Color, 1972, 93 mins. 49 secs.
Directed by Giancarlo Santi
Starring Lee Van Cleef, Peter O'Brien, Marc Mazza, Jess Hahn, Horst Frank, Klaus Grunberg, Marc Mazza
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Blue Underground (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Mill Creek (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA HD), Blue Underground (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Wild East (US R0 NTSC), King (Japan R0 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), Elstree House, Storm Rider (UK R0 PAL), Titanus (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (2.35:1)
By the time it opened in the early 1970s, The Grand Duel was something of an anachronism. The demand for traditional spaghetti westerns was waning fast thanks to genre-twisting offerings from Hollywood like Little Big Man, the sudden renewed demand for thrillers and horror films from Italy, and the slapstick antics of Terence Hill and company. Even Sergio Leone was throwing in the towel, and star Lee Van Cleef was only destined to make another trio of oaters himself before switching back over to more modern action roles. However, the quality of the film itself has made it a perpetual favorite among fans with multiple video editions winning over subsequent generations.
Riding in on horseback, mysterious lawman Clayton (Van Cleef) comes upon a group of bounty hunters searching for wanted man Philip Vermeer (O'Brien, aka Alberto Dentice), a shaggy-haired dropout holed away in a shack enjoying the company of a prostitute. The wily Clayton manages to take care of the ambushers and saves Philip, who has been accused of murdering the patriarch of the powerful Saxon clan. However, Clayton -- who has his own reasons for seeking justice -- believes one of the three corrupt Saxon sons (Frank, Grunberg, and Mazza) is actually responsible for the crime. Of course, the two men have to pull out their pistols on multiple occasions before the real culprit is uncovered.
A fast-paced, entertaining western with a strong sense of visual flair, The Grand Duel was directed by Leone disciple Giancarlo Santi (who did second unit work on several classic films for the director) and has a very similar feel, ranging from Van Cleef's avenging black angel (straight out of For a Few Dollars More) to the pivotal monochrome flashbacks setting up the final multi-gunman climax. The evocative score by Luis Bacalov is also very memorable and effective (with the best cue later used for the anime sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 1), though the film also has its share of absurdist humor including one startling stunt that wouldn't be out of place in a Warner Bros. cartoon. O'Brien is actually pretty good here, and it's a shame he didn't go on to do more work; however, it's really Van Cleef's show all the way, and his fans should find this one worth more than a couple of viewings.
Numerous variations of The Grand Duel have popped up on home video over the years, but there are really just a few significant ones to note here. (The UK discs are shoddy rips from old VHS copies and should be avoided.) The first notable DVD on the market came from Wild East as a double feature with Beyond the Law, now discontinued and going for stupid amounts of money online. Wildly inconsistent in quality, it also reflects the Italian edit of the film and runs shorter at 91 minutes. This edit is also found on the Italian and Japanese releases, though what's interesting here is that the original Italian credits are actually far more Leone-ish and stylish than the English language ones with etched red titles sliding horizontally across the screen (a la Once Upon a Time in the West) over both the lengthy opening and the closing montage. Next up is the budget-priced Blu-ray from Mill Creek, which bears the title The Big Showdown (which has caused this to be confused with another Van Cleef film, The Big Gundown, on more than one occasion), and comes as a double feature with the cult favorite Keoma. That 1080p transfer looks solid with very little damage, rich colors, and terrific detail. It's still kind of shocking a disc that looks that good could get relegated to the bargain bins, but there you have it. The sole extra is the theatrical trailer.
Finally we reach the first real special edition of the film, a DVD from Blue Underground released in 2013. Why they opted for standard def only here is anyone's guess, but the master here looks virtually identical to the Blu-ray in terms of color grading and framing but is obviously limited to the visual constraints of NTSC. This one features the on-screen title of Grand Duel and actually runs five seconds longer for some reason, but nothing significantly different seemed to jump out. The big extra on the DVD is a new audio commentary with western writer C. Courtney Joyner (who also penned Prison and Class of 1999) and Westernpunk's Henry Parke, which is pretty much worth the double dip. Both are very well versed in westerns of both the American and Italian variety, covering the various character actors and narrative influences as well as the distinctive role of such elements as torture in European westerns and the brief but surprising female nudity that had a few critics raising their eyebrows. Also included are the English international trailer and a bonus spaghetti western trailer reel including titles like A Bullet for the General, Django, Four of the Apocalypse, Keoma, Mannaja - A Man Called Blade, Run Man Run, and Texas, Adios.
In 2019, Arrow Video gave the film its most lavish edition to date by far with simultaneous Blu-rays in the U.S. and U.K. The new transfer, cited as a 2K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative, looks less brown and earthy than the earlier one, with a palpable increase in detail especially with fine textures like rocks, clothing, and horse coats. Frame grabs in the body of this review are from the Arrow, with comparison ones below. The previous transfer was no slouch, but this one improves on it. The LPCM 1.0 mono audio options include the English and Italian tracks, both sounding good and presented via seamless branching with either cut complete with the very different credit sequences. Optional English subtitles are included as usual, either SDH or translated from the Italian. A new audio commentary by film critic and historian Stephen Prince makes for a fine companion to the earlier one as he examines the western tropes in the film, the state of Van Cleef's career at the time, and the multinational nature of these productions as they were heading into the '70s. Santi turns up for "An Unconventional Western" (31m40s), an examination of how the project evolved after the end of the Leone western wave (with several young turks starting to take over) and had some actor choices imposed by the French financiers, while screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi appears in "The Last of the Great Westerns" (25m37s), a very lively and funny chat encompassing several Leone anecdotes, the intention to have Michele Lupo direct, and the source for several ideas that turned up in the script. The enigmatic O'Brien/Dentice finally has his say in "Cowboy by Chance" (35m32s), explaining how acting came through his theater and music-oriented pursuits to this film including a variety of shooting locations, his odd character name ("I always played Dutchmen"), and one scene in particular that he found "humiliating" but went along with anyway. In "The Day of the Big Showdown" (21m7s), assistant director Harald Buggenig goes into the "delicate matter" of dealing with Van Cleef at the time and his other various adventures in the Italian film industry, while "Out of the Box" (29m2s) with producer Ettore Rosboch recalling his time in the glory days of European cinema rubbing shoulders with the greats in the late '60s and early '70s including Gian Maria Volonte as distributors came up with new ways to fund projects around Europe. Academic Simon Fisher offers his own take on the film in "Saxon City Showdown" (15m32s) as an evolution in Van Cleef's screen persona, while "Two Different Duels" (15m38s) offers a comparison of the film's standard release cut and the alternate version prepared for Germany. The odd sci-fi short film "Game Over" (9m12s) from 1984, directed by Bernard Villiot, is included due to the presence of actor Marc Mazza and comes from a pretty lo-res SD master. Finally, "Marc Mazza: Who Was the Rider on the Rain?" (12m32s) is a video essay by Mike Malloy about the bit part actor who had a small but pivotal role in a certain Charles Bronson film and turned up all over Europe for decades far more than you'd probably realize. The disc rounds out with the Italian and English international trailers and a trio of galleries: stills, posters and press; lobby cards; and Super 7, home video and soundtrack sleeves. The release also comes with reversible art including a new design by Matt Griffin.
Arrow Video (Blu-ray)
Mill Creek (Blu-ray)
Blue Underground (DVD)
Updated review on May 8, 2019.