10 Best Spaghetti Westerns Starring Lee Van Cleef

It’s been over three decades since the great Lee Van Cleef breathed his last breath, but he remains one of the most celebrated actors to walk across movie sets in America and Italy (where he filmed many of his Spaghetti Westerns). Van Cleef was prolific, averaging about three movies each year, and unlike other Old Hollywood actors who mostly played either protagonists or antagonists, he was a versatile performer who was always happy to sample all sides of the morality spectrum.

Van Cleef joined Hollywood after serving as a sonarman during World War II. He gladly signed up for supporting roles before finding his big break in 1965 when Sergio Leone cast him in For a Few Dollars More. From there on, he never slowed down.

The celebrated actor would go on to star in over 50 Westerns throughout his illustrious career, so those who wish to consume his entire filmography have plenty of work on their hands. However, there are a few “Van Cleef essentials” that every genre fan ought to spare some time for.

10 The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974)

Genre-blending is common in the film industry, but martial arts and Western amalgamations don’t come too often. Thankfully, the Kung-fu craze of the early ‘70s inspired director Antonio Margheriti to attempt to create such a fusion. Consequently, The Stranger and the Gunfighter was born. In it, a fortune-hungry warlord forces Ho Chiang (Lo Lieh) to head to the Old West, to retrieve a treasure belonging to his dead uncle, or else he will kill his family. Once in America, Chiang is forced into an uneasy alliance with his uncle’s killer, Dakota (Van Cleef).

Fish Out of Water

As a martial arts expert in a land full of gunslingers, Chiang is undoubtedly a fish out of water in the movie, but he still manages to survive outside his natural habitat, thanks to assistance from Dakota. The unexpected bond and collaboration between the two is what hoists the movie to greater heights. Events keep switching between fisticuffs and good old-fashioned shootouts, creating an everlasting sense of euphoria.

The plot is also as funny as it is creative. For example, it’s revealed that before he died, Chiang’s uncle went the Michael Scofield route by tattooing the treasure map on the bodies of his four mistresses. Chiang and Dakota are thus forced to track down the four women, but getting them to expose their backsides for map-reading proves to be the hardest task. Stream for free on Tubi TV.

9 Beyond the Law (1968)

In Beyond the Law, director Georgio Stegani presents audiences with a surprise bandit-to-sheriff transition. Heist master, Cudlip (Van Cleef), who prefers to steal without violence, finds himself on the law enforcement side after he stops another group of bandits from stealing from a stage coach that he had his eyes on. Cudlip’s gallantry earns him the sheriff’s badge, but he realizes the job is a lot harder than he expected.

A Flawless Character-Driven Film

Beyond the Law is refreshing to watch because it’s more character-driven than action-driven or plot-driven. Audiences are frequently ushered into Cudlip’s mind and shown what he is thinking or what he is about to do. Thanks to this approach, Van Cleef’s superior acting skills become clearer to discern. There is his traditional steely-eyed stare, the wry smile, and slow and precise speech.

With limited violence, the film also takes its time to dissect the theme of morality. Cudlip is constantly presented with tough choices, such as whether to put cuffs on his former associates and whether to pick some coins from the money he is tasked with guarding. Somehow, he always makes the right choice, but it’s never easy. Stream it on Roku, Tubi, or Plex.

8 Barquero (1970)

The great Gordon Douglas, who began his career as a child actor, enjoyed experimenting. In Barquero, he successfully convinced Lee to act nice once again, and the results were outstanding. Here, Lee plays Travis, a ferry operator who transports people across a river from America to Mexico. When he learns that a dangerous gang is on its way, he vows not to let the members through. A tense standoff thus ensues.

A Tense 100-Minute Buildup

Barquero has a 115-minute running time, and out of these, 100 are dedicated to setting up the final confrontation. Well, audiences won’t mind the extended cinematic foreplay because of the pretty scenery. The entire plot leans on geography. Shots of the river, the banks, and the rest of the surroundings are all covered beautifully.

