The Making of the Italian West: Part 16

Lee Van Cleef pt.2

Fistful of Westerns, The Making of The Spaghetti West Part 16:  Lee Van Cleef pt.2

More articles by Phillip López Jiménez

Death Rides A Horse 1967

Death Rides A Horse (1967)

Director: Giulio Petroni

Writer: Luciano Vincenzoni

Music: Ennio Morricone

Staring: Lee Van Cleef, John Phillip Law, Luigi Pistilli, Anthony Dawson


On a cold and bitter stormy night, farm hands corral up cattle for the evening and stand guard as the owner goes into his home for a hot meal with his family. A gang of men appear on the hill above them. They quietly approach the men who are on watch and one by one murder and leave them in the mud. The men stalk over to the home and burst inside and brutally rape and murder the family. The youngest child, a boy, manages to hide and watches the violent carnage that plays out before, him while registering certain images of the men in his mind; tattoos, earrings, scars. After starting fire to the home the men leave with the boy still inside. Inside someone grabs the boy and sets him outside to safety where he watches all that he loves destroyed. Dissolve to a tall, lanky young man angrily practicing with pistol and rifle with deadly accuracy.

And thus opens up one of the better revenge films and Spaghetti Westerns ever made, just a notch below the Leone pictures. If there was a genre called Hard-Boiled Westerns then DEATH RIDES A HORSE would be at the top along with the Delmer Daves 310 TO YUMA.  The opening is a harsh and brutal gothic sequence, Ennio Morricone’s music is almost industrial with its clangs and crashes, the only thing I can compare this sequence to is Tobe Hooper’s southern gothic masterpiece THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and like it; DEATH RIDES A HORSE is better seen in a scratched up, choppy print that gives it a raw, grungy feel and really captures the grim essence of the picture.

DEATH RIDES A HORSE was the first of a four picture deal Lee Van Cleef signed with producers Alphonse Sansone and Enrico Chrosciki; the other pictures being DAY OF ANGER, BEYOND THE LAW, and COMMANDOS[1]. The producers chose Giulio Petroni to direct and Luciano Vincenzoni to write. This was Vincenzoni’s first picture after THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY[2] and finally, to score the picture they grabbed the maestro, Ennio Morricone.

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 After that stark opening the picture cuts to a foot being un-manacled, the camera pans up and we see the pictures star Lee Van Cleef as Ryan , he is being released from a prison chain-gang. The warden hands him 87 bucks, his pistol and “the bullets…27 of them” “You have a good memory after fifteen years.” Ryan loads his gun “Six in the gun and twenty-one in the belt. If they hadn’t double-crossed me the count would’ve been different.” This is my favorite type of exposition and very hard-boiled. We learn everything we need to know in those three sentences. Fifteen years in prison after being set up, now it’s time for revenge.

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Ryan leaves the prison (it resembles Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona but is never mentioned) and heads out to The Meceita ranch where he stops to visit three graves buried there. The young man, Bill Meceita (John Philip Law) we saw earlier comes out to greet him. He explains to Ryan that that was his entire family.

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“Revenge is a dish that has to be eaten cold. If I’m with you, I’m liable to get indigestion.”

Ryan goes into town and that evening he shoots the two men who where following him as they enter his hotel room. The sheriff grabs the spurs off the bodies and takes them to young Bill’s house and shows them to him as Bill has the exact one hanging on his wall. The one spur belonged to one of the killers of his family, the sheriff informs him that the stranger who killed them left town. Bill tracks Ryan down and offers to partner up since they’re after the same men. Ryan refuses “You have to much anger in you. Someone once said Revenge is a dish that has to be eaten cold. If I’m with you I’m liable to get indigestion.” (And no, that’s not an old Klingon proverb.) Ryan leaves but takes Bill’s Horse.

Ryan tracks down Bert Cavanaugh (Anthony Dawson)  one of the murderous gang members who set him up but now is a respectable saloon owner. He tells him he won’t kill him if he gets him fifteen thousand dollars, a thousand for each year he was in prison. While telling him this he notices a photo on the wall, it’s another of his old gang, Walcott, whose now a big who-ha in the next town. He decides to pay him a visit after he gets his fifteen grand; unfortunately later on, Bill steps into the saloon and recognizes the full hand  tattoo on Cavanaugh where he goes nutzo and everything flashes red (a device Quentin Tarantino used in KILL BILL, along with pieces of Morricone’s soundtrack[3]) he then shoots him in a dual, “Piano player, hit three notes!” Cavanaugh’s death is a bit over dramatic to say the least (think of the old Looney Tunes cartoons.) but it’s still an exciting scene as a couple of cowboys try to kill Bill and Ryan has to finish the job and teach Bill a lesson, “Count your shots, Four bullets for one man that’s a waste.


