By Larry Robinson
October 17, 2018
Veteran villain Lee Van Cleef was reportedly preparing to retire when he got a call from director Sergio Leone, offering him a plum role in "For a Few Dollars More," the second of Leone's trio of Man with No Name Westerns, starring Clint Eastwood.
The movies were international blockbusters, and while Eastwood made a triumphant return to Hollywood, Van Cleef stayed in Europe, becoming the most readily recognizable Americano in the Spaghetti Western genre, along with Charles Bronson ("Il Brutto"!) and Jack Palance.
Many of the films Van Cleef made were low budget throwaways, like the truly terrible "The Grand Duel," with a plot that couldn't be unraveled by Agatha Christie. He did make a few good ones, like "The Big Gundown," with Walter Barnes, and the 1967 "Death Rides a Horse," an intense revenge oater directed in a no-nonsense manner by Giulio Petroni. He was no Leone, but he did have an eye for parched landscape and staging of gun duels.
I first saw Van Cleef as one of the Miller gang in "High Noon." In 1957 he got knifed by Kirk Douglas in "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and was later manhandled by the Duke himself, in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Van Cleef also made gangster movies, like Phil Karlson's excellent "Kansas City Confidential."
It's said that Van Cleef gave three directives to all his directors, even John Ford: He would not menace a child, kill an animal or murder a woman, no matter how evil his character. Except for his rough treatment of a dance hall hostess in Leone's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," he pretty much stuck fast to his code of bad guy conduct.
In "Death Rides a Horse," Van Cleef is Ryan, an aging outlaw released from a brutal desert prison. He was left for posse bait by his very own gang, and now wants to say an unfriendly hello to those who betrayed him, and then escaped.
The film begins with a shocking massacre in a small ranch house, which Petroni lit only by flashes of gunfire and lightning, during a ferocious storm. The gang wants a payroll, though Ryan never draws his gun and, instead, runs outside to mind the horses.
A sole survivor of the slaughter is Bill (a laconic John Phillip Law) who grows into an expert with weaponry and a quick-draw whiz. Bill wants the same outlaws Ryan seeks, but also wants Ryan, as he can recognize him by a tattoo, and believes him one of the murderers. It's a stewpot of nitro, and director Petroni knows when and where to set it off.
While the rousing climax is a steal from "The Magnificent Seven," it's a terrific large-scale action sequence, with Ryan and Bill acting as very wary allies. I won't spoil the ending, but it's hardly a surprise. Petroni wisely confronts the clichés in the genre without blinking.
Van Cleef always played "his age" so Ryan is a pipe-sucking father figure, dispensing gunfighter advice to the reckless Bill. With anything Van Cleef did there was always a "tension" created by his past villainous roles. We wonder — is he a "good/bad guy" or a "bad guy"? Van Cleef, by 1969, was an iconic presence, for sure!
I first saw "Death Rides a Horse" in a perfect setting: a fully packed Times Square "grindhouse" with a loud and quite happy male audience. Petroni knew he wasn't making a classic, but his movie is trim, taut and enjoyable.
Too bad Leone and Van Cleef never worked together again; with or without the Man with No Name.