accents, you’ll want to check it out.
Duck has always been dismissed as ”lesser” Leone. And that’s a total crock — it’s a fantastic film. Especially the new DVD version, which restores 30 minutes cut from the two-hour film originally shown in the States. Leone initially wanted The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly‘s Eli Wallach for the part that eventually went to Steiger. But the studio felt they needed a more bankable name…which is interesting for two reasons: One, because Steiger chews into the part so lustily he obviously had no clue he was getting someone else’s sloppy seconds; and two, because it’s fun to think back to a time when a ham like Rod Steiger was considered bankable. Steiger’s costar, James Coburn, wasn’t Leone’s first choice either. The director wanted to saddle up with Eastwood again. And when it was clear that the actor had moved on to bigger and better things back in Tinseltown, he moved down the line to Jason Robards, then Malcolm McDowell. Two ”no’s” later, he settled on Our Man Flint.
Personally, I consider this a happy accident on par with Ronald Reagan turning down Casablanca. While it’s fun to think about what Duck would’ve been like with Eastwood and Wallach, I’m not sure it would’ve been better. After all, part of the fun of watching Steiger (with his over-the-top Mexican bandito accent) and Coburn (with his Lucky Charms Irish brogue) is seeing how committed they are to being utterly phony. They sound like they just flew in on a red-eye from a Bad Accents Convention.
Essentially a buddy movie set during the Mexican Revolution, Duck (which was also released under the title A Fistful of Dynamite and features a hip, jaunty Ennio Morricone score) makes unlikely amigos out of Steiger’s Juan, a filthy, bearded thief with the stupid luck of a south-of-the-border Forrest Gump, and Coburn’s Sean, a dashing IRA demolitions expert who has a habit of uttering the warning, ”Duck, you sucker,” right before he blows stuff up. It’s not much of a catchphrase, I’ll give you that. But Coburn puts enough of a rakish, snake-oil spin on it to make it sound like poetry.
Anyway, these two misfits plan a huge bank heist, get caught up in the simmering revolution, and come out the other end as heroes. They’re kind of like a non-singing version of Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in Ishtar. And despite the comedy — intentional or otherwise — Duck is Leone’s most political film. Made around the time that students all over Europe were taking to the streets with fashionable slogans and suave Gauloise posturing, Leone’s film shows that real revolution isn’t some hip pose. He hated the idea of fashionable young revolutionaries.
Since Duck was directed by the same guy who gave us the mythic, widescreen long shots and claustrophobic close-ups of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, there’s plenty of eye candy here, too — a massive action sequence involving a locomotive being derailed is a total honey — and they all look fantastic thanks to cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini. If there’s a fault in the film, it’s the long, tedious flashbacks of Coburn’s character’s life back in Ireland where he was caught in a love triangle. In these scenes, Coburn wears a white cable-knit sweater as if he was shilling for Old Spice and they’re shot with this hazy, gauzy filter that gives it the cast of a ’70s porno flick. It almost pulls you out of the movie and deposits you in a much, much worse film.
Still, the real reason to rent Duck, You Sucker is to witness a couple of salty old dogs like Steiger and Coburn tear it up. I keep waiting for Lee Marvin to wander onscreen with a hangover wondering what he’s doing in Mexico. Steiger, a notorious hothead, famously didn’t get along with Leone. He even walked off the set one day in a huff. Coburn was probably too busy drinking whiskey to walk off in solidarity. But despite whatever friction there was, Duck, You Sucker is easily Leone’s breeziest movie. And every time I watch it, while the end credits are rolling, I imagine its two stars paired in other buddy movies. Steiger and Coburn going head-to-head with Gary Busey’s Mr. Joshua in Lethal Weapon. Steiger singing ”Roxanne” while Coburn looks on incredulously in 48 Hrs. And, of course, Steiger and Coburn in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, doing bong hits and mixing it up with Doogie Howser‘s Neil Patrick Harris. Tell me you wouldn’t pay to see that?