Believe it or not, that's the quotation that opens the spaghetti western with Rod Steiger and James Coburn!
But the viewer or any Sergio Leone fan will realize that Leone is a director who mixes action, comedy and music, while politics lies underneath raising its head once the smoke settles and destruction is evident. This film offers all that and more even though the screenplay is full of holes. There are times that calls for suspension of logic--for instance, how does a family of Mexican bandits in the middle of nowhere repair the tyres of a motorbike punctured by bullets? But comedy compensates the thinking viewer. Take this fine gem spoken by Steiger “I don’t want to be a hero. All I want is money!” after he has 'robbed' a bank which, surprisingly for him, does not hold any money.
Though the film has a serious tale it is punctuated with wit—often visual. A man dies from a dynamite lit with a short fuse and the viewer never sees the body after the explosion--only his burnt sombrero falling on the ground. A bird defecates on Juan and the bandit responds “You sing for the rich and shit on the poor!”
The story of the film is essentially of Juan Miranda and his family (no women remain) wanting to be rich by robbery. Fate brings Juan together with John Mallory, a dynamite expert. Juan becomes a revolutionary without realizing he is being manipulated by John. Fate again leads them into the vortex of the Mexican revolution only to make Juan repeatedly an accidental hero. In the midst of all the explosions and gunfire, revolutionaries become traitors, bandits become heroes, and the poor die as the ants being urinated on in the opening sequence. At the end, the viewer begins to attempt computing the cost-benefit ratio of the revolutions...
The opening shot of a man urinating on ants is a visual allegory to tee off what follows and what Leone wants to communicate to the viewer. The opening stage-coach sequence that lasts a good 15 minutes is perhaps a gem of cinema history that no viewer is likely to forget. That sequence introduces the viewer to arguably Rod Steiger’s finest role comparable only to his brilliant turn in The Pawnbroker (1964) picking up a half-eaten sandwich thrown on the ground with the respect one associates with picking up a $100 note. This is also a sequence that distills the finest of Leone’s talent that seems to poach on what one remembers as the finest elements in the “Dollar” trilogy and the other films in the “Once upon a time” trilogy. For those who are familiar opening sequences (e.g., Fistful of Dollars that copied Kurosawa’s Yojimbo) of Leone’s films, the importance the director gave to them were consistent and often link up with the final sequence of each film. This was one of the major reasons why Leone’s cinema stood out amongst the huge body of spaghetti westerns that Italy produced half a century ago.
Another major factor of Leone’s appeal was his enduring collaboration with the composer Ennio Morricone that Leone fans will not forget that used natural sounds and choral music in musical scores with fascinating aural outcomes.
The brilliant stamp of Leone’s work is his ability to edit shots of ultra-closeups, closeups and long shots to the tune of Morricone’s music. In Duck, you sucker, the close-ups within the stagecoach could be the ideal first lesson in cinematography for a student of cinema where all the rasas of Bharat Muni’s Natyashathra are paraded.
It is interesting for me to note Leone, an Italian with some Christian values (if I note his comment on Scorcese’s choice of Willem Dafoe to play Christ), criticizes the Bishop’s/priest’s actions and statements in the stagecoach, followed by Juan’s growing disillusionment with the cross on his own neck in the middle of the film and the eventual return of the cross by John to Juan towards the end of the film. Even here there is a personal statement that Leone provides that an astute viewer can note..
Here is a film (released separately with three different titles) that reinforces the mastery of the director and the capabilities of two great actors—Rod Steiger and James Coburn. Here is a film that was butchered by the studios and initially released in a 2 hour long version. Thankfully, the restored version of 154 minutes is now widely available on DVD and even shown on regular TV! Many well-wishers suggested to Leone that the title Duck, you sucker! was inappropriate and not suited for US audiences as Leone thought. Leone persisted, even when distributors came up with two other titles. Reflect on the content of the film awhile, and I think Leone was hitting the nail on the head! There is always a sucker getting manipulated before you hear the big bang...
One of the earliest films I recall loving as a kid was Sergio Leone’s debut film Colossus of Rhodes (in the glory of a 16mm print) in a corporate club in Bihar, India, in the early 1960s. The name Leone did not mean a thing to me at that time but the images of that interesting film remain fresh in my memory some five decades later. That’s Leone’s power over his audiences. His images and sounds remain with you for ever. But for me his best work remains his last film, which was not a western, Once upon a time in America.
P.S. Sergio Leone's Once upon a time in America was reviewed earlier on this blog. And Kieslowski was not the first to think of making films based on the colors of a national flag (Three colors: Blue, White and Red based on the French flag)--Leone had bankrolled an Italian film earlier on the Italian flag called Red, White and Green (Bianco, rosso e Verdone) (1981), directed by his friend Carlo Verdone, with music by Ennio Morricone, and script by Leonardo Benvenuti (the scriptwriter of Once upon a time in America) two of his other buddies!