Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cult Thursdays: Death Rides a Horse (1967)

    The poster says it all.

    No one’s really sure how the spaghetti western came about. Europeans had been making westerns since nearly the beginning of film itself, but the first true spaghetti is a bit harder to pin down. One item is not in question, however: it certainly had something to do with Sergio Leone. While they weren’t the first, Leone’s Dollars trilogy defined everything that came afterwards. The traditional western had all but played itself out by the 1960‘s, and those turbulent times of social change simply had no room for the classic white hat/black hat simplicities of the past. So in comes Leone with his hyper-stylized images and moral ambiguity, and all of a sudden the western had new life. And the wonderful thing about those Italian B-movie mavens, they copied everything endlessly - chasing success by milking it dry. Hercules with Steve Reeves is a huge success, so all of a sudden there are sword-and-sandal pics by the dozen. The Dirty Dozen makes a lot of money, so then it’s all about men-on-a-mission war movies. And since Leone’s movies were such a phenom, a veritable truckload of like-minded westerns were unleashed throughout the sixties and early seventies, all of them following Leone‘s cynical, hyper-violent screed. One Italian critic offhandedly referred to them as “spaghetti westerns,” intending it as an insult. But the name had a certain appeal, so the label stuck.

    Most critics really only consider the Dollars movies as anything remotely worthwhile, and for the most part they are correct in that assumption. But to dismiss the entire subgenre is to dismiss a veritable treasure trove of hidden gems… like Death Rides a Horse. The first western by Italian filmmaker Giulio Petroni is one of the best the genre has to offer, with the two most reliable stand-bys of the spaghettis - actor Lee Van Cleef and composer Ennio Morricone - in tow. The story starts on a farmstead, as a band of thieves descend upon a family within, killing the father and raping and murdering the mother and young girl, all in front of young Bill Meceita. The boy is spared, but after witnessing the death of his family and the burning of his home, he grows up with a mad hard-on for vengeance against the men responsible. He doesn’t know their names, and can’t even remember their faces. All he has to go on are a few choice characteristics: a tattoo of a full house of cards, an earring, a distinctive scar and a metal skull necklace. Fifteen years later, he’s quite the accomplished gunman, with the town sheriff all but begging him to be his deputy. But Bill only has eyes for his blind revenge, which puts him on the same path as the recently released-from-prison gunslinger Ryan; who’s also chasing the same men, albeit for his own purposes…

    Van Cleef pretty much owes his entire career to westerns, and his international stardom in particular to the spaghettis. He started out by playing “Bad Guy to the Left”-type roles, both in features and guest spots in television, but his popularity truly soared after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. After that menacing turn, it was all Italian, all the way, with Van Cleef making a name for himself trotting through the deserts of Spain in an increasingly impressive collection of wide-brimmed hats. As the character of Ryan, Van Cleef does what he was born to do: smirk and shoot people, with the occasional wisecrack. There’s not a whole lot of complexity to his character - he just wants what is due to him. He’s a bad man with a shady past, but like so many anti-heroes before and since, he follows a strict code - and his heart isn’t so hard that it isn’t softened a little by Bill’s plight.

    John Phillip Law plays Bill, his only spaghetti western role - although not the only Italian movie he appeared in, as the background to this very site attests. Much like his costar, Law had a piercing stare - but not much else. He’s not a terrible actor by any means, and holds his own against Van Cleef here quite well - but the actor has a tendency to come off a bit wooden in scenes where he‘s actually required to emote. I’ll say this for him, though - Law can sure spin a mean gun.

    Rounding out the rest of the cast are spaghetti regulars like Luigi Pistilli and Mario Brega as members of the gang that butchered Bill’s family. Like Van Cleef, both had been in so many westerns they could probably have done this film in their sleep, but fortunately they forgo phoning it in and give their all to their roles, giving us perfectly nasty villains for Van Cleef and Law to gun down. The other member of the gang is played by Anthony Dawson, who appeared in everything from Hitchcock to Bond movies - giving a nicely rounded turn as a sniveling baddie.

    I was a bit surprised by how well the movie is put together - Giulio Petroni didn’t make half as many movies as other Italian B-directors like Mario Bava or Antonio Margheriti, but his direction here is about as expert as they come, the film being even a little arty in places - such as a nicely-framed conversation between Law and Van Cleef, where the two actors’ profiles are adjacent to one another thanks to an angled mirror. The script fumbles a little in bouncing back and forth between the two leads (it takes way too long for them to figure out they would get more accomplished if they worked together), but Petroni’s direction keeps the pace nice and brisk. Good direction can be hard to come by when dealing with the spaghettis, so when one like Death Rides a Horse comes along, you learn to cherish it.

    Of course, the thing that often elevated many spaghettis (and other Italian movies of the time) to greatness was Ennio Morricone, who here turns a rather simple revenge tale into something with far more scope, with a handful of compositions repeated at varying speeds throughout the film. Morricone, of course, pretty much changed the landscape of what film music could be. Before him, film soundtracks were often composed orchestrally, not so different from an opera. But Morricone’s wild experimentation with electric instruments, lilting vocals and discordant harmonies opened up all possibilities for film music - and influenced everything thereafter. Morricone’s music took rather cheap, kind of silly material such as Navajo Joe and gave it the sweep of a Stagecoach or How the West Was Won. Working with an already solid movie here, Morricone’s music accentuates the film, and the main theme immediately gives the film an epic feel - it sounds like God punching the earth.

    The film also predates some of the more overtly-political spaghettis by inserting some sly politics of its own. There was always a sort of reaction to the politics of the day in the spaghetti westerns - they felt like the cynical, violent reflection of a world growing increasingly mistrustful of those in power. Take into consideration the post-war, post-Mussolini Italy of the day, and it’s easy to see how the Italians' view of politicians and those in power would line up with the rest of the world’s growing disillusionment. As Bill and Ryan track down the gang, they find them now in positions of power, presumably using all the money they robbed to buy their way into the political system. It’s clear where the filmmakers stand on politicians and those in powerful positions, that they all got there by lying, cheating and stealing. It’s not as overtly political as later films like A Bullet for the General, but the undercurrents are absolutely there.

    The theme of revenge is possibly the most overused in all of filmdom, and especially worn down by the spaghetti westerns. It inspires a primal reaction in audiences like almost nothing else - everyone has that fantasy about getting back at the boss or the bully or the person cutting you off on the turnpike. But the best meditations on revenge are not just wish-fulfillment fantasies, but treatises on how the road to revenge can eat away at a person, and that it’s never as clear cut as, “Shoot the bad guys.” Death Rides a Horse gives us such a tale, as a last minute twist throws a wrench in Bill’s mission of vengeance. He finds out that revenge isn’t an exclusive province of the righteous and just. He finds out that anyone at any time can turn on you like a rabid dog. He finds out that, sometimes, Death rides a horse. 
    * This was a big influence on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, and not just because he uses samples of the score for his movie. Both utilize flashback montages playing over the main character's eyes whenever they see the villains who wronged them, and Tarantino borrows a few lines from the film's marketing ("They made one mistake... they should've killed four!")

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