Squinty-eyed American actor Lee Van Cleef made so many spaghetti westerns in the ’60s and ’70s that the pictures are largely interchangeable. For instance, while The Grand Duel has its merits, it’s not memorable. The plot is the usual hokum about a righteous sheriff and a wrongly accused gunslinger, et cetera, and watching the movie is pleasant enough for fans of sweaty sagas about angry dudes killing each other in the desert. Furthermore, even though The Grand Duel lags considerably in the middle, the picture starts and ends well, and it provides a handful of exciting or at least vivid scenes along the way. Made in Europe in 1972 but not released in the U.S. until 1974, the picture—which is also known as The Big Showdown and Storm Rider—stars Van Cleef as Clayton, a lawman tracking down escaped convict Phillip Vermeer. (Phillip is played by handsome Italian actor Alberto Dentice, billed under the Americanized stage name “Peter O’Brien.”)
Long story short, it seems Phillip was convicted of murdering a man known only as “Patriarch,” the overlord of a frontier town called Saxon City. Patriarch’s three sons, the Saxon Brothers, took over Saxon City after their father died, and the Saxon Brothers are convinced that Phillip was responsible for their father’s death. Clayton, however, claims to know for certain that Phillip is innocent, so after a long stretch during which it seems as if Clayton is either delivering Phillip to justice or planning to trade him for a bounty, a fragile alliance forms between the men. Meanwhile, thugs hired by the Saxons chase Clayton and Phillip through the barren wilderness until Phillip breaks from Clayton and returns to Saxon City so he can clear his name. Story-wise, nothing out of the ordinary.
What gives The Grand Duel a modicum of zippy energy is the combination of predictable and unexpected elements. On the predictable side, Van Cleef commands attention with his man-of-few-words routine, making impossible gunshots and scaring people into retreat with his deadly stare and his vicious put-downs. Additionally, the picture has the usual spaghetti-western stylistic tropes—a histrionic score, grotesque-looking extras, wild zoom-in shots. On the unexpected side, the movie features an Old West spin on the ugly cliché of the gay psychopath, thanks to Klaus Grünberg’s gonzo performance as Adam Saxon. Wearing an all-white ensemble worthy of Truman Capote (picture a floppy hat and a flowing scarf), the Adam character seems genuinely perverse because he experiences orgasmic pleasure while mowing down a canyon full of innocent victims with a Gatling Gun. For better or worse, in the world of spaghetti westerns, wackadoodle intensity often represents an acceptable substitute for rational dramaturgy.
The Grand Duel: FUNKY