Director: Giancarlo Santi
Blue Underground

This later Lee Van Cleef spaghetti western GRAND DUEL – aka THE BIG SHOWDOWN or STORM RIDER – officially hits DVD courtesy of Blue Underground.

The stage coach into Gila Bend is held off by the locals with gunfire not because escaped murderer Philipp Wermeer (Peter O'Brien) – wrongfully accused of killing Ebenezer Saxon (Horst Frank, THE HEAD), “The Patriarch” of the Saxon family who killed his prospector father – is rumored to be hiding out in town but because of the presence of bounty hunters (or “vultures” as they are described) eager to collect the three-thousand dollar reward on Wermeer’s head. Ex-sheriff Clayton (Lee Van Cleef, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK), who just happens to be traveling on the stage coach, knows the identity of the real killer and is trailing Vermeer to keep him from getting caught by bounty hunters or by the Saxon brothers who want Wermeer out of the way because of his sway on the locals (and to lay claim to his father’s silver mine, the whereabouts of which are still unknown). The Saxons are eager to rush Wermeer to the hangman when they catch him, but the revelation that Clayton knows who really killed their father gives marshal Eli Saxon (Marc Mazza, MY NAME IS NOBODY) pause and his brothers – psychotic dandy Adam (Klaus Grünberg, MORE), and politically-ambitious David (Horst Frank in a dual role) – desperate to get Clayton out of the picture too.

One of the later – although certainly not one of the lesser (or the better for that matter) – spaghetti westerns, GRAND DUEL is entertaining yet uneven. After a rather slow start, the film gets interesting not for its action scenes but for its plot twists which expertly set the viewer up for one revelation only to veer left (the revelation is surprising but it opens up a bunch more holes in the plot that turn one of the principals into kind-of-a-jerk). The titular grand duel is a bit of an anticlimactic letdown, followed up by an all-too-contrived and convenient wrap-up. Santi had served as an assistant director on Sergio Leone’s epics THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (with Cleef) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST as well as Giulio Petroni’s DEATH RIDES A HORSE, but would only helm three features including this one (although he would assist Luigi Cozzi on his two Hercules films for Cannon in the 1980s), and his direction is at its best when he keeps the camera static and lets the actors do the work (sure they’re all dubbed, but Van Cleef, Frank, Mazza, and Grünberg have expressive faces, as do Antonio Casale [DUCK YOU SUCKER] as the Saxon’s chief henchman Hole and Anna Maria Gherardi [Bertolucci’s 1900] as David’s wife [seething silently as the dinner conversation takes on a sexist tone]). Cinematographer Mario Vulpiani (THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW and CASTLE FREAK) contributes some elegant camera angles and gorgeous lighting; but, however as much as Santi wants to imitate Leone, his set-ups, Vulpiani’s coverage, and the editing of Roberto Perignani (A LONG RIDE FROM HELL) never reach the level of obsessiveness that Leone invested to ratchet up the suspense of his best set-pieces. Camera operator Pasquale Rachini would soon become Pupi Avati’s go-to cinematographer (starting with 1976’s THE HOUSE WITH THE LAUGHING WINDOWS).

Van Cleef is better utilized elsewhere, or at least paired with a more interesting co-star (his acrobatic skills aside, O’Brien is bland). The Saxon brothers are the more interesting characters here, particularly Mazza – whose memory of his father’s death segues to some stylish black-and-white flashback sequences – and Frank putting his arrogant smirk to good use throughout. Dominique Darel (one of the not-so-virginal sisters of ANDY WARHOL’S DRACULA) is on hand as Wermeer’s love interest with a surprising connection to the Saxons; but she’s as superfluous to the plot as most women are in spaghetti westerns. The supporting cast of characters is suitably colorful (partially thanks to the film's Italian/French/West German co-production status that also assembled an interesting collection of lead actors here). On the stagecoach, there’s a respectable-looking dowager-type who is actually Saxon City brothel proprietor Madame Oro (Elvira Cortese escorting a new girl (Alessandra Cardini, DOWN THE ANCIENT STAIRS) to town, a fey dandy (Hans Terofal, THE COUNTESS DIED OF LAUGHTER) who turns out not only to be the town’s new undertaker but also quite the unrequited horndog, and a larger-than-life grizzled stagecoach driver Bighorse (Jess Hahn, THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY). Gastone Pescucci (BOCCACCIO 70) is also memorable as the crotchety innkeeper with a toothache at Silver Bells. Sergio Bardotti only scored one film before (SUMMERTIME KILLER) and his score sounds more like an aping of Morricone than in-the-vein-of, and it may be that arranger/conductor Luis Enriquez is actually Luis Enriquez Bacalov (who memorably scored the western DJANGO) either had more influence over the feel of the score or at least tempered Bardotti’s imitation (presumably the hoedown parts of the score are more of Bardotti’s contribution).

