A Fistful of Westerns: The Making of The Spaghetti West Part 15: Lee Van Cleef
This issue of A Fistful of Westerns blog was to finish up the Sabata series, but instead I thought it might be a good time to go over the Spaghetti Westerns of the great American actor Lee Van Cleef, who would spend the better part of his acting career riding along in the Italian desert, often playing a sapient gunslinger whose patience and intelligence gets him out of tough situations or mentors a young upstart. Since I’ve already written about Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, I’ll go over some of his other titles, some great, some not so.
Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef, jr. was born January 9, 1929 in Somerville, New Jersey of Dutch ancestry. He graduated early so that he could enlist in the Navy, where he worked as a minesweeper on the USS Incredible. He eventually earned the rank of Sonarman First Class and was awarded The Bronze Star and The Good Conduct Medal.
When he returned from service, he audition and got a role in Our Town for a local New Jersey theater. He was spotted by talent agents and suggested he go to New York and audition for a play called Mister Roberts. While on tour with the play in Los Angeles director Stanley Kramer saw the play and wanted to cast him for the role of Harvey Pell, on one condition…he get a nose job! Thankfully he chose to keep his aquiline proboscis and took the much smaller role as Jack Colby; Lloyd Bridges would take the role of Harvey.
Due to his hawk like features he mostly landed villainous or small roles in pictures like Kansas City Confidential, Bandits of Corsica, the Ray Harryhausen classic Beast From 20,000 Fathoms as well as a a bunch of TV westerns.
Finally in 1956 he landed the lead villain, Dr.Tom Anderson in the Roger Corman A.I.P. classic It Conquered The World (one of the first pictures I ever saw when I was a little kid on TV.) After that it was a lot more TV and b-pictures.
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In 1958 Van Cleef was in a major car crash and was almost killed. The crash left him with a badly injured leg which would plague him for the rest of his life. The doctors told him he’d probably never ride a horse again. His recovery took a long and painful time, during this time he started up a business as an interior designer with his second wife as well as painting.
He did get some good parts now and then during this period, one of which is in my favorite Twilight Zone episode, The Grave from season 3. Van Cleef plays Steinhart a gambler trapped inside a bar, during a violent windstorm, along with James Best (Dukes of Hazzard), Stother Martin (Cool Hand Luke) and Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen). After riding into town and going into the saloon, gunslinger Conny Miller finds out a man he has come to kill is already dead and buried, despite having a cold blooded reputation Van Cleef’s Steinhart bets him that he’s too scared to go to this man’s grave, on account that the dead man had once said that if Conny Miller goes to his grave he’ll reach out and kill him. Conny takes the bet, but he has to leave a knife in the grave to prove that he was there and he does just that. When the folks in the saloon don’t hear from him after the winds have died down, they decide to go to the grave. There they see Conny laying over the grave dead. Aghast, the others believe the dead man killed him, but Van Cleef sees it another; he did just like he said, he stuck the knife in the ground, but it was windy and the knife pinned his coat to the ground, when he stood up and it tugged at him he got frightened. His conclusion, his heart probably gave out. But then the sister of the one in the grave hysterically laughs, you believe that? The group all look at each other eerily. This episode is one of the most haunting ones.
A year later in 1962, he’d work again with Lee Marvin on John Ford’s classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as Reece one of Valence’s goons. Three years later director Sergio Leone was casting for a sequel to his surprise hit Fistful Of Dollars, and chose Van Cleef for the role of Col. Mortimer (Lee Marvin was originally cast but he had already signed on to Cat Ballou for which he’d 1966 The Academy Award For Best Actor)
For A Few Dollars More would turn out to be an even bigger hit that the previous picture and elevated Mr. Van Cleef to star status. He returned for the final picture in the trilogy, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly which cemented his status, his name alone could draw in audiences.
When High Noon was reissued in Europe his image is center on the poster and suggests he’s with Grace Kelly, even though he only has a few moments of screen time. Many spaghetti westerns soon followed, Death Rides A Horse, The Big Gundown, Day of Anger, The Grand Dual and of course the Sabata pictures which played very well in the states solidifying his stature as a leading man of action pictures.
For this blog and the next one I will go over some of Lee Van Cleef’s pictures, this will also give me an opportunity to go over some pictures I skipped, such as Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown that introduced the character of Chuncillo played by Tomás Milian (see the Zapata Western blog) which was made right after For A Few Dollars More and one of my favorites the hard-boiled revenge thriller Death Rides A Horse that Van Cleef made right after The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. First I’ll finish up the Sabata pictures, though I have left out Adiós Sabata as I unfortunately no longer have it and I couldn’t find a screener. I had MGM’s long OOP box set of all three pictures, they are now currently available on Blu-ray. I imagine the look fantastic all restored as the cinematography and production design were all great in these films.
