“Duck, You Sucker”: Betrayal in All Its Hopelessly Unresolved Ambiguity


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
July 6, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 27

films in focus
By Andrew Sarris

Sergio Leone’s “DUCK, YOU SUCKER” doesn’t ring true to the American ear as a title. Its internal rhyme only accentuates the relative desuetude of “sucker” as slang. But then the glorious English language has never been one of the landmarks of Leone’s cinema, and so perhaps the language is now revenging itself on the cinema with this atrocious title. As a matter of principle, I reject any aural appeal based on the post-dubbing of trans-Atlantic Berlitz English in so-called international co-productions. (“The Burglars” and “The Dead Are Alive” are the two most recent examples of this horrendous practice.) Ever since “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West,” however, Leone has remained an exception to the rule.

“Duck, You Sucker” is especially interesting as a stylistic continuation of “Once Upon a Time in the West,” horse operas both, with the emphasis on opera, Leone’s frescoes of anguished close-ups providing the visual libretto to Ennio Morricone’s music.

In retrospect, “Once Upon a Time in the West” seems more coherent artistically and more convincing emotionally than “Duck, You Sucker.” Fro one thing, the three characters in “Time” (played by Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, and Jason Robards, Jr.) tend to merge together mystically for the final shoot-out whereas Rod Steiger’s awakened Mexican peasant and James Coburn’s disillusioned Irish revolutionary never quite reverberate in spiritual unison. For another, Steiger’s earthy histrionics are less efficiently controlled and connected than Eli Wallach’s in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Nonetheless, “Duck, You Sucker” is one of the very few current films with any semblance of a personal style. Leone has his share of faults, real and imagined. In the latter category for the uninitiated is the recurring diagnosis of long-windedness, but once the insistent rhythm of his films becomes familiar the supposedly superfluous footage contributes to the operatic resonance of his scenarios. Less satisfying are his occasional lapses of temporal and spatial logic in the development of overcomplicated plots. Even in the uncut version of “Once Upon a Time in the West” I never figured out the outcome of all the inter-villainous intrigues between Gabriele Ferzetti’s palsied capitalist and Henry Fonda’s ruthless executor of the imperial estate. And in “Duck, You Sucker” it is never clear when and how the Mexican government troops escape a particularly disastrous ambush set by Steiger and Coburn, and then proceed (where?) to massacre Steiger’s huge family.

Still, though Leone’s means are occasionally too complicated, his themes are rendered with a unique lyrical force as the leitmotifs of Morricone’s memory music. Thus whereas the theme of “Once Upon a Time in the West” was revenge in all its ultimately futile ramifications, the theme of “Duck, You Sucker” is betrayal in all its hopelessly unresolved ambiguity. Leone is nothing if not ambitious and audacious, and I say more power to him in this era of emotionally paralyzed filmmaking.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]