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By 1968, Lee Van Cleef was arguably the Spaghetti Western genre's biggest star. The actor's natural ability to portray stoic, no-nonsense anti-heroes resulted in him bringing to life a number of pleasingly similar - and hugely popular - genre characters. As such, his decision to take on the markedly different role of Cudlip here was really quite brave and inspired. When we first meet him, Cudlip looks like the saddle tramp that he is. Unkempt and dressed in rags, he looks a little like the Jaroo character that Van Cleef went on to play in John Guillermin's little seen Western, El Condor. When he eventually becomes the sheriff of Silver Town, Cudlip gets to wear a new brown suit, a green waist coat, a white shirt, a fancy neck tie and a bowler hat and wearing such formal attire prompts feelings of both awkwardness and pride from Cudlip. It's a pivotal moment for the character and Van Cleef neatly expresses the character's mixed feelings. Van Cleef also does a decent take on projecting feelings of social inadequacy when Cudlip takes afternoon tea with pretty Sally Davis (Graziella Granata) and runs straight into a series of etiquette problems. Van Cleef successfully rises to the challenge of making some mild 'comedy of manners' gags work during this sequence. Cudlip's fondness for cigars as opposed to pipes, and his employment of a regular gun belt instead of a cross-belly draw set-up, act to further distance him from Van Cleef's more typical Spaghetti Western anti-heroes.
Fortunately, the comedy elements present in Beyond the Law are quite unforced and, for the most part, they work pretty well. They certainly don't affect the film in an adverse way, something that cannot be said of a number of other light-hearted Spaghetti Westerns. There's a reasonable amount of action on display here (Cudlip thrashing a gang of hecklers who lewdly interrupt a female singer's cabaret routine, an out-numbered Novak attempting to take on Burton's men in a fist-fight, Burton's men attacking a stage coach, the finale's big shoot-out) but much of this film's running time is devoted to some fairly well observed character development that takes place within Silver Town's domestic spaces and work places. Some of the developments that transpire here might be described as incidental to the film's main story arc but they remain interesting and entertaining. Two such sequences are presented here in Italian with English subtitles because they were originally cut from the longest English language version of the film.
In some ways this show plays a little like one of Sergio Sollima's meditations on how a change of circumstance can effect a change in an individual's moral outlook. Over the course of the film we see a number of characters' personalities slowly adapting to change. Cudlip is revealed to be a petty thief with a conscience. When he sees Novak being abused by the angry miners whose wages he lost, he feels guilty and winds up developing an unlikely friendship with the man he robbed. In time Cudlip starts to appreciate the domestic nature of life in Silver Town and he wants to settle down and live an honest life. By contrast, the Preacher and his friend seek to get involved in ever more serious criminal activities. They figure that having Cudlip on the inside can open the door to a big pay day - even if it means resorting to violence and gun play, something that the previously good-natured trio had always made a point of avoiding.
As with Sollima's films, there is much evidence of people being judged by their outward appearance here. When the Preacher's friend hitches a ride on the stage coach that Novak is travelling on, the driver orders him to get on the back board. When a perplexed Novak asks, "Why didn't he let him sit inside? There's room here," his fellow passengers are left shocked by his innocent but open call for racial equality. When scruffy Cudlip admires a prize horse, he's warned off with the words, "Princesses don't marry shepherds," while Sally Davis has no time for him until he cleans up his appearance and gets awarded the sheriff's star. When Burton's men come across Cudlip and company camped outside of town, they immediately underestimate the motley looking trio and wind up getting robbed by them.
Apart from seeing Lee Van Cleef in a markedly different role, Beyond the Law also boasts a number of other novelty aspects that will interest genre fans. A beardless Bud Spencer (Ace High) is almost unrecognizable as Cooper, the head of the Silver Town Mining Company. Spencer turns in a particularly good performance during the sequence where Cooper tries to call Burton's bluff by refusing to hand over any silver to the bandit. Lionel Stander is superb as the Preacher. He's got a proverb for every situation and he delivers these with great aplomb. But the Preacher's personality changes over the course of the film too. Initially he's the kind of good egg who thinks nothing of amiably sticking his head through an open classroom window and assisting a bible teacher with her lesson about the feeding of the five thousand. But by the end of the film he's become a greed-fuelled villain who is prepared to kill for cash.
