A Beady-Eyed Sneer
By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES online April 2011
I must have first seen him in the 1952 “High Noon” which, curiously, I saw in Korea late that year. He was one of the bad guys, of course. For some actors that is forever their filmic destiny. He shows up again for me in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance” in ’62 and this time I didn’t forget him. After a few sights of Lee Van Cleef and his beady-eyed sneer, a feature he once attributed to his successful career in film, you’re not likely to forget. Following a series of playing villainous bit parts in low-budget Westerns Van Cleef came into prominence achieving, one might say, an iconic stature in two of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns -- “For a Few Dollars More” in ’65 and “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” in ’67. Leone’s over-the-top fondness for tight close-ups on frame for Van Cleef’s wonderfully cruel beady-eyed squint. It helped a good deal to see him paired off in close-up to Clint Eastwood who squinted as well but in a somewhat amused and reassuring manner. In both films Eastwood is draped in a colorful serape, Van Cleef seemingly bound in what appears as black S&M leather. You knew that big trouble was afoot when you saw Van Cleef push open the swinging doors of a sleazy saloon, his tall, gaunt, menacing figure outlined against the outside Western (well, Italian) sky. The camera moves in on his face full front, thin lips just beginning to curl up on one side, below the long knife-like nose and as final, shivering treat, the small narrowed eyes shifting from side to side like a snake preparing to strike. It could get to you, all right.
Lee Van Cleef would continue in much the same display of squints and sneers in a passel of mediocre Westerns, several with Jim Brown - “El Condo” in ’70, “Kid Vengeance” in ’77. In the ’76 “God’s Gun” he played a dual role, good brother, bad brother, their moral standings indistinguishable what with both sneering and squinting to beat the band. The 1982 “The Squeeze” sees him as a safecracker and an embarrassing “Speed Zone” in 1986 comes at the end of Lee Van Cleef’s decades in film. He died in 1989, yet that immortal beady-eyed sneer can never rest in peace.