[3 September 2014]
Ask most Spaghetti Western watchers about The Grand Duel (1972) and they’ll say the following: It’s the last good Lee Van Cleef film, and Quentin Tarantino stole its featured track for Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003). But ask me about it and I’ll say it’s one of Van Cleef’s very best films, and Tarantino rescued its track from an eternity of neglect by delivering it to the masses.
Tarantino is one of the few Spaghetti Western buffs to give The Grand Duel the respect it deserves. During the filming of Django Unchained (2012) he sat down with Sebastian Haselbeck of the Spaghetti Western Database (SWDB) and, out of the hundreds of Spaghetti Westerns he has undoubtedly seen and studied, listed The Grand Duel as his fifteenth favorite of all-time. It’s clear, then, that his use of its featured track in Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a genuine tribute to what has long been an underrated film.
The track in question is composed by Academy Award winner Luis Bacalov, whose other contributions to the genre include the equally brilliant scores for Django (1966) and The Price of Power (1969). It begins playing as Sheriff Clayton (Lee Van Cleef) exits a halted carriage, hangs his coat and bag on a gun-barrel being pointed at him by a bounty-hunter, and then walks with cool confidence into the small town of Gila Bend where the rest of the bounty-hunters are waiting to ambush a hiding wanted-man named Phillip Wermeer (Alberto Dentice credited as Peter O’Brien). The enchanting harmonica and flute sounds of the track accompany Clayton’s stroll to the saloon while he tips the onlooking Wermeer off to the locations of the bounty-hunters. He reveals one by pumping water onto him from the fountain he’s hiding behind, and another by throwing a match into the pile of hay he’s buried under.
Wermeer, now aware of the bounty-hunters’ locations, shoots his way out of hiding, does a series gymnastic maneuvers that make-up for his mediocre shooting skills, and makes it to the saloon where Clayton is waiting to arrest him. Wermeer resists, but Clayton has been counting every fired shot and knows he is out of bullets… and in the next scene he is dragging the apparently dead wanted-man out of the saloon by his feet. The bounty-hunters argue with Clayton for the body because, as they point out, a sheriff can’t receive a reward for a dead man, but when the argument turns to violence, Wermeer jumps to life and somersaults his way into the desert. Clayton then reenters the carriage, which is carrying a group of innocents including the redheaded Elisabeth (Dominique Darel), and has Bighorse the Stage Driver (Jess Hahn) go pick the escapee up.
After Wermeer joins the group out of necessity, camps out with them at a farmhouse (where a great drinking game in which whiskey shots replace pieces on a checker board is shown), and is again confronted by the bounty-hunters, we realize Clayton isn’t interested in turning him in. Although the powerful and corrupt Saxon brothers—David (Horst Frank), Eli (Marc Mazza), and Adam (Klaus Grunberg)—are eager to see Wermeer hung for murdering their father, Clayton knows he is innocent. Wermeer, meanwhile, believes the Saxon brothers know who killed his own father, a Saxon City resident who struck riches in a silver mine shortly before his death, and he wants revenge. So, together, the lawman and the wanted-man head to Saxon City to confront the brothers.
With all these loose ends needing knots, director Giancarlo Santi stacks one scene upon the other like Agatha Christie does in her perfectly paced whodunits and feeds us the following information: Elizabeth is daughter to some sort of powerful politician and is being forced to marry the homosexual Adam Saxon but has eyes for Wermeer; only David Saxon and Clayton know the true identity of Oldman Saxon’s murderer; Clayton wants to reopen the case; David wants to pay Clayton off to keep his mouth shut; Wermeer’s dead father has hid a significant amount of silver somewhere near Saxon City and everyone wants it; and, lastly, the man who murdered Wermeer’s father is leading the Saxon-hired gang of bounty-hunters. Eventually everything comes to a boiling point, the killer of Oldman Saxon is revealed in a tense plot twist that is rare for the genre, and a thrilling showdown ends the film.
Although The Grand Duel is the only Spaghetti Western Santi directed, he acted as assistant director to the genre’s undisputed genius, Sergio Leone, on both The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and it shows. Besides the perfect pace of the film, the action sequences are not only entertaining but also necessary to the story, and he gets the best his cast has to give.
Van Cleef’s eyes are as piercing as ever, O’Brien successfully hides his meager talent with raw energy, and all three of the Saxon brothers—played by Frank, Mazza, and Grunberg—are unforgettable. The craziness conjured by Grunberg as Adam, the homosexual dandy who plays with a silk scar with one hand as he shoots with the other, is particularly memorable; there’s a scene where he uses a Gatling gun to brutally mow down an entire community of unarmed Dutch immigrants that is shocking in its unexpectedness.
Like Tarantino, I loved The Grand Duel. But while it is definitely underrated, I understand why many Spaghetti Western scholars are hesitant to rank it among the best; there’s a few details of the plot, such as the silver source that Wermeer’s father struck, and the motivations behind many of the main characters, that never become clear. I would also have liked to see the relationship between Elizabeth and Wermeer developed a little more, along with additional scenes dedicated to the Saxon brothers. If Santi had extended the film’s running time by 20 minutes, The Grand Duel could have grasped greatness. But, as it stands, it’s a damn fun Spaghetti Western that more people should see and appreciate.