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Death Rides a Horse is one that Spaghetti Western fans (and fans of Lee
Van Cleef) would thoroughly enjoy. The FILM is most watchable (read
below about the DVD and possible hopes for a Region 1 letterbox DVD
release), and Van Cleef is at his best in this one, playing a thug who
is betrayed by his com padres. We usually see him playing the ultimate
bad guy in most of his films, with his knife-deep stare filling the
screen. At times, though, Van Cleef exposes his compassionate side for
just a tease, and then just as quickly masks his inner humanity behind
The Stare, as he plays Ryan, who arm-wrestles throughout the movie with
stubborn youngster Bill (John Phillip Law), who has forsaken his lady
and his life by embracing only revenge - and a single spur - after
watching his father murdered, only to then bear witness to his mother
and older sister brutalized at the hands of an out-of-control gang,
greedy for gold.
The match-up between Ryan and Bill is one that plays itself out quite well, as Ryan acts as surrogate father, dishing out advice through some memorable quotes, teaching young Bill with his words and actions. Bill's anger is worn heavily on his sleeve, while Ryan steadily and calmly works out his own dishes of revenge, suppressing his anger even better than his empathy for Bill, which he touches on even as the pair first meet. Phillip Law was okay, but not thoroughly convincing as a bitter young man who witnessed his family's killing. Every once in a while, he might could have done just another take or two, but it's an easy pill to swallow since Van Cleef balances him out.
I wouldn't want to go deeper into reviewing the movie, except that there's a nice plot twist somewhere inside the film. Many of the actors seen in this 1968 film have been in films by the great Sergio Leone. It seems that there was a core of actors who performed in a number of Italian Westerns, and for good reason: the chemistry was there. Add a good dose of Ennio Morricone film scores, and you have the potential for a quite watchable film. Most spaghetti's would be overcooked and unpalatable if not for Morricone music, which acts as an unseen, yet incredibly talented main character.
Once in a while, the dialog (like Bill's off-balance delivery: "I'll find out who he is. If he is who I think he is...get ready to get mad") detracts from the slow and steady pace of Death Rides a Horse (that line makes me want to Kill Bill, myself), but the overall storyline works well enough to entertain Spaghetti Western fans. There are very few plot holes to pick at in the film, which has an air of dread or darkness throughout much of its length. A lighter moment always seems to pop in just when the viewer might like to come up for air (like a character who offers Bill a kiss).
For those concerned about bad or unbelievable endings, Death Rides delivers without disappointment.
Now, for the DVD: Sadly, there seems to be no Region 1 release that does this nice yet overlooked film, justice. Mine, which is a 2-4-1 DVD with "God's Gun" on the same side, and "Quality" as the title logo, is horribly lacking in everything but bad quality, perhaps one of the worst DVD productions I have EVER seen. The letterboxed original, cropped to pan/scan, suffers from multi-generational degradation of image quality.
One particular scene that makes the argument to respect the director's intent by preserving a film's original screen aspect ratio is the card game between Bill and Burt Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson). Watch as the camera pans the players. Terrible cuts were placed into the scene at the card table as the camera panned the players, in order to preserve timing since the film transfer is a TV format crop from letterbox. It's an unforgivable way to present such a scene, which can lead the viewer to believe that it was the fault of a lazy film editor, or an incompetent director . I can't wait to see the film in its original format.
There is not one frame in my DVD that has any kind of decent image quality with respect to color, tone, or saturation. Its terribly washed out and either too contrasty and bright, or too muddy and dark, and neither extreme results in any texture. And in some scenes, the image degrades to a pixelated mess, which you'll see in the opening scene, and it returns of and on throughout the presentation. The only reason I watch it again and again is to enjoy the Morricone tracks and view an entertaining film. MGM has released a PAL-Region 2 DVD, and subsequent DVD reviews suggest that they finally did "Death Rides a Horse" justice. It has the original letterbox (2.35:1) and infinitely better video quality. Search online for some businesses in the UK as I will, and once I get it, I'll burn my copy and play it in my region-free DVD player.
This is probably one of the better "spaghetti" westerns to come along ...
far better than the putrid "Django" series with Italian actor, Franco
The scenery chewing Lee van Cleef is perfect as the avenging angel to beautiful blue eyed hunky ingenue, John Phillip Law, who must have captured the hearts of the director of photography with that sweet face of his because there are so many intense closeups of his pretty blue eyes that it dominates half the movie ...