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The Return of Sabata (1971)
The Return of Sabata (1971)
Director Gianfranco Parolini
Writer Renato Izzard and Gianfranco Parolini
Music Marcello Giombini
Staring Lee Van Cleef, Reiner Schöen, Ignazio Spalla
Bum ba, ba bum, bum, bum…and so goes the the catchy theme song for Lee Van Cleef and Gianfranco Parolini’s final Sabata picture The Return of Sabata.
After the the surprising international success of Sabata, it was obvious there was a need for a sequel, Gianfranco Parolini next made Indio Black which starred Yul Brynner. In the states it was released as Adiós Sabata and was a success as well. In 1971 Lee Van Cleef returned one more time in what is really the true sequel.
Return of Sabata finds Lee Van Cleef’s Sabata now working in a circus sideshow, a fun opening scene that emphasizing Sabata’s shooting skills and plays like a homage to fellow Italian filmmaker Mario Bava. We learn he’s in a new town called Hobsonville, a lively set shot at Dino De Laurenttis’ studio, filled with Parolini staples, acrobats, beautiful saloon girls, well costumed extras and Ignazio Spalla as Bronco the town’s barker who goes around with a large bass drum hollering about everybody should pay their fare share of taxes so that the town can grow and expand.
While he’s out and about he meets an old army buddy Lt. Clyde (German actor Reiner Schöne) who is running a casino there in Hobsonville and owes Sabata five grand. Sabata and Clyde go into the casino where Sabata plays some roulette and wins quite a bit. They meet in Clyde’s office, where he tells Sabata he doesn’t appreciate him using a magnet inside a cigar box to cheat, Sabata pulls out the box and opens it…nothing. Clyde embarrassingly apologizes, Sabata say, no need, and tosses his lit cigar across the room where it sticks to a metal ashtray. “You should be a sleight of hand artist.” “They have one at the sideshow, his name is Pickles.” Clyde looks a little perturbed. Sabata asks why there so many Irish in town, Clyde tells him there’s a large family and they control the town, they’re Irish mobsters and the head of the family is Joe McclIntock (Giampiero Albertini). Sabata cashes in his winnings and steps out were he’s being watched. A guy leaps off a church steeple does some somersaults and stumbles into Sabata, these guys work for Clyde and they just pickpocketed Sabata, but he catches them but gives them a tip and complements them. The acrobat is Nick Jordon the same actor who played the Native American acrobat in the first picture.
Sabata leaves the sideshow but not until he discovers that Pickles is counterfeiting money. Sabata has been trailing Pickles for two years and he’s onto something big. One of the big things is the high taxes the citizens must pay on everything even at the brothel where Sabata gets into a huge brawl. When he goes to see one of the ladies he’s asked who are you “her prompter”? The fight breaks out one of the locals says “that’s not her prompter, more like her stage managers!”. The fight scene is a lot of fun with Sabata even doing a backwards punch, a move popular in the 80s. Sabata confronts Joe McclIntock and word has gotten back that Sabata has been refusing to pay taxes. Their confrontation ends with Sabata blowing an air dart out of his cigar, landing it right next to McclIntock’s head.
Ultimately McclIntock had stolen gold from a mine and used Pickles to to make a counterfeit money to buy gold, which is a similar plot to one of the Sartana pictures, after the transactions are all done they plan on keeping all the tax money and high tailing it out of town. Sabata has the counterfeit money makes a deal for 10 percent of real dollars to protect it. They agree to meet at the mine to do the exchange. As you can guess McclIntock tries to kill him by blowing up the mine.
Sabata tells the sheriff what McclIntock is up to and says he can take care of it in exchange for a million dollars. The chase goes on for MclIntocks hidden gold. The plot becomes more and more like one of the Sartana pictures.
This sequel goes further into the Jim West realm with all the gadgets and spy motifs but it’s still very enjoyable, though a notch lower than the first one, mainly because the plot is relatively thin, not much with the scheming and double crossings of the first (nor the first Sartana, come to think of it) Again the production design by Luciano Puccini is very good for a spaghetti western and looks more like an American Film with the saloon girls and populated streets and period prices like the unique phonograph player in McclIntock’s office (Puccini had been Art Director on Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, which I believe is the best version of the Shakespeare classic). Van Cleef hams it up much more in this one, with head nods and smirks which at times makes the film seem a bit more farcical, SW comedies were now in vogue so I’m quite sure it was intentional and he’s clearly having a ball with the role.
Marcello Giombini is back with another great score and a bouncy new theme song.
