Friday, September 9, 2011

Junta Juleil's Top 100: #50-46

50. DUCK, YOU SUCKER (1971, Sergio Leone)

One of Leone's finest achievements, and one which only grows in impact with each subsequent viewing. Beginning with the depiction of a man pissing on an anthill and ending with the mournful cry "What about me?," DUCK, YOU SUCKER is sort of the ultimate statement on revolution– its winners, its losers, its agitators, its perpetuators, and the seemingly endless supply of moneyed, oppressive motherfuckers who always manage to reappear after a revolution, like the regenerative heads of the Hydra. Leone pulls no punches here: even though it's peppered with action and humor, it's brutal, passionate, and operatic. It's James Coburn's Sean and Rod Steiger's Juan, two sides of the same coin, who criss-cross paths with one another– one in decline, and one unknowingly on the rise. So many emotions are captured to the point of perfection: the exhilaration of bank-robbing or riding out in open country, the disgust at watching blue-bloods stuffing their anus-mouths, the sting of betrayal and the deeper sting of the betrayed, the unequivocal horror of mass graves. Leone is writing his history of the Twentieth Century, the Era of Extermination, the epoch of man perfecting his ability to stamp himself out. Orwell saw the future as a boot stomping on a human face forever– Leone sees men pissing on ants, pissing on each other, clawing at one another in a bloodied trench of corpses as our overlords above prepare to administer the coup de grace, just as perhaps the overlords' overlords prepare to administer their own. It's monstrous, it's soaring, it's Goya, it's John Ford, it's Mozart, it's Pagliacci. Ennio Morricone is in top form, and he creates a score full of perhaps a dozen individualized themes, any of which could carry a movie on their own. Coburn and Steiger are grand, Antoine Saint-John is frightening, Romolo Valli exudes the proper complexity. It speaks to the sheer quality of Leone's body of work that even this is still his third-best film. (Side note: it's unclear if Leone thought that "Duck, you sucker" was a common English expression, or if he believed he'd be creating a new catchphrase with it, but either way, you've got to love those Italians.)

49. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980, Irvin Kershner)

My favorite film in the STAR WARS trilogy, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK saw Lucas kept in check via formidable craftsman-ly direction by Irvin Kershner, and an occasionally tragic, occasionally quotable, often mystical, and always two-fisted screenplay by old-Hollywood worshipper Lawrence Kasdan (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, SILVERADO, BODY HEAT) and old-Hollywood player Leigh Brackett (RIO BRAVO, THE BIG SLEEP, THE LONG GOODBYE). Even chubby, post-fugue state, CGI-humpin' George Lucas couldn't find too much to mess with in the various iterations of EMPIRE we've seen since 1997. I don't know what to say that hasn't been said ad nauseum by STAR WARS acolytes already, but we've got Frank Oz taking the art of filmic puppetry to new and astounding heights, Boba Fett exuding Western-baddie cool without actually doing anything, Harrison Ford in his first appearance as a capital-A Actor, Carrie Fisher fueled by mountains of cocaine, towering and frightening stop-motion vehicles, elegant matte paintings, loads of C-3PO/Lando Calrissian homoeroticism, a hand-puppet that eats spaceships, an exhilaratingly complex John Williams score, more strangulation per capita than any comparable PG-rated space opera (even Chewie gets in on the action), abominable snowmen, Cliff Clavin, and a really awkward breakfast with Darth Vader. It's better than HOWARD THE DUCK is what I'm saying.

48. BRAZIL (1985, Terry Gilliam)

An eye-popping dystopian cauldron of Kafka and Orwell brazenly stirred by visual mastermind Terry Gilliam, BRAZIL (originally conceived as "1984 AND 1/2") piles on the grandeur, cheekiness, and dread that one would expect from such an endeavor. It's filled with genius performances and memorable moments– Jim Broadbent freakishly contorting the rubbery face of socialite Katherine Helmond; the breathtaking clashes between Icarus-armor clad Jonathan Pryce and a gargantuan samurai; mustachioed Robert De Niro bursting forth from here, there, and everywhere, a postmodern anti-bureaucratic Robin Hood; Ian Richardson leading a phalanx of pencil-pushers, striding purposefully through an office which bears more resemblance to a parking garage; Michael Palin leading awkward, flustering torture sessions while donning a grotesque baby mask; the paralyzing paramilitary-style assaults on average Joes by the minions of the Ministry of Information– it's nearly two-and-a-half hours of nonstop hilarity, wonderment, and torment, and I'm fairly certain that Kafka (who was rumored to chuckle his way through readings of his manuscripts) would be proud.

47. DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928, Josef von Sternberg)

Probably my favorite silent film of all time, DOCKS OF NEW YORK is a mist-enshrouded and shadow-entrenched look at life and love between grime-coated, seafaring brutes and suicidal, proto-Dietrich barflies. The entire first half of the film takes place in near-darkness– unforgiving furnace rooms, tenebrous alleways, murky canals, and a rough n' tumble tavern full of cheap drinks, cheaper drunks, and a rogue's gallery of other salty characters. But then the plot develops and this endless night ends– daylight hits, and it's stark and painful and shocking because we've adjusted ourselves to the darkness; it's the same effect as waking after too little sleep on the morning after a night of debauchery, and it's astonishing to really feel that intruding dawn in the context of watching a film. DOCKS OF NEW YORK is a treatise on impulse, the worth of human beings, and what it's like to spend a lifetime scraping the bottom of the (sardine?) barrel while catching only fleeting glimpses of happiness from between the wooden slats. Also see: THE SCARLET EMPRESS, MOROCCO, BLONDE VENUS, THE LAST COMMAND, et al. Sternberg's one of the greats, and I'd recommend any of his films that I've seen without reservation.

46. SUNSET BLVD. (1950, Billy Wilder)

What to say? That the funeral for an ape sequence is more subtly terrifying than any horror flick released in the last fifteen years? That Gloria Swanson is the scariest woman not named Joan Crawford to ever draw breath? That Erich von Stroheim is so damned classy they should give him an extra "von" or two? I mean, just look at this stuff:

If you haven't already, I mean... Just go see the damn thing.

Coming up next... Even more Eigeman, sandwich-making with Crispin Glover, and more Argento!

-Sean Gill


Unknown said...

Amen on EMPIRE, my friend. I will never forget the first sight of those Snow Walkers and wondering if the Rebels were gonna make it - what an impact that film had on my young mind. Incredible.

And BRAZIL... arguably Gilliam's magnum opus. Even though I watch FEAR & LOATHING and FISHER KING more often, BRAZIL is his masterpiece for all the reason you stated so eloquently.

Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

Duck, You Sucker is insanely underrated. It's probably Leone's least known work, besides The Colossus of Rhodes, and it's one of his very best. The guy made seven movies, and four of them were masterpieces. Does anyone else have a comparable record?

GuyR said...

Well here's a little bit of trivia for you (if you didn't know it already) : "Duck, You Sucker!" is in France called "Il était une fois la Révolution", which of course translates to "Once Upon a Time : The Revolution", thus forming with "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Once Upon a Time in America" a pretty unusual trilogy.
Was that actually intended by Sergio Leone or was it greedy frenchmen attempting to draw the audience by calling it that? Well I don't know. It's a kickass film on its own anyway!

Mike B. said...

Indeed, Brazil is the single most beautiful yet tragic film I think I've ever seen. And, as a weird anecdote, I was watching C.H.U.D. recently and one of my pals casually says "Hey, that's the chick from Brazil." I thought "No way, no way at all." And yet, I'll be damned. Could that be the biggest jump in quality roles that any actress ever made in a one year time span?

Sean Gill said...


And those snow walkers were all the more subtly terrifying because of their stilted, yet organic portrayal– for me, it's the perfect 80's version of Talos from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. As for Gilliam, BRAZIL is definitely the tops for me. It's been a long time since I saw THE FISHER KING though; I should probably put that back in the rotation.

Leone's output does indeed have an insanely high standard of quality. Some have posited that he practically directed the MY NAME IS NOBODY films as well, and even they stand up as extremely enjoyable comedy-spaghettis. COLOSSUS OF RHODES isn't even bad, it's just sort of bland. Regardless, DUCK YOU SUCKER deserves a lot more exposure, especially in an era when the Dollars Trilogy and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST seem to be (almost inexplicably, but I welcome it!) enjoying their largest fanbases.


I do like the title ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE REVOLUTION as well. I've been told that a good approximate translation of the Italian title GIU LA TESTA would be "KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN" or perhaps even more metaphorically "MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS" or "STAY OUT OF IT," all of which speak to the attitudes and epiphanies which recur throughout the film. I do enjoy Coburn participating in a great ideological victory...and then tossing his Bakunin into the mud. Ah, revolution!

Mike B.,

Heh, Kim Griest had quite a year in 1985: BRAZIL and Michael Mann's MANHUNTER. Unfortunately, I think it was all downhill from there, if you'll note this photograph:

Mike B. said...

Wow, Sinbad, yikes indeed! But hey, if I were a marginal actress, a lifetime of crap roles might be a fair trade-off to co-star in Brazil. Tough call, but just maybe.

NB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.