Nonetheless, the movie is about John's character, Bill, who as a child, witnesses the robbery, rape & murder of his family by Van Cleef and his less than band of merry men .. who subsequently leave Cleef's character to take the blame and force him to 15 years of hard slave labour in a chain gang ... but, after his release he goes on a revenge bend and tracks down his former mates ..
He manages to meet up with Bill and at first the two spare off at each other like a snake & mongoose, but, they come to trust each other from a distance, in as much, as busting each other out of jail, to ultimately team up to take down the motley gang ....
Along the way, there are a lot of stringy musical interludes teamed up with intense facial closeup shots to show either grief or fear or anger .. which closely resemble as the same expression, but this movie is still one of the best tried and true and the surprise ending left me jumping out of my seat wanting to fast forward to the end just to see how Law & Cleef finally gel..
I would highly recommend this film as pure cinematic genius counseled with fine acting and great supporting characters .. Pedro and Paco are so bad they're good ..
Fans of John Phillip Law will not be disappointed, well, maybe by his monotone panned John Wayne vocal impression, but his pretty face and great body in those pants of his, paired with the gun belt, will make you wish that time crept slowly ... so you could stare at him a little while longer..
Lee Van Cleef shirtless or stripped to his waist is twice the bonus ..
This film is a gem .. highly recommended .. 8/10 all the way :-)
From the stark opening, director Giulio Petroni lets us know that he is
going to take us on an interesting ride. The sequence for which we watch
through Bill's eyes as his family is brutalized and murdered is one of the
most disturbing ten minutes ever put on film.
Even more stunning is the sequence for which there is jump cut from Bill as a child after the carnage to Bill as an adult, as a living killing machine. It plays like a version of THE TERMINATOR if it was set in the 19th Century American West.
What progresses from there is a very interesting revenge film, loosely patterned like POINT BLANK (1967) where Bill is the wild card in the middle of Ryan's quest for vengeance.(Watch both films....Van Cleef and Marvin's characters function the same way...."All I want is $15,000...nothing more, nothing less...)
What I found the most interesting is the way Petroni chose to photograph the three sections of the film. They are all visually distinct and this change seems to map the character's journey through out the film, that being Bill's progression from a traumatized child to a hate-filled adult on the road to hell.
My only complaint is the quality of the prints.
I hope MGM manages to track down a decent negative and have this film restored.
It deserves it.
Can you beat a title like that? 'Death Rides a Horse...' Only the
Italians could come up with something like that.
Western vengeance tale with John Phillip Law going after those who murdered his family, 15 years after the fact. Van Cleef has a connection to these murders which will become apparent towards the end of the film. I won't give away the spoiler, here.
What must have been shocking and brutal for 1967 was the fact that white men were shown to gun down women and children, something a Hollywood western would never touch unless they were depicting the Indians doing it. That was OK since they were bloodthirsty, heathen savages who had no morals and could be portrayed as such.
But for 'civilized' white men to do so, that was a no-no. No wonder John Wayne hated these kinds of westerns. They threw the 'code of the west' right out the window.
Putting aside Van Cleef's appearance in Leone's westerns, I would rate this one as high as 'The Big Gundown' (1967) and 'Sabata' (1970) as my all-time favorites.
And yes, the Morricone score goes well with the film. Especially the scenes where Ryan (Van Cleef) has just walked out the door of a prison and is buying the horse, and later when he meets Bill (Law) for the first time (as an adult) on his farm. Man, that score is unnerving. If you can track it down on old vinyl or CD, buy it. Nothing beats those soaring choruses or Spanish guitars, jangling tensely in the background.
Get's an 8 out of 10 for sheer entertainment value...
On a remote Firebase in Vietnam, we received a 16mm movie each day by helicopter. We typically watched about 3:00AM in our small fire direction center (FDC). "Death Rides a Horse" was delivered at least 15 times in 10 months. We were moved by the expressive eyes and dramatic stares throughout the movie. After several viewings, we'd decided to leave the sound off and provide our own dialog. This movie was a great tension buster in the middle of undesired action. Thank you Lee VanCleef!
When Bill (John Phillip Law) was a young child he witnesses a gang kill
his father, and rape and kill his mother and sister, while he was
spared. Now Bill is a young man who is now intent on exacting revenge
on those who were responsible for killing his family. He also meets a
gunslinger/ex-con Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) who has just been released from
jail and who's out to even the score with those exact outlaws, which
betrayed him. So, now the two, tussle with each other to see who'll get
to them first, but with the time they spend with each other, Bill also
learns some valuable tips from Ryan.