The plot is well-crafted too, and there aren’t any illogical choices. Travis has every right to be mean with the ferry because he knows that the maniacal gang leader will massacre the nearby town’s inhabitants once he crosses over. This isn’t a one-man-army show, either. Travis gets a few sidekicks, notably the tough-talking Mountain Phil, who even dares the villain to pump more bullets into him. “One ain’t gonna do it, son,” he barks after being shot once. Thankfully, Travis eventually ends the mayhem. Stream for free on Tubi TV.

7 Sabata (1969)

The first installment of Gianfranco Parolini’s The Sabata Trilogy is all about conspiracy and corruption. Here, Cleef plays a bounty hunter tasked with hunting down thieves who have stolen $100,000 of the US Army’s money. For his efforts, he is promised $5000.

Surprisingly, it emerges that some corrupt town officials organized the entire thing, so that they could use the cash to buy a valuable piece of land that had been earmarked for railroad development. Once they sell it off, they will become 10 times richer. Understandably, the titular character’s mission proves to be an obstacle for them, so they vow to kill him.

Sniper Excellence

Most Western characters know their way around guns, but Sabata is undoubtedly one of the most skilled Western bounty hunters. Hordes of attackers are sent to get him throughout the film, but he deals with them all effortlessly without having to move too close. He has a keen aim, and Cleef’s narrow eyes make it all very believable.

Characterwise, Sabata remains interesting because he subscribes to amorality. Because he is an antihero, he vows to keep the stolen money for himself after uncovering the conspiracy. Much credit also goes to Parolini. To make his film unique, he got creative with weapons. This is where the banjo gun (gun hidden inside a musical instrument first appeared). Years later, the weapon would once again become popular after being flaunted by El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas) in Desperado. Stream it on Roku, Tubi or Xumo Play.

6 The Grand Duel (1972)

After serving as Sergio Leone’s assistant director for over a decade, Giancarlo Santi finally branched out on his own and made The Grand Duel. Luckily for him, he still had one of his mentor’s favorite toys to play with. Lee Van Cleef stars in the movie as Sheriff Clayton, a lawman who believes that a fugitive accused of killing a tycoon is innocent. Because he isn’t the kind to watch as injustice unfolds, he vows to protect the man as bounty hunters close in on him.

Part Noir, Part Western, Part Fugitive Movie

As far as man-on-the-run movies go, The Grand Duel sits up there with some of the best. The first half is action-packed, as the sheriff and the falsely accused fight off bounty hunters who have dollar signs in their eyes and aren’t ready to have any conversations about innocence. The accused man is especially interesting to watch, as he leaps from one roof to the other, and even does somersaults during shootouts.

The second part plays out like a detective movie as Clayton works to find out who actually committed the murder. The plot and the action are complemented by a wonderful score by future Oscar winner Luis Enríquez Bacalov. So good is it that Quentin Tarantino used it for Kill Bill: Volume 1. Stream it on Roku, Vudu, or FreeVee.

5 The Big Gundown (1967)

The Big Gundown is an essential Zapata Western that captures the best of Mexico and the Old West. Here, a railroad tycoon baits activist-cum-gunslinger Jonathan Corbert (Cleef), with the promise of sponsoring his political campaign and tasks him with hunting down a Mexican outlaw named Cuchillo. The business magnate claims Cuchillo is a rapist, killer, and all-round despicable human, and as someone who values good behavior, Corbert quickly picks up his Colt and starts looking for the miscreant.

Surprises, Twists and a Fun Cat-and-Mouse Game

The critically acclaimed Western impresses by surprising both the protagonist and the audiences. Initially, it seems like it’d all be an easy contest. Cuchillo is depicted as dumb, and Corbert has a great track record against men like him. However, Cuchillo proves to be quite the dodgy fugitive. He avoids the gunslinger’s traps before revealing the truth to him.

The tycoon’s alcoholic son-in-law is the actual culprit, and Cuchillo is just another victim of classic framing. Dynamics then shift, with the movie now having two protagonists and two villains. Stream it on Fubo TV.

4 Death Rides a Horse (1967)

There are dozens of great revenge Westerns for anyone eager to see baddies pay for their sins, and Death Rides a Horse is arguably among the best ones. Directed by Giulio Petroni, the movie centers around a young gunslinger named Bill as he prepares to hunt and kill the outlaws who killed his family 15 years earlier.

