Sunday, August 23, 2009

Death Rides A Horse (1967)

A group of bandits attacks a small family farm to get at the wagon full of money that is kept there for the night.

The bandits don't just kill the guards, though, they quite senselessly slaughter the family and burn down their farm. One of the killers takes pity on the smallest boy and hides him from his partners. The child hasn't seen the face of his savior, nor many of the faces of the others, but he has seen some distinguishing marks on each of them, and he doesn't look like he's ever going to forget them. The only physical trace the men leave behind is a peculiarly formed spur.

Fifteen years later, the boy, whose name turns out to be Bill, has grown into John Phillip Law, and the way he trains with his guns and never seems to take his eyes off of them shows that vengeance is the only thing he is living for. Alas, the last fifteen years have never brought any of his family's killers close to him. Bill is sure they are still out there, somewhere, but he doesn't know where to look for them.

That changes when Ryan (Lee van Cleef) comes to town. Ryan has spent the last fifteen years in prison, betrayed by the same people who killed Bill's parents. For some reason (and what might that be?), the first place he visits when coming to town are the graves of Bill's parents.

Ryan doesn't even have to look very hard for his former friends like Bill does, no, his first night in town two gunmen try to kill him in his sleep. Of course, he is played by van Cleef and therefore not in the habit of letting himself getting killed that easily. Ryan now knows very well where he has to go, and leaves behind two corpses wearing quite peculiarly shaped spurs.

When Bill sees the spurs, he rides off in pursuit of the older man, convinced that Ryan can lead him to his objects of vengeance. Ryan himself doesn't want a partner in his endeavors and manages to leave the angry young man behind without a horse. This is not the last time one or the other of the men does this, but they always end up helping each other out in the end, even though Ryan's idea of vengeance on his "friends" consists in getting money out of them.

One doesn't get the impression that he minds too much when they are getting killed, though.

Bill and Ryan really need each others help, too, because the bandits have become well situated in various communities, with lots of henchmen and unsavory plans.

I'd like to put Death Rides A Horse into the larger context of its director's Giulio Petroni's work, alas I have seen nothing else by him, and the Internet's not exactly full of deep essays about his body of work.

Fortunately enough, the film is an excellent Spaghetti Western even without such context.

Its plot does sound like an Italian Western by the numbers, but its execution elevates the generic to the archetypal and mythical with an effortlessness you don't see all that often.

Sometimes - usually when I have drunk too much Green Tea - I like to try and see films not as worlds made from moving pictures, but as rhythm made visual. Death Rides A Horse is perfectly easy to watch - or rather feel - that way, with its sense of perpetual forward motion and its fantastic, yet weird Morricone music. The music is really very important here. It is at once a typical Morricone soundtrack, rhythmic and minimalist and always dancing with the things we see on screen (or is it just making them dance?), but it's also always threatening to drift into the atonal and weird, as if what we witness on screen is of such mythical proportions that there's no other way to react to it than to leave musical structures behind.

Petroni's direction is often brilliant, eschewing dialogue whenever possible, preferring a telling hand movement of Van Cleef or Law's merciless, empty gaze to reams of dialogue. The viewer knows the character archetypes here anyway; there's truly no need for explanations, and what human depths are needed are better provided through physical acting, camera placement and movement than words.

This tactic could backfire badly with less capable actors in the lead, but Van Cleef and Law are both doing perfect work here. Looking at Van Cleef's body of work this is not all that surprising, but Law isn't the type I would have expected to be all that great in a Western. I tend to be wrong frighteningly often, though, and Law really steps up to Van Cleef's presence here and even provides his hate-driven character with an underlying sense of compassion.

The film is structured rather episodically, I wouldn't however call its structure "loose" - it's more as if the film's forward motion started out in more than one place, yet inevitably (and there is true capital-I Inevitability on display here) finds its end in the same place.

What we have here seems to me like a perfect Spaghetti Western, just slightly below the quality of the best films of the three Sergios, yet also a little less cynical, angry and hurt than much of the output of those three is. The latter is no point against Petroni's film. Sometimes it's good to have a film with a belief in compassion.


No comments: