Death Rides a Horse (1967)

Original title: Da Uomo a Uomo - Dir: Giulio Petroni Cast: Lee van Cleef, John Philip Law, Luigi Pistilli, Mario Brega, Anthony Dawson, José Torres – Music: Ennio Morricone

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Like Tonino Valerii's Day of Anger (1967), Giulio Petroni's Death Rides a Horse adopts the master/pupil plot from Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965) and tries to add, at the same time, a new dimension to its vengeance theme. Whereas Valerri created a morality tale in which friendship eventually turned into rivalry and hatred, Petroni, quite on the contrary, deepens the relationship between the two men to a point where feelings of rage and vengeance are dissolved by friendship and mutual understanding.

In the first minutes of the movie we watch how nearly an entire family is slaughtered. The women are raped and the men are killed, but the youngest son, a boy of about six years old, is overlooked by the murderers. This brilliantly staged sequence, supported by a haunting Morricone score and ambient sounds of a thunderstorm, followed by those of a crackling fire, is without any doubt one of the most efficient and terrifying you'll ever see in any spaghetti western, in its kind probably only topped by the massacre of the McBain family in Leone's Once upon a time in the West (1968). Then we jump cut to a moment in time fifteen years later: near the place where the family was slaughtered, the boy, now a young man (John-Philip Law), practices his shooting skills. We understand immediately that he is traumatized person, consumed by his desire for revenge. At the same time, in a chain gang, a middle aged man (Lee van Cleef) is released after fifteen years of forced labor. We'll learn that he is after the same men, and when he stops at the graves of the murdered people and says he's sorry for the boy, we know that he's hiding a terrible secret and wonder what consequences this might have for both men. In the end Death rides a horse not only adds a new dimension to the revenge western, but also to Van Cleef's acting range: here he's asked to impersonate an emotionally crippled, middle-aged man who becomes aware that life is escaping him. In true Freudian style, he tells the young man that if he had a son, he would like the boy to be like him. Their uneasy cooperation becomes a therapy: by instructing the younger man, and helping him to fulfill his mission, he not only dispels his own demons, but gives Law, his ‘adopted son', the opportunity to live the life he himself never had.

The bandits Van Cleef and Law are after, have become important men in society. In a country like Italy, in which the authorities are often described as “tutti ladri” (they're all thieves) this is a meaningful narrative element. Let's not forget that the mafia (and its counterparts camorra and n'dragheta) are often indicated as ‘cosa nostra' (our business, the idea behind this all is: we take care of our own business because the authorities cannot be trusted). The bandits who have become dignitaries clearly have appointed the authorities: when a sheriff wants to arrest Law, one of them says it was a clear case of self-defense and no arrest is made. So Death rides a horse can be seen as a comment on both the corrupt nature of Italian politics and the influence of crime rings like the mafia on them.

Like the Petroni's Tepepa (1968), Death rides a horse is a deliberately paced movie, slowly building up tension by adopting Leone's flashback structure, thoughtfully preparing its bravura finale that is quite unique within the genre. Petroni pervades his movie with an autumnal melancholic feel that already seems to anticipates the twilight spaghetti westerns of the very last stages of the genre, like Keoma (1976) and California (1977). Performances are excellent: just like in Day of Anger and The Big Gundown (1966)Van Cleef proves that he was a much better actor than he was given credit for. John-Philip Law was often accused of being a one-note actor, but in this movie, he seems completely focused on the job. Luigi Pistilli is at his slimy best as a bandit leader turned politician; this is probably his best performance along with The Great Silence (1968). Carlo Carlini's camera work is also very impressive, giving the film a distinctive look among the spaghetti westerns, even though most locations are familiar. Most interesting is a dusty ghost town in the middle of the Almeria desert, in which unwelcome guests are buried to their neck in the sand. Ennio Morricone's score is very unusual. Bizarre choral chanting is alternated with indistinctive eerie sounds and kettle drums.

Few films are perfect, or nearly so, and Death rides a horse does not belong to those few exceptions. The narrative is strong, but might still be a bit too drawn-out to some people's taste. I would say that overall the zoom lens has been used a bit too often. But that's splitting hairs: this is a great spaghetti westerns. Don't miss it.

Reviewed DVD: I watched, of course, the MGM release, the release we all have (or should have). It has fine video and audio quality (in five different languages). Note: if you want to listen to the Italian audio remind that it only starts up after six minutes (until then you'll get English audio).

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