Fifteen years after four bandits massacred his family while executing a $200,000 robbery, a young man (John Phillip Law) seeks revenge. The men responsible for the murders all hold positions of power in the new West, but, now, a bandit (Lee Van Cleef) they had framed for the murders is due to be released from prison. He’s ready to exact bloody reprisals and decides to form an unholy alliance with the vengeance-seeking young man. (From Kino’s official synopsis)
Like most genres, spaghetti westerns can be broken down into a number of subcategories. There are revenge stories, spoof westerns, leftist or Zapata westerns, Django (1966) clones, ensemble heist westerns, and master & apprentice dramas. Master & apprentice spaghettis have their roots in Sergio Leone’s second spaghetti feature, For a Few Dollars More (Italian: Per qualche dollaro in più,1965), in which an elder bounty hunter, played by Lee Van Cleef, is paired with a younger character, played by A Fistful of Dollars’ (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) Clint Eastwood. The duo begins the film as rivals, but grow to depend on each other as the story progresses and they’re forced to pool their resources. The film’s popularity rocketed the aging Van Cleef into the unlikely position of international star and often saw him cast in a mentor capacity alongside a younger and rising spaghetti star. The best and most pure of these post-Dollars mentor westerns are Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (Italian: Da uomo a uomo) and Tonino Valerii’s Day of Anger (Italian: I giorni dell'ira), which were released mere months apart in 1967.
The two films feature roughly the same plot, the same themes about innocence being corrupted by retribution, and are usually coupled by critics when discussing spaghetti westerns. The key differences are the ways in which the tenuous relationships between the two main characters diverge. Valerii’s film (which is loosely based on Ron Barker’s novel of the same name) is a revenge western variation/combination of Cinderella and Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956) – or, if you prefer, its basis, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913). Giuliano Gemma stars as a social outcast/town janitor who meets Van Cleef’s Professor Higgins-type bandit. Cleef spends the film wreaking revenge on former colleagues and molding Gemma into an ace gunfighter. In the end, Gemma must decide if he’s willing to remain loyal to Cleef, despite undeniable proof of his evil, or confront his mentor’s villainy head-on. In Petroni’s film, John Phillip Law stars as a young man named Bill who has spent fifteen years training himself as a gunfighter in order to avenge his family, after seeing them murdered as a child (hmm, come to think of it, that also kind of sounds like Batman). Van Cleef plays a bandit named Ryan, who storms into town seeking his own brand of vengeance after being framed for killing Bill’s family and serving a fifteen year prison stint. The two men hesitantly team up, Ryan hones Bill skills and mental acuity, and they defeat the bad guys. Then, while saying goodbye, Bill recognizes Ryan’s silver skull necklace and must decide if he is willing to remain loyal to his mentor, despite undeniable proof that Ryan was there the night of his family’s murder.
Death Rides a Horse’s master & apprentice roots go deeper than Day of Anger’s, because it was written by Luciano Vincenzoni, who co-wrote For a Few Dollars More with Leone, Fulvio Morsella, and uncredited script-doctors/future filmmakers Sergio Donati, Enzo Dell'Aquila, and Fernando Di Leo. Vincenzoni was likely hired expressly to recreate the success of his Leone movie and didn’t exactly challenge himself accordingly. His later genre work would be more thematically impressive, especially his scripts for Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary (Italian: Il mercenario, 1968) and Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! (Italian: Giù la testa, 1971), where he twisted the politics of Zapata westerns with comedy and cynicism. Death Rides a Horse is a pulpier, cleanly told morality tale that benefits from being more story-driven than other For a Few Dollars More pretenders. It also isn’t afraid to allow both its heroes and its villains to act with genuine cruelty. Petroni was less prolific a director than Vincenzoni was a writer. He made three more westerns after Death Rides a Horse, including A Sky Full of Stars for a Roof (Italian: E per tetto un cielo di stelle, 1968), Night of the Serpent, (Italian: La notte dei serpenti, 1969), and Tepepa (1969), a superior Zapata starring Tomás Milian and Orson Welles. His direction here isn’t as flashy or dynamic as Leone’s, but his sense of pure drama is commendable, especially the red-tinged flashback motif that Quentin Tarantino borrowed for the Kill Bill movies (2003, 2004).
