1967 | West Gremany, Italy, France, Lebanon, Hungary
Director: Rudolf Zehetgruber
AKA: Kommissar X – Drei Grune Hunde
One of the hazards of watching one of the Kommissar X movies is that it means you’ll have that “I Love You, Jo Walker” song stuck in your head for the next two weeks and will be at constant risk of bursting into it at any given moment, which is actually more of a hazard to those around you than it is to yourself. Personally, I don’t care if the world knows that I love Jo Walker. Given that he’s a character with all the depth of a walking Playboy cartoon, it’s actually surprising how lovable he can become with repeated exposure. Death Trip, the fourth entry in the Kommissar X series, is also quite lovable, though only once you get past the expectations that it raises and learn to love it for who it really is.
For those familiar with the series, the phrase “Kommissar X on acid” would seem like a redundancy. These movies, as is, are already strange enough to make you suspect that some kind of chemical inspiration was involved in their conception. But “Kommissar X on acid” is exactly what Death Trip, on paper at least, promises us. Our world-hopping team of swinging adventurers/super sleuths, Jo Walker and Tom Rowland, get entangled in the wild world of LSD trafficking, even sampling some of the stuff themselves. What’s strangest about Death Trip, however, is that, despite its concept, it somehow manages to be the most low-key entry in the series so far. And that’s not all bad…in fact, it’s not bad at all.
For one thing, unlike the three films that preceded it — which were all made virtually back-to-back over the course of one year and, as a result, have a very similar feel — Death Trip gives the impression of having had the benefit of some breathing room. As a result, there is not only a distillation of some of the better elements from the preceding films but also evidence that, having firmly established the formula, those involved felt they were on sure enough footing to attempt stretching its boundaries a little. In addition, the performances by the two leads, Tony Kendall and Brad Harris, clearly show them settling into their characters, as well as having an intuitive grasp of their relationship. There is less sparring between the two than seen in the earlier films, and what there is of it is more affectionate, cluing us in that Tom Rowland really doesn’t hate Walker nearly as much as he sometimes appears to in the other films.
One thing that has not changed from previous entries, though, is the generally good-natured tone of the proceedings. And that’s a good thing, because once you’ve sat down and tried to make sense of one of these movies, you really realize just how much they get by on personality. For instance, take that great unsolvable mystery that is at the heart of every Kommissar X film: that of why and in what capacity our two heroes, New York police captain Rowland and New York private detective Walker, are in whatever exotic foreign locale they’re in. In the case of Death Trip, they’re in Turkey, and the film begins with Jo Walker in progress, taking on all comers in a wild bar fight while at the same time kissing any cocktail waitress who wanders within his impressive lip-reach. One thug, who we will later learn is a member of the criminal gang the Green Hounds, remarks to another that Walker has been at the bar every night stirring up trouble and had to be dealt with before he learned too much about the gang’s operations.
But is Walker really on the trail of the Green Hounds? Later exchanges will reveal that the existence of the gang and their activities are news to him. So why is he in Istanbul? Unless hanging out in shady, gang-infested Turkish bars and getting into fistfights is his idea of a vacation (which, granted, it very well might be), he’s presumably there on business. Given that he’s a private detective, that would mean that someone has hired him to be there. But who? And for what? Only frustration awaits those who come to Death Trip expecting answers to such questions. I imagine that if you were to ask anyone behind the scenes, the answer would be a resounding, “Who cares?” The point, after all, is simply to get both Walker and Rowland into the chosen picturesque locale by whatever cursory means possible so that they can proceed with the business of getting into all kinds of entertaining and improbable scrapes and chasing some attractive women around, a goal that clearly overrides any paltry considerations of credibility or logic.
Following that line of reasoning, we’re next shown Tom Rowland, a New York City policeman remember, arriving in Istanbul on a mission from the Pentagon and carrying a million dollars worth of LSD, which he is to deliver to the American Consul General—a combination of circumstances that effectively strikes a death blow against whatever remaining intentions I might have had to question the logic of anything that happens in Death Trip. Rowland’s stated purpose is to deliver the drugs to the U.S. armed forces in Turkey, with the intention being to help our boys achieve parity with unnamed enemies plotting to undermine NATO’s forces by means of making them high out of their minds on acid. As Rowland says at one point, “Every important nation has a supply of it on hand.”
The truth, however, is that Rowland’s plan is to use the drugs as bait to draw out a gang of international LSD traffickers, of which the Green Hounds are a part. To that end, the canister of “LSD” that he leaves with the Consul is actually a decoy filled with sugar (a result, I’m guessing, of someone hearing once somewhere that one of the ways people took acid was by lacing sugarcubes with it), though for reasons I won’t speculate upon, he also has a stash of the real stuff which he keeps to (for?) himself.
