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Friday, August 23, 2013

Lee Van Cleef

For the rest of the year, this blog will intermittently feature pieces serving as testing grounds for a longer format project I'm working on, featuring my experiences as a youth in 1983, for future publication in book form. This is one of them.

It was thirty years ago... or more precisely, Friday, April 22, 1983, that yours truly discovered Lee Van Cleef. For a Few Dollars More played on the CBS Late Night Movie (remember that?).  I had seen it a year earlier, on the same late night show, but half-remembered it due to the wavering states of consciousness attained in those days when I was still developing my stamina to stay up for the late movie.

What had prompted me to watch it again on this night (other than that I loved westerns, especially stories about bounty hunters) was the opening scene where the man in black cunningly tracks down and dispatches of a wanted man hiding in a hotel room, and even apologizes to the lady in the bathtub for the disturbance! ("Pardon me, ma'am!") The actor playing the man in black was Lee Van Cleef, previously only known to me as "that guy with the moustache", who was appearing in a string of Midas Muffler commercials airing on Ontario TV stations at that time. (Because they were locally produced, I had wondered at the time if he was Canadian.)

For A Few Dollars More began a new career for Lee Van Cleef, and appropriately, this was the film to make me a lifelong fan. After spending over a decade playing villainous supporting roles in numerous westerns and action films, he was largely forgotten until director Sergio Leone offered him the second lead, in the second of his unofficial "Dollars"spaghetti western trilogy, featuring top-billed Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name.  The film showed the world that Lee Van Cleef was a capable leading man, and made him an international star.

His performance as the black-clad Colonel Douglas Mortimer was Oscar-caliber: rising to the challenge of a role that required nuances of humour, wisdom and wistfulness. Although he would not resume the role in the many spaghetti westerns that he would soon make as a lead actor, he would use some of the character's trademarks that became his signature: the moustache, the black clothes, flat hat, cross-draw holster, and of course, a pipe. Because the movie opens with a scene of Mortimer instead of The Man With No Name, I had thought that Van Cleef was the star, not Eastwood. No matter- he steals the film. He had tremendous presence, charisma and vitality. But simply, this cat was cool!

Additionally, LVC's visage was so striking: once seen, never forgotten. His piercing eyes, high cheekbones, hawk nose and dry voice made him appropriate for all those innumerable villains he played on the big and small screens in the 1950s. Even after his star-making performance for Sergio Leone, he would still sometimes play bad guys (his next role was, after all, "The Bad" in The Good The Bad and the Ugly), yet I preferred his heroes. Although in interviews, Van Cleef would say that playing a villain allowed him more chances to be creative than as a straight leading man, I think, however, his good guys showed his maturity as an actor.

Because of his unconventional screen presence, LVC was seldom cast as a romantic lead, or as a classically noble hero. Rather, his unusual look added greatly to roles as flawed anti-heroes: people who were as tough and gruff as the villains, and also did bad things, but for the right reasons. In addition to the sly humour that he brought to his roles, I think his talent was best used in those complex moments where the characters are conflicted between good and evil: witness his haunted expression at the end of Beyond The Law, or during the revelation in the last quarter of Death Rides a Horse. These are moments of craft!

That late night April viewing of For a Few Dollars More made me a Van Cleef fan, but the subsequent months made LVC my hero, at just the right time when yours truly needed one.  In my teenaged years, I was mostly a loner, since my high school friends and I didn't necessarily hang out after class. Marching to the beat of my own drum came with a dear price: being almost always alone made me easy prey to get picked on. (In a sense, my lifestyle as an outsider without romance or camaraderie drew parallels to the western heroes I admired.) Things were also difficult at home: my grandmother had passed away earlier in the year, and my mother had lost her job from Loblaws (coincidentally, on the very weekend that I had viewed For a Few Dollars More). There was further friction between my divorced parents when my father planned to remarry in August, and each was using me to get back at the other.

It appears blatantly obvious now that I was put in the middle of this psychological tug of war, but if I was aware of it at the time, I did nothing about it. My traditional reaction towards most things was to remain passive: perhaps a subconscious behaviour to avoid thinking of my helplessness to change things.  At the same time, however, I was looking for something to believe in. As the summer months unfolded, the cathode ray tube provided a friend, as I trundled through the stations in the wee hours, and found more movies with Lee Van Cleef.

In fact, the ensuing twelve months proved a great time to be a "Vancleefian", as a lot of the actor's films played on television: The Magnificent Seven Ride, The Tin Star, The Return of Sabata, Death Rides a Horse, Kid Vengeance, The Hard WayThe Young Lions, Barquero, Take a Hard Ride, and High Noon (his first movie appearance)... and this was just simply what could be seen in those pre-VCR, pre-converter days with only twelve channels to choose from!