Stander also gets to pull a similar routine to the 'New Orleans' one that he did with Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West here. Novak is a Czechoslovakian immigrant and when the pair first meet, their conversation goes like this ... Preacher: Europe is a beautiful place! Novak: Do you know it? Preacher: No! Interestingly, the Preacher's muscular companion is a harmonica player. Westerns All'Italiana! editor Tom Betts reports that actor Al Hoosman was a former professional boxer who once fought Joe Louis and the sportsman acquits himself very well here. Gordon Mitchell is pretty good as the bad guy Burton. Resplendent in a gothic black cloak, he brings an over the top and theatrical edge to his performance which turns Burton into a kind of pantomime villain. A pantomime-like feel is also evoked during a sequence in the film's finale: an exhausted Preacher stops and sits down to blow his nose and clean his ears in the middle of the shoot-out and he appears to be unaware that a bad guy is sneaking up behind him.
This is a fun film that has developed a bad reputation amongst genre fans over the years. That bad reputation was largely due to the film's shocking presentation on home video. Poor quality pan and scan presentations that were indiscriminately edited to shorten the film's running time made the show look like a real mess. Add to this some fans' reluctance to accept Lee Van Cleef in such a different role and you have a film that became unjustly neglected. The fact is, Wild East's restored widescreen version reveals that Beyond the Law is a film that is worthy of re-evaluation.
Director Giorgio Stegani (who had a hand in writing Mill of the Stone Women) does a good job here for the most part. He keeps his cameramen busy and cinematographer Enzo Serafin dutifully provides some nicely framed shots and fluid camera moves. The acting is generally good and most of the film's characters are pleasantly sympathetic types. The film's crowd scenes are interesting and convincing due to the employment of a good number of extras, etc. Although the film's finale has a reasonably large body count, the bulk of this film's running time is noticeably lacking in violence and bloodshed. As such, it makes for a quite interesting and refreshing change of pace and approach. A nice example of the Spaghetti Western's ability to provide novel solutions to problems is seen when Novac uses a piece of his scientific mining equipment to create a telescopic sight for his rifle. Genre stalwart Riz Ortolani's soundtrack score mixes beautiful orchestral pieces with more comedic sounding cues while a scene set in the Silver Town church features an impressive sounding recreation of a period hymn.
Wild East's presentation of Beyond the Law is without doubt the best home video presentation of this film to date. The print used is in pristine condition and the film's colours come through very strongly. There are a few sequences where some mild video artefacting muddies the background detail ever so slightly but this isn't really a major problem. The film's English soundtrack has been restored but the disc's sound quality does dip a little in a couple of places. All in all, this is a fine presentation of a film that just might get the second chance that it deserves thanks to this DVD release.
Director Giancarlo Santi was one of Sergio Leone's assistant directors and it was actually Santi who originally began directing Leone's Duck You Sucker/A Fistful of Dynamite. Rod Steiger's protests soon resulted in Leone reluctantly taking over the film's direction while Santi was transferred to second unit duties. Santi bears the undeniable influence of his erstwhile teacher here: he does a nice line in ultra close-up shots of his actors' faces which he counterpoints with some fairly interesting long shots. Santi also weaves a series of Leone-like flashback sequences into his film too. And there are several actors from the Leone universe present here as well. Lee Van Cleef's Clayton is one of his 'man in black' types which bring to mind Colonel Douglas Mortimer from For a Few Dollars More. Van Cleef gets to smoke a pipe and use his trademark cross-belly draw again here. Marc Mazza, who portrays Eli Saxon, went on to play the pistolero that Terence Hill humiliates after the glass shooting contest in My Name is Nobody. Antonio Casale (Jackson/'Bill Carson' from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) has a fairly prominent role as a bounty killer here and Amelio/Meme Perlini (who appeared as a member of Juan's family in Duck You Sucker/A Fistful of Dynamite) is one of Casale's gang.