Van Cleef’s Ryan, is a fatherly role much like his role in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, which Again, was written by scribe Luciano Vincenzoni. Here too, he sees young Bill as the son he never had and acts as a sapient mentor to the vengeance filled Bill. The two play a cat and mouse type game each helping each other out of tight spots and playing tricks on each other with Bill often calling him “grandpa”and in a touching moment Ryan, after Bill plays a similar trick on Ryan that Ryan played on him earlier, says “I’d like to have had a son like you, because someday someone’s gonna put a bullet in my back.

John Philip Law’s[4] acting is a bit stiff, adopting a Texas droll over his Southern California accent, but as always he’s very likable in the role, he often gets himself in trouble and Ryan has to bail him out.

The main villain of the picture is Walcott (Luigi Pistili, here in his largest role, but best known as Father Ramirez in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY) who is campaigning to get money for a public works project and he plans on stealing it one he gets it.

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Finally, the pictures last 40 minutes becomes a very cool and exciting gothic western, in which Bill goes to a small adobe village in a sandstorm looking for the rest of the gang that includes SW regulars like Jose Torres (THE BIG GUNDOWN, DJANGO PREPARE A COFFIN) and Mario Brega (THE DOLLARS TRILOGY, THE GREAT SILENCE) who have the villagers living in terror. He gets in a shootout with one of them killing him but the others beat him up. A few dozen of Walcott’s men arrive were they take Bill and bury him neck deep in sand forcing him to eat salt and tell them where Ryan has disappeared to. He sends them on a wild goose chase while Ryan strolls into town dressed as a Mexican. He shoots the few men guarding the village and pulls out Bill. They train the villagers and wait for Walcott to return. Walcott and his men attack until night where they take a break and play the Deguello, a tune the Mexican army played at The Alamo it’s here that Bill notices Ryan’s skull necklace but instead of the red flashback it’s blue, but he’s still pissed. Ryan explains that he showed up late and couldn’t stop it and that it was him who brought him to safety, but that he needs him now because they’re too many men for him to fight alone and that afterwards if he still wants to kill him he won’t stop him. In the bittersweet end Bill saves Ryan and and quietly rides off into the sunset.

I think DEATH RIDES A HORSE may be my favorite Lee Van Cleef performance, like I said earlier, like most of his SW roles it’s a version of his Col. Mortimer, calm, quiet, pipe smoking, sapient gentleman, the difference here is that he’s fallen from grace and must redeem himself.

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The Grand Duel 1974

Il Grande Duello aka The Grand Duel (1974)

Director: Giancarlo Santi

Writer: Ernesto Gastaldi

Music: Luis Bacalov

Staring: Lee Van Cleef, Alberto Dentice, Horst Frank,


Like DEATH RIDES A HORSE, THE GRAND DUEL is a revenge picture, but with a much lighter tone. Like the latter as well Lee Van Cleef plays the sapient father figure to Phillip Vermeer, (Alberto Dentice, billed here as Peter O’Brian) the younger roguish kid whose out for revenge.

The picture opens with a stagecoach traveling through an eerie looking landscape (most likely Uliveto Terme in Tuscany, which looks a lot like California’s Trona Peaks, at least in the movie.) to a mining town called Gila Bend, here it is stopped by locals who are armed. They’ve been told that an escaped murderer is in town somewhere and that “Nobody must get out” of the stagecoach, but Lee Van Cleef’s Clayton, ain’t nobody and he’s a mite thirsty.

Clayton coolly struts down the dust trail accompanied by future Acadamy Award winner Luis Bacalov’s fantastic score (another track that was used in Quinten Tarantino’s KILL BILL) the locals have guns pointed at him, but Clayton just gives them his eagle eyed stare and slowly moves his hand to his pistol and they lower their arms (here you can get a good look at Lee Van Cleef’s severed F.U. finger, he accidentally cut off the tip of it building a playhouse for his daughter.) He strolls into the Cantina and gets a slice of pie, no filling, and waits.

A shoot out begins and Vermeer stumbles into the saloon, in another nice way to get to know who every one is. Outside bounty hunters have the place surrounded. Vermeer pulls his gun on Sheriff Clayton who informs him he’s empty, quick flashes of all the shots he fired. Clayton shoots him and drags him outside, the bounty hunters want Vermeer’s body but he shoots at them and Vermeer jumps up and runs away grabbing a horse and they chase him.

Later he ditches his horse and sees a stagecoach and jumps in only to see Clayton who now has his prisoner. It was all a ruse to get him away from the bounty hunters. There are also several other people in the stage including the lovely redhead Anita (Alassandra Cardini) who are all on their way to Saxon City, but first the make an overnight stop at Silver Bell, the sign reads “No Silver and No Bell!

