Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Death Rides a Horse (Italy, 1967)

The Italian title, Da uomo a uomo, more or less translates into From Man to Man, but the English distributors decided to change the title to Death Rides a Horse. (So does conquest, war and famine, actually....) It is doubtful that the distributors felt the obvious, that the title was too reminiscent of a gay sex film, because in 1967, before the days of woke, there was no such thing as porn films or gays, much less a gay porn film. Men were simply men and manly — and, indeed, Death Rides a Horse is one of those manly westerns in which nary a woman makes an appearance of note other than as victims: the only females that come promptly to mind are the two who get raped and murdered at the start of the film, and a young Mexican bartendress (Felicita Fanny [?]) later in the movie who ends up leading the women and children out of the Mexican town so that they, unlike all the Mexican men, don't get massacred.
"Two lessons, my son. First, watch behind you. Second, count your shots — four bullets for one man, that's a waste."
Ryan (Lee Van Cleef)
But it was the great title, Death Rides a Horse, that led us, some twenty years ago at some generic dollar store in Henderson, NV., a town populated by the living dead, to plop down the spare change for yet another $1 Digiview DVD, one of many such DVDs purchased back then of (assumed) public domain movies.* Quality-wise, the Digiview release is hardly as dark as it could be and the color is relatively good (John Phillip Law's eyes are as piercingly pale blue as ever), but the source version from which the DVD was copied had been panned and scanned, so the pleasure and beauty of the original widescreen is sorely lacking. Yet another argument on how those with limited incomes have to suffer low quality everything, and why we should eat the rich....
* One other $1 Digiview DVD bought that day was the Animal Farm (1954 / trailer) DVD that was the basis of the lawsuit that led Digiview to go out of business, as Animal Farm was and is not in the public domain. Death Rides a Horse, however, is — and can be found here for free at the Internet Archives.
Trailer to
Death Rides a Horse:
But to return to Death Rides a Horse, the first spaghetti western of a total of five (including the truly schizophrenic E per tetto un cielo di stele / A Sky Full of Stars [1968 / Italian trailer]) directed by Giulio Petroni (21 Sep 1917 – 31 Jan 2010), who eventually retired from filmmaking at the end of the 70s, after his enjoyably sleazy horror flick L'osceno desiderio / Obscene Desire (1978 / soundtrack), to become a novelist. His eye for the operatic may not have been as well-schooled as that of the great Sergio Leone (3 Jan 1929 – 30 Apr 1989), a man to whom this film owes debt, but Petroni's concept of landscape and breadth, not to mention framing and the play between close-up and widescreen and/or distance, is qualitative enough that the lack of the original widescreen is a sad loss. That Death Rides a Horse nevertheless remains so involving and watchable in its butchered pan and scan form — and that despite some notable filmic flaws — is a testament to Petroni's direction, the casting, most of the acting, and the straightforward script by the Italian scriptwriter and "script doctor" Luciano Vincenzoni (7 Mar 1926 – 22 Sept 2013).*
* Vincenzoni whose long list of credits include everything from Il gobo / The Hunchback of Rome (1960 / full film in Italian) and Sergio Leonie's For a Few Dollars More (1965 / trailer) and The Good the Bad the Ugly (1966 / trailer) to the psychotronic and racist Ming, ragazzi! / Mr Hercules Against Karate (1973 / scene), the trash classic Orca (1977 / trailer), Arnie's early hit Raw Deal (1986 / trailer), and the tasteful critical hit Malèna (2000 / trailer), starring the beautiful Monica Bellucci.
Of course, it cannot be overlooked that everything that happens in the movie, at least as of the point that Ryan (the great Lee Van Cleef [9 Jan, 1925 – 16 Dec 1989] of Kansas City Confidential [1952] and so much more) is released from prison after serving 15 years, would never have happened had the main bad guys, all now doing well if not wealthy, hadn't been so stupid: Why wait until a vengeful gun-master whom you have betrayed is released from prison (and once again has his guns) to send killers to kill him? Why not simply pay someone to do the deed while he's weaponless in prison or on the chain gang? Okay, maybe they hoped that prison alone would break and kill him, but in the end, Death Rides a Horse is a good argument that sometimes you just gotta spend the money early on....
"If you're going to follow somebody, youngster, do a better job of it. This world is full of nervous characters. They'd shoot you in the back first, and then introduce themselves."
Ryan (Lee Van Cleef)
Death Rides a Horse is of the filthy-western school, which knows that the Wild West was exactly that: wild and dirty. And so it opens in the mud of a major rainstorm, with the robbery of a bank-wagon transport in which an army of bad men do away with a piddling handful of guards. The killing of the fourth guard (Walter Giulangeli), however, turns into a violent and merciless gang rape of that guard's wife (Elena Hall) and daughter (Vivienne Bocca of Tentazioni proibite / Mondo Erotica [1965 / music]), whom the gang subsequently murder before torching the house. All of which is witnessed firsthand by the hiding son, who, as effectively conveyed by the use of filter and editing, has diverse distinctive features (scars, ear, rings, tattoos, etc.) of some of the bad men burned into his memory. The young boy is inexplicably saved from being barbecued alive by a mysterious, unidentified man wearing a skull necklace, who pulls him from the house and dumps him outside in the mud.

