PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

With an Extra 20 Minutes, 'The Grand Duel' Could Have Grasped Greatness

Watching The Grand Duel, it's easy to see why Quentin Tarantino picked it as one of his Top 15 spaghetti westerns.


The Grand Duel

Director: Giancarlo Santi
Cast: Lee Van Cleef, Horst Frank, Alberto Dentice, Marc Mazza, Jess Hahn, Klaus Grünberg, Dominique Darel
Studio: Mount Street
Year: 1972
US Release Date: 1974

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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.