They should also take the back cover’s claim of “two masterpieces” with a grain of salt, even two for good measure, although both films are indeed better than average.
That goes especially for Lee Van Cleef, who enjoyed another career in Italy cranking these things out, with little regard to quality. However, Grand Duel — the credits read The Big Showdown — is deserving of its Grand label. No wonder Quentin Tarantino borrowed its sweeping theme song by Luis Bacalov for Kill Bill; you’ll recognize it in two notes.
As Clayton, a former sheriff, Van Cleef traverses the desert by stagecoach, looking to score a $3,000 bounty for bringing in the bandit Wermeer (Peter O’Brien, né Alberto Dentice, who never acted before or since). Wermeer is wanted for murder by the three Saxon brothers who seek revenge for them killing their dad (Horst Frank, Dario Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails), which he didn’t do, so by the time arrives for the inevitable showdown, Clayton and Wermeer forge an alliance against the tyrannical trio, one of whom is now the sheriff.
Although he sure could use a haircut here, what with an Old West mullet, Van Cleef is at his stark, silent best as Clayton. Saying little that can’t be said with his trusty shooters, he earns the title of badass. Since director Giancarlo Santi (debuting after an apprenticeship on two Sergio Leone epics, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West) keeps the story simple, where it could work in a modern, urban setting just as well as it does with criminal cowboys, Grand Duel holds appeal well beyond the boundaries of Western conventions.
Meanwhile, Keoma serves as a vehicle for another spaghetti Western icon, this time a hometown hero: Franco Nero. But this part is quite different than his signature role of Django, as Keoma is a half-breed, long-haired vet of the Civil War, dirtier than a dust storm. Nero is magnetic nonetheless.
As in many post-Vietnam pictures that soon would come, Keoma returns home to find it much different than he left it, and not for the good. It’s under rule of former Confederate soldier Caldwell (Donald O’Brien, Grand Prix), who just can’t seem to get over being on the losing side of the war. As with Grand Duel, there are three brothers with which our hero must spar, but in Keoma’s case, they’re his own — OK, his half-brothers, but that still ups the dramatic ante.
The movie is higher-minded than most of the genre, despite going to slow motion when the bullets fly, as if reveling in the bloodshed. The way the battles are staged may remind some of Sam Peckinpah — in other words, quite something to see. Director Enzo G. Castellari (Inglorious Bastards, the one with the correctly spelled title) presents some unique POV shots and takes great pains to utilize Italy’s gorgeous landscapes to his advantage, which not all of his fellow filmmakers of the era were smart enough to do.
Nero helps lend the trippy, quasi-hallucinatory film a mythic quality, and fine, sympathetic support is provided by William Berger (Devil Fish) as his father and Woody Strode (Kingdom of the Spiders) as his former slave. If only the film didn’t have his awful theme song, which is not only aggravatingly warbled off-key by Susan Duncan Smith and Cesare De Natale, but used over and over, and then over! —Rod Lott
Hey! Read This:
• The Cat o’ Nine Tails Blu-ray review
• A Fistful of Dollars / For a Few Dollars More Blu-ray review
• Grand Prix Blu-ray review
• The Inglorious Bastards DVD review
• Kingdom of the Spiders DVD review
• The Last Gun / 4 Dollars of Revenge Blu-ray review
• Mystery Science Theater 3000: Devil Fish DVD review