The Grand Duel comes on like a cross between a Hollywood cop show and a 'whodunit' out West. But while the film's flashbacks offer the possibility of three possible suspects, most viewers will guess the identity of the Patriarch's killer early on. The film also boasts some reasonably interesting political elements. The Saxons are archetypal - if slightly eccentric - businessmen/town officials gone bad. David Saxon dreams of making it to the White House one day and Eli and Adam have the muscle and the ability to eliminate anybody who gets in his way. Philipp Vermeer and his people are Dutch immigrants and David Saxon feels that his political ambitions have been threatened by the community's swelling numbers, their loyalty to their community leader (Philipp's father) and their discovery of a silver vein in some nearby mountains. The Saxons want the Dutch to work as cheap labour in the locality but they don't want to award them any real political rights or power. In a scene that would appear to have influenced the staging of Spider Conway's death in Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider, Adam Saxon forces an old Dutch man who insulted him to draw before mercilessly gunning him down. The peace-loving Dutch community signal their disgust by taking off their clogs, banging them together in unison and leaving town. Unfortunately, the Saxons aren't prepared to let such defiant acts of solidarity go unpunished and Adam gets to test out what looks like one of the anachronistic machine guns from Duck You Sucker/A Fistful of Dynamite. Clayton's back story pushes the idea that people like the Saxons can effectively use their money and influence to buy and control the law.
With his long hair and beard, Philipp Vermeer makes for a fairly interesting genre character. Kind of hippy-ish and counter-cultural in appearance and outlook, the role could have been written with Peter Fonda in mind. As it is, actor 'Peter O'Brien'/Alberto Dentice does a decent job of bringing the idealistic but insolent Vermeer to life. Vermeer gets to partake in one of the most impressive - if outrageous - shooting stunts ever to appear in a Spaghetti Western. Vermeer jumps onto the tow bar of a horse cart and allows the weight distribution prompted by the falling body of a shot bounty killer to catapult him over the top of a high building. As he falls to earth on the other side of the building, Vermeer arches his body and shoots a second bounty killer that was waiting for him there. That bounty killer falls from his vantage point and lands on a third bounty killer, temporarily incapacitating him. It's all over pretty quickly but the sequence plays like something that must surely have influenced the stunt dynamics employed in Hong Kong action films and more recent features like The Matrix, etc. This sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film's stunts.
Santi also manages to set up a fairly unique and well-staged finale for the film. The final duel between Clayton and the Saxon brothers takes place amongst a series of vast cattle pens. Clayton strides through the pens, assertively pushing open the huge gates that threaten to impede his progress while the brothers back away, nervously edging their way through the gates that lay behind them until they come to rest at the far end of the final pen. A tense stand-off follows which sees both parties feeling reluctant to draw: Clayton is technically the fastest shooter of the four but, as David points out, the three versus one scenario means that there's every chance that one of the brothers will succeed in hitting Clayton. Luis Enriquez Bacalov's excellent music underscores this section of the film to great effect. Stirring and moving, the finale's emotion-drenched and operatic sounding music works a treat. Bacalov also turns in some unusual but quite excellent flute-based pieces that are used throughout the film. Unfortunately, his hoedown-influenced cues present here remain basic, uninteresting and a tad over-used. Part of this film's score made it onto Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill soundtrack.
Some genre fans feel that The Grand Duel was the last genre film of any note that Lee Van Cleef made. I don't entirely agree with that argument. Granted Van Cleef's approach in The Grand Duel does bear comparison to his work in the latter half of The Big Gundown. And his role as a kind of adopter/protector of a younger partner here does bring to mind his characters from For a Few Dollars More, Death Rides a Horse and Day of Anger. But I think that his work in later genre entries like Bad Man's River and Captain Apache is sometimes, like the films themselves, judged too harshly or judged somewhat out of context. And, unlike his earlier Spaghetti Westerns, The Grand Duel looks like it was put together on a comparatively smaller budget. Giancarlo Santi does a good job with his limited resources for the most part but the film's low budget just might explain why its main narrative selling point - the 'whodunit' out West idea - feels underdeveloped and doesn't really work as well as it should. This, and the film's attempts to capture and project the kind of gritty and aggressive attitudes found in early 1970s Hollywood cop shows, results in a film that plays a little awkwardly in a number of places. The Grand Duel has its moments but it somehow falls short of being a classic Spaghetti Western. That said, fans of the genre and Lee Van Cleef will be glad to have this show on DVD at last.
Picture quality fluctuates a little here. Most of this presentation is in virtually pristine condition but there are some sections that fare less well. The affected sections are a little scratched and blemished or suffer from a little 'rocking' motion. It would appear that these sections have been imported from a poorer quality print in order to present the film uncut. Such efforts are to be commended and none of the poorer quality footage is bad enough to spoil enjoyment of the feature - anybody who owns one of the terrible pan and scan VHS issues of this film will regard this widescreen presentation as a welcome replacement. Sound quality here is pretty good too.
