Prolific Spaghetti western scenarist Ernesto Gastaldi penned the script for this Lee Van Cleef continental western “Grand Duel,” directed with competence by Giancarlo Santi. Although he doesn’t appear to have helmed any Spaghetti westerns aside from “Grand Duel,” Santi served as Sergio Leone’s assistant director on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1966) and “Once Upon A Time in the West” (1968) as well as Giulio Petroni’s assistant director on “Death Rides A Horse”(1967). In short, not only did Santi know how to stage gunfights, but he also knew about the obligatory characteristics of the Spaghetti western bullet ballet. Interestingly enough, Santi was originally supposed to direct “Duck You Sucker” but Rod Steiger’s complaints prompted Leone to replace Santi.
“Grand Duel” ranks high up in the lower 25 Spaghetti westerns out of the best 100. This above-average but shoot’em up benefits chiefly from Lee Van Cleef’s gimlet-eyed presence, the mystery exasperates more than one character and that occurs in flashbacks in Gastaldi’s screenplay, and Sergio Bardotti & Luis Enriquez Bacalov’s memorable orchestral score that enhances this western.
Roughly speaking, the “Grand Duel” characters and their motives reverse the relationship between the aged gunslinger (Henry Fonda) and youthful gunfighter (Terence Hill) in Tonino Valerii’s “My Name Is Nobody.” Meanwhile, Van Cleef’s entrance in “Grand Duel” imitates his striking introduction in Leone’s “For A Few Dollars More.” In these Italian oaters, Van Cleef is presented initially as a commercial passenger. In “Grand Duel,” he rides in a stagecoach, while he rides in a train with his head bowed beneath a black hat in “For A Few Dollars More.” In the latter film, Van Cleef concealed his face behind a huge Bible when he asked the conductor about the train making an unscheduled stop. The conductor warns him that they aren’t going to stop where Van Cleef’s frock-coated, black hat clad character wants. Nevertheless, Van Cleef pulls the emergency cord, bringing the train to a screeching halt, and disembarks to fetch his horse from the freight car.
As “Grand Duel” opens, lawmen fire warning shots at the stagecoach that Sheriff Clayton (Lee Van Cleef) is riding in and refuse to let Big Horse (Jess Han of “Escape From Death Row”) enter Gila Bend. They explain that escaped killer Philipp Wermeer (Peter O’Brien, aka Alberto Dentice) has holed up with a girl in town after breaking out of jail in Jefferson. The authorities have posted a $3-thousand bounty on Vermeer’s head. Nevertheless, Clayton disembarks and strolls without apparent concern past two lawmen and several bounty hunters to quench his thirst in Gila Bend. This introductory scene unfolds at a leisurely pace as it covers points, such as where the bounty hunters are hidden and Clayton’s imperturbability in the face of death. Clayton indicates the positions of all the bounty hunters to Vermeer. Later, after our wrongly convicted hero eludes the bounty hunters during a furious horse chase. The villains kill his horse, but he flags down a stagecoach. The entire scene resembles the scene from John Ford’s “Stagecoach” when Ringo (John Wayne) who was afoot climbed inside the vehicle.
The omniscient Lee Van Cleef hero dominates the action. The hooked-nosed, veteran Hollywood heavy delivers a stern but seasoned performance as the worldly-wise elder. Van Cleef smokes his signature curved pipe. Actually, when we meet Clayton, he is no longer the sheriff of Jefferson. He protested Philip Vermeer’s conviction and the authorities stripped him of his badge. Earlier, he had taken the Patriarch to court three times. Eventually, as the best man with a gun in the entire state, Clayton ushers in justice above the law. Anyway, one of the Patriarch’s sons Eli Saxon (bald-headed Marc Mazza of “Moonraker”) accused Philipp Vermeer of killing the Patriarch, (Horst Frank in a dual role wearing whiskers), a wealthy, unscrupulous power-broker hated by half of the state. Vermeer suspects that the Patriarch had his father shot in the back because he learned about the silver on Vermeer’s land. Meanwhile, Eli demands to know the identity of the man who killed his father. Clayton reminds Eli that the Patriarch was gunned down from behind and that Vermeer stood in front of them at the railway depot. Clearly, Vermeer couldn’t have killed the Patriarch.
The villains in “Grand Duel” qualify as challenging villains; they are vicious, cold-blooded, and degenerate to the core. David (Horst Frank of “Johnny Hamlet”) rules the Saxon clan, while Eli serves as Saxon City’s marshal, and Adam Saxon (Klaus Grunberg of “Fire, Ice, and Dynamite”) runs the saloon. Grunberg plays Adam as a depraved homosexual who wears an ice-cream white suit, fedora, and constantly caresses a long scarf that he looped around his neck. The first time that we see Adam, he guns down an old man that his henchmen have thrown out of the saloon. Later, Adam massacres a wagon train with a machine gun and leaves no eyewitnesses on the orders of Brother David. David’s words: “In a violent country, he who seizes today, controls tomorrow,” epitomizes his treachery.
“Grand Duel” plays out in four settings: the first scene in Gila Bend; the second at an isolated stagecoach station named Silver Bells where the bounty vermin not only blow-up the stagecoach but also shoot each other after Vermeer surrenders to increase their shares, an anonymous mountain pass where Adam massacres Vermeer’s followers, and the town of Saxon City where a showdown occurs in the stock pens in traditional western style.
Director Giancarlo Santi never lets the action malinger. The black & white sequence at night that he stages of the Patriarch’s killing has surrealistic quality. Meantime, hardcore Lee Van Cleef fans won’t want to miss “Grand Duel” for its numerous shoot-outs as well as its twists and turns. Get the fully letterboxed Wild East DVD; it surpasses the full-frame, public domain DVD or the foreign, semi-letterboxed version.