a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

rod steiger with disorienting accents double feature

For the foaming Sergio Leone nut, the transition from 1969's Once Upon a Time in the West to 1984's Once Upon a Time in America (the post-mortum extended cut, that is) is a jarring one: how did he go from operatic (and mostly linear) bad-ass posturing to cyclical brood-meister? The fifteen year separation may explain it, but where's the missing link?

The answer is 1971's Duck, You Sucker!, though it wasn't exactly missing. It's been long available under one of its many alternate titles (Fistful of Dynamite; Once Upon a Time...the Revolution's another one), chopped down to just shy of two hours. About halfway through the 162 minutes, you get your answer.

Sucker (either Leone's best or worst title; the maestro stubbornly claimed it was a typical American catchphrase) starts off innocently enough, which is to say typical Leone: a bandito (Steiger) infiltrates a group of upper class prigs traversing the desert in a wagon and, once his gang (mostly family members) shows up, he proceeds to strip them of clothes, rape the lone woman, and send them packing. Steiger wants to rob the sizeable Mesa Verde bank and for this he enlists, by force, the aid of a motorcycling ex-IRA explosives expert (James Coburn), a loner who likes to keeps Steiger from shooting him by showing off the dynamite wrapped around his torso and the tall bottle of nitroglycerine stuffed in one of his pockets.

So far, so pulp. Alas, the first hour-and-change is one red herring. It's post-Mexican revolution, but things have hardly calmed down: banditos (read: terrorists) are everywhere, and so are the military, who look suspiciously like tank-driving, fey Nazi storm troopers. Inevitably, Steiger and Coburn -- who's prone to winsome flashbacks with ironic Ennio Morricone backdrops (the chorus chants his name) -- are swept up in it. Remember the Marx scrawl that opens the film?

Long the lost Leone -- or the one his followers never bothered watching, anyway -- Sucker! finds him finally giving into the outside world, something he had only dabbled with before. Fistful of Dollars is pure nihilism; For a Few Dollars More is more of the same, but with two nihilists and a baddie (Gian Maria Volonte, also of Dollars) made a touch more sympathetic. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has the Civil War raging on the sidelines while Once Upon a Time in the West finds a story amidst Manifest Destiny. By Once Upon a Time in America, he had retreated back to the solipsistic loner, but with a dollop of existentialim. But Sucker at least tries to meld the loner stance with a grander view. It doesn't fit, sadly -- even at an extended (but by no means complete) length, there are honking ellipses, confusing plot mechanics, and a general sense that Leone is clumsily invading mysterious territory.

But, as is often the case, a director's misfires are often more fascinating and revealing than their direct hits, and Sucker is never less than wildly interesting -- a work of sheer lunacy. Though he never outright cops to it, Leone seems to be trying to Hoover up the last couple centuries of revolutions, making a pitch to the flower generation and, inadvertently, to the current state of world affairs. Anachronicistic touches abound, while Steiger makes a sturdy claim to usurp Eli Wallach as Leone's most grandstanding Mexicano. Tanned and flailing, he's a whole lot less likeable than Wallach's Tuco, but it works, especially when sharing screen-space with Coburn's laid-back bad-ass.

Afterwards, I was ready for more -- more of Steiger, as it turned out. Earlier in the day, I had lucked into taping a TCM airing of the 1957 Sam Fuller western Run of the Arrow, which holds a rung somewhere on the Steiger-accent ladder. "Make me annoy neighbors with my cackling," I declared. Afterwards, I was more shaken to the bone than in convulsions. Adopting an accent that's allegedly Irish but more close to peanut-butter mouthed simpleton, Steiger's inaudible, almost unlistenable, as a proud Southerner who, after the Civil War ends, wants nothing to do with the new Union and hightails it out West, to join up with the injuns. That's right: it's Dances With Wolves, only with more grit and better shots. But Fuller, apart from being a dazzling filmmaker, is also a fairly astute thinker, and he creates a balancing act, always contradicting itself when you think you've got it figred out. His west, as also seen in the year's bugfuck Forty Guns, is an unpredictable place, always changing, with people learning new lessons and suffering rude awakenings. It's somewhat disappointing to see Fuller in a more somber mood, particularly after a typically gripping opening -- it's more fun to think about afterwards than to watch. And Steiger's a wash, his accent distracting and his performance a few notches away from being hollow. Ralph Meeker has his back, though.

Also, semi-briefly:
* Should've predicted the tone of Owning Mahowny (2003) from Love and Death on Long Island, the previous film from the very dry RIchard Kwientiowski. But the rewards are subtle: you're always sure the film -- the real-life tale of a gambling addict who skimmed money off his Canadian bank -- could be more uproarious, but later grateful that it always held back. (For one thing, anyone else would've fitted it with narration.) It's still a mite too compact -- would've liked to have seen more of Minnie Driver's character, for one thing -- but at least he got Philip Seymour Hoffman, who's so alienating as the centerpiece that you always want to know more about him, even if you quickly realize he'll never grant you such a service. John Hurt's a genius; whatta surprise.

* I have nothing original to say about Shaun of the Dead (2004). Nada. Nothing. Check here, here, here, and just about anywhere else. If you're tired of following links, here's the breakdown: unbelievably strong first two-thirds; slightly disappointing third; toss-off ending that wins you back. Lucy Davis: marry me. Keep eyes peeled for Martin Freeman cameo -- the two don't even make eye-contact. Eerie.

* His first foray into art-cinema, Robert Altman's Images (1972) is by no means 3 Women, but it does break even: often stupid movie take on schizophrenia; brilliant craftsmanship. Play it on big speakers if you happen upon it -- the sound design (score by John Williams, with a credit to Stomu Yamashta for "sounds") ranks among his best, with clinks, wheezes and plops that would make a fine addition to Repulsion.

* Solely for regular readers/friends, but not even for them: finally finished, after nearly two months, London Fields. Dazzling, of course, catching Martin Amis in his whirligig prime -- he never truly lives up his ambition but he always makes you feel like he's about to. Best-read (pun half-intended) as an illumination on the unreliable narrator; po-mo, for Amis, is about how people mis-read certain events, transforming it to fit their own view. Quotable ratio through the roof, though I'm sure it'd be better plowed through in three or four days than over several weeks, hen-pecked at in random intervals (riding SEPTA; waiting for screenings to begin; awaiting Melatonin to kick in during the wee hours of the night). At least I finished it...but I still prefer Money. Isn't finishing a long, difficult book the best feeling in the world? Maybe I should re-tackle Infinite Jest. Probably won't, though.

I'll refrain from talking about Cédric Kahn's Red Lights, which is quite brilliant, and just point you to the review next Wednesday. Wouldn't it be mildly amusing, seeing my problem with promises, if I wound up writing it up here anyway?


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