1966 | Italy, Germany
Director: Rudolf Zehetgruber
AKA: Kommissar X – Drei gelbe Katzen; Three Yellow Cats
Austrian writer and director Rudolf Zehetgruber had two shots at the Kommissar X franchise, and Death is Nimble, Death is Quick, the second entry in the seven-film Eurospy series, was the first of them. It’s a commendable, if not especially controversial, effort on his part. However, thanks to a particular directorial quirk it revealed, it has resulted in me becoming damn near obsessed with Zehetgruber. Both here and in his second Kommissar X film, Death Trip (the fourth in the series), Zehetgruber, the director and writer, inserts himself – i.e., Zehetgruber the actor — into the action, casting himself as a sort of all-purpose deus ex machina who single-handedly bridged an impressive array of narrative gaps and plot holes. When holes in people needed to be patched up, Zehetgruber’s character, Almann, was a man of medicine. When holes needed to be put into them, he was an expert marksman. When science exposition was called for, he was an expert in archeology.
It’s a cheeky approach to screenwriting, to simply barrel ahead heedlessly until one found oneself painted into a narrative corner, at which point one would simply draw oneself into the action, like Harold with his purple crayon, to personally provide the necessary storytelling fixative. But that wasn’t all. Zehetgruber also seemed bent on portraying himself as a really great guy, making his character a veterinarian so that he could be pictured surrounded by adorable puppies. He even crooned a musical number at one point. All of this would be eccentric enough as an isolated instance, but then it occurs in both Death is Nimble, Death is Quick and Death Trip.
In Death is Nimble, at a juncture well past the film’s halfway point, Zehetgruber pops up as a character named Barrett, who serves pretty much the same purpose as his character Almann in Death Trip, undertaking a number of small but necessary actions to keep the plot moving where logic prevented any of the other already introduced characters from doing so. On top of that, Barrett’s occupation as a game warden provides the opportunity for Zehetgruber to be depicted in the company of an assortment of cute animals. Given his apparent Doolittle complex, it’s fitting that Zehetgruber went on to greater success in children’s films, writing, directing, and starring in a series of Herbie, the Love Bug-inspired movies about a gadget-laden Volkswagen called Dudu — or Superbug, if you were one of those films’ American distributors.
I want to make clear here that, while I am calling Zehetgruber out as a man whose narcissism drove him to leave Zehetgruber-shaped holes in his screenplays, I am not calling him a bad director. On the contrary, despite his attempts to hijack its focus, he does the Kommissar X series proud. In his hands, the exotic locations — the series’ most conspicuous production value — are filmed for maximum wow factor, and the action is steadfastly kept at just the breathless clip necessary to breeze past some of its more nonsensical narrative obstacles. Indeed, I’d even say that Nimble, along with Death Trip, is among the best of the lot. Granted, however, that status is as much due to the efforts of star and stunt coordinator Brad Harris, who here more than ever steals the show from his above-the-title costar, Tony Kendall.
As Death is Nimble opens, we find Harris’s Captain Tom Rowland in Singapore attending a law enforcement conference on the subject of Karate, because that’s just the kind of thing that happens in the Kommissar X universe. New York’s police department may be stretched to its limits, but that’s no reason not to send one of its best detectives to Southeast Asia to punch a fist print into a block of iron for the edification of his peers. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka (still known at the time as Ceylon), two scowling goons attempt to kidnap a vacationing American heiress (Ann Smyrner), the larger of them killing an American diplomat with a single blow when the diplomat attempts to intervene. It is later determined that this was no ordinary blow, but rather an application of the deadly oriental art of ka-ra-te. Thus is the membrane-thin pretext for Captain Tom Rowland being assigned to Sri Lanka established.
