Spaghetti westerns( Italian Western) are, in my opinion, generally the best fictional films about the American West. You can argue that John Wayne made a bunch of great movies about life in the Old West, and you would be right to say so, but for some reason the Italians perfectly captured specific elements of the era that made their movies seem more realistic. The frontier was a dirty, violent place full of unsavory types trying to get rich quick. Italian westerns capture this mood expertly whereas American films portray characters whose outfits look like they just came back from the dry cleaners. Hollywood films also tend to apply a black and white dichotomy on the characters, the old "good guys wear white, bad guys wear black" philosophy that obscures the reality of the time and place. Not so in Italian films, where even the good guys often have decidedly unsavory traits. It's too bad spaghetti westerns went the way of the dinosaurs a few decades back; I never tire of watching these films even though I am not an expert on the genre. "Death Rides a Horse"( Von Mann zu Mann) was one of my first excursions outside the standard Sergio Leone canon. After watching the film, I can unequivocally state that this film deserves an elevated place in the genre. It's that good. "Da uomo a uomo," the film's Italian title, introduces the viewer to two powerful characters. Bill (John Phillip Law) is a young man with a phenomenal command of firearms seeking vengeance. When he was a child, he watched as a gang of ruffians slaughtered his entire family. Even though he couldn't see the men's faces due to masks, he burned into his memory specific identifying features of each of these killers. Later, as a grown man, he rides the countryside looking for a tattoo or a scar that will tell him he has found his man. And woe to the outlaws responsible for the murder of Bill's family if this gunslinger ever finds them. Playing opposite Bill is Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), a recently released convict who just finished a fifteen-year stretch for robbery. Ryan's overriding goal in life is to find his former partners, a gang of miscreants who cheated him out of his take in the robbery and left him behind to take the fall. The former outlaw isn't seeking violent retaliation for what his compatriots did to him; he just wants his money and plans on moving along.
Predictably, Bill and Ryan soon meet up. They don't like each other at the start although they soon build up a grudging respect for each other's determination and talents. Clandestine admiration doesn't stop Ryan from trying to leave Bill behind so he can resume his search for his former partners, but it also doesn't stop the two from continually meeting up. Ryan heads to a town where it is rumored one of his former partners runs several lucrative businesses. Not surprisingly, this guy isn't happy to see Ryan up close and personal. He gives Van Cleef's character a song and dance about not having the money and then tries to double cross him. Oops, one bad guy down for the count. The next stop on the pay-off highway sees pretty much the same result. A few of these one-time outlaws are going legit and the last thing they want is a reminder of their shady past. That doesn't mean they have changed their violent ways, though. When Ryan's surviving partners decide to put a stop to this loose cannon for the last time, the action moves down into Mexico where Bill and Ryan duke it out with the bad guys. A twist ending, one that shouldn't be that great of a surprise, pits the two uneasy partners against one another.
"Death Rides a Horse" is an atmospheric, character driven spaghetti western sure to entertain fans of the genre. Lee Van Cleef is excellent, of course, as the wronged Ryan. With a short glance, a movement of the body, and a brief word, Van Cleef can and does convey a whole range of emotions. The same cannot be said for John Phillip Law, who as a central character in the unfolding drama emotes with all the range of a rock. The bad guys are great, seedy looking villains without an ounce of sympathy for anyone who gets in their way. Check out those ultra scary looking banditos they hire to gun for Ryan and Bill. It looks like I'm slipping into that dichotomy I blasted Hollywood for, namely the good guy/bad guy separation. Van Cleef's character, however, is only good in the sense that he's trying to get what he is due. He could care less about righting wrongs or bringing these guys to justice. He just wants his cash so he can take off. If that means stomping on toes that just happen to be bad, so be it. Ryan would just as likely step on good people.