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Once Upon a Time in Film Scoring
Sean Woodard




Image © United Artists 

Image © United Artists 

Perhaps one of the greatest collaborations in film is that between director Sergio Leone and composer, Ennio Morricone. In a span of twenty years, the pair collaborated on eight films, beginning with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and concluding with Once Upon a Time in America (1984). These films not only rejuvenated the dying Western and provided an elegy for the Gangster epic, but featured a unique set of scores. These scores were unlike anything ever heard at the time with their eclectic arrangements and catchy themes. Featuring electric guitar, ethereal wordless vocals, and sweeping orchestral arrangements, Morricone’s scores spanned countless imitators, but not that lived up to the inventiveness of those they were replicating.

Although their most recognizable collaboration is The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), their most overlooked film, 1971s Duck, You Sucker! features Morricone’s most idiosyncratic score.

The Zapata Western Duck, You Sucker! (AKA A Fistful of Dynamite, AKA Once Upon a Time . . . The Revolution) tells the story of how an Irish IRA expert in explosives named John Mallory (James Coburn) inadvertently becomes involved with the Mexican bandit Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and gets mixed up in the Mexican Revolution. If the premise doesn’t already sound like the most preposterously entertaining thing you’ve ever heard, its alternatingly zany and emotional score will sweep you up and linger in your mind days after you’ve watched the film.

I first discovered the film upon coming home one evening while I was still a high school student and finding my grandpa watching a scene taking place in an Irish pub. The action took place in slow-motion, timed to a haunting wordless melody. The scene soon changed to one taking place in the dusty Mexico landscape; to me this was one of the most interesting and unexpected scene shifts I had experienced at the time. Immediately, I grabbed the remote and pressed the “Info” button to reveal its title. I then set the DVR to record the next showing of the film.

After watching the film completely with my grandfather, it became one of our favorite films to watch together. There were so many things I loved about the film, but what entranced me the most was its film score.

The melody which serves as John’s Theme remains one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. Edda Dell’Orso vocals soar as they do in Jill’s Theme in Once Upon a Time in the West and Deborah’s Theme in Once Upon a Time in the West. Focused around the “ooh” vowel, they add a haunting quality to the melody which is doubled by strings at various points in the film.

What is particularly unique about Morricone’s themes, including John’s Theme, is how when combined with images, its arrangements morph as the emotional effect the melody has over the scene evolves as his character arc develops.

Whereas Morricone’s themes in Once Upon a Time in the West represent each character’s personality traits, those in Duck, You Sucker takes this defining motifs even further through how the arrangements mirror how each of the main characters’ destinies become intertwined, for better or worse.

For example, when John comes across Juan and his family of bandits his theme takes on the instrumentation of Juan’s theme, a mixture of guitar and banjo, piccolo flute, and a mixture of acoustic and electric keyboards. When their two personalities clash, the music takes on a humorous tone, which is complimented by their biting and sarcastic dialogue. From a compositional standpoint, where John’s theme in other points of the film — including in his ambiguous flashbacks to Ireland — has measured, waltz-like characteristics, here certain sections of his theme take on a swinging rhythm when he interacts with Juan.

One of the funniest moments in the film happens when Juan learns of John’s expertise with dynamite. He cracks a smile, then in a reverse-shot we see John through Juan’s point of view. An animated banner appears above John’s head which reads, “Banco Nacional de Mesa Verde”. All of a sudden, a pipe organ resounds with all its stops pulled, playing half note chords. A children’s choir sings a phrase of “nah-nah-nahs”. The melody resembles a children’s song, the melody going up and down a musical scale. 

The organ and vocal melody seem a mixture of the sacred and the secular. The organ represents whatever notions of God Juan attributes to John in that moment as he stands there with his dynamite and nitroglycerin “holy water”, while the children singing represents Juan’s non-existent social status in his country. Their combination suggests Juan wanting to pair up with John, but also hints at Leone’s commentary on Juan’s hypocrisy when it comes to religion — he’ll make the sign of the cross, “converse” with God, ask Him to watch over his children, and yet he has an “every man for himself” attitude and is constantly blinded by his main desire to rob the bank at Mesa Verde.

Over the course of the film as John and Juan shift from trying to screw each other over to developing an unlikely friendship, their themes intertwine or, as in the bridge scene, one theme briefly represent both persons.

