Western Wednesday – Lee Van Cleef

In this second edition of Western Wednesday, more spaghetti western flicks will be under the microscope, this time, however, they will all be spearheaded by the infamous Lee Van Cleef, one of the most iconic and standout spaghetti western stars of all time. Three cult classics, all released in 1967, will be under review. As with every article and review on the website, this entire series will be spoiler-free.

The Lee Van Cleef Edition


Leroy Van Cleef Jr, better known to many as Lee Van Cleef, was born January 9th, 1925 in Sommerville, New Jersey and received his on-screen debut in High Noon (1952), but it was in the 1960’s when the American born actor was to receive his big break. Sergio Leone decided to cast the actor as a main protagonist alongside Clint Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More (1965) and then The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) just a year later.

After his key roles in Leone’s films, Van Cleef became a major star in the spaghetti western market, playing often central and typically heroic figures in the process. To this day, Van Cleef is widely regarded as one of the staples of the genre. Below are three western films that have been selected for review.

The Big Gundown – 1967

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

In what would be Lee Van Cleef’s first starring role since his hit success in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), The Big Gundown sees his character, John Corbett, tasked with tracking down Cuchillo Sanchez (Tomas Milian), a Mexican peasant accused of the rape and murder of a young girl in a small town in Texas. The story was a typical cat and mouse tale with some interesting twists and turns injected along the way, as you’d come to expect from such a flick.

It has to be said that the first half of the picture had a distinctly American vibe to it, with the filmmakers trying to convey an authentic Texan feel, while the second half of the movie seemed to have a heavy Mexican influence. All of this was achieved successfully by the filmmakers, despite the majority of filming actually being done in Europe – Spain to be more precise.

Rather interestingly this is publicly noted as being one of Quentin Tarentino’s favourite spaghetti westerns and that’s a notion I’d tend to agree with from a personal point of view also. If you’re a fan of the genre then The Big Gundown should be near the top of your list to catch.

Death Rides a Horse – 1967

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Not long after The Big Gundown, followed Death Rides a Horse. A story based around a young gunfighter (John Phillip Law) seeking revenge for the brutal murder of his family. The gunfighter joins forces with Lee Van Cleef’s character, an ageing, former outlaw that had previously served time in jail for a crime he did not commit. This was an at times interesting flick, featuring a sensational score by the infamous Ennio Morricone.

Despite delivering a wealth of clichés that you’d come to expect from a spaghetti western (fist fights, deadly shoot outs, poker scenes, moments of comedy, authentic costume design and realistic set design) I can’t help but feel the lengthy runtime hindered the picture, especially as at times it seemed like the plot was somewhat convoluted in nature. If the film had been trimmed by 20-30 minutes and the story had been shortened, this would have come across as a far more effective release.

The finer part of the movie, however, were the performances from the two main characters, portrayed by Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law. For that reason alone, I’d recommend this as being one to watch.

Day of Anger – 1967

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The final film under review is that of Day of Anger, one of the finer flicks that Van Cleef starred in. Day of Anger follows a scruffy garbage boy (Scott Mary) who becomes a pupil of the dangerous gunfighter, Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef), before the balance of power quickly begins to alter as the former gains experience and starts to become aware of his tutors real intentions.

Surprisingly, the film wasn’t littered with action from the first minute until the last, but instead, the primary focus of the flick was that of the characters on display, their relationship, and the eventual change of that relationship throughout the eighty-six minute runtime. For sure, the basic storyline may be one that has been told before and will be told again, but if you’re a fan of Lee Van Cleef’s work, then this will be sure to please.

There was also a very effective, well made and more importantly, suspenseful finale included too, which makes this one well worth a watch.

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