Lee Van Cleef has a long and respected standing in the Spaghetti Western industry. His career in Italian cinema has seen him feature in some of the best (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), some of the more mediocre (The Grand Duel), and some of the absolute worst (God's Gun) that the genre has to offer. But with films such as The Big Gundown and For a Few Dollars More on the CV, the duds are easily forgiven.
Another film that exonerates the horrendous wig sported by the man with the gunsight eyes in God's Gun, is Giulio Petroni's 1967 epic, Death Rides a Horse. It may be a simple, bog-standard tale of revenge, but it's one that's told with the style and visual appeal unique to the very best examples of Spaghetti Westdom.
The somewhat mundanely named Bill (John Phillip Law), a man who drew the short straw when the voice-dubbing artists were being handed out, witnesses the brutal rape and cold-blooded murder of his family as a child. Fifteen years on and the memories of that night are rekindled when an identical set of spurs to one he salvaged during the attack, turn up on the feet of a dead man. This coincides with the release from jail of Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), who was double-crossed by the same band of desperadoes Bill is after. With both men intent on revenge, it's inevitable that their paths will soon converge in the ruthless pursuit of a mutual goal.
Death Rides a Horse has everything you could wish for in a Spaghetti Western. Blood, sweat, gluttonous helpings of violence, and Lee Van Cleef. The old master had a screen presence others could only dream of, commanding attention for the duration of each and every scene he appeared in. As Ryan, he exudes menace just by being there. Words are a mere formality for this weathered gunslinger. He is the Spaghetti Western anti-hero distilled to its purest form; the walking tall epitome of moral ambiguity.
Of course, it was a character Van Cleef had down to a tee, and one he'd visited before and would visit again, most notably as Colonel Mortimer and Angel Eyes (For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad... respectively), Jonathan Corbett (The Big Gundown) and Frank Talby (Day of Anger).
But as we're in danger of allowing Lee Van Cleef to escort this review at gunpoint from the building, we should turn our sights on his co-star John Phillip Law, who, for all intents and purposes, is a little on the wooden side. Fair enough, he's going to struggle when forced to share screentime with Van Cleef, but his performance as Bill is possibly the only flaw you'll find with this film (alongside whoever dubbed his voice). That's not to say John Phillip Law is unwatchable... far from it. Just a little tree-like.
Thankfully, he's put through the wringer, as all naive charges should be. Particularly in a scene where the outlaw gang bury him up to his neck in full gaze of the scorching sun, placing a bowl of water within sniffing distance and force-feeding him a handful of salt.
With such inspired villainy, it's worth mentioning the support cast, which is filled with faces familiar to any Spaghetti Western fan. Amongst others, there's Mario Brega (For a Few Dollars More) providing his customary muscle and looking quite the dapper Dan in a Derby hat and suit. Jose Torres (Get the Coffin Ready) does the Mexican bandido act he's performed in more Spags than it's healthy to know the names of. And playing Walcott, the leader of the gang turned "respectable" banker, there's Luigi Pistilli (The Great Silence), bringing his usual suave, yet vicious, demeanour to the role.
But enough beating about the bush. The fact that Death Rides a Horse regularly makes the top 10 "Best Spaghetti" lists of those in the know, says it all. Its place among the great and the good is richly deserved.
If I said it also boasts a fantastic score by Ennio Morricone (utilised in Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol.1), it should really seal the deal.
Find a copy and watch it. Now!