Lee Van Cleef was a monster of the euro western circuit, both in terms of his stature in the industry as well as in terms of his affinity for portraying villains. After refusing advice to get a nose job in order to soften his features during the production of High Noon, the lean, mustachioed, “Man in Black” (as he’d be dubbed overseas) would time and time again portray gruff antagonists within the spaghetti western sub-genre. The one-two punch of For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (both directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood) cemented Cleef as cinema’s buckaroo bad guy. But as the western was on the wane, Cleef would begin to shift from antagonist to antihero leading man in such films as Sabata, Death Rides a Horse, The Magnificent Seven Ride and of course, The Grand Duel.
Opening in what, at first glance, appears to be a setup the likes of 3:10 to Yuma, this two-hander starring Cleef as the ex-sheriff Clayton and Alberto Dentice (credited here as Peter O’Brien) as accused felon Philip Wermeer, defies all expectations. While Clayton may appear to be bringing Philip to justice, he in reality wishes to aid Philip in evading the band of bounty hunters looking to do him in as well as dodge the Saxons, three conniving brothers responsible for falsely accusing Philip of murder, led by their eldest sibling and family “patriarch” David (Cat o’ Nine Tails’Horst Frank), the man hellbent on seeing Philip hang in the frontier town of Jefferson. But what other part does Clayton have to play in all this? Is he responsible for more than the plot initially let’s on.
There are gunfights galore in this twilight era spaghetti western. Cleef has never been more cool and collected as the laconic lawman who rests his travel case atop the barrel of an opponents drawn revolver. Director Giancarlo Santi expertly helms The Grand Duel utilizing everything he’d learned as assistant director to cinematic maestro Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West,Duck, You Sucker!) and Torso scribe Ernesto Gastaldi adds giallo flare to this actively atypical wild west romp. While certain less than progressive clichés date the film as a product of its time (e.g. Klaus Grünberg overwhelmingly flamboyant villain, Adam Saxon), the film has served as a wellspring of material later adopted by Quentin Tarantino. From the stylized black and white flashbacks and Luis Bacalov wondrous score both utilized in the Kill Bill duology, to the covered wagon/cabin excursion with a fleeing fugitive familiar to The Hateful Eight, to Django Unchained’s savvy saloon hustle, the modern genre film owes a great deal of debt to Duel.
Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray release features a 2K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative presented in High Definition 1080p, original English and Italian soundtracks as well as (titles, credits and newly translated English subtitles), an incredibly informative audio commentary track by film historian Stephen Prince, newly filmed interviews with director Giancarlo Santi, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, actor Alberto Dentice (aka Peter O’Brien), producer Ettore Rosboch and assistant director Harald Buggenig, a newly filmed video appreciation by the film academic Austin Fisher entitled Saxon City Showdown, trailers image galleries, Arrows requisite reversible sleeve and more! The Grand Duel is a grand delight for western enthusiasts the world over.