10/13/08

Spaghetti with a Side of Pistilli

Lee Van Cleef had a car accident in 1962 that put his acting career on hold for three years. After appearing in classic films like High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and How the West Was Won, he became a carpenter and painter. Yet the movies weren't done with Van Cleef, and he returned to star in films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and For a Few Dollars More. His first film after the two Leone films was the Zapata western, The Big Gundown. After that he starred in tonight's feature directed by Giulio Petrony, who also helmed Tepepa with Orson Wells in 1979. Tonight, it's time to get dusty on the trail, and race to revenge with.....

Death Rides a Horse (1967) starring Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law, Mario Brega, and Luigi Pistilli. Directed by Giulio Petrony.

As the film opens, a farm family is slaughtered by a band of outlaws. The father is shot dead. Then the mother is raped and shot followed by a bullet for her daughter. All of this goes on under the gaze of a young boy from behind some barrels. He notices details about each man as he cowers away. The outlaws torch the place thinking everyone is dead, but a man with a skull medallion sees the boy and pulls him out of the burning house. As he sobs, the boy grabs a fallen spur from ground and clutches it as it is the only thing grounding him in this world. Fifteen years later the boy, Bill (Law) has grown into a man and trained himself to be a crack shot. He is confined in his life by anger and the overwhelming need for revenge on the four men who killed his family.

During those fifteen years, another man was serving his sentence in more literal chains. Ryan (Cleef) has been serving time in jail, and finally they release him from his chain gang. He returns to the world with a few dollars for a horse and twenty seven bullets for his gun, and he knows just where he wants to use them. He heads out for town, and passes Bill at his parents grave on his way. Once there Ryan checks into a hotel for some rest, but that night two men break in to try and kill him. Ryan gets the drop on them and lays them both out. The sheriff accepts that it was in self defense, but asks the gunman to leave town.

The next day the sheriff brings a spur from one of the dead men to Ryan. It matches
the distinctive style of the one he found as a child. After asking which way the shooter left, Bill rides hard out of town. He catches up to Ryan, but he has been expected. They agree they have a common enemy to settle a score with, but Ryan intends to be there first. he takes Bill's horse and leaves it ten miles away. Ryan continues on to another town and meets up with established bar owner, Bert Cavanaugh. It seems four men double crossed Ryan fifteen years ago, and he wants satisfaction for his time behind bar. He wants time paid for time served to the order of 15 thousand dollars by tomorrow morning.

Bill finally makes his own way into the town, and after making a scene in Cavanaugh's saloon, the shady businessman offers Bill $500 bucks to take Ryan out. The kid tracks down the gunman and offers him the money for information on who those men are, but when he's denied, Bill finds out what he wants to know from the town drunk. He learns that Bert goes by the name of 'Four Aces'. Bill confronts the man and rips Bert's shirt open to discover the tattoo of cards he saw during the attack. Bill guns the man down and drops a couple of the outlaw's goons, but one shooter would have gotten the drop on him if it wasn't for the help of Ryan. The gunman leaves Bill a note saying the kid owed him 15 grand and again takes his horse.


Its on to Lyndon City and banking fat cat Mr. Walcott (Luigi Pistilli who we last saw in Your Vice is a Locked Room.), but Walcott has been warned that Ryan is coming. When ambushed in his office, Walcott lures Ryan onto a trap door and has him roughed up by his gang. He intends to double cross Ryan again. The devious money changer cooks up a plan to frame Ryan for the robbery of Walcott's own bank. Bill hits town just in time to see Ryan arrested, and he busts the gunfighter out of jail. This time Bill gets the information he needs, and he makes off with Ryan's horse to gun for Wolcott and his gang. The two men continue to race each other to gun down the men who have wronged them, but fate causes them to finally unite. Yet what secret does Ryan hold about the mysterious fifth man on that fateful night fifteen years ago.

Death Rides was a well scripted film with many well placed set pieces that really sold the picture. In one such instance, when Bill duels Cavanaugh, Bill requests the piano player "hit three notes", and it really pays off when the shrill single notes we all know from so many nail biting scenes ring out as the gun fighters square off. There's also a nice bit of cult cinema nonsense every time Bill recognizes one of the men that wronged him, he gets a flashback overlay washed in red as the events pass before his eyes. However, the film suffers from being overlong. Many of the scenes could have been compacted just enough to shave fifteen or twenty minutes of run time, and it would have made for a more terse and thrilling time. Petrony just did not have the lyrical style of a Leone or the majesty of a John Ford to carry a picture of real length, but the score written by Ennio Morricone carries the movie through slower bits.

All the acting is very well done especially Van Cleef, who may be the poster child for action stars that could have never made it in the business today, and Pistilli who always shines in his more despicable roles. John Phillip Law was likable, but took too much time away that Van Cleef could have been kicking ass in. There is a good onscreen connection between the two
stars, and from the translation of the Italian title, Da uomo a uomo (From Man to Man),I feel like that connection is the linchpin of the film.

The real drawback to my viewing experience was the transfer on the DVD I got. It was part of a cheapo four movies set and the transfer was dark and choppy at times. I will surely be interested in finding a more suitable version of this film for repeat viewing. It's a classic type of western tale told in the traditional Italian fashion. It's a dirty, violent, cruel, dog eat dog world full of fast guns and bad guys. Just how I like it.
Bug Rating

2 comments:

  1. I have wanted to see this film for years, since I play the soundtrack all the time and adore Italian Westerns, but all the reports on the DVD transfers that I've heard (and you've backed up here) make me hesitant. I just can't bear to watch a film like this in a crappy transfer.

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  2. Yeah this needs,nay, cries out for a real digital remastering. I would buy it again in a second.

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