Monday, May 24, 2021

Van Cleef Seeks Revenge; Holden Steals Cattle!

Lee Van Cleef as Ryan.
Death Rides a Horse (1967).  As young Bill Meceita watches a vicious outlaw gang slaughter his family, he notes a distinguishing feature on each killer--a scar, an earring, a tattoo, a spur. Two decades later, a dead cowboy provides a key clue that reignites Bill's desire to avenge his family. As he tracks down the villains, he keeps encountering a man named Ryan (Lee Van Cleef). Recently paroled, the older Ryan has his own reasons for finding the same outlaws. Inevitably, Ryan and Bill team up to take down the outlaw's gang leader, who has become a successful (albeit crooked) businessman.

John Philip Law as Bill.
Like the previous year's blockbuster The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Death Rides a Horse was written Luciano Vincenzoni, features music by Ennio Morricone, and, of course, stars Van Cleef. Thematically, though, it shares more in common with Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965). Each film features two men pursuing the same villain independently, though they eventually have to team up to accomplish their goal. Some film critics have claimed the two Spaghetti Westerns also share a mentor-protégé premise. That may be true of Death Rides a Horse, but Van Cleef's ex-colonel and Clint Eastwood's bounty hunter do not fit that mold in For a Few Dollars More

In the hands of director Giulio Petroni, Death Rides a Horse is an above-average Spaghetti Western punctuated with a handful of well-staged shootouts. The relationship between Ryan and Bill (John Philip Law) is well-developed, though the big twist is obvious from the moment Ryan is shown on screen. 

Unlike Eastwood, who moved back to Hollywood after his Spaghetti Western hits, Van Cleef remained in Europe until the late 1970s. His most successful non-Leone Western was probably Sabata (1969), though Death Rides a Horse has attained cult status over the years.

Alvarez Kelly (1966).  During the American Civil War, cattleman Alvarez Kelly delivers a herd of steers to the Union Army, who needs beef to feed its troops. However, Kelly barely has time to count his profits before he's kidnapped by the Confederates. They want him to help them steal the cattle for their troops!

Loosely based on a real-life event called the Beefsteak Raid, Alvarez Kelly squanders a promising premise and a strong cast. The film's central focus seems to be the relationship between the apathetic Kelly (William Holden) and a passionate Confederate colonel (Richard Widmark). To drive a deeper wedge between the men, the script includes a hasty subplot in which Kelly helps the colonel's fiancée (a poorly-utilized Janice Rule) escape from the surrounded Virginia capital of Richmond. Despite this, the audience is led to believe that Kelly and the colonel can still become "frenemies."

Standard fare like Alvarez Kelly and Paris When It Sizzles (1964) stifled Holden's career in the mid-1960s. Fortunately, it got a huge shot in the arm when Sam Peckinpah cast Holden as the lead in The Wild Bunch (1969). Richard Widmark wasn't as lucky, though he got a juicy role as an NYC detective in Madigan (1968) and its belated TV series (which aired under one of NBC's Mystery Movies in 1972-73).

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