Only Sergio Leone could get away with such vulgarity and ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’, aka ‘Duck You Sucker’, aka ‘Once Upon a Time… The Revolution’, aka ‘Giu la Testa’ (1971) is an incredibly vulgar movie and not just in terms of excessive titling, dubious morality, his treatment of women or indulgent brutality but it’s also vulgar regarding structure, lurches in tone and narrative flow. Smooth transitions, like morality in a time of revolution, are not to be found here. So there are some scenes that seem to appear out of nowhere giving the feeling of some connective tissue missing, others that threaten irrelevance and a few than undeniably go on too long. What’s also undeniable is how entertaining Leone keeps all this. This is a film of certain contradictions.
It’s best illustrated by the scene where Juan (Rod Steiger) encounters John (James Coburn). John has explosives and Juan wants John and his explosives so Juan can rob the bank at Mesa Verde, something John has no interest in who simply wants to carry on his way. So begins an extremely entertaining series of tit-for-tat escalations between these soon to be friends. However, this flirtation goes on for almost an hour and, technically, doesn’t achieve anything other than John losing his motorcycle and allowing us to spend time with these two misfits. The entire sequence is almost entirely pointless but it’s also one of the best parts not just of the movie but of anything Leone ever made.
The following scene just compounds the bafflement with an apparent, unexpected, jump in time. Coburn is now scuzzy and exhausted by a camp fire from days on foot, yet it was only seconds ago he left Steiger and his gang. What happened in-between? Has an editing mistake occurred? This manifests a number of times throughout the movie where a sudden advancement in time takes place resulting in a disorientating effect. What is surprising is how intentional it all is, especially when you remember that Leone has always proudly admitted his work ”privileges surprise over comprehension”. We are deliberately being momentarily confused so a trick can be played on us, if we have the patience to wait for the reveal, although that automatically raises an immediate question, namely — just what has been sacrificed (coherence? trust?) to allow Leone to have his way with us? There is a provocative, disruptive complexity to Leone’s work and that is no more apparent than here.
This could also be why Leone’s movies reward, if not demand, repeat viewings as you’re not quite meant to get everything at once. Of course, another reason for returning to his movies is the pleasure of his images, set-pieces, management of tension and Morricone’s wonderful music and ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’ has all that: Coburn is given a great entrance, emerging from the dust cloud of an explosion on his motorbike; there are some excellent moments of spectacle and this might be one of Morricone’s most interesting scores texturally, with the ‘Invenzione Per John’ cue being particularly good. Although not everything works with Coburn’s flashbacks to Ireland (another Mesa Verde) coming across as excessive indulgence and making me realise I had no idea the IRA were so into free love.
‘A Fistful of Dynamite’ is transfixing, exciting and more than a little frustrating even if those frustrations are deliberately baked into the mix. And talking of frustrating contradictions, it might seem from all the above that I’m not a fan of this movie but that’s not the case at all. ‘Dynamite’ is one of my favourite Leone movies, containing just too much brilliance and off-kilter panache. Steiger and Coburn make for his two most appealing characters and, like standing too near nitro-glycerine, it’s a film that keeps you on your toes.
So sure, this is a vulgar movie and for many reasons but that vulgarity has always been a part of Leone’s style of filmmaking anyway and, much like Steiger’s Juan, it’s that vulgarity that is also very much part of his charm.