'The Hills Run Red' fest showcases lesser-known spaghetti westerns
Shorter than Django by 20 minutes or so, Duck is still overlong, with a tone that careens from fist-raising earnestness to kitschy over-the-topness. The latter is only enhanced by the performances — Steiger's, mostly, though Coburn isn't immune, and neither is the hollow-cheeked actor who plays the duo's army nemesis; who knew brushing one's teeth could look so ... evil? Duck may be an imperfect movie — particularly in the context of Leone's slender yet masterly filmography — but it has the Zapata western format down pat, with its dual heroes (typically, one's a simple Mexican capable of unexpected heroics; one's a European or American whose refined dandiness belies his secret propensity for bad-assery), dusty period setting, and political themes. It's predated by two structurally similar films included in "The Hills Run Red": Sergio Corbucci's The Mercenary (1968) and Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General (1966).
Corbucci's Navajo Joe (1966) also plays the PFA series; it's a more conventional tale of a rogue Native American who brings hope to a crook-plagued frontier town, distinguished mostly by hot-young-thang Reynolds and a screamy, tom-tom-y score by one "Leo Nichols" (a.k.a. Morricone). But The Mercenary is the film to see if you've gotta choose. You'll still get your Morricone, whistle-heavy as ever, but you will also get Franco "the original Django" Nero playing gunslinger Sergei "the Polack" Kowalski, opposite Tony Musante (giallo fans will recognize him from Dario Argento's 1970 debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) as loopy rabble-rouser Paco. Plus: Jack Palance as demented heavy "Curly," a character that hardly resembles the Curly he'd win an Oscar for playing in 1991's City Slickers.
The Mercenary is nuts, in a good way. Within the first five minutes, there are rodeo clowns, the sight of Kowalski forcing a cheatin' gambler to swallow his own weighted dice (in a glass of milk), and Paco cackling through the only-in-westerns punishment of being buried up to one's neck in a spot frequented by thundering hooves. The unflappable gringo — prone to striking matches on whatever's convenient: a hooker's cleavage, a dead guy's dangling feet — agrees to help train Paco's ragtag rebels, though Paco doesn't take direction well, and Kowalski is a bit of a douche. Meanwhile, Curly lurks, seeking revenge on both men, lending his BAMF skills to the Mexican army, and rocking a jaunty carnation in his lapel. (If this all sounds a bit similar to Corbucci's 1970 Compañeros — well, it is. Except Palance doesn't smoke weed or own a hand-pecking hawk in this one.)
Even more unhinged is A Bullet for the General, a.k.a. El chuncho, quién sabe?, (score by Luis Bacalov, supervised by Morricone), which gives away its endgame in the title and kicks off with a rapid-fire voiceover offering some historical context: "From 1910-1920 Mexico was torn by internal strife ... scenes of this kind were commonplace." ("Scenes of this kind" being an army firing squad mowing down common folk, natch.) Prim American Bill Tate (Lou Castel) is visiting Mexico in the service of a shadowy plan, which first involves helping a gang of gun-stealing rebels, led by El Chuncho (frequent Leone star Gian-Maria Volonté), rob the train he's riding. Chuncho can't figure him out, either, but he's won over quickly, deducing "You are a smart young gringo!" and dubbing him "El Niño."