As a kid growing up I loved my Westerns, but they had to be Cowboys and Indians, if there were no Indians, I just didn't give a damn. But how have times changed. I have just started to get back into the genre (and no, I don't care if there ain't no Indians), and lately the spaghetti western sub-genre. I'm a big fan of Sergio Leone' s Dollar films, which people say are the catalyst for spaghetti westerns. I didn't know anything of this film and probably wouldn't have paid much attention to it, but since I read some positive comments about it on a thread (in the horror board, of all places), I thought it would definitely be worth a look. But, I didn't have to go out of my way to find it, as it pop up on TV a week or two later. Anyhow, I've babbled enough about my personal experience, back to the film.
What gripping stuff! It surly was better, than I expected. A lively spaghetti western that had plenty of surprises along the way and it just wasn't a shoot-'em-up story with plenty of violence, but the cleverly laid out plot, builds on the revenge tale with some mystery and panache and kept the violence within the story's limits. Everything comes together rather perfectly with such a dark and macabre opening to its fitting finale. The story did kind of reminded me off Leone's "For A Few Dollars More", which Luciano Vincenzoni who penned this film, was also co-writer in the last two Dollar films. As for the script, there is lot spite, wit, but also it was rather standard and stiff dialogue. There probably could've been a bit more flair, especially from American actor John Phillip Law who was basically dead as wood in delivery and probably the film's weakest point. But the same can't be said of legendary actor Lee Van Cleef's performance. He brought a hard-boiled character that also added some dry humour and sizzling skills that ideally fitted in the overall tone. Combination between Cleef and Law goes down quite well and adds another dimension into the film (father and son figure). The rest (especially, the villains) gave your usual mean performances. Though, throughout the film, those Mexican outlaws seem to find the funny side of things, out of really nothing. I just find it rather amusing, especially because of the irony of it all. Ennio Morricone (also from the Dollar films) came up with a standout music score, which mixed some soothing Mexican music with an uplifting and rousing western score. The camera-work isn't that potent, but it still gets some flashy treatment. With its sharp and encroaching shots. It also captured the vastly desolated landscape that sprawls on the screen. Direction by Giulio Petroni keeps the film grounded and keeps a rather brisk pace. He creates some well-designed shootouts and sequences. One being the eerie opening and another an explosive showdown amongst an empty town during a dust storm. By the way, it's a great title isn't it?
A must-see for any Western or Lee Van Cleef fan.
It's hard not to think of Sergio Leone when watching 'Death Rides A Horse', and not just because Leone is the king of spaghetti westerns. The connections are even closer than that. Lee Van Cleef ("Angel Eyes" in 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly') co-stars, and the supporting cast includes Mario Brega and Luigi Pistilli, both familiar faces from Leone's Dollars trilogy. Plus it was written by Luciano Vincenzoni and scored by Morricone. Giulio Petroni however is the director instead of Leone. Maybe that's why it isn't as impressive as one might expect. Even so it's an underrated revenge thriller, and Van Cleef gives an excellent performance. He plays Ryan, an ex-con wanting some payback from a group of outlaws who double crossed him. John Phillip Law ('Diabolik') is Bill, a young guy obsessed with avenging the rape and murder of his mother and the slaying of his father and sister. Pretty soon Bill crosses paths with Ryan and comes to realize that they after the same men. The two form an uneasy relationship which in many ways is that of a surrogate father and son. 'Death Rides A Horse' may not be quite as great as Leone but it's still very good, and one of the better spaghetti westerns. It's particularly recommended to fans of Lee Van Cleef, who is just wonderful to watch.
This is without question one of the best Spaghetti westerns. Where is a decent print of this movie? The print quality form the ones for sale on DVD are atrocious! I had to borrow a decent vhs taped off AMC to see how it should really look. Lee van Cleef is superb, one of his best jobs after "For a few dollars more" Also fantastic score by Morricone, almost avant garde in some spots. Great one liners abound and special kudos to veteran bad guy Anthony Dawson for the most histrionic death scene ever, which is preceeded by three overly dramatized notes on the piano. And the ending manages to be quite touching. Brilliant!!
This is one of the most legendary Spaghetti Western titles (also
because, until recently, it was so difficult to watch in decent form
having fallen into the Public Domain), a fine revenge drama well
handled by former documentarist Petroni (this was his first genre
effort) - though it's somewhat overlong and slowly-paced to boot!
