‘The Grand Duel’ or — The Good, The Bad and The Silly?
‘The Grand Duel’ aka ‘The Big Showdown’ (1972) starts as a typical Spaghetti Western — a black-hatted Lee Van Cleef arrives in town by wagon to a showdown and rousing music before silently alerting the good guy where the bad guys are waiting in ambush — which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as director Giancarlo Santi was one of Sergio Leone’s assistant directors for a few years. It’s a tale of betrayal, misdirection and revenge played through established house-style tropes.
And then, for good and bad, the film wildly veers off on its own crazy trajectory jettisoning consistency along the way but picking up entertainment value as it does. Characters are big, broad and colourful (sometimes maybe a little TOO colourful), action is unrestrained and explosive and there are moments so ridiculous even Sartana would find them too silly to engage in.
The plot also becomes more convoluted, introducing an almost Noir-esque, black and white flashback to provide a, albeit somewhat underwhelming, final reveal. It almost has the knottiness of a Giallo which isn’t that surprising as ‘The Grand Duel’ was written by the prolific Ernesto Gastaldi who loved nothing more than escaping plot corners he’s written himself into. Fortunately by the time the unbelievability of it all kicks in you’ll have enjoyed yourself suitably enough not to care.
The acting certainly helps everything rattle along with Van Cleef pulling off the dark-clad, invulnerable gunslinger with style and ease although it is Horst Frank as the overly refined and effete villain Patriarch Saxon who provides a genuinely fun and memorable bad guy for the film’s second half. Indeed, Frank has a scene where he talks about his plan one day leading him to the White House that’s feels just like Mel Brook’s governor in ‘Blazing Saddles’ (1974) and is almost as entertaining. There’s certainly a lot of life in this picture and even though there are tonal issues aplenty the directing and energy never let proceedings get dull.
But you can feel the gears crunching at times with ‘The Grand Duel’ such as with what should be an exciting horse-chase twenty minutes or so in but, instead, has any tension sucked out of it by some toe-curling awful ‘comedy’ honky-tonk music. There are also a number of head-scratching moments that will test credulity if you let them and even though the film always manages to course-correct after such stumbles these jarring sensations do linger, effecting the overall gait of the film’s rhythm for a little while after.
Yet if you go with ‘The Grand Duel’ it’s a fun watch. It isn’t setting out to shock with its violence, make an artistic statement or deliver a political message; it sets out to entertain and on that score it certainly succeeds. It might not have the depth or originality of Leone’s work or handle the fun-factor as effortlessly and consistently as the Ringo or Sartana movies but this a still a very enjoyable late-entry Italian Western with some great moments and a few forgivable flaws.