Directed by: Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West)
Starring: Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Romolo Valli, Maria Monti, Rik Battaglia
It’s fun to imagine the faces of the United Artists executives as they watched Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker (1971) open with this quote, “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”—especially since the quote is attributed to Mao Tse-tung. Their delight must have then been even greater when the film cut to Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) taking a leak on an anthill and then shaking his bare foot dry. Worse was in store for them: a blistering depiction of the upper classes, wholesale violence, rampant symbolism, sudden shifts from drama to comedy and back again, and strange flashbacks to scenes of the James Coburn character’s past in Ireland (including more than the suggestion of a ménage à trois with undisguised homoerotic overtones). By the end of the screening, they must’ve been ready to kill themselves—and take Leone with them. The solution, instead, was to cut 20 minutes out of the film, retitle it A Fistful of Dynamite so it would sound like one of Leone’s Clint Eastwood pictures, and hope for the best. It still tanked.
These days you can see the full 157-minute version. It’s one of Leone’s best movies—and one of his looniest, which may be exactly why it’s one of the best. Yes, it’s as leftist as its Mao quote suggests, but the quote also suggests a central futility in the waste of violent revolution, making its exact point hard to pin down. It’s also a textbook of pretty terrific filmmaking—one that demonstrates that the much-maligned zoom lens can be a brilliant tool in the right hands (something today’s filmmakers are learning anew). Sprawling, huge and yet strangely intimate, it’s a unique work to be savored.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Duck, You Sucker at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 20, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)