The films of Sergio Leone are cobbled together from disparate parts and influences. As Sir Christopher Frayling notes in his audio commentary for A Fistful of Dollars (the first of four films included in the recently released DVD box set, The Sergio Leone Anthology), the opening credits—with their galloping, target-practice-ready silhouettes—are meant to mimic the James Bond series, then tremendously popular in Leone's home country of Italy. But to label this and Leone's subsequent productions as quintessentially Italian is to neglect the films' cosmopolitan realities: financial backers from Germany, Spain, and America; primary location shooting in Franco-controlled Spain; stars of all stripes, among them Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Gian Maria Volontè, Marianne Koch, and Klaus Kinski; and vocal post-dubbing tailored to the country of exhibition. Leone presides over these celluloid mish-mashes like a master chef; he isn't the only purveyor of these so-called spaghetti westerns, but he is the one whose worldwide reputation is most secure.
Why does Leone travel so well? The optimist in me would like to think it's entirely based on his own artistic merits, but pragmatism wins out in this case: it's all about the PR. In the United States, the three Dollars films (all accounted for in this set) will forever be known as “The Man With No Name” trilogy, and we have the admen at United Artists to thank for that designation. Clint Eastwood's monosyllabic gunslinger is a tried-and-true emblem of Leone's mythical, moviefied American West, though it's fascinating to watch the Dollars films in close succession and see how, with each subsequent installment, Leone distances himself from the iconography he helped, perhaps inadvertently, to create. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, for example, Eastwood's character begins the film decked out in white hat and angelic trench coat, only donning his trademark poncho, sheepskin, and jeans in the famed graveyard climax. In this way the film plays as something of a roundabout prequel to the previous Dollars films. As much as Leone's work grows ever larger in scope, he never neglects his origins, and his films feel freighted with the profound weight of personal history.
And yet Leone increasingly eschews the familiar, so that by the time of his second trilogy (the Once Upon a Time films), his rhythms are decidedly his own. Great as they are, the Dollars films are frequently logy, and often underwhelming from a thematic standpoint. The incorporation of the American Civil War into The Good, The Bad and The Ugly feels like a tangential time-killer as opposed to any sort of tragic statement, an opportunity for Leone to indulge in his (admittedly engrossing) penchant for spectacle. Whereas Leone's integration of the Mexican War of Independence into Duck, You Sucker (the fourth film in this set) is a quite conscious engagement with, and rebuttal of, the French student revolutions of May '68.
It is rumored that Leone's original title for Duck, You Sucker was Once Upon a Time…The Revolution, which it did eventually, and appropriately, go under during its French release. Frayling explains in an accompanying video interview that the English title is both a loose translation of the original Italian, Giù la Testa (literally: “Keep your head down, balls”) and the result of a mistaken assumption on the part of Leone, who was convinced that “Duck, you sucker!” was a common phrase of American slang. In all cases the title was meant to engage with the very idea of revolution, a concept that Leone felt was too often romanticized. If Leone's thoughts on the subject were never taken too seriously, it probably had something to do with the many bastardized versions of Duck, You Sucker that made their way to theaters. This DVD presents the film, by all accounts, in its full, uncut form, reinstating the intentionally truncated opening epigraph by Chairman Mao (“The revolution is not a dinner party…”) and fleshing out the enigmatic backstory of Irish terrorist John Mallory (James Coburn), one half of the tragicomic rebel duo that also includes Mexican peasant Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger).
Duck, You Sucker is the real jewel of the set, the missing connective tissue between Leone's great Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. Taken as a whole, this second trilogy charts the coming of industrialization, the fall of the American West, and the rise and fall of the American gangster, though it is always—first and foremost—one man's intoxicating fever dream of a society in flux. Leone saw the world through movies (A Fistful of Dollars, let us not forget, was a deliberate transposition of Kurosawa's Yojimbo), but at a certain point he moved beyond that purview, to a place where movies were merely the conduit to a higher level of engagement with the world at large. With the release of The Sergio Leone Anthology (and with excellent editions of Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America already available), all of Leone's inimitable directorial efforts can now be seen as close to his original intentions as possible.
All four films in The Sergio Leone Anthology are presented in their original 2.35:1 Techniscope aspect ratios and anamorphically enhanced for widescreen displays. Techniscope, as is often remarked throughout the set's special features, was a poor man's Cinemascope, effectively printing two widescreen images per single frame of 35mm film-a fragile process, though one that, as Leone discovered, was great for deep-focus long shots and extreme close-ups; thus was born the spaghetti western vernacular. Any flaws in the image can be primarily chalked up to issues with the original negative (like the damage lines that appear during a nighttime shootout in A Fistful of Dollars); overall, these films have never looked better.
Sound is a different issue. I'm thankful that three of the four films include restored English mono tracks in addition to remixed 5.1 tracks (this set also fixes the egregious lack of sound effects sync in MGM's original DVD release of For a Few Dollars More). Yet I concur with several colleagues' observations that Italian mono tracks for all would have been welcome, better to grasp the creative processes of the non-English speaking Leone. An Italian mono track is included on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (which is the same edition released previously as a two-disc set), though its English track is only Dolby Digital 5.1. To an extent, I can forgive the lack of an English mono track, as this is an extended cut of the film (better representing Leone's original Italian premiere version), which required several of the original actors to come in, almost 40 years later, and re-record a good chunk of their lines. What is entirely unforgivable is the re-recording, in what seems like an echo-prone wind tunnel, of numerous sound effects (gunshots and cannon fire primarily) that distract from the visual and emotional textures of the piece.
Massive. The jewels of the set are the three audio commentaries by Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling (on the first two Dollars films and Duck, You Sucker), an engaging and well-informed speaker who rarely allows for dead space and always has something of interest to say. The exact opposite, in other words, of Richard Schickel, whose commentary on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is ported over from that film's previous two-disc release. As per usual, he sounds like he'd rather be elsewhere. Each film also has a second disc that includes making-of documentaries, radio spots, and trailers. Of particular interest here is the Monte Hellman-directed television prologue for A Fistful of Dollars, which gives the Man With No Name a moral motivation for his killing spree and allows Harry Dean Stanton to talk down to a height disproportionate Eastwood body double.
My mistake. Four coffins for all previous video versions of these films.