Van Cleef had been hanging around Hollywood as a grizzled tough guy since the ‘50s, including appearances in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), Phil Karlson’s vastly underrated Kansas City Confidential (1952), and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). While Italian audiences deemed his second Leone collaboration, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Italian: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966), the biggest hit of his career, they seemed to prefer him in mentor roles, instead of villain roles. In the pantheon of his spaghetti performances, Death Rides a Horse is among his most sympathetic, though, again, Ryan is a very similar character to For a Few Dollars More’s Colonel Mortimer. Law, on the other hand, is quite stiff, especially compared to Cleef’s other young co-stars (Eastwood, Gemma, and Milian). At the time, his statuesque appearance was better suited to largely silent roles that hinged on his good looks and intense eyes, such as the blind angel in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) or the title character of Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1968). However, his deep voice and forced performance do work when he’s channelling pure rage, specifically during the showdown sequence where he tosses a rival a six-shooter, backs away, and orders the saloon’s piano player to “play three notes.”
According to some runtime reports, the original Italian release of Death Rides a Horse was 120 minutes, while every subsequent release runs 115 minutes. As far as I know, those fabled 5 minutes are lost forever and have not been included on this or any other Blu-ray/DVD version.
Death Rides a Horse somehow ended up in the public domain stateside and was the victim of too many VHS quality, pan & scan budget DVD releases. Fans could order 2.35:1 anamorphic disc from MGM in the UK or Australia, while MOD company Wild East Productions released a half-decent version via their website. An HD version of the MGM transfer also popped up on television and was seemingly used for Explosive Media’s German/Swiss Blu-rays (when their three-disc BD/DVD combo pack went OOP, they re-released a single-disc version). For this review, I am comparing the Explosive Media disc (bottom) to Kino’s new US BD debut (top) and have come to the conclusion that they’re more or less identical, right down to the print damage artifacts (in particular, there are small, but bright spots that sit over entire sequences). This is fine, because MGM’s catalogue HD scans are pretty good across the board. At the very least, they tend to have less CRT noise than their Italian-born counterparts. Details are above standard definition specifications and suffer from only minor fogginess throughout wide-angle shots. Improvements could definitely be made in terms of the tightness of textures, including grain levels, which should appear finer. Color quality is strong, considering the haziness of Carlo Carlini’s outdoor photography and the darkness of the interiors. Deep blacks help to support the dynamic range without crushing important shapes.
You wouldn’t know by reading the back of the box, but Death Rides a Horse includes both its original English and Italian mono soundtracks in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Here’s the part where I remind everyone that these movies were shot without sound and with international casts often speaking different languages from scene to scene. There is no ‘official’ language track. That said, the ‘preferred’ language in this case is probably English. Most of the cast is speaking English on-set, the performances are decent, and Van Cleef and Law dub themselves. Here is one arena where the Kino disc outshines its EM counterpart. In each cases, the Italian track has advantages in its dynamic range and volume leveling between mix elements, but this new release fixes some of the German disc’s problematic English language sound quality. In particular, that release had a muffled quality and hissing issues that are not present here. The exciting, yet off-kilter, almost horror movie-like score was supplied by none other than the godfather of the spaghetti western sound, Ennio Morricone. You’ve probably heard the main theme while watching Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) – it plays at the moment Beatrix challenges O-Ren Ishii at the House of Blue Leaves.
Commentary with filmmaker Alex Cox – Alex Cox, best known as the director of Repo Man (1984), Straight to Hell (1987), and Walker (1987), is also the author of 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western (pub: 2009) and one of the most prominent experts on all things Italian western. This track matches Cox’s other expert commentaries with its easy-going tone, well-researched factoids/opinions, and relatively long stints without any talking. It’s a valuable addition (especially considering there are zero extras on all other releases of Death Rides a Horse), but not quite as consistent as one may have liked.
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