His films even played on the French station- and yes, I watched them, despite my ongoing difficulty to follow the language in spoken form. As such, The Return of Sabata in French was difficult to understand, but I still enjoyed this live-action cartoon, and even dubbed in another tongue, Van Cleef still emerged super cool as the western gambler with all kinds of James Bond-like gadgets. I particularly loved his derringer with the four rotating cylinders, both on the barrel and the handle! (Admittedly, after seeing it again years later in English, the film still didn't make much sense, but never mind.)

ABOVE: Lee Van Cleef and derringer in The Return of Sabata
The more films I saw with LVC as a lead actor, the more I became influenced by his tough-as-nails, yet dryly humourous characters, which I attribute in no small part to helping me get out of my shell. Mind you, the graduation from wallflower to self-confident, assertive and outgoing was a two-year process, however it was in summer months of 1983, where this change had begun. It was without coincidence, I think, that vacation from school began and ended with viewings of The Magnificent Seven Ride.

In this fourth and final instalment of the Magnificent Seven franchise, Van Cleef has a turn at the role of Chris, originated by Yul Brynner in the 1960 classic. The viewer now finds the do-gooding mercenary acting as a town marshall, attempting to settle down in a frontier that has become more tame than his earlier years. Circumstances force Chris to put together a new brand of fighters to save a border town of women and children from a bunch of bandidos. In this flick, LVC's character is gruff as hell, unforgiving and unrepentant, but is seen to have a heart beneath his exterior.

Van Cleef's admirers seldom consider this as one of his best vehicles (I've seen this movie far too many times to merely dismiss it), but his interpretation of Chris is another part of the unique western hero that he was forging for himself in those post-Sergio Leone projects. These characters were often good people, even though he didn't necessarily do anyone any favours. His protagonists were more cynical, and far less righteous than the squeaky clean cowboy heroes of Saturday matinees in previous decades.

This was a cowboy hero for a different, and less moral age, however the presentation was essentially the same: the persona was more significant than the films. The B-westerns of the 1930s and 1940s were often formula vehicles for Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and all the rest: inexpensive products to keep alive the archetypal stars. Time would make their faces far more memorable than the titles of their movies. The films of Lee Van Cleef's prolific period as leading man were B westerns for a new age, largely existing to keep alive his persona for a different era. The matinee western heroes of less complicated times told viewers to listen to their mother, help those in need, and drink Ovaltine; this unlikely protagonist for a complex age had a different set of values. Lee Van Cleef's films instilled the belief that it was okay to be different: stand up for what you belief in, even if it isn't necessarily the status quo; be proud, walk tall. The Magnificent Seven Ride may have been just a vehicle to most, but it succeeded all the same in delivering those messages, and they were exactly what this teenaged introvert needed to hear at the time.

ABOVE: Lee Van Cleef and Stefanie Powers in
The Magnificent Seven Ride!
And as if the boob tube hadn't provided enough content for a Van Cleef fix, I would further write up synopses for non-existent movies that the actor could "star" in. Thirty years on, I still remember some of these stories I dreamed up, and won't embarrass myself further to describe them, except one. Because his former co-star Clint Eastwood had a series of movies as Dirty Harry (Sudden Impact was a box office smash at the time), I felt that LVC too should have a cop franchise. Thus, I conjured up some gritty, New York-lensed scenarios in which he played a police detective. Jeff Bridges as his partner? Teri Copley as a prostitute? Okay, then.

During this period, I used to go to this store called Second Time Around (which I've chronicled more fully elsewhere), run by John and his wife Paulette, to buy old western paperbacks. John and I would often talk about western movies: once I had mentioned that I was a huge LVC fan, he then revealed that on the side, he was doing a woodcarving project for a Mister Jim Flett, a stuntman and sometime actor, who had once doubled for Lee Van Cleef! John had mentioned me to Mr. Flett the next time that he was in town, and he in turn wanted to invite me out for coffee- but they didn't have any contact information for me at the store. Mr. Flett had instead left for me an autographed picture of himself, as "Black Bart", the persona for his quick-draw artist act that was appearing at shopping centres and fairs. In the photo, one could see the resemblance to LVC, with the moustache and sharp features. I no longer have the photo, sadly: that was too many moves ago. However you too can see the likeness, in this 1984 Mother's Pizza commercial, spoofing High Noon, where Mr. Flett plays one of the desperadoes seated in the background.