At the consulate, Rowland meets Allan Hood (Dietmar Schonherr), a NATO military advisor, and Joyce Sellers (Sabine Sun), the Consul General’s secretary. Joyce is secretly a member of the Green Hounds, so it’s no surprise when, later that night, Joyce and a mysterious second party return to steal the canister of yellow sunshine from the Consul’s safe. Unfortunately, in an especially taxing bit of needlessly complicated plotting, Hood had made arrangements with his brother, the owner of a tourist service, to provide a guide for Rowland during his stay. For some reason, that brother shows up at the consulate with that guide in the middle of the night, just as the heist is taking place. Hood’s brother is captured by the villains and presumably killed, but the guide, a young woman named Leyla (Olga Schoberova) manages to escape and, as a result, lands right at the top of the Green Hounds’ hit list.
Meanwhile, Jo Walker returns to that shady bar he was seen trashing at the beginning of the movie and makes contact with a young American girl named Jenny Carter (Rossella Bergamonti), who, judging by their conversation, is working as a prostitute, and who, furthermore, appears to have some connection with the Green Hounds. Out of my own childish clinging to restrictive notions of coherence, I decided to make this the reason for Walker being in Istanbul — i.e. that he has been hired by Jenny’s family to bring her back to the States — even though that is in no way made explicit. In any case, this scene occasions one of the members of the Green Hounds approaching Walker and asking him if he’d be interested in a little LSD, which occasions Walker telling him that LSD is bad and, once Jenny has rejoined him, telling her, also, that LSD is bad.
To be honest, there’s something a bit dissonant about seeing the Kommissar X boys lecturing people about the dangers of drugs the way they do in this film, especially in the case of Jo Walker, who seems like the kind of guy who would try anything at least once. It has a whiff of the obligatory about it, reminding me of those times when my cool aunt, under coercion from my mother, would give me a talking to about the risks of smoking — something she would do hastily and half-heartedly in between long drags on a Camel. So when Walker extols the virtues of scotch to Jenny while warning her of the comparative evils of acid, I find it a bit disconcerting to see him landing so squarely on the establishment side of the ’60s culture war, especially considering that the freshly illegalized drug had only very recently made the transition from being the subject of mildly naughty cocktail party conversation among middle-aged swingers to being pilloried as a scourge of youth. Adding to this ill-fittingly stolid characterization is the fact that Death Trip seems to employ the term LSD as sort of a generic catch-all for drugs of all species since, given the locale and a lot of the effects they’re attributing to the drug, it seems like heroin would have been a more appropriate choice of chemical villain.
The Green Hounds decide to take care of Walker by dosing his delicious scotch with LSD. This has the somewhat muted effect of making him just a bit nonconfrontational and indecisive, and also nervous about handling handguns — in other words, a lot like most normal people. As disappointing as this is to those of us who were wanting to see a full-scale Jo Walker freakout, it’s also a little refreshing by comparison to other anti-drug movies of the period, which all would have had Walker shouting “I can fly!” and running headlong toward the nearest window. Thankfully, before Walker can make the decision to quit adventuring and pursue an undistinguished career in office management, the bar’s cigarette girl, Gisela (Christa Linder), causes a diversion and helps him to escape. A chase follows that ends with him taking a flying leap into the Bosphorus, after which he emerges at the exact spot where Rowland and Leyla are sightseeing, providing the opportunity for Walker and Rowland to do their usual meet-cute.
Once the only slightly addled Walker makes his way back to his hotel room, he finds it occupied by one of the Green Hounds’ goons, Shapiro (Herbert Fux), and by Jenny, whom Shapiro has overdosed and placed in Walker’s bed with the intention of framing him for her murder. After tricking the none-too-bright Shapiro, Walker escapes, and a nicely-shot daylight foot chase follows that makes the most of the film’s Istanbul location. Walker finds shelter, along with Rowland, in Leyla’s houseboat, and Leyla introduces the pair to her neighbor, Alman. Aside from Walker and Rowland, Alman is probably the most important character in Death Trip. Though he’s described as a fisherman, what he really is is this movie’s all-purpose deus ex machina, stepping up with some new, previously undisclosed skill or area of expertise whenever the script requires it. He’s a doctor (thanks to working as a veterinarian’s assistant in Kentucky) when Walker needs a shot to bring him down from his LSD high, an expert marksman (thanks to a stint in vaudeville) when some fancy shooting is required, and, when exposition about the bogus history of barbarian tribes in Turkey is needed, a former student of archeology.
He even proves to be an accomplished balladeer, complete with his own canned orchestral accompaniment, when the filmmakers determine that Death Trip, not quite containing enough amiable silliness as is, needs a third act musical number. To ice the cake, Alman, thanks to the four-legged residents of his ark-like houseboat, also insures that Death Trip contains more adorable puppies than any other entry in the Kommissar X series, hands down. In short, a character like Alman is the lazy screenwriter’s best friend. And who, in this case, is that lazy screenwriter? Why, it’s Alman, of course! And he’s also the director!