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Diamanté Lobo (1976)
Diamanté Lobo (1976)
Aka God’s Gun
Director Gianfranco Parolini
Writers Gianfranco Parolini and John Fonseca
Staring Lee Van Cleef, Jack Palance, Richard Boone, Sybil Danning and Leif Garrett.
Sartana and Sabata writer/Director Gianfranco Parolini teamed up again with Lee Van Cleef for what would be Van Cleef’s final western Diamanté Lobo.[ii]
Diamanté Lobo opens up with a Punch and Judy type puppet show (if you’ve seen If You Meet Sartana…Pray For Your Death or Sabata then you now circus motifs are very prevalent in Parolini’s films) the puppet show is violently interrupted by The Clayton clan lead by tough guy Sam Clayton (Jack Palance) whose really hamming it up and not in a good way, the Claytons give the town the ol’ number 6 routine, rob the bank and take over the local saloon.
Now we meet priest, Father John, a bushy haired Lee Van Cleef, who runs the local church and teaches horseshoes to young Johnny, played by the boy who was made for dancing, 70s icon Leif Garrett, later Johnny goes to visit his mom Jenny at her saloon, the voluptuous Sybil Danning. Inside a card player is killed by one of the Clayton boys and Johnny gets pissed off and smarts off to Sam.
We find out that the saloon really belongs to Johnny who was given it after the cold blooded murder of his father. The sheriff comes in, Have Gun, Will Travel’s Richard Boone who was making a lot of stinkers at the time like the made for TV The Last Dinosaur, but he did voice Smaug in the animated The Hobbit, he doesn’t really do much to stop the violence, nor does this character do much of anything for that matter.
Johnny goes to a Father Jim and tells him what went down and asks him if he could teach him how to shoot. The father said he put down the gun a while ago but he goes out to see The Clayton’s anyway.
The father goes out to get them as there now hiding out not far from town and brings them in but that doesn’t matter they kill the father in front of the church. Johnny witnesses this and takes the fathers pistols and runs away.
Now a mute, he goes out through the desert where he stumbles into the home of a young Native American. There he sees the dead Father Jim, but it’s not really him it’s his estranged twin brother, Lewis. Since Johnny is now mute he draws him a picture of what happened to Father Jim and Lewis decides to go into town and clean things up!
In another contrived plot twist we find out that Sam had raped Jenny a number of years earlier and Johnny is the offspring of this union which makes Sam proud. Lewis and Johnny think of a clever way to exterminate the gang, Lewis dresses up like his brother Father Jim and makes his presence known by playing the vengeful specter. He meets up with Sam in a cemetery, the secret is now out that Father Jim is truly dead and Lewis is his twin brother and a not to exciting duel ends with Clayton dead laying over a grave cross.
As you can tell I didn’t really care much for Diamante Lobo, what was strange about the picture is the lack of director Gianfranco Parolini’s signature style; the circus and carnival motifs, the clever plot twists and mysteries are all missing, the plot here is very pedestrian which is ok, but there is just isn’t any style or flare that his other pictures have even his lower budgeted ones. There are a few rape scenes that don’t really need to be in here, they’re not uncomfortable…just stupid, considering scenes like this have never really appeared in Parolini’s films, one can rightly assume it was done at the request of the pictures producers who were none other than future 80s action sleaze specialist Canon Films’, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.
For those not familiar with these two or their company, these are the guys that made sleazier sequels to Death Wish, the Missing In Action pictures, Enter The Ninja with Django’s Franco Nero, The Last American Virgin and other sleazy treasures but Diamanté Lobo isn’t one of them. They were known to toss directors aside and recut their pictures to suit them, most of the time for the worst. Actor Richard Boone was quoted in an interview stating “I’m staring in the worst picture ever made” his character completely disappears from the picture, he’s in the beginning as the sheriff and seems like an important roll then never shows up again, turns out he was drunk, obvious from his performance, got into an argument and bailed!
The picture is not unwatchable, it is entertaining but the Parolini magic is just not there. I do like how he book ends the picture with the puppet show but, unless I’m missing something, the imagery doesn’t have anything to say about the theme of the film, I don’t even know if there is a theme.
-Phillip López Jiménez
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The Big Gundown
Death Rides A Horse
Day Of Anger
[i] Some folks don’t consider Adiós Sabata a true sequel, as it was originally called Indio Black, but had the title changed because of the commercial success of Sabata. I tend to disagree as pretty much the whole cast and crew from Sabata are there, in particular writer/director Gianfranco Parolini. Van Cleef was the only one not present.
[ii] Lee Van Cleef made another western with young Leif Garrett and producers Golan and Globus, Kid Vengeance. A joint production between the US and Israel and also stared Jim Brown and Glynnis O’ Conner.
Once Upon A Time In The Italian West by Howard Hughes