Duck You Sucker aka A Fistful of Dynamite

Certificate: 15
Running time: 157 mins
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: James Coburn, Rod Steiger, Romolo Valli
Genre: Western, War, Action
Country: Italy

An IRA explosive (Mallory) expect turns up in Mexico in the middle of the revolution and becomes involved in the fight for freedom alongside a local bandito (Steiger).

This film could have ended up so differently if it wasn’t for a perfect example of star power.  When Coburn and Steiger signed on to star in Duck You Sucker or A Fistful of Dynamite it was meant to be the directorial vehicle for Leone’s long term assistant Giancarlo Santi, both men would insist that Leone be the main man behind the camera and the project moved away from Santi (who would go on to direct one of the most under appreciated Spaghetti Westerns ever in Hell’s Fighters the following year).

It’s this intent which is most notable about A Fistful of Dynamite as it’s often called Leone’s comic book Western.  It does seem to live a little bigger and bolder than the Dollars trilogy and now we know why, it was never meant to be his.  Thoughts do, on occasion turn to Santi and how he could have crafted it, but they pass within a matter of minutes as Leone is a master behind the camera and his stars are clearly revelling in the fact that they came onboard a Spaghetti Western slated to be directed by an unknown and ended up with the Hitchcock of ‘high noon cinema’.

Tradition would dictate that you leave the reveal of whether a film is good, bad, ugly or great until after you have interrogated the core elements but this is a Sergio Leone film, you already know it’s great.  What’s probably more useful is to look at what exactly makes it so great and there’s no better place to start than Leone’s direction.  The Italian is a skilful crafter of scenes and is masterful of two types of shots in particular, the still long shot as seen in Once Upon A Time in the West and the extreme close-up (as seen in everything else).  With A Fistful of Dynamite leaning more towards the Action-Western hybrid there’s few moments of great stillness to dissect but there is plenty of everything else.  There is probably no better example than Juan (Steiger) and Mallory’s (Coburn) siege of the bridge against the Mexican army, the composition, editing and framing is all sculpted to enthuse the audience with a great energy and excitement and demonstrates a level of scale which is unexpected for the film. Similarly there are moments of simple, beautiful and clever film making.  Juan piercing the President’s poster and looking through the hole in his face creates an alignment that demonstrates not just how wonderful every shot is in a Leone film but how many levels he lays over his narrative that means even a more “action orientated” Western like A Fistful of Dynamite has multiple watches in it as you attempt to peel away and dissect the film in order to get to the core of it’s meaning.

Ennio Morricone’s score is perfect.  It wouldn’t be right to leave it too long before discussing how he makes music and emotion out of nothing.  Morricone has the ability to take sounds, relatively neutral and passive noises and stitch them into the fabric of a score to create a rich story to rival anything that’s written in the script.  A couple of years back I was lucky enough to experience Morricone live in Belfast as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and it was an event that changed everyone who attended.  The dreamy romanticised score of Mallory’s recollection of his life in Ireland starts as lyrical & beautiful and the more you watch the more haunting and painful it becomes and all without changing a key.  Even the biggest Morricone fan has probably still to encounter even  at least 50% of his oeuvre as the Maestro was, in his day, prolific and is behind not only some of the biggest and best scores in cinema but also a lot of scores for low budget Italian Exploitation titles which I hope to bring to the site over the next couple of months.

There are two unbelievable powerhouse displays of acting in this film.  It’s unusual to see this as usually one performer edges another but you genuinely can’t pass a hair between Coburn and Steiger.  Coburn has  his surface portrayal of Mallory, one of an easy going relaxed and confident Irish man, someone who’s been through the mill a few times but has come out the other end unscathed. There’s a level of darkness within him which we see in his flashbacks and even though their dream like and soft focus that’s more to do with the fact that he’s been trying to delude himself.  He’s a wanted man, 3000 miles from home with a bounty on his head and has lost the two most important people in his life.  This is a man looking for a mission, looking for a cause to die for and not even having the self awareness to see it in himself.  He’s incredibly likeable and his accent is remarkably good, it’s a little Darby O’Gill at times but it’s a damn good effort and for my money Coburn has never been better.  I could watch him all day in Dynamite.  Likewise Steiger is phenomenal as Juan; he has the most ground to travel with regards to character.  His ability to play the unscrupulous, at times cowardly yet comedic is a testament to his ability and his transformation from low life bandito to hero of the revolution is one that is unquestionable as he plays it with a level of sincerity that can’t be debated.  In the hands of a less assured actor the transformation would be showy and awkward and would come across as contrived but it’s the glimpses the Steiger peppers the performance with throughout that seal it.  You cheer for him, you want him to realise his potential it’s a masterclass.  By the time you get to the final third you have two fully realised antiheroes who not only chew up their time on screen but are generous with their ability.

Romolo Valli (Doctor Villega) is a decent actor; he performed adequately in Death in Venice but on screen with Steiger and Coburn is raised to a level that would prompt a career nose bleed.  His finest moments being onboard the train with Coburn, not only his delivery honest and emotive but there’s moments in his silence and stillness which convey more than words can and it’s these moments that separate the good actors from the great actors but it’s also great actors that can inspire these moments from good actors.  Coburn is a great actor and to Valli’s credit he’s risen to the change of stepping into the light of Coburn’s star and has shone equally as bright.

It might be controversial but I think I love A Fistful of Dynamite more than any other Sergio Leone film and the reason for this is one of access.  For the newcomer to Spaghetti Westerns some of Leone’s work can appear as off putting.  The opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West has bested many a well meaning cinephile, similarly The Good, The Bad and The Ugly have moments that truly test the steel of the viewer but A Fistful of Dynamite has none of that.  It’s closer to the work of an Exploitation director like Enzo Castellari than the Italian Auteur and it invites the audience in.  It’s accessibility is part of the films charm and having watched, and no doubt, loved it the new Leone viewer is a lot more likely to stick with the rest of the directors films through the dense moments of cinematic mastery because they already know a film of his they love.  As a child I cut my teeth on A Fistful of Dynamite and was therefore less weary of delving into the more critically and thematically weighty films and though I probably would have done it regardless of whether I had watched Dynamite or not I did it with a level of trust and excitement that can only come when great cinema is made accessible.


A hero never dies said...

Great work John, I love Duck You Sucker, it seems to be terribly underrated in Leone's body of work, nice to see someone who loves it as much as I do. The flashbacks with Morricone's score and Edda Dell'Orso's soaring vocal kills me every time, and I mean every time! Bring on a blu ray release.

John Baxter said...

Thanks man, it's one of those films that is underrated by those who haven't seen it. I remember watching a 35MM screening during a Leone retrospective and it's one of those films that borders on a religious experience.

Direct to Video Connoisseur said...

I have been meaning to see this for some time. Your review has convinced me I need to make it happen sooner rather than later.

John Baxter said...

Would be interested to hear what you think of it Matt. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Dr. Theda said...

I loved this movie.... and the "disgruntled" Mexican that blows himself his smouldering sombrero lands on the grounr ...James Coburn turns and says "Short fuse" .... One of my favorite lines from any movie.... Definitely one of the best of the "spaghetti westerns" ever made....

John Baxter said...

That's a great scene Doc. It's such a great film, only gets better with age

Gabriel said...

It's such a shame so few people have seen this great piece of cinema. wouldn't mind a remake by the right people if only to call attention to the original.

John Baxter said...

I love it, I love the almost Superhero character the two central protagonists have. It's larger than life and perfect exploitation/escapism.

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