Another foray into what is for me the almost totally unexplored world of the spaghetti western. This time it’s Death Rides a Horse, directed by Giulio Petroni. Made in 1967, it is (like so many westerns) a revenge story. During the course of a robbery a gang of thieves hold up in a ranch house where they embark on an orgy of rape and murder that leaves an entire family dead. Well not quite. A young boy survives. As Bill (John Phillip Law) grows up his one obsession is to avenge this crime. Each of the perpetrators has a distinctive feature - a scar, or a tattoo, or a characteristic item of clothing or personal jewelry - and these features are burnt into the mind of young Bill.
Fifteen years later he has been unable to track down any of the killers, but things are about to change. A man named Ryan (Lee van Cleef) has just been released from prison, and he’s on the trail of the same gang, for very different reasons. His motivation is money. Bill and Ryan establish an uneasy partnership although Ryan is in fact not very pleased to have Bill hunting the same prey. Bill just wants to kill these men, and while Ryan has no problems with that he’d like to get some money out of them first. The hunt eventually leads them to Mexico and to an epic showdown with the leader of the original gang and the very large crew of cutthroats he has subsequently recruited. For both Bill and Ryan this prolonged hunt will have unexpected consequences.
While it can’t quite match the style and panache of a movie like Django, or Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Petroni provides some effective action sequences and plenty of mayhem. This seems to be a characteristic of the spaghetti western - gunfights of an order of magnitude close to small-scale wars! The opening sequence is brutal and shocking, and establishes a very dark tone for the film to come. This is going to be more like a blood-drenched gothic Jacobean revenge tragedy than a classical western.
A lot of people don’t like John Phillip Law’s performance, finding it wooden. I don’t agree. This guy has been left competely empty and completely blank by the horror he has witnessed, and it makes sense that he’s more like an automaton than a human being. Law’s emotionally closed-down performance works for me. It also meshes well with Lee van Cleef’s performance. Ryan claims to be a man who uses his head, in contrast with the inexperienced and sometimes headstrong Bill, but he’s really a man driven a mix of conflicting emotional drives. Van Cleef is quite superb. The supporting cast does a fine job.
There’s a nice use of weather in this film, with both a rainstorm and a windstorm being employed very effectively and adding considerably to the impact of the movie, rather than being used merely for background atmosphere. Overall this is an impressive movie, and I’m now going to be searching for even more spaghetti westerns!