Lee Van Cleef. What a Face?

Rummaging the frontier of classic movies as a child, the Western stood tall as a tradition I loved. Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). I couldn’t get enough and I sought out the best. Renting High Noon (1952), the cast assembled was amazing. Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney Jr, Harry Morgan, Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef. It was a who’s who of faces. Cooper dominated sweating and fretting in the oblivion of an uncaring town. Grace gave warmth in a cold despairing vision. Bridges strutted at the peak of his powers. Chaney gnawed at a life lived. Morgan grinned. Elam eyed. Cleef stared. So many spoils and sights to see.

Among them is Cleef. In his first film. A worn-in face even when young, he leered readily. Eyes narrowing, lips pursed. The Cat That Ate The Canary? That’s him. So much malice behind that smirk. And intelligence. His gaze reading people determining weakness. A thoughtfulness there from the get-go. He wasn’t your average baddie. But he played them often. Untamed Frontier (1952), Kansas City Confidential (1952), The Lawless Breed (1953), The Bandits of Corsica (1953), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Arena (1953), Jack Slade (1953), Tumbleweed (1953), The Nebraskan (1953), Arrow in the Dust (1954), The Yellow Tomahawk (1954), Dawn of Socorro (1954), The Big Combo (1955), A Man Alone (1955), The Conqueror (1956), Tribute to a Bad Man (1956), It Conquered the World (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Lonely Man (1957), The Tin Star (1957), The Young Lions (1958), The Bravados (1958), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), How the West Was Won (1962).

Badly damaging his knee in a car crash in 1958, physicians thought he wouldn’t ride a horse again. The injury stayed with him for the rest of his life. His recovery effected his work for a time. By 1964, he decided to give up acting. Not enough roles, too little money, it just wasn’t worth it. Sergio Leone had to repeatedly ask him to be in For a Few Dollars More (1965). Once on set, sparks flew and a star was born. Spain? The Spaghetti Western? Lee’s sneer jibed with it and Leone cast him in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) the very next year. Defining “The Bad” for a generation, Cleef’s mug found its moment. The Big Gundown (1966), Death Rides a Horse (1967), Day of Anger (1967), Behold the Law (1968), Commandos (1968), Sabata (1969), Barquero (1970), El Condor (1970), Captain Apache (1971), Return of Sabata (1971), Bad Man’s River (1971), The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972), The Grand Duel (1972), Mean Frank and Crazy Tony (1973), The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974), Take a Hard Ride (1975), God’s Gun (1976), The Rip-Off (1978).

Around the late 70s, his health slowed him down but he still acted. The Octagon (1980), Escape from New York (1981), Code Name: Wild Geese (1984), the TV Series The Master, Jungle Raiders (1985), Armed Response (1986), The Commander (1987), Speed Zone (1989), Thieves of Fortune (1990). A wise guy, an operator, the man who knows, Lee headlined MST three times. It Conquered the World, Master Ninja I, Master Ninja II. What a character. Aged or Forever Young?

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Note: Three Cleef movies became MSTs. It Conquered the World (1956), Master Ninja I (1984), Master Ninja II (1984). It was almost four when Master Ninja III (1984) was considered before Frank Conniff’s departure at the end of Season 6. Below are links to discussions on these films.

Summary

311. It Conquered The World (1956)

322. Master Ninja I (1984)

324. Master Ninja II (1984)

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Working w/ Lee Van Cleef, as rememered by Henry Silva, Fred Williamson, etc.

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Why The Movie For A Few Dollars More Saved The Career of Lee Van Cleef.

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Lee Van Cleef on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Promoting The Master.

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Lee Van Cleef: The Baddest of the Bad.

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John Phillip Law & Lee Van Cleef. 1980 Midas Muffler Ad.

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Lee Van Cleef & Bo Hopkins. 1980 Midas Muffler Ad.

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Lee Van Cleef & Jack Palance. 1981 Midas Muffler Ad.

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Lee Van Cleef & Henry Silva. 1981 Midas Muffler Ad.

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Lee Van Cleef & George Kennedy. Midas Muffler Commercial.

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Bavaria Commercial with Lee Van Cleef.

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Who doesn’t look at this guy and think “yeah, he’s a master ninja”?

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Maybe anyone not running NBC at the time.

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I first saw Lee in Escape from New York which already made him iconic for me, even without knowing his extensive Western pedigree. It wasn’t until my dad mentioned his pre-EFNY career that I realized just how iconic he was.

I saw the cast of some random-to-younger-me Italian movie named The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (and subsequently bought the cool DVD boxset circa 2003) and realized that, yes, Hauk was indeed a badass in his younger days.

I was too young for the original MST3K run, so discovering in my late teens that Lee wasn’t only featured on MST3K, but also featured in a MARTIAL ARTS riff was almost a revelation. The Master Ninja episodes are some of my faves, regardless of too much Van Patten and not enough Van Cleef.

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Cheetos Commercial (Lee Van Cleef), 1986.

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Lee Van Cleef in The Young Lions (1958).

lee van cleef film noir GIF by FilmStruck

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Lee Van Cleef in The Big Combo (1955).

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Lee Van Cleef in Pardners (1956).

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