A quarter-century later, I learned more of the Flett-Van Cleef connection. At the time, LVC was making public appearances on behalf of the Midas Muffler campaign: the gimmick was that Mr. Flett, dressed in the same clothes as Van Cleef, would ride in a horse up to the stage, disappear behind it, and then, ta-dah!, Mr. Van Cleef would come out from behind the curtain.  In real life, Van Cleef hated horses: apparently, in his years as a leading man, it was even written in his contracts how much screen time could be devoted to riding the nags. I didn't know this back in 1983, and it was probably just as well. In our youthful days of hero worship, we can't envision our idols as anything less than the larger-than-life icons we have cast.

During this already fruitful time to be a card-carrying Van Cleef fan, the 58-year-old actor also appeared in an action-adventure TV series, at the start of 1984. In The Master, he played an aging ninja master, who shows the ropes to a young drifter during their adventures on the road to find Lee's long-lost daughter. Careful not to upset my iron-clad image of the man, this lad pretended not to notice that a lot of LVC's stunts were doubled by somebody with a bald wig, and let the illusion of filmmaking convince me that it really was my hero doing all those acrobatics. Even in those days, I may have admit that this series was cornball, but still... man, was it cool to see my favourite actor having a prime-time series on a major network! The show was cancelled after 13 episodes; it was however very popular at the time. (Seen today on out-of-print videocassettes, the series is still quite fun.)

Yet, the more one studied his work, Lee Van Cleef appeared as less of an impervious superhero. He was missing a tip of a finger from a carpentry mishap; and a 1959 car accident had him walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Consequently, his unusual screen presence had a surprising honesty in being so brashly human, flaws and all, without ego or pretensions.

Perhaps because he was merely grateful to be working after a considerable lay-off, he wasn't afraid to take on projects that appeared embarrassing or unworthy of him. This "take me as I am" approach to his craft added another nakedly human shade to the screen characters we so commonly attribute as being so larger than life. He may have been a "star" to a certain degree, but he still had his instincts of a character actor.

It has never been fully explained why his career never achieved the superstardom he deserved after the promise shown in For a Few Dollars More. He certainly had the talent, charisma and masculinity of his contemporaries, like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, who also achieved leading man status in Europe. However, while they succeeded in bringing that level of stardom to their homeland, Lee Van Cleef largely still found employment in Europe, in films of diminishing size and quality.

During the early 1980s, PBS broadcast a weekly hour-long series entitled Six Gun Heroes, hosted by former matinee cowboy Sunset Carson, which showed B-westerns from the 30s and 40s. The program's theme song was "Ride Off In the Sunset", by country singer Bill Anderson (from his album, Love and Other Sad Stories). The show used the refrain "He would ride off to the sunset / No goodbyes, just so long for a while" for the appropriate amount of melancholic nostalgia. But listened to as a whole, the song is really a bittersweet valentine to the Saturday matinee cowboys, as a man sees his childhood hero now old and frail, considerably less dynamic than his onscreen image from years ago. This tune is a lament for the things that are not preserved outside of a child's innocent gaze.

When I think back to those months of discovering Lee Van Cleef, those memories are often scored by this song- not just because I was also watching Sun Gun Heroes at the same time, but also the lyrics precisely capture that same feeling I have in looking back at my own childhood hero. Our joyful nostalgia is tinged with sadness, because adults cannot relive youthful experiences that were unfettered by judgment and grades of quality. These memories are also disheartening because they recall a great promise that unfortunately was underused.

Thirty years later, however, I still don't think anything less of Lee Van Cleef's talent or screen presence. As we get older, we care less about larger-than-life heroes, and are instead merely happy to see parts of ourselves inside them. My adult eyes may notice the seams showing in some of these productions, but they also are humbled by those human qualities he gave to his roles. It is refreshing to revisit many of Lee Van Cleef's films for this reason, and also that even when our adult priorities have changed, he can still be our hero.

1 comment:

  1. "Angel eyes."

    Excellent piece. It's always nice to read something like that intertwined with personal experiences of discovery and first impressions; which you do nicely.

    Why did Van Cleef not attain stardom like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson? Probably because he had such a unique and unmistakable look. ("Angel eyes.") While Eastwood and Bronson have a look their own, one could imagine encountering those men in public, but, for whatever reason, outright missing them. But with Van Cleef, you'd have to be 'out there' or wearing heavy sunglasses not to see him passing you on the street... and, perhaps, you are wearing sunglasses for that very reason.

    "Marching to the beat of my own drum came with a dear price: being almost always alone made me easy prey to get picked on."

    What? What the heck kinda town did you grow up in?... Backwardsville, U.S.A.? I'm kidding. But seriously: I'm sorry to hear that. Obviously it's part of growing up, and an element of high school existence, but your wording of your own experience leaves me "disappointed" in certain folk. The theme of 'home town', coincidentaly enough, leads me to my next posting which I wrote this afternoon after reading a piece by New York City-based underground filmmaker Casandra Stark Mele. Soon on:

    Again, good show.