Death Rides a Horse [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Robert Segedy (12th November 2017).
The Film

“When You've Waited Fifteen Years To Find A Man... It's A Shame You Can Only Kill Him Once!”

The genre called Spaghetti Westerns started in the first half of the sixties and lasted until the later year of the seventies; they were often populated by specific character types, usually featured a veteran actor paired with a young up an coming star, were filmed quickly and cheaply, and featured unusual musical scores. Many feature scenes shot outdoors in the rugged Italian or Spanish countryside or in less expensive locations such as Almeria (Andalusia) and Colmenar Viejo and Hoyo de Manzanares (near Madrid). The most famous of these films was Sergio Leone’s "The Dollars Trilogy" ("A Fistful of Dollars" (1964), "For a Few Dollars More" (1965), and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966)) starring Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach. The films were usually ultra-violent and featured dusty Western towns, extremely nasty villains, and heroes of questionable character and motivation. The genre was extremely popular for drive in audiences and cheap matinees, and the films were filled with violent gunfights, a gritty realism, and usually a haunting score by Ennio Morricone.

In the fiery opening scene we are shown some cowboys weathering a storm when they are suddenly ambushed and slaughtered, the gang of outlaws make their way silently to the main cabin of land owner Mr. Meceita where upon the criminals rape and kill father, mother and older sister; young Bill (John Phillip Law), the only survivor of the bloodbath silently watches the proceeding murders and stays hidden beneath some cupboards in the house. Even though the men were masked, there still are trademark qualities that identify them to the young boy: one man has four aces tattooed on his chest, another wears a distinctive earring, another has a distinctive scar on his face, and finally the boy retrieves a unique spur from the departing men. As the house burns around him, he is suddenly rescued by an unknown figure that wears a silver skull on a long chain; the boy is left alive, but without a family.

In the next scene we see assorted prisoners working physical labor in a prison camp. An individual named Ryan (Lee Van Cleef) is unshackled to a large chain around his ankle and is now a free man. After a brief conversation with the warden, the man reclaims his revolver and bullets and some money that he surrendered upon being incarcerated; we can tell by his quiet demeanor and attitude that this man did his time and has a plan in mind now that he is free from jail. Leaving the prison on horseback, he quickly realizes that he is being followed by two other men dressed in black. After luring the men to an abandoned campsite, Ryan gets the jump on his pursuers and delays their arrival in town. Checking into the hotel, Ryan waits till the two men break into his room and he quickly kills both of them. The sheriff is not pleased with this violence and he tells the stranger that his town doesn’t like gunplay; eventually Ryan makes his way to the casino where he learns that the majority of his former gang have become respectful and successful citizens, but in reality they are still crooks.

We cut to the farm of Bill, now an older man and a skilled marksman, but his anger over what occurred when he was growing up overshadows all that he does. Ryan appears at the farm one day and the two men exchange words. Ryan tells Bill that he knew his father and that he is looking for revenge on the men that betrayed him and murdered Bill’s family. Bill is nonplussed by this remark and informs Ryan that he too is on the hunt for the offenders and warns Ryan that he won’t back down from any competition. The sheriff is a friend of Bill’s and he brings one of the distinctive spurs that the killers wore and it is a match for the spur that was left behind fifteen years ago. This is the first clue that Bill has found all this time and he is ready to get revenge on the men that killed his family. ”Revenge is a dish best served cold” remarks Ryan before he rides off to town.

Back in town Bill befriends a man that has been tossed out of the bar because he has lost all of his money at the tables. In an intense moment he is assaulted by some hired thugs, but he dispatches of them easily; this action brings him to the attention of Bert Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson), the man that owns the bar and in moments Bill is offered a job and a room, but this is just a trap to reveal Cavanaugh for the thug that he is. Ryan ends up killing Cavanaugh when it is revealed that he is the man with four aces tattooed on his chest. Bill and Ryan play a game of one-upsmanship as one rescues the other, but then leaves the man behind, taking his horse with him. Why the two men don’t realize that they are seeking the same conclusion is part of the puzzle; Ryan is seeking a monetary reward, while Bill is seeking revenge, but both men will eventually join forces and justice is mete out at the end of a blazing gun.

The two cross paths yet again in Lyndon City and the man they are seeking is named Walcott (Luigi Pistilli), a wealthy banker, but still a crook at heart. Ryan has a meeting with Walcott, and he demands $30,000 dollars, two times the amount that he demanded from Cavanaugh, but this is merely a trap and Ryan ends up being held hostage in the basement. The local bank is robbed by Walcott’s thugs and Ryan is framed for the incident, ending up locked in jail. Bill arrives in town and comes to the aid of Ryan, breaking him out of jail with the aid of a locomotive. The two are not yet friends, but are challenging the other, and thus Bill leaves town ahead of Ryan to locate the remaining men that killed his family. Both men are stunted emotionally and their interaction with the other is a sort of healing therapy; Ryan realizes that he is getting older and that his days are numbered and so he adopts a relationship of master/student with Bill helping the younger man to heal his wounds and making peace with the world.

