Arrow Video: The Grand Duel (1972) Reviewed

A stagecoach wandering through the wilderness happens upon a little, near-deserted town. Inside the coach sits a pair of women and a pair of men- one is a former man of the law, out to serve his own brand of vigilante justice. This town has been overrun with bounty hunters, out for blood in the form of Phil Wermeer, a wanted convict with a $3000 reward on his head. Behind his tough, criminalistic facade lies a strange and twisted tale of a man wrongly convicted: constantly running from his past in fight or flight towards a better and brighter future.

Such is the initial setup for The Grand Duel (or The Big Showdown in the U.S.)- a late-era spaghetti western from Giancarlo Santi, a former assistant director of Sergio Leone's who helped him on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Don't let the title fool you, though- there aren't any truly grandiose displays of gunslinging or High Noon-style duels in the middle of abandoned streets. There are plenty of gunfights to go around, and a tantalizing story of personal revenge and mystery around a central murder- but the reason its title was chosen is anyone's guess.

That's not saying it's not a good film- The Grand Duel certainly deserves its place amongst other rarely-seen spaghetti westerns, in a genre overrun and ruled by Sergio Leone's own immaculate filmography. Lee Van Cleef gives a fantastic performance as the grizzled protagonist in his Sheriff Clayton, a stone cold man of justice bent on proving one man's innocence in the face of overwhelmingly biased circumstances. It's not going to be as well-remembered as Leone's films, and definitely borrows elements from other predecessors in the genre, but a lingering operatic theme song by Luis Bacalov (which would later be recycled by Tarantino in Django Unchained) and two stellar lead performances at least allow its otherwise typical story and themes to be shown in a greater light.

Arrow Video delivers once more with a feature-packed and pristine release, featuring an all-new 2K restoration performed using the original 35mm negative. The results are fantastic- even on a 4K TV, the elements shine and allow the film to look as good as it ever could. It may not be an outstanding piece in the spaghetti western subgenre, but nonetheless one that deserves preservation. As home video formats have changed through the years, more and more films become lost in the transition, unable or simply not popular enough to be preserved or remembered by the masses. That's why it's a gracious miracle that such boutique labels as Arrow Video and Criterion exist- to preserve the memories of outstanding and underappreciated gems in the cinematic collective that would otherwise disappear in the mass of new releases. 

Perhaps it's not as grandiose as its title suggests or memorable as the greatest pieces of spaghetti western pioneer Leone's triumphs, but The Grand Duel is great in its own right- replete with thrilling gunfights and tense drama overshadowed by an underlying mystery told through a repeating flashback that reveals a little more upon each revisit. Spaghetti westerns always carry a vibe that differentiates themselves from their American counterparts- it's the difference between John Wayne's gung-ho attitude and Clint Eastwood's down-to-earth gritty style reminiscent of a harsh and unforgiving frontier. If you consider yourself a diehard fan of the spaghetti western genre, this is one that's definitely worth a look into for the collection. Arrow really did this one great justice. 

-Wes Ball