Seeing as New York private dick Jo Walker (the ever-game Tony Kendall) is a gun for hire, getting him to the narrative starting block is a less complicated matter. To wit, Walker is hired by the father of the imperiled Heiress to look after her welfare, an arrangement which soon sees the detective arriving in Sri Lanka with a stewardess literally on each arm. In this manner is the central duo of what amounts to the Eurospy equivalent of the Hope/Crosby road movies united once again. Working with the local authorities, Rowland and Walker tie the crime to a group of freedom fighters turned gangsters called the Golden Cats, who make a helpful practice of leaving a figurine of a three-headed cat on the bodies of each of their victims.
At this point, of course, we’ve only met two of the Cats, one of whom is Nitro (series regular Seigfried Rauch), who lives up to his moniker by tossing small vials of nitroglycerin at people whenever expeditious. The other is the imposing karate master, King, played by Dan Vadis. Vadis was a friend of Brad Harris’ going back to their days together on the Southern California body-building scene, and both had headlined numerous Italian sword and sandal adventures. Harris respected Vadis as an athlete and brought him in to work on his films on several occasions. In the case of Death is Nimble, not only is Vadis his primary screen adversary; he’s also a collaborator on the picture’s action choreography.
This collaboration seems to have resulted in a cycle of professional one-upmanship between the two strongmen, with each of them engaging in some truly hair-raising daredevilry that, if not as dangerous as it looks, still had to have been pretty goddamn dangerous. Narrow rooftops are sprinted across with abandon and ledges dangled from at great heights, all, according to Harris, minus any of the safety precautions that insurers would insist upon today. It should also be mentioned that both men seem to have a real proficiency in martial arts, which makes their karate fights come off as much more hands-on and convincing than what you typically see in western films from the period.
Like most Kommissar X films, the plot of Death is Nimble, Death is Quick does not make a whole lot of sense. As usual, there’s a mystery surrounding the identity of the central gang’s unseen mister big — a holdover, I think, from the krimi roots of the original Kommissar X novels. Then there’s the matter of a manmade bacteria that can eat its way through a human body in a matter of seconds. What really matters, though, is that there are enough audacious set pieces and bits of comical business to keep us from caring how all of those things tie together, if indeed they do at all.
In this regard, Zehetgruber and company don’t let us down. There’s a fantastic scene in which Walker and Rowland navigate an eerie, fog-enshrouded lake littered with barren trees, stalked all the while by a flame belching, tank-like trimaran perhaps inspired by the “dragon” James Bond battles in Dr. No. Later, a riotous climax that seems to last the entire final third of the film features a strategic elephant stampede — thanks, of course, to the intervention of Zehetgruber’s Barrett, the game warden — and an attempt by Jo Walker to mate a Citroen with a moving plane.
But it is not until, in the movie’s waning minutes, when Brad Harris and Dan Vadis meet for a final hand-to-hand confrontation, that we realize what we’ve really been waiting for all along. Up to this point, Rowland and King have had a number of narrow scrapes and skirmishes, but now, with nowhere else to run, it becomes time for them to honor that hallowed movie tradition of two men trying to violently kill one another while unsentimentally making manifest their respect for one another as violent killing machines. Fittingly, this sequence was shot in a specially built set in Hong Kong that could have easily doubled as a clan lair in any number of Shaw Brothers productions. The scene is brief, economical, and brutal and, while over quickly, is nonetheless satisfying as an exhibition of two masters at the top of their game.
I think it’s generally understood as dismissive to refer to a movie as an “entertainment”, but that connotation overlooks just how hard a film can work to entertain its audience. In the case of a movie like Death is Nimble, Death is Quick, that work amounts to something akin to a three-ring circus; one can see daring feats of strength in one corner, charming ribaldry in another, and, hey, there are even elephants. As with the circus, one would expect to find their share of eccentric characters in such an environment, and thus we can perhaps forgive Rudolph Zehetgruber his penchant for screen hogging, with or without his winsome critters. After all, like all the best films in the Kommissar X series, Death is Nimble is marked by a pronounced generosity of spirit. It would be rude not to respond in kind.