Once again, we have the tension-filled relationship between two unlikely characters - one the experienced and betrayed ex-con Lee Van Cleef and the other the brash and hate-filled youth John Philip Law - both gunning after the same gang seeking revenge. They're not exactly allies but when one hasn't preceded the other and their paths cross, they tend to help each other out (though it's more often Van Cleef who has to watch over the still-green Law); in one memorable and oft re-used scene, the latter is interred up to his neck and left to the mercy of insects, vultures and the scorching desert sun! The villains include Euro-Cult favorite Luigi Pistilli (his role here was basically replicated for Sergio Corbucci's THE GREAT SILENCE ) and veteran British actor Anthony Dawson.
The twist at the end - also one which has seen much service, particularly in recent thrillers - is very effective, threatening to dissolve the growing friendship between the two men (Van Cleef has actually come to consider Law as the son he never had!) and which compels them to a face-off (with surprising results). Ennio Morricone's odd and mostly vocal score was actually utilized by Quentin Tarantino for his KILL BILL (2003/4) saga.
I had first watched this via a PD-release and this re-acquaintance came by way of a VHS recording off Cable TV, still in an English-dubbed (though, at least, featuring the leads' own voices) pan-and-scan version; I was aware that the film had been issued on R2 DVD by MGM, though I wasn't sure if the Italian track was included. Still, in spite of the lowly price, the utter lack of extras has dissuaded me from a purchase - given that it's yet to receive an official release on R1 and it may very well turn up in a SE from Italy (the director's subsequent film, TEPEPA [1968; reviewed below], received the deluxe 2-Disc treatment, with Petroni himself contributing an intermittent Audio Commentary!)...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is another of what I would call a "Gateway Film", one that can
lead to a serious addiction to a given genre; In this case, the (sic)
Pasghetti western. And while I have only seen it two or three times,
DEATH RIDES A HORSE reminded me instantly of why I love this genre --
Recklessness, and a willingness to work within certain constraints even
when the outcome doesn't work to well. The film doesn't give a damn &
doesn't look back for a second, and is one of the best ways to throw
away 114 minutes of your life that I can think of.
The movie's follows the tried & true Pasta Oater revenge formula: A young boy witnesses the brutal robbery, rape & murder of his family, and grows up to be John Phillip Law. He can shoot like the dickens, wears suspenders, and everyone of significance that he comes in contact with during the course of the film is somehow connected to the murder of his family.
One of them will be Lee Van Cleef, who is to Pasghetti Westerns what carbon is to life on Earth. He made them accessible, was their greatest co-dependent enabler, and yet he never rose to the stardom Clint Eastwood knew, but in a way that suggests he wasn't interested in stardom. He was interested in making westerns, and making them in the somewhat amoral way that the post-Leone Italians excelled at.
Just how Van Cleef fits into Law's equation for vengeance I will leave a surprise, though watching the film for the first time it was not a question to me of whether or not Van Cleef may have been involved, but how. As explained in the movie's final act it's somewhat miraculous that Law doesn't figure it out on his own, but then again his character isn't exactly the brightest bulb in the lighthouse, and his near fate of being buried up to his neck in the sand provides a chance for some really fabulous photography & editing, and good enough material to be re-salvaged in dozens of action/buddy films to come afterwards.
I must say, though, that the ending did not live up to the promise of the film's opening movements, especially the beginning, which is one of the gnarliest openings to a western ever put to film. This isn't a film for 12 year olds to wile away a rainy afternoon. Unconventional camera-work and a genuinely unnerving Ennio Morioconne score make the first half of the film a dizzying experience the first time you see it, and at times one has to struggle to keep track of the plot. The visceral effect of watching the film becomes the focus, and the story very correctly plays second fiddle to style, mood, pacing and motif.
But that's why John Phillip Law is so perfect in this role: He seems like he is a capable gunslinger & all, but in way over his head, and if it wasn't for Van Cleef's careful manipulation of events he wouldn't have a chance. He is an underdog, and we root for him in a way that Clint never really seemed to need it. The only problem is that the movie will leave you feeling empty & wanting to see more of the like, and there are SO many more of the like it's hard to choose which way to go.
But for anyone who may be ready to advance beyond Leone Territory into Italian westerns DEATH RIDES A HORSE is as good a place to start as any, and deserves a proper restorative effort immediately: There are 93 minute and 114 minute English language versions kicking around that suggest a truly grand film waiting to be rediscovered -- look for the longer print on a 4 movie DVD box set called THE GUNSLINGERS. It's a pretty bad fullframe version that looks cut to me. But until something else comes wandering down the trail this cold little dish of vengeance will have to do.
***1/2 out of ****
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