During this scene, Juan witnesses a change in John, who until this point stated “No, one revolution was enough for me.” Now that he’s imbedded in Mexico’s conflict with no way out, John invests himself in the cause against the oppressive government. After Juan and John single-handedly gun down Colonel Gunther Reza’s men, John blows up the bridge. It is in this instance, where Juan sees John’s passion and dedication to the destructive beauty of dynamite. As soon as the charge goes off, John’s theme begins playing. Seeing what they accomplished, the two of them bond over laughter and a sense of accomplishment. They were successful in buying time so the rest of the band of revolutionaries could get away. The melody drops an octave, played by strings and a horn. To me, the instrumentation and octave changes can be seen as the socio-economic divide between John and Juan diminishing, where the intellectual bonds with the peasant.

Sergio Leone believed that more can be accomplished in telling a story with music and a look than dialogue. Morricone similarly approaches his practice of scoring with the principle that the role of film music is to say everything else that cannot already be said through dialogue and images.

And yet, despite how powerful a film score can affect can a scene through its music cues, it can have an even stronger emotional effect through its absence. In a scene that shortly follows the bridge incident, Juan and John comes to the cave which was to be the rendezvous point with the other revolutionaries. But they are too late. Colonel Gunther Reza and his men have beat them there and massacred everyone, including Juan’s entire family. Juan leaves the cave in a suicidal attempt to kill as many soldiers as he can for the pain they have caused him. As gunfire is heard off-screen, John walks through the caverns of the cave.

Through John’s POV, Leone’s camera zooms in and out and pans across the mass of bodies in one continuous shot. This sequence represents the film’s most heart wrenching scene, especially when the camera holds on the face of Juan’s youngest son before cutting away. The absence of music is crucial to upholding the emotional weight of the scene. If music were to play, the meaning would be lost and any emotion would devolve into sentimentality. This instance perhaps represents the most important decision Leone and his editor made — Juan experiences a character shift at this pivotal moment and the lack of music mirrors the emptiness he now feels.

Any discussion of Duck, You Sucker would not be complete without addressing the ambiguity of John’s flashbacks to Ireland. John’s Theme intermingles his memories with a bittersweet nostalgia and a wracking sense of guilt.

Side Note: Do note that whichever version of the film you watch, there may be incorrect music cues present; the MGM and Kino-reissue discs reportedly have a remix with added sound effects, censored dialogue, and misplaced cues, whereas Italian editions have the original mono mix with correct cues. Neither version is perfect for various reasons, but I have confirmed that the following Youtube video — which splices all John’s flashbacks together so one may view them as a whole — contains the original cues, which greatly vary from those the US release. Nonetheless, I find that the overall role of the music does not greatly affect how the score inform the scenes.

John’s past is difficult to interpret. We first see him with a friend and a girl, who is the object of their affections, enjoying a car ride together. John’s friend may or may not be named Sean, John, or Nolan (as the credits state). This confusion is brought up early in the film when Juan asks John’s name and he responds, “Sean.” Juan doesn’t hear him at first, so John answers him again, this time with “John.” Later, a flashback reveals both John and “Sean” are involved in the Irish Revolution. Subsequent flashbacks present an ambiguous dichotomy: which person betrayed the other? John’s final flashback returns to that sunny afternoon with the girl as they run through a field and proceed to share the girl.

While these scenes may generate multiple interpretations, the score retains its ability to emotionally cue memories in the mind of its main characters. Morricone had already done this in Once Upon a Time in the West, where he uses the dissonant harmonica playing of Charles Bronson’s unnamed character to link with the distorted guitar of Henry Fonda’s Frank character to show how their destinies are intertwined by fate and memory. Morricone would later master this technique in Once Upon a Time in America with Deborah’s Theme, showing how the two characters’ relationship carries all the emotional turmoil from the past to affect them in the present.

In Duck, You Sucker John’s Theme cues different moments in his life. He is nostalgic for the happy times he had with his friend and their female acquaintance. Love and friendship is conveyed through the music as these scenes play in slow-motion. Later, traces of guilt and betrayal surface in the Irish pub scenes. The music in the final scene reflects John’s bittersweet remembrance of simpler times; yet, as the scene fades out, hints of jealousy toward his friend surface. With all these feelings of guilt, love, and jealousy converging, the haunting vocals that doubles the orchestral melody dampen the uplifting feel the strings carry.

As a whole, Duck, You Sucker represents Ennio Morricone at his finest. Even the incidental music of the score imbues the film with a level of emotion that is not present in most other films. In addition, the score’s themes define the quirks of its characters in ways that actions and dialogue cannot. Therefore, Morricone’s themes provide a more rounded characterization of the film’s protagonists.

Sean Woodard is a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University and Chapman University.  Focusing on a wide variety of interests, Sean’s fiction, film criticism, and other writing have been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, Found Polaroids, and Los Angeles Magazine, among other publications. He is a journalist for Addiction Now and serves on the Film Department for Drunk Monkeys. A native of Visalia, CA, he now resides in Orange County.