Movies Till Dawn: Continental Cowboys and Italian Vikings

“Death Rides a Horse” (1967, Kino) Gritty Italian western employs two of the genre’s most enduring tropes – “revenge for a murdered family” and “the student becomes the master” – and taps Lee Van Cleef, star of some of the most popular examples of each (“For a Few Dollars More” and “Day of Anger“) for its lead. Here, Van Cleef is a gunfighter, newly freed from prison, who teams with John Philip Law to track down the bandits who sent him to prison and slaughtered Law’s family. If the story travels a familiar track, the execution benefits from a wealth of positives in front of and behind the camera, including the steely presence of Van Cleef, scripting by Luciano Vincenzoni (“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) that showcases his talent for brawny dialogue and setpieces, an unnerving score by Ennio Morricone (which is quoted in “Kill Bill”) and the capable hand of director Giulio Petroni, who makes excellent use of the Techniscope process in wide vistas and tight, tense closeups. A solid entry in the sprawling Western alla’Italiana universe; Kino’s Blu-ray includes insightful commentary from director Alex Cox (“Repo Man”), and trailers for several of Kino’s Eurowestern titles, including “Return of Sabata,” also with Van Cleef.

The Mercenary” (1968, Kino) Having developed a taste for power after deposing his slavish military boss (Eduardo Fajardo) at a silver mine, naïve peasant Tony Musante decides to ride the wave of revolutionary fervor in 1915 Mexico and make a few dollars in the name of freedom. He finds a benefactor in Franco Nero, a cool and cruel Polish mercenary who will sell arms to anyone willing to afford him the right price and absolute fealty. Like its sister film, “Companeros” (1970), this Spanish-Italian Western is a vastly entertaining action title that also affords co-writer/director Sergio Corbucci (“Django”) a platform from which to lob tomatoes (or worse) at a host of political targets: foreign intervention in Third World countries, the corruptive nature of capitalism, and so on (as well as a poke at the visual excesses of Sergio Leone in the concluding arena showdown). Some hit their targets and some don’t, but you can still enjoy the back-and-forth between Musante and Franco (both are great), an outrageous turn by Jack Palance as Fajardo’s fey hired gun, another memorable Morricone score, and the chessboard maneuvering between various factions in the script by Luciano Vincenzoni (again), who with Corbucci adapted a more Marxist-leaning script by Franco Solinas (who covered similar territory with Marlon Brando in “Burn!”). Kino’s Blu-ray offers the English-language dub released by 20th Century Fox and includes animated galleries of press material for the film, a raft of trailers and more informative commentary from Alex Cox.

Roy Colt and Winchester Jack” (1970, Kino) Failure, and a lack of sufficient brain cells, spur the titular pair – played by American actors abroad Brett Halsey and (Los Angeles native) Charles Southwood – to go their separate ways, until a treasure map brings them back together, although on opposite sides of the law. The primary reason to see this Italian Western comedy is the presence of Gothic horror stylist Mario Bava behind the camera, though as the (typically detailed) commentary by Tim Lucas notes, he was working here in a genre and with a script that he detested, and without his usual array of visual and thematic flourishes. The humor is mostly dire, but for every five lame gags – a spastic gunman named Tic, who tweets and chirps manically after being shot – there’s one moderately amusing moment (in a letter, a wistful Halsey tells Southwood how much he misses beating him up), and the two leads at least seem to be in on the joke, as is Marilu Tolo as a brassy, financially savvy Indian. For Bava completists, mostly; Kino’s 2K restored Blu-ray includes both an English and Italian-language dub (with subtitles) and the original cards for the film’s curious intermission.

“Erik the Conqueror” (1961, Arrow) Another example of Bava working outside his most popular/successful genre: here, it’s historical action-drama with a swirl of sword and sandal, with Cameron Mitchell and George (Giorgio) Ardisson as Viking twins raised separately – one by the Queen of England, the other in Scandinavia – who reunite when the Norsemen again invade English shores. Your appreciation for the film depends mostly on your taste and tolerance for dubbed spectacle films, though the dependably intense presence of Mitchell – a well-regarded leading man on Broadway (“Death of a Salesman”) and in Hollywood (“How to Marry a Millionaire”) before spending much of the ’60s in European productions and the ’70s and ’80 in low-budget genre films – and Bava’s impressive visual effects, including an overripe Viking lair/chamber that suggests a grand fantasy illustration run riot. Tim Lucas’s expertise on all things Bava is showcased on a commentary track full of biographical and production information, as well as an hour-plus audio interview with Mitchell from 1989; there’s also an observant (and amusing) video essay by Michael Mackenzie that details similarities (and differences) between “Erik” and Richard Fleischer’s “The Vikings” (1958) and a final shot, missing from the original camera negative, but added here from a UK VHS source.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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