Thursday, October 2, 2008


 "Death Rides A Horse" (**** out of ****) ranks as one of the best non-Sergio Leone/Sergio Corbucci spaghetti westerns.

The chief reason that many conssoisseurs lump Giulio Petroni's suspenseful but savage horse-play in the same league with Leone may owe to the fact that scenarist Luciano Vincenzoni, who penned this inventive Lee Van Cleef oater, collaborated with Leone on "For A Few Dollars More," "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," and "A Fistful of Dynamite." Vincenzoni was a talented writer in his own right and his contributions to the Leone westerns appears more obvious in his solo scripting here. Like "FAFDM," "Death Rides A Horse" explores the relationship between an older man and a younger one in their mutual pursuit of men that have wronged them. Indeed, the John Phillip Law gunslinger wears apparel similar to what the Clint Eastwood bounty hunter wore in the "Dollar" epics. Conversely, Lee Van Cleef is not a former Confederate officer in "Death Rides A Horse," but an ex-con outlaw who has completed a long stretch in prison. Composer Ennio Morricone,who scored all Leone's westerns, provides a flavorful but downbeat orchestral soundtrack that captures the savagery of the action; Morricone's score differs thematically from his Leones because it lacks the lively bells and whistles. Skull-faced Luigi Pistilli and barrel-chested Mario Brega, who appeared in Leone's westerns, are the villains. Of course, Lee Van Cleef played in "For A Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." He gives a terrific performance in one of his better spaghetti western roles as Ryan, a hardcase outlaw condemned to serve a fifteen year prison sentence for a prison for a crime that he did not commit. "Danger: Diabolik's" John Phillip Law co-stars as sharp-shooting tinhorn gunslinger Bill Meceita; Bill has sworn a vow to avenge the murders of his father, mother, and sister since the night that he witnessed the atrocity. Indeed, the same dastards that framed Ryan for the Meceita Ranch massacre and robbery butchered Bill's family. The Meceita Ranch slaughter could only have occurred in an abrasive Italian western.

The "Death Rides A Horse" villains are unrepentant. They don't topple like ten-pins when the heroes cross their trails with guns blazing. The grim, unsavory opening scene where this evil gang steals $200-thousand dollars and then murders an innocent family, molests the women, and burns down the house almost as afterthought, gets the action off to a grisly start. Vincenzoni earmarks each amoral malefactor by body jewelry, tattoos, facial scars, or parts of their apparel. As with most westerns, the wardrobe and appearance of each individual tells us volumes more about them than they would ever be allowed to reveal in dialogue. The most important example of body jewelry is the Death's Head pedant that dangles from the neck of the outlaw who pulls young Bill out of the conflagration and conceals him from his cohorts. Vincenzoni's clever screenplay pays off this mystery in the last half-hour and furnishes a surprise ending to top it off. This high body count sagebrusher can be divided roughly into two acts based on its settings. The first half takes place in Texas after Bill has grown up and Ryan has gotten out of jail. The second half occurs in dusty Mexico and blends elements of "The Magnificent Seven" when Ryan and Bill organize the peasants to fight Walcott's gang that has terrorized them for too long. The shoot'em up finale where the villains serenade the heroes the night before with a funeral march, such as in both versions of "The Alamo" and "Rio Bravo," is genuinely atmospheric. You don't see stuff like that in most Hollywood westerns. Petroni goes even farther with the finale by staging the gunfight in a sandstorm, just to make sure that nobody has the easy way out. Ryan and Bill both qualify as sympathetic, outnumbered heroes, but they are vulnerable, too.

Vincenzoni's screenplay is not a straightforward revenge melodrama where the heroes kill the villains one-by-one. The villains, who have become pillars of the community during the fifteen years that Ryan rotted in prison, commit an even greater crime, and they frame Ryan for their latest crime. Similarly, Bill runs into trouble in Mexico and winds up buried up to his chin in the parched earth with the sun blazing down on him and fistful of salt crammed in his mouth. The scene when Ryan shows up at the mission, masquerading as a peasant himself, and meets Bill again is the only time that Petroni allows humor in this abrasive western. Essentially, while they are capable heroes, they are not unrealistically invincible, and this makes them believable. The cat and mouse relationship between Ryan and Bill enlivens the action. At first, Ryan leaves Bill afoot in the middle of nowhere, and then later Bill rescues Ryan from jail but strands him. They indulge in a constant game of one-upmanship with the older man pointing out the youngster's error, a staple theme in most Hollywood westerns. There are some neat little touches here that stand out. In a similar saloon scene where the younger hero helps out a less fortunate individual, there is a shoot. In this scene, a derringer flies out of a dead man's grip and lands on a piano and strikes a dramatic note. Before this shoot-out, the hero calls for the pianist to hit three notes and then the gunplay can commence something like the finale in "For A Few Dollars More" with its timepiece melody. When "Death Rides A Horse" ends, Ryan and Bill have made reconciliation, but when Bill rides off, the feeling is one of finality rather than renewal. Anybody that considers himself or herself a Lee Van Cleef fan should watch "Death Rides A Horse."

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