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Leone: quick on the draw with myths of Old West

January 02, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

The horse opera to end all horse operas, "Once Upon a Time in the West," joins "Duck, You Sucker" in the closing night double feature highlight of American Cinematheque's Sergio Leone retrospective, which screens through Saturday at the Egyptian.

"Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968), shown in the 165-minute director's cut, is a bravura shoot-'em-up from the man most responsible for the break with the western's traditional mythical confrontations between good and evil. In Leone films, the question is not one of morality but of survival. Yet "Once Upon a Time in the West" is a departure for Leone, whose characters are mostly as murderous and vengeful as ever, but now they are so fascinating -- no one is quite as he seems at first -- that we get caught up in their predicaments and suspense builds accordingly.

A coldblooded Henry Fonda has been hired by Gabriele Ferzetti, a railroad baron fighting off crippling paralysis and living only to see his richly appointed private car reach the Pacific, to scare off anyone who might try to profit from the land upon which Ferzetti's tracks are to be laid -- and this is just the beginning.

Also starring are Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards and Charles Bronson.

At the beginning, Leone sets a leisurely, portentous tone. A windmill squeaks, a rocker creaks, knuckles crack, flies buzz and water slowly drips on the hat of Woody Strode as he and Jack Elam -- two of Fonda's men -- await Bronson at a depot in the middle of nowhere as if they had all the time in the world.

One beautiful image follows another as Leone's camera takes in rich Cinecitta interiors and splendid vistas, some of which were photographed in Arizona and Utah. Throughout, Leone is a master of the expressive gesture in celebration of an Old West that exists more in our imaginations than it ever did in reality.

With "Duck, You Sucker," his rarely seen final western, Leone continues in this pleasing vein, this time romanticizing the Mexican Revolution that began in the teens of the last century.

It stars Rod Steiger as a Sancho Panza-like Mexican bandit and James Coburn as his Don Quixote, a disillusioned Irish terrorist turned silver prospector, who get caught up in the revolution. When he and Coburn, an explosives expert, knock over a bank, they feel compelled to release a horde of political prisoners incarcerated in the building's ancient vaults. The irreversible transformation of this pair of would-be bad guys into heroes has begun.

Steiger and Coburn's ensuing picaresque adventures take place on a truly epic scale, involving massive battle scenes and much derring-do. "Duck, You Sucker" celebrates the way in which myths are made, and Steiger and Coburn become endearing, larger-than-life characters. Because Leone exaggerates everything with such consistency and imagination, he creates a fallacy that is, at once, poignant and amusing. "Tall tales," observed Samuel Fuller, "is all the Old West really had."

*

Screenings

What: "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Duck, You Sucker"

Where: American Cinematheque, Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Saturday, 5 p.m.

Info: (323) 466-FILM

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