Like Jacques Becker's 1952 underworld melodrama Casque D'Or, Karen Shakhnazarov's The Rider Named Death takes place at the turn of the century, and features well-dressed violent criminals who hang out in ornate old European buildings and initiate romances that can never last. The two films vary wildly in tone, however, and in their sense of importance. Aside from a few giddy scenes of can-can dancing, The Rider Named Death lives up to its grim title. The movie has bomb-throwing Russian revolutionaries moping around, waiting for an opportunity to take out another figurehead. Andrei Panin plays the leader of a small band of anarchists, proto-communists, idealists, and sociopaths. He dallies with his best bomb-maker, Kseniya Rappoport, but the long-term prospects for their love affair are pretty dim, since she handles dynamite by day and sniffs cocaine by night.
When he's not coldly plotting their next move, Panin engages in moral debates with the cadre's resident Christian, Artyom Semakin. Shakhnazarov centers the movie on those debates, which eventually work their way into Panin's voiceover narration, as he wonders, "How do we civilized people differ from savages?" He keeps thinking about it right up to Rider's climactic moment, when Panin rises from his opera seat to head upstairs and kill a man in the boxes. The film has a crisp, vivid look, and Shakhnazarov makes sure to catch the light as it plays across Panin's eyes, which shift from steely confident to scared stiff.
In spite of good performances and colorful design, The Rider Named Death is too grave and remote to stir much emotion. Panin's aristocratic troublemaker internalizes the question of why he wants to overthrow governments, and never seems to have much personal connection to his women or his cause. The movie has a splashy opening, as a stunningly attired Rappoport breezes past a bevy of guards in a splendid office to assassinate a foppish government official, but neither the historical importance of that moment nor the motivations of its architect ever become fully clear. Really, the décor's the point.