He soon bumps into a recently paroled criminal named Ryan (Van Cleef), who just happens to have been part of the gang that committed the crime. However, Ryan makes a case for himself, insisting that his gang members framed him, and that he actually saved Bill.

More Actions Than Words

Characters in the movie are very economical with words, but this is hardly a bad thing. It takes about 20 minutes before Ryan opens his mouth and during this time, audiences are constantly reminded of how special Van Cleef’s stare is. Additionally, there is a lot of emphasis on camera work.

There are multiple closeups of dusty faces and many unexpected zooms. What the movie lacks in plot, it makes up for in action. For example, it’s never really explained why the gang raided the home and never took anything, but that’s something that’s easy to forget, given how frequently the gunshots keep coming. Stream it on Prime Video.

3 Day of Anger (1967)

Tonino Valeri’s Day of Anger starts as a mentorship story before evolving into a feud drama. Tired of being seen as an idiot, the town street sweeper, Scott, vows to learn how to use a weapon. Things get easier for him when a gunslinger named Talby (Van Cleef) shows up in town and vows to tutor him. Sadly, the relationship crumbles when Scott befriends another man, leading to a tense final showdown between the two former friends.

A Gripping Exploration of Growth and Scheming

Watching Scott morph from a weak character who is demeaned and spat at by every man in the town, into an expert gunslinger is inspirational. His resilience and hard work radiate off the screen and urge the viewer to root for him. Talby, on the other hand, is used as a tool to explain how manipulation works.

He, himself, schemes his way to the town’s top seat, but while he is doing that, another man schemes against him by planting ideas in Scott’s head. Talby’s story, therefore, serves as a cautionary tale. He achieves what he dreamed of, but fails to keep his protégé in check. This proves to be his downfall. Stream it on Tubi or Plex.

2 For a Few Dollars More (1965)

Lee Van Cleef worked with many actors, but his collaborations with Clint Eastwood remain more memorable. In For a Few DollarsMore, he plays Col. Mortimer, a military veteran who is in search of the outlaw, El Indio. He soon bumps into gunslinger Manco (Eastwood), who is after the same man. Instead of contesting for the bounty, they agree to work together. What follows is an amazing saga that turns out to be way more thrilling than Akiro Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (the original film that Sergio Leone adapted).

Fun Buddy Western with Dialogue

“When two hunters go after the same prey, they usually end up shooting each other in the back.” This is the Col. Mortimer line that lays the foundation for a great partnership. From there on, it’s all mayhem. Mortimer and Manco play to each other’s strengths, with the latter doing daredevil tasks and the former using his high awareness gift to watch his partner’s back.

Away from that, the movie is chock-full of scenes that are guaranteed to stick in the viewer’s mind. Whether it’s Van Cleef and Eastwood shooting at each other’s hats, or them shooting apples off a tree, everything is fun and exciting. Besides that, there is a long list of henchmen that look the part. For Leone, an evil person needed to be ugly, so there is no shortage of scary faces here. Stream it on Max.

1 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

The final installment of the Dollars Trilogy is widely considered the greatest Western of all time. The story revolves around three men who are after Confederate gold that was buried in a secret graveyard. Among them is Van Cleef’s character, Angel Eyes, aka, The Bad. He is depicted as a soldier-turned-mercenary who is willing to bully and kill until he lays his hands on the treasure.

An All-Round Perfect Film

Every single thing about The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is worthy of praise. The tension, the camerawork, the music, the dialogue, the action, and the great plot, all blend together to form a flawless film. Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, and Elli Wallach remain in top form throughout the movie and their efforts are complemented by a marvelous score by the great Ennio Morricone.

The whistling and yodeling sets the tone for the film, while the use of instruments such as the flute and ocarina help amplify the stakes. Overall, the film had a huge impact on the genre and on cinema in general. The final Mexican standoff has been replicated in many other films and productions, while the template of stitching a story around three characters with conflicting moral perspectives has also been used several times. Stream it on Max.


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