Ahhh…how good it feels to see a full-on, well-made, spaghetti western again, and not one of those cheap imitations! I’ve been on a bit of an Italian-film diet after numerous complaints about my film choices never being after 1970 and always Italian. In my own defense, I do tend to choose foreign over domestic, but they aren’t always pre-1970. Here we have a happy medium with Sergio Leone’s 1971 Duck, You Sucker, apparently a.k.a. Fistful of Dyamite. Fitting.
This film has all the elements of Italian cinematic magnificence, even if it is two and a half hours long, is a bit slow in places, and is full of cheesy 70s motifs. But wait! That’s exactly what makes it magnificent!
Like most spaghetti westerns, Duck, You Sucker is a film about male camaraderie amongst the unruly, lonesome, uber-moral men of the west. We can look back on Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and report on this same trope with the lone Biondo/Joe (a.k.a. il buono…Eastwood) and his nemesis Angel Eyes/Col. Mortimer (a.k.a. il brutto…Lee Van Cleef), along with the usually annoying hanger-on, Tuco (a.k.a. il cattivo…Eli Wallach).
Duck, You Sucker also has a Tuco-esque hanger-on, and that’s the Mexican bandito, Juan Miranda, played by Rod Steiger. Though I will say that Wallach’s attempt at a Mexican accent was a lot better than Steiger’s (it was quite painful at times), seeing them both (and others) in these roles is a chilling reminder that even in the 1970s, there was a reluctance to use Mexican actors, or even Spanish actors (considering it was filmed in Spain like The Dollars Trilogy), out of the desire to appeal to a particular audience that would want to continue seeing its white, male, American actors in lead roles. Fellini did it, Argento and Antonioni did it (with British actors such as David Hemmings), and Leone certainly did it with his previous movies. What’s done is done. At least James Coburn played an Irishman (IRA member John Mallory) though his affected accent faded in and out.
Overall, this was an amazing film: the storyline, the character development (you can develop a lot in 2.5 hours!), the action, the humor. The scene on the stagecoach when Mallory is kneeling at the shrine that Miranda’s family had set up, just moments before the “cigarette” he had just lit exploded in vengeful triumph against Miranda’s attempt to detain him, is classic dramatic irony. The viewer knows it’s a dirty trick, but Leone capitalizes on the innocence of Miranda and his crew, perhaps in a way to insinuate the intellectual superiority of Mallory (???). Miranda tries to trap him; Mallory blows their stuff up; in the end, they work together. I guess it all works out.
But how CAN Miranda be both innocent (in terms of his own ignorance) and so corrupt at the same time? I suppose Leone presents the viewer with a tale of men and the spectrum of possibilities amongst them. The viewer will notice that absolutely NO female characters are present in this film other than in flashback or in the beginning when Miranda has his way with the lone woman on the hijacked stagecoach (she doesn’t resist once the viewer sees she is not displeased with his presentation). This is typical of this genre of film, and other genres preceding (I’m thinking of sword-and-sandal films with Hercules out on manly adventures alone in the world): the absence of woman means an overemphasis on man and man’s camaraderie with himself. Not necessarily homo-erotic, though there are always scenes in which sweaty, dirty men are wrestling around with each other. But by the end of Duck, You Sucker, Miranda and Mallory are setting off on an adventure together, as companions, with no other ties to anyone else in the world, therefore reinforcing the importance of male bonding/companionship. Of course, the honeymoon doesn’t last long, as Mallory meets his death in the only way befitting an IRA explosives-man: with a bang!
Back to the duality of Miranda’s innocence/corruption versus Mallory’s ability to outwit: the only way I can reconcile this is that Leone is presenting the viewer with a premise for one being the intellectual superior, though in the end, it’s Miranda who lives and Mallory who dies. So the line can’t be drawn quite so distinctly. Perhaps Leone is telling us that we have to learn from each other, work with each other, and support each other in order to make it through life; and in the end, make sure you know how to dodge bullets really well—this is something Miranda was much better at in a school-of-hard-knocks sort of way, whereas Mallory had more of an Odyssean quality of honed guile and wit—able to get out of sticky situations but sometimes always teetering on the edge of being outgunned.
Lastly, the flashback sequences of Mallory back in Ireland present almost an anachronistic quality to the film in addition to a very cheesy, 70s feeling. Though set in the deserts of Mexico, periodically the viewer would be treated to slow snippets of Mallory’s past life with motor cars, wool jackets and turtlenecks, girls with ribbons in their hair, and IRA raids in public houses—all in slow motion. It is in these flashbacks that the viewer sees more of a sense of homoeroticism, in Mallory’s strange love triangle with a fellow IRA member and what appears to be their joint girlfriend. It’s hard to tell who’s jealous of who in these sequences, to be honest. It isn’t until nearly the end of the film that the viewer sees the culmination of this retrospective jealousy, but it does lend some credence to the idea that male companionship and bonding is a very deliberate and predominant theme presented to us by Leone, and it spans cultures.
I’ve only barely scratched the surface here.
I don’t think I could get away with talking about this film without mentioning the amazingly beautiful music by Ennio Morricone. Wow! So perfectly timed, comical, and dramatic. What an amazing composer. Leone’s lucky to have kept him for this film.