The average moviegoer has likely never heard of "The Grand Duel" and even those with more of an interest in film, may likely be more familiar with it's masterfully composed title theme, through its usage in "Kill Bill Vol. 1." The truth about "The Grand Duel" though, is, it's a near masterpiece of the spaghetti western genre and until now, is a film that's never had a fair shake in terms of a proper home video treatment. Produced in 1972, "The Grand Duel" (also known under the title of "Storm Rider") gives perennial western icon, Lee Van Cleef as the steely eyed (honestly, would we expect any less from Van Cleef), Clayton, a sheriff turned bounty hunter who begins the film on the trail of outlaw Phillipp Wermeer.
The film itself is impressive enough on paper, starting with a script from Ernesto Gastaldi ("My Name is Nobody" and directed by Giancarlo Santi, the assistant director on "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," "Death Rides a Horse," (another classic starring Van Cleef0, and "Once Upon a Time in the West." Gastaldi's skills were highly respected by Sergio Leone who had intended for Gastaldi to take over the helm of "Duck, You Sucker!" following Peter Bogdonavich's parting from the film; ultimately, given the production schedules of both that film and this one, the reason we have "The Grand Duel" today is due to the studio's insistence that Leone himself take over the former personally.
"The Grand Duel" might sport a very basic plot: Clayton wants to track down Wermeer, a man accused of killing the mysterious and unseen "Patriarch." Although Clayton himself is a deadly gunslinger, the capture isn't that simple as the duo are forced to form an uneasy partnership of necessity to fend off homicidal bounty hunters out for the spoil. As is often the theme in the spaghetti western, honor and morality plays a big part in motivating both men, going as far as to be the only logical reason why at times, they place full faith in one another, when the lure of a quick payday or easy escape is on the table. The film manages to offer viewers some very crafty twists and turns, even as the film hesitates off pace, ever so slightly as the second act closes and the sweat-inducing, slow-burn, final act ignites.
Offering almost everything one could possibly ask from a genre film, "The Grand Duel" is a true crowd pleaser. The film's opening 20-minutes are an exercise in charisma from Van Cleef (try not to simile when he hands a bounty hunter pointing a rifle at him, his overcoat), casually letting every gun thug in the town he knows they are there and exactly where they are, without saying a word. When the bullets start to fly, Gastaldi's camerawork is beyond competent, capturing a frenetic pace while never losing a sense of direction and order to the chaos. One of the most memorably shot scenes is a black-and-white flashback in a dark, steam-filled rail yard, that I'd swear was an influence on Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," (perhaps one of the three best Westerns alongside "Unforgiven" and "The Proposition" in the past 20-plus years) right down to the dramatic reveal of a shadowy figure. Rounding things out is Luis Bacalov's score which unlike Tarantino's bravado-filled usage in "Kill Bill," is for setting the mood, not stealing the thunder of the on-screen action and players. "The Grand Duel" is one of the few genre films I'd place in company with Leone's first two "Dollars Trilogy" films. While Van Cleef doesn't have the same type of screen presence as Eastwood (or other actors of the genre), he does have tremendous screen presence of his own design and "The Grand Duel" allows him to show it off in top form, while managing to tell a basic story in a very captivating fashion.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite impressive sporting rich detail, minimal compression artifacts and a very warm, vibrant color palette. It's an incredibly consistent transfer with minimal, non-invasive print damage. There's some very minor color bleeding that's visible only under close scrutiny and occasional moments of softness, but the fact of the matter is, the transfer does this film the justice it deserves.
The Dolby Digital English Mono soundtrack is clean and clear with very minor high-end distortion. Don't expect dynamic range of any sort, but what is offered is a very well balanced sound mix (dubbed bit players actually sound natural!).
The primary special feature is a full-length commentary track by C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke, two film journalists. Rounding out that is the film's original theatrical trailer and nearly 30-minutes of vintage, generally well-preserved spaghetti western trailers.
A fantastic, genre classic is given a proper DVD release. "The Grand Duel" is a must own for any genre fan, as it offers the best of the genre in all categories. Blue Underground's DVD release is technically sound and a welcome reminder of what the format has to offer in a time where many studios neglect their catalogue titles. Highly Recommended.