Spaghetti Westerns appear to be the flavor of the week. Over on this week's Shock-O-Rama the phenomenal Django (staring Franco Nero) and the brutal Cut Throats Nine saw the light of the drive-in screen. In one is represented all that is the gruff, peerless gunfighter, while the latter is a decent into gritty criminal menace with a grisly FX budget. For those looking for a third, more humorous type of spaghetti western, Blue Underground's new release of The Grand Duel should fit the bill nicely.
The intention here isn't to paint this 1972 Giancarlo Santi film with the same brush used for goofball westerns such as Lightning Jack; the two have nothing in common. People die in large scale gun battles, women are manhandled, and fisticuffs exchanged. Yet carried through the film is a sense of fun despite what grim circumstances the characters find themselves in. This is largely thanks to the brilliant pairing of veteran western actor Lee Van Cleef with new comer Alberto Dentice. The two have wonderful chemistry and it's there entertaining banter which provides a majority of The Grand Duel's levity. The two share a comfortable level of familiarity which is reminiscent of Van Cleef's interplay with Clint Eastwood in For a few Dollars More.
The plot sees both men ostracized from their communities. Dentice plays Philipp Wermeer, a man who stands accused of murdering The Patriarch (the head of a powerful crime family running the town of Saxon City). The outset of the film has him on the run from an absurd number of bounty hunters, all converging upon him. Van Cleef plays Clayton, the former sheriff of Jefferson who lost his job after making it clear he won't prosecute Wermeer (whom Clayton believes to be innocent). Twists and turns abound, and a number of hardships aside, the two team up with plans of confronting the Patriarch's sons, the three sadistic Saxon Brothers.
The adventurous journey to Saxon City doesn't only allow our heroes to come to terms with each other, but also makes for the soil of fertile character building. As a result, when they do finally arrive in town, the audience is quite invested in them and thus the danger becomes quite a bit more palpable. Once in Saxon City, which is the third act of the film, the tried and true spaghetti western tropes are showcased with expert precision. Director Giancarlo Santi learned his craft under the undisputed master of the genre, Sergio Leone (Santi served as assistant director on both The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West). The grand duel mentioned in the title is quite grandiose, if a little hammy. Fans of the genre will dig it, those whose love doesn't run as deep may find it excessive.
As with many Blue Underground releases, particular care has been spent on a high quality transfer from the original camera negatives. The picture quality of this DVD is no exception. Colors are vibrant, edges are crispy while retaining that warm 70's feel, and imperfections are limited to near nonexistence. If there's a bone to pick at all with this release, it's the scant special features available. A mish mash Spaghetti Western trailer reel is a welcome touch, but the highlight is the audio commentary track by writer/director C.Courtney Joyner and journalist Henry Parke, who both really bring their cinematic expertise to the proceedings.
The Grand Duel is a different, slightly ironically flavored spaghetti western sprinkled with charm and bravado, featuring a slightly more nuanced story than is standard fare. It's available directly from Blue Underground's web store for $14.98. They have a unique and deep catalogue, so be careful not to spend the whole rent check.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.