DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1967) Blu-ray
Director: Giulio Petroni
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Before there was KILL BILL there was "Kill Burt" in the Lee Van Cleef spaghetti western vehicle DEATH RIDES A HORSE, on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

Since witnessing the shooting of his father and the rape and murder of his mother and sister by a quartet of bandits, Bill Maceita (John Phillip Law, DANGER: DIABOLIK) has grown up with vengeance in mind. He spends his days practicing his fast draw and brooding on his rebuilt family farm until the local sheriff brings him the match to a spur left behind by one of the killers belonging to a man who was shot in self-defense by Ryan (van Cleef) who had been recently released from prison after fifteen years after being framed for a bank robbery. Surmising that Ryan was wronged by the same men who murdered his family, Bill starts tracking the older man. With a different kind of vengeance in mind, Ryan takes repeated measures to dodge Bill in order to get to casino owner Burt Cavanagh (Anthony Dawson, the FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE actor, not the Italian director Antonio Margheriti) to extort a share of the stolen money from him before moving on to his partners. Ryan is able to sidestep most efforts by the robbers to get rid of him – including an attempt by corrupt banker Walcott (Luigi Pistilli, YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY) who tries to frame him for the heist of his own bank for a million dollars deposited towards public works – but they come to believe that Bill is his partner and a means of getting to him. Bill and Ryan make their way separately to the appropriately named Mexican village of El Viento in pursuit of Walcott, and the first is in for a grueling ambush by bandit brothers Pedro (José Torres, ANY GUN CAN PLAY) and Pedro (Angelo Susani, THE GRAND DUEL).

Scripted by regular Sergio Leone collaborator Luciano Vincenzoni (SEDUCED AND ABANDONED) as a vehicle for van Cleef, DEATH RIDES A HORSE apes some of the themes and structuring of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE from the pseudo-father/son relationship between the two gunmen to the traumatic flashbacks as the sighting of a telltale tattoo, a medallion, a facial scare, and an earring trigger for Bill red-tinged flashbacks to the murders of his family and galvanize his lust for vengeance. The similarities were enough for United Artists to pick it up, but the film since its theatrical release has been heard more often than seen by all but spaghetti western devotees through Quentin Tarantino's usage of the Ennio Morricone's Indian choral theme in the first part of his KILL BILL saga. While not as compelling and stylistically audacious as the Leone film, DEATH RIDES A HORSE is a more than solid effort and one of the better of a more often dire than not van Cleef vehicles (see CAPTAIN APACHE and BAD MAN'S RIVER for example) thanks to the always entertaining Law, a suitably slimy Pistilli, and the deft use of other familiar spaghetti western faces (including THE GREAT SILENCE's Mario Brega and more to do than usual for Fulci favorite Bruno Corazzari). Director Giulio Petroni had the pedigree and fortune to mount his few western efforts on the higher end of the genre's production scale, following DEATH RIDES A HORSE up with the Mexican revolution film TEPEPA starring Tomas Milian and NIGHT OF THE SERPENT with Luke Askew.

Released theatrically through United Artists, DEATH RIDES A HORSE has been unavailable officially on home video despite MGM repeatedly releasing their Sergio Leone titles on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. While MGM made the film available in an anamorphic transfer in various European territories, American viewers who do not import have had to contend with various panned-and-scanned unauthorized DVDs and a widescreen one from Wild East before Kino Lorber's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray. Although the film actually made its Blu-ray debut in Germany from Explosive Media, it was discovered by the Lee Van Cleef blog that the final reel of the film was severely cropped and zoomed in, creating relatively balanced scope compositions but forfeiting more than a third or more of the available picture in comparison to the DVD editions. When Kino Lorber announced their Blu-ray, they assured viewers that they would correct the framing anomaly and they have come through with the final eight minutes offering framing comparable to the DVD editions, restoring the true "scope" of some impressive shots by seasoned DP Carlo Carlini (SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE) in which two characters flank sides of the frame at a distance for a fateful final confrontation. The source materials are those of the United Artists release; as such, they opening credits are rather sketchy about technical roles beyond the main ones and there is no end credits sequence whatsoever. Audio options include English and Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks with optional English subtitles.

The film is accompanied by an audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox (REPO MAN), author of 10,000 WAYS TO DIE: A DIRECTOR'S TAKE ON THE SPAGHETTI WESTERN, who contextualizes the film as a van Cleef vehicle following Vincenzoni's professional break-up with Leone, and the ways in which it conforms to the genre formula. In addition to providing some anecdotes about the location – as well as distinguishing Cinecitta's western backlot from that of Elios Studios – and the supporting cast, he also draws on his own research (noting the disappointment of fans and genre critics that director Petroni favors TEPEPA to DEATH RIDES A HORSE) including interviews with some of the actors, but it is a rather dry track that may be of more value to spaghetti western devotees than casual fans. Also included is the film's theatrical trailer (1:33) and trailers for FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, BAQUERO, RETURN OF SABATA, THE MERCENARY, VALDEZ IS COMING, and NAVAJO JOE. (Eric Cotenas)