Blue Underground // 1972 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // May 9th, 2013
Men are all different, but guns are all the same.
By 1972, after a few hundred productions, Italian westerns had devolved into cheap self-parody and shoddy productions. Audiences recognized it, as well, and the genre had fallen out of favor. Grand Duel, released that year, proved the genre still had a little life in it. With its heavy load of violence, good humor, and the greatness that is Lee Van Cleef (For a Few Dollars More), it's the best late era entry I know of and, certainly, one of the most underappreciated in the genre.
Since being framed for the murder of a town plutocrat known as The Patriarch, Philipp Wermeer (Alberto Dentice) has been exiled from the town he called home. The trouble is that he has a huge cache of silver buried there, and without regard for his certain arrest and execution, he has returned to retrieve it. With bounty hunters on his tail, guns ablaze, Sheriff Clayton (Van Cleef), a lawman from a distant town, arrives. He's a savior dressed in black, but there are different reasons for his presence that have nothing to do with Wermeer. He has a secret and won't stop in his quest until justice is served.
For the most part, there are only two recognizable names in Spaghetti Westerns. There's Sergio Leone, whose small body of work is legendary, and there's Sergio Corbucci, maybe not quite so well known, but whose Django and The Great Silence are two of the very best films the genre ever produced. Based on Grand Duel, though, had director Giancarlo Santi actually made more movies, there might well have been a third. As the assistant director on such luminary westerns as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Death Rides a Horse, Santi clearly learned his stuff.
Fortunately, Santi didn't fall into the trap of mimicking Leone, as so many others did. There are similarities, of course, with Van Cleef playing the same role as before, the heavily corrupted town government, and long, tense showdowns, but that's some of the classic stuff of the genre and is to be expected. The director pushes away from the stylistic elements of his mentor's work, though, making Grand Duel a very different feel. Without the fast zooms and ultra-tight close ups, it may have less razzle-dazzle, but sometimes simpler is better.
The film looks great, but is more understated visually, which allows the mystery of the story to come forward. Every character has secrets that are all revealed eventually in either funny or tragic ways. Written by genre veteran Ernesto Gastaldi (Torso), the story is packed with interesting and quotable lines. It incorporates all sorts of fun characters, including a trio of awful Germanic brothers (Klaus Grünberg, More; Horst Frank, The Cat o' Nine Tails; and Marc Mazza, Blood in the Streets) that looks remarkably alike and are fantastic villains for the story. They work great as foils for Lee Van Cleef, whose presence always makes a movie better.
There's a lot to love about Grand Duel. The characters are great, the score by Luis Baclov (Shoot First, Die Later) is perfect for the film, and the atypical locations are refreshing for a genre that used the same land and sets for years upon years. I don't just love the movie for its quality during the death of the genre, I love it unqualified. It's one of the best Italian westerns I've seen and, finally, it's available in a form that does it justice.
The DVD for Grand Duel comes from the fine folks at Blue Underground. It's their usual high quality production, though there isn't the robust slate of extras the label often provides. The film has been released a few times in various aspect ratios and quality levels, but it looks better here than it ever has. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is nearly perfect, brilliant for a standard definition release. The print has been cleaned up beautifully, with almost no discernible damage to the print, which is remarkable given some of the previous transfers. Colors look great and black levels are deep and inky. I'd love to see how it fares on Blu-ray, but this is such a big improvement that I can't complain. The Dolby two-channel mono sound mix is limited, but still very solid. The dialog and Baclov's fine score both sound great, with hardly a hint of background noise, but the dynamic range just isn't that wide. I'm sure they did their best with the materials they had, though.
The only substantial extra is an audio commentary with journalists C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke, which is well done. They're a knowledgeable pair and clearly love the genre, so it's well worth the listen. There is a trailer for the film and a reel of other Italian western trailers, but that doesn't mean so much to me.
By the early seventies, as thrillers and horror films started to become the genres of choice for Italian producers, westerns suffered terribly. It's rare that an entry at this late date would be anything but a curiosity, and a poorly done one at that. But there's a lot to love about Grand Duel. It has everything one could want, from Lee Van Cleef to a fantastic score to acrobats, and with this excellent release from Blue Underground, it is finally in its best possible form. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Rated R