Initially at least, Pistoleros comes on like a cheeky but more violent rewrite of For a Few Dollars More. But writer-director Alfio Caltabiano always adds a new twist to what seem like familiar set-pieces. When Blackie the bounty killer finds his man in an upstairs hotel room with a prostitute, he runs him through with a ceremonial sword before joining the prostitute in bed himself. In the meantime, Lucas enters the hotel and forces his way into a card game with the dead man's friend. A handful of men come to the card player's assistance when Lucas starts pushing him for information about Medoya's whereabouts and Lucas is forced to shoot them down. The ruckus results in Blackie and Lucas having a machismo-driven shooting contest that involves blasting candles from their fittings. Lucas lets the card player live and Blackie collects the bounty on him and his dead friends. Lucas goes on to explains that he isn't a bounty killer, he's a vengeance seeker, and he turns down Blackie's offer to form a partnership. When Medoya and Philippe craftily gain access to the strongest safe west of the Mississippi, their gang winds up massacring most of the men in Allun Town before retreating to an abandoned mine. Medoya decides that the whole gang will stay there for as long as it takes for the heat to die down.
What follows are a number of slightly more original set-pieces that allow the relationship between Blackie and Lucas to slowly develop. Blackie trails along behind Lucas and he winds up saving his life on a number of occasions. Even so, Lucas still refuses to enter into a partnership with him. However, during one of their meetings, Lucas notices that Blackie is wearing a pendant that is shaped like a pistol and his attitude towards him suddenly changes. Lucas lets Blackie tag along and he also employs the services of an old coot who is a dynamite expert. The plan is to dynamite two of the three entrances to Medoya's hide-out, which will allow the gunmen to pick Medoya's men off as they flee from the mine. But things go badly wrong and a flashback reveals why Lucas is so keen to get hold of Medoya.
Its basic premise may seem a tad unoriginal, but this essentially low budget affair actually has a number of things going for it that will interest genre fans. First off, reliable cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori (The Man From Nowhere, Run Man Run) turns in some very solid work here that helps the film to transcend its budgetary limitations. The scenes shot in the mine are particularly well lit. His efforts are aided by composer Marcello Giombini (Sabata and The Return of Sabata) who turns in a reasonably interesting soundtrack score. His quirky but rousing, Ennio Morricone-influenced twangy guitar cues are quite infectious, but Giombini's trumpet-led pieces prove to be even more interesting. Their sound is very Latino-influenced and this ties in nicely with the feel of the film itself: this is a show which features quite a number of convincingly portrayed Mexican characters and the distinct lack of any notable Anglo or Italian genre stars works to give the film a quite interesting regional or 'ethnic' feel. This show was an Italian/West German/Yugoslavian co-production and it feels like a Western that was conceived to cater for a specifically continental (as opposed to fully international) audience. Spaghetti Western locations experts Yoshi Yasuda and Olivier Tocanne have determined that the film was actually shot on location in Yugoslavia. The use of Yugoslavia's impressive but less familiar-looking countryside locations acts to further distinguish the show from those genre entries that were shot in Spain. As such, it's something of a rare treat for a title as obscure as this to make it to DVD.
Given the film's low budget, the acting here is actually pretty good. Antony Ghidra was a Yugoslavian actor who was better known as Dragomir 'Gidra' Bojanic. Writer-director Alfio Caltabiano actually stars as Medoya under the name Al Northon. Caltabiano/Northon did appear in bit parts in quite a number of Spaghetti Westerns but he only directed a handful of films. There isn't really anything much wrong with his direction here: it's economical but solid. Art director Enzo Bulgarelli did the noteworthy costume designs for Death Rides a Horse, $10,000 Blood Money and Vegeance is Mine. He was also the art director on two of the genre's most offbeat and unusual entries, Kill and Pray and Django Kill. Here he acts as both art director and costume designer and he does commendable work given the film's low budget status. The film's mine set is quite impressive, as is the nifty timing mechanism that controls the opening and closing of the Allun Town Bank's For a Few Dollars More-inspired safe. Lucas, Blackie, Philippe and Medoya all sport neatly stylized outfits that effectively transform them into Spaghetti Western super-heroes/villains. The film's quite original and tension-laden finale is well worth sticking around for.
Picture quality here is quite superb. There are a few scratches present at reel change points but this presentation is really pin sharp and colourful. The disc's sound quality is pretty good too. The image gallery included here is particularly impressive.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Grand Duel rates:
Packaging: Separate releases in Keep cases