Monday, February 5, 2007

Duck, You Sucker!

dir. Sergio Leone

Blondie and Tuco. I mean... Harmonica and Cheyenne.
I mean... Sean and Juan. Whew.

February 4th, 2007 - 35mm/New Beverly Cinema

There are “transition” movies, and then there’s the almost comical embodiment of everything a “transition” movie could be. Duck, You Sucker! is the latter. Falling directly between Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, this is the film to watch if you need either a quick cliffs notes version of Leone’s entire output, or an unruly recap of one of the great one-classic-after-another directorial careers in history. Nearly every one of his thematic staples are on display here, and it’s almost a game in itself to identify those that reflect where he’s been and those that indicate where he’s going (yes, America was his last production, but there’s enough idiosyncratic material in that 229-minute monsterpiece for it to be considered the intellectual equivalent of at least four average movies). It may be telling that I was seriously tempted to begin this article with, “This movie is all that is good, all that is bad, and all that is ugly* about Sergio Leone’s wonderful, awe-inspiring body of work.” But if I did that, you might groan!

Perhaps not surprisingly, Duck, You Sucker! is not quite as formidable as most of Leone’s other works. While it certainly builds on the grandeur of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the West—it’s one of the hugest movies I’ve seen, and absolutely underlines the fact that Leone was every bit Lean’s equal (and I’d sometimes say his superior, depending on which day of the week you ask me) in the visual scope department—it also finds the filmmaker working at a heretofore unseen level of self indulgence. Leone’s lowbrow, European brand of satiric comedy is all over the place in this film (and would pop up again in an even more unrestrained way in My Name is Nobody, which he produced and, as I understand it, sort of ghost directed), and Ennio Morricone’s music follows him right to the edge of the cliff. For many, the music might be too much-- follow this link, and listen to the sample of Track 10 on Disc 1. That’s right, the female voice is singing “Sean, Sean, Sean,” the name of James Coburn’s character. Imagine hearing this at least a dozen individual times throughout the film, and you’ll have some idea why half the audience I viewed this with twittered and laughed each time the theme returned.

Of course, both Leone and Morricone had been down this spaghetti western road so many times before that they’re probably entitled to a little genre-poking fun... but this approach poses problems for the film every time it aims to be taken seriously. When the scenes dealing directly with the Mexican revolution come around, you can almost feel Leone losing interest, chomping at the bit for something more universal and mythic. I don’t like to get into the “making-of” history in these articles, but in this case it’s worth pointing out that Leone wasn’t even initially going to direct this movie—he was going to produce it for Peter Bogdonavich. It’s strange to say, but for the first (and only, in my estimation) time in his post-Colossus of Rhodes career, Leone seems uninterested in his central premise. Indeed, I’ve just this moment read a quote by Leone in Christopher Frayling’s indispensable book Once a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone in which he stated, just before the production of this movie, that he’d “fallen out of love with the things associated with the West.” Well, sir... hate to say, but it kinda shows.

You see, boiled down, this is a film about political revolution that seems only very mildly interested in revolutionary concepts. For a film to be ambivalent about its own position on such an issue is fine, of course, provided it's going to really put some thought into it, but the way Leone deals with this is by too often retreating into comedy and genre familiarity. That the “genre” in question is one Leone himself created only compounds the problem. Rod Steiger’s performance as “Juan,” for instance, is such a big, over-blustery Eli Wallach impression that it's hard to see through to the sensitive work he contributes in some of the quieter scenes. (If you think about an "over-blustery Eli Wallach" hard enough, by the way, you might be able to understand why my companion at the screening said Steiger reminded him more than once of George Costanza).

Another example: Leone seems to believe that his classic bridge explosion scene in Good, the Bad was just an overture for the out-and-out symphony of “KA-BOOOM’s!!!” in this movie; a church, a mountain, a tree, another bridge, a train, a bank, a rock wall... There are some reviewers and fans that defend this somewhat schizophrenic approach as being Leone's comment on the smattering of politically-minded spaghetti westerns that had popped up in recent years past (The Big Gundown--which I'm so goddamn jealous Jeff GP is going to see and review sometime in the coming weeks, Run Man Run, A Bullet for the General, Campaneros, etc). I say, unless they're referring to
"Hot Shots!," be very wary of anybody that says a movie is principally a "comment" about any other movie(s). The odds are pretty good that a person like that doesn't have any idea what they're talking about. Odds are equally good that they currently or will soon instruct a college course in film studies. Ha, ha! Take that, teachers!

Whoops! I’ve written all this, and failed to report that I really, really enjoyed the movie. When it’s able to side-step political concerns, it’s utterly splendid. The upside to Leone’s devil-may-care approach is that he’s willing to experiment even more than in Once Upon a Time in the West, and (as I intimated earlier) you can see Once Upon a Time in America’s central “guilt” storyline being born. Leone’s sense of revenge is also in good supply, and nobody does payback like this guy. In addition, Coburn is having a blast (yuk, yuk) playing an on-the-run, dynamite-toting IRA rebel, and the primary villain of the story drives around the desert in what can only be described as a giant Darth Vader helmet with machine guns for eyes (Leone loved his own brand of wacky machinery). It also represents the most "fuck's" I think I've ever heard in a supposedly PG-rated film.

In other words, for a Leone fan, the picture is completely essential. If it doesn’t quite approach the fun and adventure of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or the sweep and imagination of Once Upon a Time in the West, or the novelistic lyricism and heart of Once Upon a Time in America, then Duck, You Sucker! at least distinguishes itself as the single most "signature" picture of the man’s filmography; it's ambitious, rollicking, and endlessly entertaining. From one of the all-time masters of movies, that’s pretty damn good.

* “Ugly,” of course, standing in for a more appropriate adjective, like “fuckinglorious.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i thought you weren't gonna use that word anymore.