"This guy told me a pal of his should be coming along. He said I should give you the horse, and a kiss. The horse is there, waiting for you. Ehh, now now, where do you want that kiss?"
Station master (Unknown actor)
But that is the past. Death Rides a Horse promptly cuts ahead 15 years, to the actual present of the rest of the movie, where the viewer quickly realizes that the blonde boy — Bill is his name, we eventually learn — has grown up into the sharp-shooting, revenge-driven and extremely vacuous John Philip Law, in his first lead role.* He talks with a slow drawl that makes him sound thicker than a board, but then that is perhaps appropriate to his upbringing, which would seem to have been parentless and consisting solely of an education in, above all, how to shoot. A rather extended shooting-practice scene makes it overly clear that the apparently somewhat air-headed man is a hell of a sharpshooter.
* John Phillip Law (7 Sept 1937 – 13 May 2008) followed this movie with other Italo productions, including his lead role in Danger: Diabolik (1968 / trailer) and his memorable turn as the blind angel in Barbarella (1968 / trailer), but his early promise slid downwards from big European productions to interesting projects like Corman's Von Richthofen and Brown (1971 / trailer), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973 / trailer, with Ray Harryhausen special effects), and the slice of mainstream exploitation that is  Open Season (1974 / trailer) before devolving to unmitigated trash like the memorably terrible Night Train to Terror (1985), Gary Garver's Moon in Scorpio (1987 / trailer), Blood Delirium (1988 / trailer), Fred Olan Ray's Alienator (1990 / trailer), or Curse of the Forty-Niner (2002 / kill count).
"Remember 15 years ago at the Meceita ranch? Another time when you took it out on a woman? Unfortunately for you, that woman happened to be my mother."
Bill when challenging Paco (Angelo Susani) to a duel.
At this point, Ryan (Lee van Cleef) gets released from prison and enters the movie: for some inexplicable reason, he visits the graves of Bill's slain family, which piques the young man's interest. All the more so later that night, when the Sheriff (Franco Balducci [23 Nov 1922 – 7 Jun 2001] of the psychotronic horror Black Journal [1977 / trailer] and Fulci's Don't Torture a Duckling [1972 / trailer] and A Lizard in a Woman's Skin [1971 / trailer]) stops by Bill's place to reveal a clue, left behind when the stranger shot two men trying to kill him, linking back to the ranch massacre 15 years earlier.
"Before anybody kills me they got to get my okay. And I don't think I'll give it to 'em."
Bill (John Phillips Law)
And thus the true narrative begins, as Ryan and Bill are obviously searching for the same people, if for different reasons, and the brash and inexperienced Bill takes up the trail of the elder, calmer and washed-in-all-waters man. Already in their first scenes together, Van Cleef and Law make an interesting contrast that continues throughout the movie, a contrast that transcends both their characters and ages. Whereas one can almost see how Law is acting, is creating his character, the relaxed, sovereign Van Cleef, in what is basically one of his first lead roles, simply strolls through the movie: on the whole, he comes across less as if he is acting than as if he simply is his character. For that reason, while all scenes featuring Van Cleef are convincing, those featuring Law sometimes lack credible verisimilitude.
There is nothing truly groundbreaking about the revenge-driven plot, much like the concept of two dissimilar men slowly gaining reluctant respect for each other is also not exactly unique, and there really is one too many unbelievable duel scenes — why don't people just shoot right off the bat? — but Death Rides a Horse remains an enthralling, gripping and dead-body-strewn ride to the end. The movie never achieves the same dark and disturbing level as the opening scene, though a later segment at a dusty, windblown Mexican town* does get close. And while one does see the Big Reveal a long time coming, the movie manages an ending that is both satisfying and works, as it remains true both to Bill's desire for revenge, Ryan's own sense of guilt, the respect that has grown between the men, and the concept of growing and maturing. One only wishes that the soundtrack were as equally satisfying and worked better: the extremely odd and bombastic score by the great Ennio Morricone (10 Nov 1928 – 6 Jul 2020) often sounds as if it were lifted from a church-set horror movie, if not some nunsploitation flick.
* Speaking of that Mexican town where the big, final showdown occurs, by modern standards the showdown is less than heroic and truly casts an immense pale upon the movie's two manly heroes. The simple townspeople see the two men as white saviors who can free them of the never-ending terror of the bad guys — a "Magnificent Two", so to say, instead of a Magnificent Seven (1960 / trailer or 2016 / trailer). But above all, Ryan and Bill simply set up the full and final slaughter of every Mexican man in the village — not that either the film's heroes or the film's filmmakers care in any way. Mexican lives, obviously enough, don't matter.
Fans of spaghetti westerns (or westerns in general) can do no wrong with Death Rides a Horse. A great but flawed movie that manages to rise above its clichés and blemishes to become absorbing and entertaining, Death Rides a Horse is prime proof that there were other Italian directors out there aside from the Three Sergios (Leone, Corbucci & Sollima) that were capable of making entertaining westerns.
Main theme to
Death Rides a Horse:

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