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Death Rides a Horse/Da uomo a uomo

(Giulio Petroni, Italy, 1966): Before it was named as such, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was lurking in the Hollywood western in all those movies about remorseful gunslingers and Civil War vets struggling to stay peaceful in the face of mounting provocation, but in the Italian western it assumed a kind of delirious transcendence. As flashbacks to the primal scene intruded like psychedelic depth charges in the minds of our damaged heroes, revenge for past atrocities became not only a primary motivating force in the form, it was also a kind of poetic justice cum catharsis therapy. Healing was dispensed in the form of bullets.

In this sense, Guilio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse, scripted by The Good, The Bad and the Ugly‘s Luciano Vincenzoni and starring Lee Van Cleef smack between his two star-making Leone stints, is as much a kind of ritual playbook as it is a dramatic episode. Starting with an assault on a farmhouse on a tempestuous, wrath-of-God-in-heaven night, wherein the boy who will grow into John Phillip Law’s Bill Meceita witnesses his family’s slaughter and embarks on a lifelong quest to track and kill the men who burned not only his home but his soul, the movie dogs its hero with regular doses of nightmare by way of shock reminders of his destiny.

Closing in on his quarry — who, again according to emerging spaghetti western trope, are now pillars of civic influence — just as a panther-eyed former desperado named Ryan (Van Cleef) is released from prison following a 15 year sentence for something he didn’t do — the two eventually pair up to make good on both their unsettled accounts. Turns out, because there is no coincidence in matters of fate and myth, they’re both gunning after the same men.

If we can credit Petroni with being the first to recognize that Van Cleef had something that begged its own release from the shadow of Clint’s pancho — and note the extent to which the callow and fatherless, lean and blue-eyed Bill is so inescapably evocative of Eastwood — and perhaps stood for the hard-boiled vengeance force the genre would soon run on, that would be sufficient to mark this movie as a milestone of sorts. Leone and Eastwood might have provided the spaghetti western with both its initial boost and most iconic reference points, but it was Van Cleef who would give it its defining sense of grimly unromantic destiny and unwavering angel-of-death purposefulness. And another thing: when it comes to faces, which the Italian western lavished such obsessive and almost fetishized attention to, nobody gave better close-up optics than Van Cleef, in whose eyes the world itself seemed to line up as prey. What I’m wondering is, how much of the signature spaghetti style is the expression of Lee Van Cleef’s face?

Watch this movie for its confident sense of playing out a ritual that is based less in any form of psychological or even generic realism than a kind of foreordained hand of shuffling of a cynically but cosmically stacked deck, wherein our investment in the so-called hero — not Bill, whose unquestioned redeeming function here is to become as cold, hard and tactically resolute as his mentor — depends not on his reckoning with his wary, go-it-alone cynicism but our acceptance that he’s right: the only way to get out of this alive is by being somehow dead already. True, there is a redemption of sorts in the revelation — not in any way surprising if you’ve heard this one before — that Ryan and Bill have met before, and Bill will ultimately have the chance to decide if his saviour, teacher, surrogate father figure and likely future version of himself will live or die. But the decision doesn’t really change anything, let alone point to a place and time where peace will obtain and the nightmares recede. It just confirms that there’s no point in killing Ryan anyway, and that things will go on more or less as they always have and will. That’s the hard truth of the Italian western’s deeply noirish vision of the frontier, and why someone as menacingly endowed and sentimentally impervious as Lee Van Cleef rode so tall above it: he looked like someone who’d already seen the end.

Note: this movie, a public domain casualty as so many spaghettis are, is widely available in variously substandard DVD versions. If you can track the Wild East release, which preserves the original aspect ratio and permits the fullest appreciation of the movie’s considerable style — and did I even mention the top-of-his-game Morricone score? — it’s worth the hunt. (Wild East)