Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns are buddy movies. The buddies are usually cranky killers who seem to despise one another, but the dusty, loner, sharp-shooters are still buddies at heart. Blondie (Clint Eastwood) and Tuco (Eli Wallach) have a reluctant rapport in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) work together in Once Upon a Time in the West. Then there's the pair in the largely overlooked Duck, You Sucker. Irish revolutionary and explosives expert John Mallory (James Coburn) is on the run in Mexico when he meets bandit Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), who forcefully recruits Mallory to help him and his pack of lost boy-like sons rob a bank.
Duck, You Sucker, also known in various releases as Once Upon a Time, the Revolution, and A Fistful of Dynamite, didn't open with great success in America when it came out in 1971, and it was tough to track down until MGM released the DVD a few years ago (I first saw it on a videotape dubbed from a laserdisc; thank you '90s technology). It has the distant dusky landscapes of Leone's other movies, the tense close-ups, cartoonish violence, Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and ambivalent morality he established years earlier with the "Man With No Name" trilogy. It was Leone's last western, and second-to-last film, lumped together with Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America as a trilogy of epics about North America's violent foundations.
Mallory and Miranda make a volatile odd couple. World-weary Mallory really just wants to be left alone to blow stuff up, but Miranda won't stop hounding him. Miranda maintains that it's destiny that they team up, pointing out that they have the same name. They also share a violent distrust of authority, which, in the Leone rulebook, means they're the good -- or at least the better -- guys. They become accidental heroes of the Mexican Revolution, though Miranda's never sold on socialist revolution doing anything for anyone, especially poor people. He's in it for himself, his family, and -- by the end -- his friend Mallory.
The movie opens with a quote from Mao and a disgusting view of the ruling class, but it's no more political than any other Leone story. Anti-heroes stumble into situations they can fix because they lack any allegiances. If anything, the final statement is that political organization is a scam; you're better off riding into the sunset, or, in this case, going out with a bang.
The Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco is showing Duck, You Sucker and the other Once Upon a Time... movies in honor of the publication of a new Leone book, Sergio Leone: L'America, la nostalgia, e il mito by Italian journalist Roberto Donati (it hasn't been translated into English yet). The Leone film series starts tonight, Tuesday, January 19 at 6pm and runs for three Tuesdays through February 2, 2010 as part of the Italian Cultural Institute's regular Tuesday night film series. Duck, You Sucker plays January 26. For a full schedule and more information, visit iicsanfrancisco.esteri.it.