Presumably because of the use of a cue from its film score, the Lee Van Cleef spaghetti western GRAND DUEL has finally been given an official DVD release courtesy of Blue Underground (or it’s possible that the Italian licensor finally decided to create an HD master in anticipation of interest by the Tarentino film). Through some odd licensing agreement, Blue Underground is only releasing GRAND DUEL on DVD while the Blu-ray came out courtesy of Mill Creek (in a double bill with KEOMA which was previously released on DVD by Anchor Bay and then reissued by Blue Underground). Presumably both use the same high definition master as their source, and Blue Underground’s dual-layer, progressive, anamorphic 2.27:1 widescreen (although the Blu-ray utilizes the alternate title card THE BIG SHOWDOWN despite the title on the cover) is actually quite gorgeous once you get accustomed to the cinematographic style. This print source bears the English export version’s opening and closing credits which simply flash over the moving backgrounds; however, the Italian version had red-colored credits that slid across the frame. Other than East/West’s previous PAL-sourced DVD (double-billing the title with the Van Cleef western BEYOND THE LAW), the previously available PD versions (although Anchor Bay apparently put out an EP-mode widescreen release in the early nineties) – presumably one of them representing Cinema Shares’ 1974 theatrical release – ran just over 88 minutes and retained the Italian-language sliding credits other than the title card (one version dispensed with the opening credits entirely, beginning with a single card reading “Grand Duel starring Lee Van Cleef”). The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono English track is clean and up to Blue Underground’s usual standards. A rarity in their releases is that this one includes closed captioning.

Journalists C. Courtney Joyner (also the screenwriter of PRISON and some of Charles Band’s later Full Moon pictures) – who has conducted interviews with western filmmakers for Wild Westerns Magazine – and Henry Parke (of the blog Henry’s Western Round-up) are on hand for an audio commentary exclusive to Blue Underground’s DVD. They provide some good background on Van Cleef, including the American work he was doing in between his spaghetti westerns (as well as discussion of his roles in those other pics), American actor Jess Hahn's European work, and director Santi (who revealed that he was to direct DUCK YOU SUCKER after Peter Bogdanovich was fired). They trace O'Brien's acrobatics to the TRINITY films, but it also brings to mind Edd Byrnes antics in ANY GUN CAN PLAY (1967). They seem to have a general knowledge of Italian filmmaking, and of major spaghetti western titles; unfortunately, they lack the background knowledge of Italian exploitation in general to identify some interesting supporting actors (and faces) like MURDER MANSION’s Franco Fantasia (an actor as well as stunt coordinator/weapons handler on a number of westerns, as well assistant director to Umberto Lenzi), CALIGULA’s Giancarlo Badessi (as a one-eyed bartender), Giorgio Trestini (LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE’s ill-fated bobby), and of course Salvatore Baccaro (aka “Boris Lugosi” of FRANKENSTEIN’S CASTLE OF FREAKS) other than to make a comment about his “interesting face” (thoroughly exploited in Italian Nazisploitation, westerns, sexploitation, sci-fi, barbarian and crime films). Their knowledge of English language dubbing of Italian westerns extends only to American actor Mickey Knox's projects and are unable to ascertain whether this was one of the films he directed; according to the end credits, the English dubbing was actually directed by the prolific Nick Alexander who is far better known for his voice acting and direction of gialli, horror, and sexploitation with his few western dub jobs including COMPANEROS and KEOMA (to be fair, they might not have seen this if they were recording the commentary using a source with Italian credits where the credit would have been for whoever directed the Italian-language post-synchronization). The two do occasionally poke fun at things that seem odd (although they do attempt to explain the “shoe-clapping” scene); however, they also rightly point out some plot turns that make little sense (including one major set-piece that seems to exist solely for spectacle when it would leave little doubt as to who is responsible). They also cite possible influences on Tarentino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED. Besides the film’s trailer (2:54), the disc also includes a “Spaghetti Western Trailer Reel” (26:29) that includes trailers for the Blue Underground-distributed SW titles: BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, COMPANEROS, DJANGO, DJANGO KILL! IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT!, FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE, KEOMA, MANNAJA, RUN MAN RUN, and TEXAS ADIOS. A novel feature for a Blue Underground release – and more so for a spaghetti western – is the inclusion of closed captions on this release. (Eric Cotenas)