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VIDEO REVIEW: Sergio Leone rides again

It seems remarkable that Italian director Sergio Leone became a legend at all, considering the impediments to his success.

His films were frequently edited from country to country. The titles were changed. International casts and post-production audio led to bad dubbing in any language. He borrowed liberally - stole, some say - from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. He was notoriously difficult on the set.

But then one watches the four westerns that make up "The Sergio Leone Anthology" (MGM, $90), out Tuesday, and none of that matters. His trademarks - desert vistas, extreme close-ups, unflinching violence, slow-developing stories, plot twists, staccato action scenes, the music as a character - burst from every frame like bullets from Clint Eastwood's rapid-fire pistol.

Talk of Leone's influential films typically revolves around his groundbreaking westerns of the 1960s - the Man With No Name trilogy and "Once Upon a Time in the West" - and his last film, the 1984 epic "Once Upon a Time in America." His 1971 western, known in the United States as "A Fistful of Dynamite," was the neglected middle child.

But this week's eight-disc set gives Leone's sole-credited 1970s film much-needed attention with a two-disc survey that restores deleted scenes, harsh language and his preferred title, "Duck, You Sucker." The collection also contains new two-disc editions of the first two films in the '60s trilogy, "A Fistful of Dollars" and "For a Few Dollars More," and the previously released two-disc version of the third film, the unforgettable prequel "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

In "Duck, You Sucker," James Coburn plays John Mallory, an Irish revolutionary and explosives expert who has fled his homeland for a mining job in Mexico in the early 1900s. He chances upon a bandit named Juan, brilliantly portrayed by Rod Steiger, and quicker than you can say "Pancho Villa" becomes caught up in another revolution with his new friend.

The title "Duck, You Sucker" comes straight out of the film. It's a warning that Mallory nonchalantly mutters to Juan as the Irishman saunters away before an impending explosion. A featurette explains the movie's title changes and details the restored scenes, along with a few that remain missing.

The new release of "Duck, You Sucker" and the two-disc upgrades of the first two films in the Man With No Name trilogy - so-called because Eastwood's recurring character was not identified beyond broad nicknames - make them comparable to the stellar special edition of "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" that's repeated in the DVD set. Revelatory supplements abound, and the audio and video presentations are the best the films have ever seen. In fact, the new DVDs make a vast improvement by featuring compelling commentary by noted Leone expert Christopher Frayling instead of the dry musings of Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel.

The films can be bought separately in two-disc sets ($27 each). But for fans who didn't buy "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" special edition, "The Sergio Leone Anthology" is an essential purchase and a better deal.