'The Hills Run Red' fest showcases lesser-known spaghetti westerns
FILM With Django Unchained-related posts currently filling up your Facebook feed (and box-office receipts stuffing Quentin Tarantino's pockets), now seems the perfect time to amble over to Berkeley for the Pacific Film Archive's spaghetti western series.
Six-part "The Hills Run Red: Italian Westerns, Leone, and Beyond" highlights some of the genre's most notable B-sides, with three examples of 'ghetti subset "Zapata westerns," plus a Monte Hellman oddity, a leather-clad display of youthful Burt Reynolds charisma, and a Lee Van Cleef classic. Expect multiple train heists and shootouts, dubbing that runs the gamut from questionable to surreal, class warfare, much macho chest-beating, and some stellar Ennio Morricone ear candy — including scores sampled by Tarantino over the years. Do not expect any political correctness whatsoever.
Plot incoherence and generous helpings of cheese are also on the menu in 1971's Duck, You Sucker!, also known as A Fistful of Dynamite. Director Sergio Leone took the gig reluctantly; he'd wanted a break from westerns after 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West, but came aboard after Peter Bogdanovich, Sam Peckinpah, and Giancarlo Santi (Leone's assistant on West and 1966's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) jumped ship for reasons both personal and producer-mandated. The casting of leads James Coburn (as an Irish explosives expert) and Rod Steiger (as, uh, a Mexican bandit) also came after a round-robin of choices were bandied about — including George Lazenby, fresh off his first and last James Bond portrayal, for Coburn's part.
At any rate, Duck opens with a Mao quote that reminds us "The revolution is an act of violence." We meet Juan (Steiger, whose accent foreshadows Scarface by 12 years) peeing on an anthill and weaseling his way onto a stagecoach populated by snobby gringos. After an uncomfortably extended sequence comprised of extreme close-ups of richie-rich lips and teeth — chomping food, hurling insults at the peasant in their midst — Juan reveals he's actually a serial robber, helped along by his extended brood of scrappy sons. Sure, there's a revolution going on, but he's in it for personal gain. "My country is not my family," he mutters later in the film; revolutions, he says, are planned by men who read too many books — and carried out by poor people, many of whom don't live to see the end result.
This observation proves eye-opening for Mallory (Coburn), who gives his first name as John, though his true name is Sean — which, to my ears, is one of the recurrent motifs in Morricone's score ("Shon! Shon!") On the run from his IRA misdeeds — shared throughout the film in superfluous, soft-focus, slo-mo flashbacks — the dynamite addict joins Juan's crew to help rob a bank, or so Juan thinks, until he realizes the Irishman has neglected to mention that the vault contains political prisoners, not gold. Having sprung hundreds of captives purely by accident, Juan becomes the world's most reluctant revolutionary hero. Meanwhile John/Sean works through his own demons by applying generous amounts of TNT to bridges, trains, etc.