The Grand Duel aka The Big Showdown (or, in Germany, “Three Our Fathers For Four Scoundrels”) begins with Philipp Wermeer (“Peter O’Brien” = Alberto Dentice) besieged by a plague of bounty hunters after being framed for the killing of Samuel Saxon, the Saxon City “patriarch”. Although he’s no mean sharp shooter himself, for the first of several occasions he is rescued against overwhelming odds by the intervention of his unlikely guardian angel, the former Sheriff Clayton (Lee Van Cleef), who was dismissed for calling out corruption in the Saxon’s political operation. After butting heads through a series of shoot outs and foiled ambushes, Clayton and Wermeer make it into town to confront not only the patriarch’s bad-ass sons but also the truth about who killed him and why…
After serving his apprenticeship as assistant director to Sergio Leone (not to mention Giulio Petroni on Death Rides A Horse, 1967), Giancarlo was all set to take up the directorial reins on Duck, You Sucker! (1971) until its stars (most vocally, Rod Steiger) insisted that Leone direct that one, too. His directorial debut finally came the following year on this, often claimed as one of the last of the “classic” Spaghetti Westerns, a genre that was already well into its self-parodic phase with the advent of the Trinity films and their ilk, wherein elegies for the sacred myth of The West were becoming elegies for the Spagwest itself.
To be sure, TGD is larded with Golden Age tropes. There’s the mysterious gunslinger mentoring a younger man while pursuing his own, hidden agenda (which had by now become the laconic, cadaverous Van Cleef’s signature role in the SpagWest)… improbable feats of marksmanship…allusions to the outlaw origins of American capitalism… Oedipal shadings… and the telling use of flashbacks, incrementally developing towards a crucial revelation (here, the identity and motivation of The Patriarch’s killer… and no, it’s not who you thought it was going to be). Santi had clearly osmosed enough from his proximity to the master Leone to render (in concert with DP Mario Vulpianina and camera operator Pasquale Rachini) striking compositions and make optimal use of the picturesque Tuscan locations (Spanish jollies in Almeria were clearly considered an expensive indulgence by this point). The cast is populated with familiar faces from the genre: Van Cleef himself, Horst Frank (playing both David Saxon and, via the addition of mutton chop whiskers, his own Daddy in the flashbacks), Jess Hahn (who had played alongside LVC in two pictures from the previous year, Captain Apache and Eugenio Martin’s Bad Man’s River), Antonio Casale from the Leone films … no bonus points for spotting The Beast In Heat himself, Salvatore Baccaro as a saloon bar sniper (I mean, how could you miss him?) Klaus Grünberg, who plays the syphilitic, psychotic and (it is strongly suggested) gay Adam Saxon is best known (around here, anyway) for his 1969 appearance alongside HOF Hall-of-Famer Mimsy Farmer (below) in Barbet Schroeder’s cautionary drugs epic More (boasting a groovy OST courtesy of The Pink Floyd).
Speaking of OSTs, in another tick of the “Classic SpagWest” boxes, TGD boasts a fab score from Django man Luis Bacalov (or so it is usually credited), so very fab that it’s one of those pinched by Tarantino for Kill Bill. In a bonus interview Santi leaves us in no doubt regarding his feeling about such cultural appropriation… also insisting that while Bacalov conducted the score, its actual composer was Sergio Bardotti.
With the benefit of hindsight, such distinctions between prime time and parody can be too sharply etched… some of the comedic acrobatics that “Peter O’Brien” (or his stunt double) indulges in during the shootouts here would fit perfectly into any Gianfranco Parolini knockabout farce and anyway, even the cream of the Classics (e.g. Leone’s films) are shot through with humour, albeit of a distinctly gallows variety. You’re best advised to just park your taxonomy by the stable door, saddle up and enjoy the ride, during which you might care to consider the extent to which TGD, allegedly among the last of the “real” Spaghetti Westerns, anticipates Enzo Castellari’s Keoma (1976).
Arrow’s transfer does justice to the sub-Leone visuals and there are various image galleries, a reversible sleeve option and, for the first pressing only, a booklet containing contemporary reviews and new writing on TGD by Kevin Grant. A wealth of supporting featurettes include an enjoyable and informative profile of unsung character actor Marc Mazza (Eli Saxon in the film) from “tough guy film expert” Mike Malloy, director of the documentary Eurocrime! The Italian Cop And Gangster Films That Ruled The ’70s, though perhaps it was a mistake to kick off with the observation that Mazza never appeared in any of the stills or posters for his movies, then trot out a bunch of precisely such artefacts. Academic Austin Fisher provides a suitably scholarly overview of the main feature. Ubiquitous scripter Ernesto Gastaldi recalls the heady heyday of the SpagWest cycle (“You’d see key grips going to the races dressed like millionaires!”), also detailing how Damiano Damiani’s Nobody’s The Greatest (1975) derailed the Leone-produced trilogy initiated with My Name Is Nobody (Tonino Valerii, 1973) and offering a tantalising glimpse of the never shot final instalment. AD Harald Buggening also has his say and producer Ettore Rosboch reveals that Western veteran Van Cleef was actually afraid of horses. An interview with Alberto Dentice establishes that he remains a hippy at heart, with connections to avant garde theatre. In his own interview, larger-than-life director Santi reciprocates Quentin Tarantino’s devotion by calling him a thief and remembers his time with the likes of Antonioni and Ferreri, underscoring a theme that we’ve highlighted so often in this blog, the symbiotic relationship between Italian “high” and “low” cinema.