Sunday, March 01, 2009

81. Sergio Leone’s "Giù la Testa" (Duck, you sucker!/ Fistful of dynamite/Once upon a time—the Revolution) (1971): Revolutions as black comedies

The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence ... -- Mao Tse-Tung

Believe it or not, that's the quotation that opens the spaghetti western with Rod Steiger and James Coburn!

The uncut 154-minute version brings into focus three revolutions on three continents—the Chinese revolution, the Irish revolution of the IRA, and the Mexican revolution of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata—and yet none is discussed at length. The Chinese revolution is merely alluded to in the opening Mao quote and some aspects of the quote can be associated with the opening stagecoach sequence. The Irish revolution is glimpsed through flashbacks of a revolutionary on the run “on a motorbike” (while everyone else is on horseback, trains or horse-pulled carriages!) carrying with him published evidence that he is “wanted” and he has a price on his head. The Mexican revolution is never directly shown except for the mass killings of the poor and wealthy by soldiers that often remind the viewer of the Nazi atrocities in Europe. What is discussed by the director Sergio Leone is the emergence of the accidental, fictional heroes during two of these three revolutions and the impact of the Mexican revolution on the poor.

The most important line in the film for me was “The people who read the books go to the people who can't read the books, the poor people, and say, 'We have to have a change.' So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? And what happens to the poor people? They are dead!” spoken by actor Rod Steiger, playing a small-time Mexican bandit Juan Miranda. Sergio Leone, the director, has an even better "unspoken" line that follows that statement. Leone gets actor James Coburn playing the taciturn IRA revolutionary, John Mallory to throw down in the mud Michael Bakunin’s famous book Letters on Patriotism on hearing the fiery outburst from Steiger. That small sequence in the long movie might mean little to those who are not familiar with the book but Leone was making a statement that one only saw him develop further years later in Once upon a time in America, the film he opted to make when he was first offered the chance to direct Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, subsequently directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Both films have closely related themes.

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!