Wednesday, 5 February 2020

A Fistful Of Dynamite

How Would He Duck?

A Fistful Of Dynamite
aka Duck You Sucker  
aka Giù La Testa  
aka Once Upon A Time... The Revolution
Italy/Spain 1971 Directed by Sergio Leone
Eureka - The Masters Of Cinema  Blu Ray Zone B

Warning: Slight spoilers if you’ve never seen this one.

Okay, so let’s talk about Duck You Sucker or, these days perhaps it’s better known by one of its other many names, A Fistful Of Dynamite. This is a beautiful new Blu Ray release from Eureka which my friend and I both got for each other at Christmas. A two disc special edition of what is, essentially, my favourite ever Western movie (occasionally alternating with this director’s previous film) and the last Western ‘officially’ directed by Sergio Leone... the next film directed under his own name, after a long interval, would be his swan song, the absolutely brilliant Once Upon A Time In America.

The plot is very simple but told in an entertainingly convoluted way. A Mexican bandit name Juan, played by Rod Steiger as an almost parody of the director (who I seem to remember he didn’t get along with during production) inadvertently teams up with an IRA terrorist named John, played by James Coburn, during the 1913 revolution in Mexico. The two start off kinda hating each other but do the whole male bonding over violence and adventures thing and, inexplicably and regretfully in the case of Juan, end up becoming heroes of the revolution.

The film looks beautiful and, although there are only a few incidents told in its lengthy running time, everything is stretched out in the way that only Leone can do it (and leave you wanting more) so that it feels like an absolute epic. Which, of course, it is.

The film has a lot of comedy in it, with one of my favourite scenes being the bank raid at Mesa Verde when Juan has been talking John, ‘the firecracker’ who is so good with explosives, into doing the bank job only to find, when he goes through with it, that it is he who has been manipulated by John all along as there is no longer any money in the bank. Instead, he finds himself freeing a hundred or so political prisoners. The look on Steigers face each time he opens a bank vault and instead finds prisoners is priceless in a montage scene beautifully backed for comic effect by Ennio Morricone’s truly awesome score.

The film is also very moving, with a wonderful, protracted sequence after Juan and John have stopped the bad guys in government from crossing the bridge and following the rebels where they go rejoin all the people they have saved, only to find they’ve all been slaughtered in a cave by another military troop. The scene is just Rod Steiger’s face for pretty much most of it as he looks around and talks to Coburn and you begin to realise what has happened and that Juan has lost his father plus all six of his children in the massacre. When he goes outside in a suicidal bid for revenge (only to be caught in time to be rescued later), it’s only then we are left with John and we see the many bodies piled up, with the machine gun bullets of Juan’s bid for vengeance outside the cave on the soundtrack co-opted by the visuals of the dead bodies of the rebels as a metaphor of the way they died. It’s a wonderful moment of sound juxtaposed with on-screen visuals to make a comment on what you are seeing and add a layer of dynamic context.

There’s also a moving scene earlier in the movie and, for my money, Steiger’s monologue from this scene is probably one of the best, if not the best, in cinema history. Now I don’t acknowledge politics or the necessity of them myself and I usually don’t understand them anyway but, twice in Spaghetti Westerns they’ve simplified thing so that even I can comprehend them and one of them is this speech, which I’ll quote here (the other is probably the end moments of A Bullet For The General, if I’m not confusing politics with morality that is)...

“I know what I am talking about when I am talking about revolutions! 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? They are dead! That's your revolution! Sh... so, please... don't tell me about revolutions... And what happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!”

The photography in this is absolutely beautiful, of course and, it’s very easy to recognise that the meticulously designed shot compositions are by Sergio Leone. You have action scenes through horizontal slats in the foreground or mid-ground and the screen split up into sections with holes to view other things going on... not to mention an abundance on close ups of eyes and, in a brilliant part at the start where Juan is riding in the carriage with the rich people, their mouths full of food to show the way the ‘other half’ lives and how evil they are in this situation (one of them a priest, of course).

And as far as the composition goes... there’s that wonderful moment where a poster with a face on it is suddenly torn out from behind in a slat on the train carriage it has been plastered over to reveal Rod Steiger’s eyes looking out from inside and into the camera in close up... a shot which must surely have inspired the scene where Gromit does more or less the same thing hiding inside a box of dog food in The Wrong Trousers.

One particularly favourite moment of composition is near the start of the movie, when the camera is placed behind the guy riding shotgun on a stage coach and is looking down past him at the action. The brim of the guys hat fills the right third of the widescreen frame while we see Juan and the driver interacting on the ground in the left two thirds of the screen below... really nice stuff.

And then there’s Ennio Morricone’s score adding to every scene of course. This is one of my all time favourite scores too and one of my ex-girlfriends used to get so tired of me bringing it to play in the car every time we went out. At times jaunty but ultimately containing some of the most moving melodies he ever wrote... especially for the scenes where John is remembering his IRA past, which we see more of as his back story is revealed over the course of the movie.

Actually, if you go with the title Once Upon A Time... The Revolution and realise it is sandwiched between the director’s other epic movies Once Upon A Time In The West and Once Upon A Time In America, we see the director’s obsession, as I see it, with memory and how important it is to the characters who inhabit these three films (and also his earlier film, For A Few Dollars More). Like it is in some of Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies, memory seems to be almost an added character to the story and the events of the present time in the film are always affected by what has gone on in the past of the character’s lives. I won’t spoil James Coburn’s full character arc for you here if you’ve never seen it  but, it’s a sad and tragic one and explains, to a certain extent, why he sees the actions of one specific character in the film as a betrayal of sorts... although he doesn’t, as we at first think, do anything about this betrayal. He does inadvertently pave the way for redemption for that character towards the end of the film though.

Eureka’s wonderful two disc set of A Fistful Of Dynamite, including both the American version of the film and the much longer Italian cut (which is the one to watch but maybe choose the English dialogue track option on the audio because that’s what the two main American actors are speaking throughout) is loaded with extras (none of which I’ve yet had a chance to watch) including separate commentary tracks from both Sir Christopher Frayling and Alex Cox plus a beautiful slipcase housing a book of essays about the film. If you call yourself a film buff (I wouldn’t), a cineaste, a movie goer or any variant of a lover of cinema then this is a film which you should always have a version of on your shelves. One of the great movies of cinema and another that I’ll always try and revisit every five years or so. Get this version before it sells out.

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