Writer/director Rudolf Zehetgruber had already appeared on screen in his previous Kommissar X entry, Death is Nimble, Death is Quick, using, as he does here, the name Rolf Zehet, which was just one of many screen aliases he used over the course of his career. Unfortunately, Death Trip takes most of the joy out of making fun of the whole over-reliance on Alman thing by making it clear that all involved were well aware of how gratuitous it was and, in typical fashion, pushing it to tongue-in-cheek extremes. On the other hand, I was very happy to see Alman come along, because it meant that we could dispense with all of this “so-and-so’s brother is a tour guide and knows a girl, etc.” nonsense and simply have all plot points from that point on established with the actions of just one character.
Aside from that insatiable glory hog Zehetgruber, the cast of Death Trip, like that of any other entry in the Kommissar X series, is littered with faces recognizable to anyone well-versed in 1960s European B-cinema. Dietmar Schonherr, who plays Allan Hood, is probably best known for his lead role as Commander Cliff McClaine — the Teutonic Captain Kirk with a smirky attitude — in the German science fiction series Raumpatrouille Orion. Because of his commanding presence in that series, I was surprised that he makes so little of an impression here, despite having a substantial role. Having a much slighter role, but making a more substantial impression is the beautiful Christa Linder, who plays the cigarette girl Gisela. Linder really made the rounds in the worldwide B-movie industry during the 1960s, and even did a stint in Mexico, where she became an inadvertent co-star to Blue Demon. This occurred after her actual co-star in Invasion of the Dead, the escape artist Zovek, died during filming and the producers used totally unrelated footage of Blue puttering around in what looked like a high school’s boiler room to pad out the running time. Linder gets a decidedly better showcase in Death Trip, even if she is forced to wear her skimpy cigarette girl uniform throughout the entire length of the movie.
Once Death Trip has gotten Walker and Rowland effectively teamed up and its villains clearly established, it proceeds with a series of set pieces in which the gang makes alternating attempts to kill both Leyla and Jenny, all of which are foiled in high style by Jo and Tom. Finally, the Green Hounds, realizing that Rowland has pulled a switch-a-roo on them with the LSD, kidnap him in order to get him to divulge where the real stash is hidden. Rowland ends up imprisoned along with Leyla, Giselda, and Hood in the Hounds’ desert camp, which is located in a network of caves in a region aptly named the Valley of a Thousand Hills. It’s up to Walker to rescue him. In the attempt, he employs a desert sheik disguise that, for all its ridiculousness, is still less silly than the lemonade vendor get-up he sports in an earlier sequence. Death Trip then goes all Lawrence of Arabia as Walker and Alman caravan across the desert. Then, during a pretty spectacular mounted raid by the Turkish police, Walker manages to effect Rowland’s escape, setting in motion a truly action-packed climax.
While it’s Tony Kendall who gets top billing, it’s Brad Harris, with his rough and tumble stunt work, who can always be counted on to provide the bulk of the Kommissar X films’ action highlights, and, after that fashion, Harris completely owns the final twenty minutes of Death Trip. In a sequence in which Rowland eludes his captors after escaping from his desert prison, we watch Harris careening recklessly down the sheer faces of some very steep dunes like a bobsledder without a sled. Then he engages in a prolonged and brutal hand-to-hand fight with Canadian wrestler-turned-actor Samson Burke (playing the Hounds’ muscle-bound strongman Kehmal, and another veteran of the sword-and-sandal genre) that sees the actors furiously hurling one another through walls like a pair of human wrecking balls.
Finally, there is a wild motorcycle chase across the dunes that ends with Harris making a leap from his bike into a moving car. Harris is clearly having a blast during all of this, and in the dune-surfing sequence in particular, a huge grin is clearly visible on his face throughout. That might serve to undermine any sense of real peril or suspense that these scenes might otherwise have had, but, more importantly, Harris’s giddy demeanor highlights everything that this particular series is all about: fun at the expense of all else. That the result is so enjoyable makes it all the sadder that such undisguised eagerness to entertain seems today to be so quaint and old-fashioned.
For all the enjoyment I got out of it, Death Trip is not without its problems. Firstly, it’s a little top-heavy with characters, a problem that could have been solved by introducing all-purpose Alman about twenty minutes earlier. Secondly, because the leader of the Green Hounds is not revealed until the very end, the film for most of its running time lacks the type of over-the-top villain that has served these movies so well in the past. Thirdly, it makes Jo Walker and Tom Rowland both look like somebody’s dad by having them lecture people about drugs — though thankfully that’s dispensed with pretty quickly. Still, it’s difficult to determine how much weight to give such concerns when they occur within a context as blissfully weightless as a Kommissar X movie. Personally, I’d prefer to roll with Death Trip and ride the high. Any more serious consideration than that and I fear that Death Trip might just turn around and laugh in my face. However, for those of you who do choose to approach Death Trip with a serious mind, Death Trip will reward you for your efforts by way of a closing gag involving a talking donkey. If you haven’t gotten the joke by then, you really are tripping.