It’s here we learn that Phillip’s father had discovered silver in the hills and was murdered by the Saxon patriarch so that they could claim the mine but when the patriarch is killed his sons, David, Eli, and the effeminate Adam had accused Phillip Vermeer of the deed and Clayton knows who the real killer was but is not talking. While Clayton was sleeping he pulls his gun on him and forces him to go to Saxon City. “You know how old I am? You think I’d still be around if I fooled with kids who played with guns?” With his hat pulled down Van Cleef is at his coolest, “it’s not loaded.” Phillip replies “You said never assume a Gun’s empty.” And fires, it goes off but there is no damage. Clayton opens his mouth and pulls out the slug. His gun charge was just the case. Upset Phillip tosses the gun at Clayton and storms off as Clayton fires at him “who said the gun was empty!” This type of play goes on through out the picture. The bounty hunters come by and another shoot out happens.

Phillip makes it to Saxon City and confronts Adam Saxon, all the Saxons dress head to toe in white except for Eli, who is the Marshall he dresses normally. Adam Saxon (German character actor Klaus Grünberg, who looks like Malcom McDowell) is the fey, pimple faced, psychotic brother who is supposed to marry the red headed Anita who we learn is the daughter of the State Supreme Court Justice and The Saxons, who seem to be somewhat based on the Catholic Kennedy’s, plan on marrying into her family. I say the Kennedys because you have the Patriarch who swindled his wealth so that he could put his boys into high office. The murder, or rather assignation, that Phillip is accused of is reminiscent of JFK’s and is played out in black and white flash backs with a mysterious man in the shadow actually pulling the trigger, and every time we see these flashbacks, they’re from someone else’s point of view. The bullet that went through The Patriarch’s Head didn’t come from behind and you know it! Phillip Vermeer was behind him so he couldn’t have done it.  (I wonder if Oliver Stone is a fan?) It turns out this is what Clayton told the judge but the judge was bought off by The Saxons and took Clayton’s badge. So Clayton is trying to bring justice and clear his name.

The eldest brother David (DJANGO PREPARE A COFFIN’s Horst Frank) doesn’t want any trouble nor anymore investigation about who killed their father, The Patriarch he just wants to get rid of Vermeer and be done with it.

Though it takes about 40 minutes until we get to the main plot, there is plenty of action and great dialogue from writer Ernesto Gastaldi who also wrote I AM SARTANA…YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH, THE PRICE OF POWER (which also recreates the Kennedy assasination.) the Giallo TORSO and was a writer on Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. Giancarlo Santi has a great flare for action sequences as well as the slow build up, it’s a shame he has only directed three films, THE GRAND DUEL being his first, but he had worked on a number of pictures for Sergio Leone as an assistant director, like THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, DUCK, YOU SUCKER and the previously mentioned DEATH RIDES A HORSE.

Lee Van Cleef offers up another grand performance he has less dialogue than other pictures “I don’t talk unless I feel like it. That’s one of my rules.” as he say’s in the picture and what he does with the dialogue is classic stuff. One piece of business had me busting out laughing. He walks up to the saloon doors and cowboy stands in front of him, he says “After you.” “Why” then he punches him and walks in. I mean, it’s nothing extraordinary, but it’s just how he delivers that struck me as funny.

Co-star Albert Dentice is quite good as the revenge seeking Phillip Vermeer. I couldn’t find out much more on him, his IMdB only lists two other pictures before this one, if that’s all he’s done that’s too bad as his performance is full of character he reminded me of Jim Hutton/Peter Fonda, he could have easily been in more of these westerns or even the giallos at the time,  he definitely looks the part.

-Phillip López Jiménez

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Once Upon A Time In The Italian West by Howard Hughes




[1] Commandos was based on a story by future Canon Pictures Menahem Golan.

[2] Vincenzoni was a prolific screenwriter, some of his screenplays include A FEW DOLLARS MORE, DUCK, YOU SUCKER, Hammer pictures THE WAR GODDESS, ORCA, and the Schwarzenegger action picture RAW DEAL.

[3] I wanted to use this track for a modern day spaghetti western screenplay I wrote in 2002 but QT beat me to it.

I wound up shelving it, maybe I’ll dust it off and rewrite it.

[4] My favorite role of his is Mario Bava’s DANGER:DIABOLIK! Based on the Italian Fumentti created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani. He’s also known for BARBARELLA and as Sinbad in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD.

[5] New York native Jose Torres is still very active he recently was in Hijos de la Sal and is an audio mixer on reality shows like Project Runway and America’s Top Model.

[6] This was more than likely made for the movies the music was probably just a bugle march while the Santa Ana’s men approached the Alamo, rather than the lullaby written by Dimitri Tiompkin for Howard Hawks’ Rio Brovo, a piece of music Sergio Leone loved and had Ennio Morricone do something like that for FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.