By 1962 his career as an actor was over. A car accident in ’58 had left him with a shattered kneecap and a recurring limp, so Lee Van Cleef decided to call it a day. Hell, he’d been getting tired anyway. The parts were no good and he was sick of playing two-bit snakes in countless big and small screen Westerns. Sure he’d been in some classics – classics like High Noon (1952) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – but he was always too ugly to play the hero.
“In just about every film I ever made I was killed off by John Wayne or Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper,” he recalled without nostalgia.
See his face was frontier mean: narrow eyes, taught skin, mouth curled in a half amused snarl. He was told if he wanted better parts he’d have to get that hawk nose of his fixed. So he gave it up; took to painting and living off unemployment checks and his wife’s job as a secretary. Making the phone bill every month became a struggle. Hard times as they say.
Then in the mid sixties, out of nowhere, hot shot Italian director Sergio Leone went looking for him. The previous year his A Fistful of Dollars had been a colossal hit, despite being an Italian western, shot in Spain with German money and starring a nobody from American TV. In the States the genre had grown stale, but this was ruthless, bloody and cool as hell. When it came time to make a sequel Leone knew Van Cleef’s cragged face would fit right in.
“He has the physical appearance of an eagle,” marvelled Leone. “He’s grizzled, black and grey.”
In For a Few Dollars More (1965) Clint Eastwood was back, this time as a bounty killer forced to team up with a rival in pursuit of the Mexican desperado El Indio. That rival was Colonel Mortimer (Van Cleef), an aging soldier with a cunning professionalism and saddlebag full of weapons.
We first meet Mortimer on a train, his face hidden by the Holy Bible. He’s clad head to foot in black and a fellow passenger mistakes him for a preacher – that is until he lowers the good book and reveals his devil eyes. He’s on the train to Tucumcari, hunting a man in exchange for dollars.
As the gentleman killer Van Cleef knows all the angles, executing his prey with an impassive precision. On paper this sounds like Van Cleef was back to square one – still the low down bad man – but behind his stone cool is a barely checked in grief for the sister raped and murdered by El Indio.
As the final showdown looms, he finds himself unarmed and in Indio’s sights. The bandit produces a musical watch stolen from the Colonel’s sister and the chimes remind Mortimer of everything Indio has taken from him. This is all in Van Cleef’s face: a history, a loss and the pain of ultimate failure.
In Italy the film broke box office records and other Italian filmmakers clamoured for a piece of the action. They called these films Spaghetti Westerns and Van Cleef was about to become its biggest star. For Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (an epic tale of three men driven by geed) the director once again teamed him with Eastwood, this time throwing in veteran character actor Eli Wallach as the dangerous buffoon Tuco (aka The Ugly).
Van Cleef is Angel Eyes, a corrupt Union Sergeant moonlighting as a hired killer. Though still clad in black, he is less refined than Mortimer, his shabby clothes covered in a desert filth that won’t wash off. But this isn’t just another run of the mill heavy, in Van Cleef’s hands he’s the personification of evil, each line filled with malevolent intent.
“That your family?” he asks while examining a photo of a soon to victim’s brood. “Nice family.”
When he speaks his voice is bone dry, like a lizard gasping in the desert heat. He’s the kind of man who’d kill you just to see the look on your face and he commits countless atrocities – beating women and shooting children – with a Machiavellian smile. He may be called Angel Eyes, but he has the devil’s heart.
Following the movie’s worldwide success, Eastwood made a triumphant return to Hollywood but Van Cleef stayed behind. After all, he was a star there – an above the title player. Back in the US he had been overlooked and ignored.
And so he rode out into the Spanish desert: usually clad in black, sometimes gnawing at a pipe, always one step ahead of his enemy and packing a loaded pistol. His characters were hard to tell apart from the criminals and he became an anti-hero for a generation grown cynical of the Wayne and Cooper brand of righteousness.
In 67′s Death Rides a Horse he played a no good outlaw who after 15 years in jail pays penance for his sins by hunting down his former gang. In Sabata (1969) he’s like an Old West James Bond, suavely dressed, relaxing in casinos, and with a host of gadgets to get his man. When he’s attacked by an assassin Padre, he uses a bullet dispatching hold all to send the holy man to his maker.
“Sabata is not a good Christian,” one character observes.
He submerged these characters in mystery, playing with that good/bad ambiguity that delighted audiences. In Sabata we don’t know if he’s a lawman, an assassin or just an opportunist. The closest we get to an answer is when one hood screams, “Who the hell are you?” to which the town drunk replies:
“He could just be your pallbearer, eh.”
The amount of corpses Sabata leaves behind make this the most resonate explanation.
He played Sabata once more (in 1971s The Return of Sabata) but in an unusual twist gave the role up to Yul Brenner while he took over The Magnificent Seven. By this point Leone’s Dollars Trilogy had become a global phenomenon and US studios could no longer overlook his stoic power.
With an open riff of 1967′s The Dirty Dozen (criminals recruited to fight for law and order) The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) marks perhaps the best of the Seven sequels. This is largely down to Van Cleef, older here, but still monolithic. His Chris is a staunch believer in capital punishment:
“The men I hung never killed again,” he explains. “Some of those I let go did.”
Even if that means he’s gotta ride out and do the job himself.
In 1981 he got his last great role in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, playing Hauk, the police commissioner antagonist to Kurt Russell’s snarling outlaw. So excited was Russell by the prospect of working with Van Cleef that he decided to base his performance on Clint Eastwood, allowing Carpenter his dream of:
“Resonating the Sergio Leone picture here in the future.”
As Snake Plissken Russell is one tough hombre, but Van Cleef’s face tells us that he’s seen his kind before. Hell at one time or another he probably was Snake. When Plissken threatens murder alls Van Cleef does is grin. Give it your best shot, his smile suggests. I can take it.
When Lee Van Cleef died of heart failure in December 1989 the newspapers focused on his work prior to For a Few Dollars More. To them he was still the heavy of American Westerns. If it didn’t happen in Hollywood it didn’t happen, right?
But the second half of his career allowed him to become the versatile actor he always knew he could be. When remembering a time when studios asked him to fix his hawk nose to get leading parts, Lee Van Cleef, typically, grinned.
“After all,” he said. “Now people remember this beak.”
And they’ll never forget it.