I’m a big fan of Spaghetti Westerns. They’re an acquired taste for sure but always a lot of fun. They’re also an unusual mix of highbrow and lowbrow; contrasting low budgets, B-movie dialogue and broad performances, with stunning cinematography and iconic scores. While Sergio Leone was in arguably the master of the genre, there are many interesting less well-known entries out there that have been somewhat neglected over the years.
One of the more notable of these is The Grand Duel, directed by Giancarlo Santi. This isn’t a masterpiece of the genre but it’s a strong story and includes some memorable set-pieces and a charismatic lead performance from the great Lee Van Cleef.
When his career was revitalised after the success of For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Van Cleef quickly became prominent in the lower tier Spaghetti Westerns. His character in here is typical of the role he usually played in these films, an older, grizzled lawman watching out for a young upstart. He is laconic as ever as Clayton, an ex-sheriff hunting for a fugitive, Philip Wermeer (Alberto Dentice), on the run for killing the patriarch of the criminal Saxon family, however, he is convinced of Wermeer’s innocence and sets out to prove it.
Dentice is solid as the roguish outlaw, throwing himself into the physical sequences, even if his dubbing is a little scattershot. There’s a lot more emphasis on comedy than in your typical spaghetti western and it’s full of colourful supporting characters. The grotesque stagecoach driver, the German innkeeper and the cowardly undertaker are all broad caricatures (and performed as such) but they are endearing, and genuinely funny, which is admirable considering how unfunny these type of characters tend to be.
The three Saxon brothers are memorable albeit low-key villains. They all bring something to the table but Klaus Grunberg completely overshadows the other two as Adam, the flamboyant black sheep of the family. He is a truly iconic Western villain; pockmarked, dressed entirely in white and wearing a malevolent grin. The shootout where he gets a bloody hand-print on his immaculate coat is visually striking and it’s a shame he isn’t given more to do.
The film looks beautiful throughout, with some impressive cinematography and offbeat framing. I also can’t recall another Spaghetti Western that makes such cinematic use of colour, utilising crisp black and white cinematography for the flashbacks, creating a dreamlike effect. The music by Luis Bacalov is elegant, rivalling The Great Silence for the most wistful, elegiac theme tune of the genre. It’s also iconic enough that Quentin Tarantino lifted it wholesale for Kill Bill.
There are a number of thrilling set-pieces, most notably the opening sequence where Van Cleef stakes out a group of bounty hunters who are after their prize. It’s well paced and establishes the premise and characters efficiently. It’s a shame that the final shootout is a bit lacking by comparison, which is built up nicely but over far too quickly. We are led to believe the ending will be an epic confrontation but it doesn’t deliver the promise of the title.
The Grand Duel is a fun, solid Spaghetti Western but the journey is more interesting than the destination. While the ending is anticlimactic and the story is predictable, what makes the film is the diversions and colourful characters. When you throw in vivid cinematography, an amazing score and some cool performances, you have an entertaining, eminently watchable western.
The Grand Duel is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Film Video on 6 May: arrowfilms.com/TGDBR
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
- New 2K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative
- High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
- Uncompressed mono 1.0 LPCM audio
- Original English and Italian soundtracks, titles and credits
- Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack
- New audio commentary by film critic, historian and theorist Stephen Prince
- An Unconventional Western, a newly filmed interview with director Giancarlo Santi
- The Last of the Great Westerns, a newly filmed interview with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi
- Cowboy by Chance, an interview with the actor Alberto Dentice AKA Peter O’Brien
- Out of the Box, a newly filmed interview with producer Ettore Rosboch
- The Day of the Big Showdown, a newly filmed interview with assistant director Harald Buggenig
- Saxon City Showdown, a newly filmed video appreciation by the academic Austin Fisher
- Original Italian and international theatrical trailers
- Extensive image gallery featuring stills, posters, lobby cards and home video sleeves, drawn from the Mike Siegel Archive and other collections
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kevin Grant and original reviews