Death Rides a Horse (1967) Blu-ray Review: Lee Van Cleef's Finest Hour

Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law each set out for revenge in this above-average Spaghetti Western classic, now available from Kino Lorber.
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Though it was one of several dozen Spaghetti Westerns produced just in the year of 1967 alone, Giulio Petroni's Death Rides a Horse (Da uomo a uomo; or, As Man to Man) has nevertheless managed to climb its way up through the dark and dusty trails of European westerns over the years. Boasting a memorable score by the legendary Ennio Morricone himself (both the soundtrack and film "inspired" several aspects of Quentin Tarantino's homage to just about every kind of genre movie under the desert sun, Kill Bill), the unconventional entry in the long list of Euro westerns ‒ the only one of Petroni's 14 films to truly find an audience ‒ this tale of revenge has quite a lot going for it.

And while the assortment of talent attached to the film on both sides of the camera is commendable in itself, there is only one name that ultimately makes Death Rides a Horse gallup: the one and only Lee Van Cleef.

Fresh from his tenure as Clint Eastwood's counterpart (and later, nemesis) in the last two Man with No Name movies by Sergio Leone (and well on his way to becoming one of the genre's best-loved performers) there is no denying Lee Van Cleef owns every frame of Death Rides a Horse he appears in. Here, the cult character actor portrays a paroled ex-con with a score to settle against the men who put him in prison. Meanwhile, in the film's "main" story, Danger: Diabolik star John Phillip Law ‒ in a role that I can't help but wonder had originally been intended for Franco Nero or Terence Hill ‒ plays a young man was has grown up in the soul-consuming shadow from when his family was mercilessly violated and/or slaughtered 15 years earlier.

Naturally, these two men ‒ one, a cunning, seasoned professional; the other, an eager gunsmith with an itchy trigger finger ‒ are after the same parties.

Crossing paths throughout their respective trails to redemption (or death, whichever comes first), our pairing eventually form a rocky friendship, with Van Cleef doing his best to keep the young firecracker from popping off too soon when things get heated. This makes way for a great deal of witty dialogue from the native English-speaking leads, who more than likely assisted in said department. Another native English-speaker ‒ Scottish-born Anthony Dawson (one of the few actors to ever portray two different James Bond villains) ‒ highlights Death Rides a Horse's typically atypical mélange of baddies, standing out from his continental European cohorts with a chest tattoo worthy of his character's informal nickname, "Four Aces."

But it's the distinctive kisser of Luigi Pistilli ‒ who also appeared in the last two entries of Leone's Dollars Trilogy with Mr. Van Cleef, as well as several gialli such as Bay of Blood and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key ‒ who takes the reins of villainy here, backed up by many a regular Spaghetti Western heavy. Another For a Few Dollars More/The Good, the Bad and the Ugly connection rides out of view in the form of Luciano Vincenzoni, who provided the script for this acclaimed European western classic. Indeed, just as Lee Van Cleef owns Death Rides a Horse on-screen, Vincenzoni's script can be attributed to being the single spur which keeps the whole story moving in the right direction.

(Although I would hate to think how the film would have turned out had they cast someone other than Lee Van Cleef.)

Death Rides a Horse is no stranger to home video in the US, having popped up on one Public Domain videocassette and DVD label after another over the years. In fact, there are so many terrible copies of the film floating around, one might say the film has either been released to Death (or perhaps compare the number of releases to that of flogging a dead Horse). Fortunately, Kino Lorber has resurrected Death itself with this marvelous 1080p MPEG-4 AVC-encoded Blu-ray release, which is the first domestic version to give us the original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio in High-Definition. While the print used does contain a few flaws, it's still the best the movie has ever looked on home video in the United States.

Kino's Blu-ray sports two main audio selections, both in DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono. The first is the English dubbed soundtrack (wherein Van Cleef looped his own dialogue in post-sync), while the secondary option presents the Italian audio (the pitch of which is a half-step lower than the default English selection, for some reason). One set of optional English "dubtitles" (meaning they translate the English-dubbed track rather than provide a direct translation of the Italian audio) for both audio tracks is included here. A bonus audio commentary by Repo Man filmmaker Alex Cox (who is, not surprisingly, a fan of the genre) can be found in the saddle bag, where you will also find seven trailers for other Euro and US westerns from the era round out Kino's release

Although nothing beats the tagline United Artists used in their trailer for Death Rides a Horse: "The bandits who killed five defenseless people made one big mistake: they should have killed... six!"

Yup, it's just one more reason to love this film, kids.

Highly Recommended.

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