Prolific Spaghetti western scenarist Ernesto Gastaldi penned the script for this Lee Van Cleef continental oater "The Grand Duel," directed with considerable competence by Giancarlo Santi. Although he didn't helm any Spaghetti westerns aside from "Grand Duel" on his own, Santi served as Sergio Leone's assistant director on "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" (1966) and his masterpiece "Once Upon A Time in the West" (1968) as well as Giulio Petroni's assistant director on "Death Rides A Horse"(1967). In short, not only did Santi know how to stage gunfights, but he also knew about the conventions of the Spaghetti western bullet ballet. Originally, Santi was hired to direct "Duck You Sucker," but Rod Steiger's complaints prompted Leone to replace Santi. "The Grand Duel" ranks high up in the lower 25 Spaghetti westerns out of the best 100. Three things make it memorable. First, this above-average shoot'em up benefits largely from Lee Van Cleef's iconic gimlet-eyed presence. Second, the mystery gradually unraveled --presented in surrealistic flashbacks--generates suspense and tension. Third, Sergio Bardotti & Luis Enriquez Bacalov's unforgettable orchestral score that signals the tonal changes in the narrative.
Roughly speaking, the motives of the characters in "The Grand Duel" reverse the relationship between the old gunslinger (Henry Fonda) and youthful gunfighter (Terence Hill) in Tonino Valerii's "My Name Is Nobody." Meanwhile, Van Cleef's entrance in "The Grand Duel" imitates his striking introduction in Leone's "For A Few Dollars More." In these Italian horse operas, Van Cleef is presented initially as a commercial passenger. In "The Grand Duel," he rides in a stagecoach, while he rides in a train with his head bowed beneath a black hat in "For A Few Dollars More." In the latter film, Van Cleef concealed his face behind a huge Bible when he asked the conductor about the train making an unscheduled stop. The conductor warns him they aren't going to stop where Van Cleef's frock-coated, black hat clad character wants. Nevertheless, Van Cleef tugs the emergency cord, halting the train, and disembarks to fetch his horse from the freight car.
As "The Grand Duel" opens, lawmen fire warning shots at the stagecoach that Sheriff Clayton (Lee Van Cleef) is riding in and refuse to let Big Horse (Jess Han of "Escape from Death Row") enter Gila Bend. They explain that escaped killer Philipp Wermeer (one-time-only actor Peter O'Brien, aka Alberto Dentice) has holed up with a girl in town after breaking out of jail in Jefferson. The authorities have posted a $3-thousand bounty on Vermeer's head. Nevertheless, Clayton disembarks and strolls without any apparent concern past two lawmen and several bounty hunters to quench his thirst in Gila Bend. This introductory scene unfolds at a leisurely pace as it covers points, such as where the bounty hunters are hidden and Clayton's imperturbability in the face of death. Clayton indicates the positions of all the bounty hunters to Vermeer. Later, after our wrongly convicted hero eludes the bounty hunters during a furious horse chase. The villains kill his horse, but he flags down a stagecoach. The entire scene resembles the scene from John Ford's "Stagecoach" when Ringo (John Wayne) who was afoot clambered inside the vehicle.
The omniscient Lee Van Cleef hero dominates the action. The hooked-nosed, veteran Hollywood heavy delivers a stern but seasoned performance as the worldly-wise elder. Van Cleef smokes his signature curved pipe. Actually, when we meet Clayton, he is no longer the sheriff of Jefferson. He protested Philip Vermeer's conviction and the authorities stripped him of his badge. Earlier, he had taken the Patriarch to court three times. Eventually, as the best man with a gun in the entire state, Clayton ushers in justice above the law. Anyway, one of the Patriarch's sons Eli Saxon (bald headed Marc Mazza of "Moonraker") accused Philipp Vermeer of killing the Patriarch, (Horst Frank in a dual role wearing whiskers), a wealthy, unscrupulous power-broker hated by half of the state. Vermeer suspects that the Patriarch had his father shot in the back because he learned about the silver on Vermeer's land. Meanwhile, Eli demands to know the identity of the man who killed his father. Clayton reminds Eli that the Patriarch was gunned down from behind and that Vermeer stood in front of them at the railway depot. Clearly, Vermeer couldn't have killed the Patriarch.
The vicious and degenerate "Grand Duel" villains qualify as challenging adversaries. David (Horst Frank of "Johnny Hamlet") rules the Saxon clan, while Eli serves as Saxon City's marshal, and Adam Saxon (Klaus Grunberg of "Fire, Ice, and Dynamite") runs the saloon. Grunberg plays Adam as a depraved homosexual who wears a vanilla-white suit, fedora, and constantly caresses a long scarf looped around his neck. The first time that we see Adam, he guns down an old man that his henchmen have thrown out of the saloon. Later, Adam massacres a wagon train with a machine gun and Brother David orders him to leave no eyewitnesses. David's words: "In a violent country, he who seizes today, controls tomorrow," epitomizes his treachery.
"The Grand Duel" plays out in three settings: first in Gila Bend; second at the isolated Silver Bells stagecoach station, and third in Saxon City where a showdown occurs in the stock pens in traditional western style. Santi never lets the action malinger. He does a good job with the first large-scale gunfight at the stagecoach station. The bounty vermin not only blow-up the stagecoach, but also shoot each other to increase their shares after Vermeer surrenders. The Saxon City shootout when Vermin pole vaults to safety is neat. The black & white night sequence that he stages during the Patriarch's killing has surrealistic quality. Meantime, hardcore Lee Van Cleef fans won't want to miss "The Grand Duel" for its several shootouts as well as the twists and turns in Gastaldi's screenplay. Get the wide-screen Wild East DVD; it surpasses the full-frame, public domain DVD or the foreign, semi-letterboxed version.