The Independent (December 18th 1989)
By David Shipman
Lee Van Cleef, actor, born Somerville New Jersey 9 January 1925, died Oxnard California 16 December 1989.
Among classic westerns, High Noon is more classic than most, as Gary Cooper scours the town to find someone to help him against the three released convicts who are sworn to kill him. As the clock ticks away it is clear that they will not appear till the climax; it is equally evident that they will give no quarter. When they eventually step off that train they look as mean as they are dangerous. One of them was Lee Van Cleef, whose looks would make him one of the most relishable heavies of the Fifties, when Hollywood was producing more and better westerns than at any time in its history.
High Noon (1952) was his third film in three years, but he was splendidly in demand thereafter, four or five times a year, to threaten, harass and sneer at the likes of Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck. Steely-eyed and suave, with pinched features and an itchy trigger finger, he was at best a trouble-maker and at worst the most evil varmint for miles. Not for him the climactic duel - because, for one thing, he was destined not to live that long: early in the film, he would shoot the unarmed, or someone in the back, to give the hero just cause for revenge.
When the Italians appropriated the western, Van Cleef went too, and became a star. The first spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), was directed by Sergio Leone, and it made Clint Eastwood a household name the world over. The sequel, For a Few Dollars More (1965), called for a bigger budget and an American partner, as devious as Eastwood is straightforward, as genial as he is taciturn - though not in any likeable way, for they are killers both and one of them is a double-dealing dirty dog. Van Cleef rose magnificently to the occasion and Leone teamed them felicitously again, in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
Eastwood returned to Hollywood and found superstar status; Van Cleef had to be content with the latter in Europe only. He did return temporarily to Hollywood, to top-billing or to villain, but the vasty plains of Arizona or Wyoming were more likely to be found in Italy or Spain, and unlike Eastwood he was not very effective out of the saddle. Europe not only kept him steadily employed, but in the postcard shops he was a cult in the order of James Dean.
In 20 years of European stardom he remained mean, and if he did a good turn it was only in contrast to villains even nastier than himself.
Most of these films have not been seen here, but his niche is secure: turn on an old western on television and if his name is on the credits you'll know there is someone you are going to love to hate.