Thursday, May 27, 2010

Spaghetti Western Week, Day 4

“The thing about playing a heavy is don’t make yourself so completely invincible. That’s what I’ve been trying to do with every damn picture since I knew what I was doing. I don’t want to be so completely invincible, because I don’t think that’s human.” - Lee Van Cleef

Four of twenty films in the Spaghetti Westerns collection I'm tackling this week feature Lee Van Cleef. There's a reason: He was the genre's most prolific actor, and arguably its most iconic. Unlike other American actors who grudgingly went to Italy, took the money and ran, Van Cleef set up shop in Rome for several years. Like the characters he played, he was savvy enough to know a good deal when he saw it.

Van Cleef got his start in Hollywood with a small role (as a villain, naturally) in HIGH NOON (1952) and he continued to turn up regularly in westerns for the next ten years. Despite minor roles in some major films (GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL, THE TIN STAR, THE BRAVADOS, RIDE LONESOME, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE), he was so broke in 1964 that he couldn't pay his phone bill. Then along came Sergio Leone, who cast him opposite Clint Eastwood in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. The rest is history.

Van Cleef brought a distinct dignity and maturity to Leone's films, and to the smaller films that followed: THE MERCENARY (a.k.a. THE BIG GUNDOWN, 1966), DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1967), DAYS OF WRATH (1967) and BEYOND THE LAW (1968). He embodied the genre's answer to James Bond in SABATA (1969), a film so successful that it altered the tone of many spaghetti westerns to come. At the end of the "classic period" of spaghetti westerns, Van Cleef was still going strong. He didn't make his last spaghetti western until 1977... or 1980, if you want to count John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK as a spaghetti western. And I do. (Kurt Russell can almost out-Eastwood Clint Eastwood.)

I won't suggest that all (or even most) of Van Cleef's westerns of the 1970s are as dignified or mature as his early work... but there is one shining exception: THE GRAND DUEL (a.k.a. THE BIG SHOWDOWN, 1972) I've been meaning to watch this one for a while because it's listed on SWD as one of Quentin Tarantino's favorites (obviously he's a big Lee Van Cleef fan) - and, within the first two minutes of THE GRAND DUEL, one can tell that this film had a major influence on him. The opening credits scroll across the screen in much the same fashion as in all of Tarantino's films, accompanied by a theme song that he re-purposed for KILL BILL (2006). Stylistically, the film remains compelling from frame one through the end credits.

Even more exciting is the fact that the story is so strong. THE GRAND DUEL has an ensemble of captivating characters, thrown together in surprisingly complex ways. Van Cleef plays an ex-sheriff who rescues and defends an alleged murderer from bounty hunters... though it's initially unclear why. Does he simply want to collect the bounty for himself, or does he have a more altruistic motive? Like the best spaghettis, this one doesn't offer easy answers about who the "good guys" are. Van Cleef and his prisoner remain perpetually at odds with each other, as with the bounty hunters, and finally with a family of creepy corporate raider-types. ("In a violent country," the leader explains, "he who seizes today controls tomorrow.") Director Giancarlo Santi keeps us guessing until the very end, by expanding on Sergio Leone's notion that "all have some bad in us, some ugliness, some good."

Thus THE GRAND DUEL is a rare 1970s western that actually expands on the themes of the classic period of spaghetti westerns. It dispenses with the later-era tendencies toward slapstick and parody, in favor of sincere and nuanced storytelling. In the process, Lee Van Cleef secures his position as the best of the bad: he's smart enough to stay one step ahead of his enemies (as well as one step ahead of the audience), fast enough to catch a bullet in his teeth (or at least clever enough make his enemy think he has), and admirable enough to make us fall in love with the genre all over again. This film alone (uncut and letterboxed) is worth the price of the Mill Creek box set.

I had also planned review one of Van Cleef's last spaghetti westerns today, but I only got about twenty minutes into GOD'S GUN (a.k.a. DIAMANTE LOBO, 1976) before I decided to quit while I was ahead. The film features Van Cleef in two separate roles (as a priest and a bounty hunter), plus Jack Palance as the lead villain... but both actors are embarrassingly dubbed. I took that as a sign.

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