DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1967)
Dir. Giulio Petroni
Good old-fashioned revenge doesn’t get much better than this down and dirty lead crusade from Giulio Petroni. On the kind of sodden night from which nothing good can come a gang of hoods storm the home of the young Bill Meceita, murdering both his parents. 15 years later, all grown up and more than handy with a gun, Bill (John Phillip Law) sets out for revenge. Meanwhile, Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an outlaw as weathered as the rocks he splits during his term of hard labor, is finally granted release and begins his pursuit of the crooks who double-crossed him into the slammer in the first place. You guessed it: they’re the same low-lives.
The storyline of Death Rides a Horse packs a crude punch, but the ominous atmosphere is what really sucks one into this graceful and aggressive film. The rumbling strains of Morricone’s score effortlessly summon dread or exhilaration as required, and the opening attack scene is a horrid thrill-piece of trepidation—moody enough to be captivating and tumultuous enough to be genuinely threatening. The cinematography here arrests us at every turn: shots of the cutthroat legion moving over the hill toward the farm in the blinding rain, of water cascading off low hat brims, of hooves stepping with dire purpose through the mud.
Although the film’s main interest is action—the simple pleasure of watching a couple of tough hombres take care of business—Petroni’s stylistic flair lends a symbolism of its own to these proceedings. The treachery and isolation of the Western landscape, the inexorability of fate, and the development of a surrogate father/son relationship between Ryan and Bill are all evoked.
The minimalist characterization and straight-up firepower of Death Rides a Horse won’t appeal to all viewers, but for those keen on a tightly plotted thriller content to let the lead do the talking, the film is a treat. 4 / 5