Lee Van Cleef burst into my consciousness on the large screen of a drive-in movie. Somewhere between soda pop and popcorn, he caught my attention as Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Having grown up on morally unambiguous television westerns, this was a pleasant surprise. Not only were the bad guys bad, but also the supposedly good.
By the time the Spaghetti Westerns reached the drive-ins, Van Cleef was becoming a household name. Most people were focused on the Man with No Name, Clint Eastwood, whose dark character with a twisted sense of humor was such a startling departure from Rowdy Yates, the character he played on the TV western, Rawhide. Van Cleef settled upon the audience's awareness and produced several aha moments related to having seen him in the past, but, as was often said, "He looks so different."
The Italian or Spaghetti Western was gritty, sweaty, and dirty compared to Gunsmoke and Bonanza where everyone bathed, dressed in clean clothing, shaved and acted according to the "Law of the West," which apparently never existed outside pulp fiction, movie serials, and early television. It was hard to have sympathy for a nasty looking criminal who got blown away in the filthy streets of a town that looked more steriotypically (and inaccurately) Mexican than American.
Van Cleef's character Angel Eyes, and similar roles he played in other Spaghetti classics, was no Ben Cartwright. He was swarthier than a lot of his victims, but still clean. He imparted a sense of sophistication lacking in many of his earlier roles. He looked every inch the pasty Dutch kid from Jersey as the gangly bad guy in his debut in High Noon. He looked somewhat healthier in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms as the guy who finally brought down the monster by shooting him with radioactive isotope leading to a fiery and unforgettable finale amid the rollercoaster at Coney Island.