Bill arrives in what appears to be an abandoned Mexican town and he waits at the local saloon for the robbers to return. Outside the landscape is adorned with the skeletons of previous victims, buried up to their neck in the sand, this is truly the land of the dead. Ennio Morricone’s eerie score is a haunting addition to the film and its presence acts as an unseen additional character; Morricone uses an unusual choral representation and a bizarre combination of horns and strings to create an unforgettable soundtrack. The robbers return to the deserted town and it is here that the loot has been stashed for safe keeping; Bill knows that sooner or later Walcott and his gang will return to get the money. After killing yet another gang member, the one wearing a unique earring, Bill is captured by the outlaws and is buried up to his neck like the others before him. Adding insult to injury a dish of water is placed at arm’s reach away from him to serve as a taunting reminder of his thirst. Bill has told the gang Ryan’s whereabouts, but it is clearly a lie meant to misdirect the villains. Ryan arrives in town in disguise, as a Mexican peasant, and he quickly dispatches the men left behind to guard Bill. The remaining townspeople then emerge from their hiding places and help dig Bill out from his vertical grave; Ryan cracks wise during this scene, “Are you on your way in or out of that hole? You remind me of a groundhog that couldn't make up its mind.” Borrowing liberally from the Akira Kurosawa playbook, director Giulio Petroni knows his cinema as he pays tribute to "Yojimbo" (1961) as he has Ryan instruct the villagers to dig a long trench in front of the town and he sends all the women to the church to hide.

Throughout the film Bill suffers from psychedelic flashbacks in red when he sees and remembers a significant detail of a particular killer and now near the film’s conclusion, Ryan is seen with his shirt front open, and around his neck is the telling detail of a silver skull on a chain. It is then that Bill realizes that Ryan is the man that saved him from a certain death, and that he owes the other man a debt that he can never re-pay. Ultimately after the two dispatches of the robbers, they are left facing each other; Ryan tells Bill that his gun is empty and Bill tosses him a bullet so that he can face death with honor. Bill is left with a single bullet and he watches as Ryan slowly turns his back on his potential executioner, but as Bill yells Ryan’s name, Ryan continues to walk ahead, preparing himself for his ultimate destiny. Bill instead shoots the last surviving bad man in the church tower, killing him before he has the chance to kill Ryan. The men are now even. Ryan watches Bill as he rides off into the distance.

Though some critics say that the plot to this film borrows heavily from Sergio Leone’s film, "For a Few Dollars More" (1965), I say that this film still holds its own and is a classic of Italian filmmaking. Throughout the film, Lee Van Cleef’s performance is the coolest yet, and he ultimately possesses the definitive samurai air about him, playing the aging gunfighter role of a lifetime. John Phillip Law is okay as the newcomer, still wet behind the ears, quick with a gun, but still not wise to the ways of the world. The two of them combined makes for a perfect coupling of teacher and student. Director Giulio Petroni brings a grizzled ambition to the film and combined with cameraman Carlo Carlini’s excellent use of close ups (plenty of villainous faces laughing with glee as someone is tortured or shot) this makes for a remarkable production. And that score from Ennio Morricone makes this one a keeper.

Video

Presented in the film's original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 HD 1080p 24/fps mastered in AVC MPEG-4 compression, colors are bright and the transfer is very good, easily surpassing previous versions available. Note that the framing of the final eight minutes of the film has been corrected here compared to the previous HD master.

Audio

Two audio tracks are included in English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono and Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. This is an excellent soundtrack with a wonderful Morricone score. The gunfights and ricochets sound great, bullets bouncing off of buildings, the guns sound like cannons. Play it loud and play it proud. Optional subtitles are included in English.

Extras

Kino has included a collection of some adequate supplements, an audio commentary, the film's theatrical trailer, and a collection of bonus trailers. Below is a closer look at these extras.

The most substantial extra on this disc is the feature-length audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox. Cox talks candidly about his admiration for the film offering up some trivia about the film, its cast, and the making of process.

The disc also included the film's original theatrical trailer (1:31).

Mini Lee Van Cleef film festival is essentially a collection of bonus trailers for the following films:

- "For a Few Dollars More" (2:29)
- "Barquero" (2:36)
- "Return of Sabata" (2:07)
- "The Mercenary" (1:53)
- "Valdez is Coming" (1:51)
- "Navajo Joe" (1:51)

Overall

"Death Rides a Horse" is an excellent and clean looking print of this film makes for exceptional viewing.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: B+ Overall: A-

 


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