Death Trip

For me, one of the hazards of watching one of the Kommissar X movies is that it means I’ll have that “I Love You, Jo Walker” song stuck in my 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 me than it is to myself. Personally, I don’t care if the world knows that I love Jo Walker (though my wife might have some questions about it). 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, getting entangled in the wild world of LSD trafficking, and even sampling some of the stuff themselves. What’s most strange about Death Trip, however, is that, despite it’s 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 city 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 — and 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 clear answers to such questions. For 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.

And following that line of reasoning, we’re next shown Tom Rowland, a New York City policeman, arriving in Istanbul on a mission from the Pentagon 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 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, we will soon learn, 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 putative canister of yellow sunshine from the Consul’s safe. Unfortunately, in an especially taxing earlier 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, and 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, as much as I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment today, 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. It kind of reminds me of those people who refer to any music of any degree of aggressiveness beyond that of the most mainstream pop as “Hard Rock”.

Not that I’m any expert on the subject of drugs, of course. Or, at least, I don’t consider myself to be one. In fact, given the circles I once traveled in, I feel that my youthful indiscretions in that area were fairly moderate in scope. Though I must admit that others don’t agree. Recently, at a dinner to honor a certain life passage of mine, I sat in stunned silence as one of my oldest friends regaled some of my not-quite-so-old friends with tales of what a disgusting drug whore I used to be. So, okay: it was the 80s, I was a young musician and aspiring hipster living on my own in the big-ish city for the first time — and keep in mind that this was way before the concept of “straight edge” was invented, when it was still inconceivable that you could have any kind of “edge” at all without shoveling all kinds of illicit substances into your face (Keith may correct me on that point, but just ignore him) — so perhaps I did “experiment” a little. But I never did LSD. Well, okay, just the once.

The fact is that, at that time, I found maintaining control enough of a struggle as it was, and so preferred those substances that gave me delusions of mastery over those that made me feel like my head was separating into individual parts. Still, there came a time when I decided that, in order to be a more well-rounded degenerate, I needed to sample psychedelics. So a friend — of course, that very same friend who would years later point the accusing stinkfinger of drug whoredom at me — procured us some LSD, which, indicative of the drug lightweights we really were beneath our cultivated exteriors, we made a date (a “drug date”, if you will) to consume, rather than simply scarfing it all down the moment it came into our hands. That date rolled around, a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of Summer, and he, myself and a third friend ate our drugs and hit the streets. With characteristic transparent bravura, I expressed skepticism that the dose would have any effect on me at all.

Now, the thing that I recall about psychedelics is that, because they make you very receptive to outside stimuli — and in very unpredictable ways — it’s very important to do them in an environment that’s as free as possible of unpleasant stressors. So why we decided to go to Fisherman’s Wharf, somewhere no one who actually lives in San Francisco ever goes, and which at that time of the year would be packed shoulder to shoulder with loudly-dressed tourists and their shrieking children, I will never know. But it was probably my idea. Anyway, once the chemicals started kicking in, we quickly realized that we had concocted the perfect recipe for a bad trip, and quickly tried to get to safety before we saw anything that would scar our minds forever.

Unfortunately, in the course of our scramble to sanctuary, I saw the following: (1) A kid in a cardboard Burger King crown who, hoisted up on his dad’s shoulders, appeared to be hovering above the crowd, which caused me to exclaim loudly, “It’s the king!’ (2) An old Chinese man with an enormous goiter; and (3) once we were in the presumed shelter of a darkened bar, on the TV that Twisted Sister video where the guy from Animal House looks into the camera–right at YOU, man!–and shouts, “WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE?” Truly, even today, as I describe them, all of these sights flash in my mind with a horrible vividness, illuminated with the blinding clarity of a million hateful suns, much like a flashback in a David Fincher movie. So, needless to say, I never did that again.

Anyway, back in the world of Death Trip, 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 (and which covers some territory familiar from similar scenes in the Kilink movies). Finally, Walker finds shelter, along with Rowland, in Leyla’s houseboat, and Leyla introduces the pair to her neighbor Alman.

Now, Alman, aside from Walker and Rowland, 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 contain 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! In fact, 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. Curse you Kommissar X! (In truth, as someone charged with summarizing the plot of this movie, 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 — or, heck, of any other Eurospy film, for that matter — 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 — because she’s hot — is the beautiful Christa Linder, who plays the cigarette girl Gisela. Linder really made the rounds in the worldwide B movie industry during the sixties, and even did a stint in Mexico, where she became an inadvertent co-star to Teleport City’s favorite luchadore, 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 make 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, and 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, finally finding their way to the Hounds’ lair. 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) 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 more sad that such undisguised eagerness to entertain seems today to be so quaint and old fashioned.

Another notable difference between Death Trip and its predecessors in the series is that its dubbing is done by a different and less recognizable cast of voice actors than that employed for the first three. I actually missed those familiar voices at first, but then came to prefer their absence, because, to tell the truth, it’s a lot less distracting when you’re not hearing Racer X’s voice coming out of Brad Harris’ mouth. Given the general and very hard to argue with opinion that all dubbing is bad, it’s easy to forget that there are actual degrees of quality involved.

Of course, the dubbing for 80s kung fu movies would have to represent the absolute bottom of the scale, and Death Trip resides quite a bit higher than that. For instance, at no time did I — as I have with other Eurospy films — feel that I was simply watching live actors acting out the soundtrack of a cartoon. This in turn helped me to maintain my illusion that what was being presented on screen was actually happening, and that Tom Rowland and Jo Walker were my friends, and that we were maybe going to start a band together. What?

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 that 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.

Release Year: 1967 | Countries: West Gremany, Italy, France, Lebanon, Hungary
Starring: Tony Kendall, Brad Harris, Olga Schoberova, Christa Linder, Dietmar Schonherr, Sabine Sun, Rudolf Zehetgruber (as Rolf Zehett), Herbert Fux, Rossella Bergamonti, Samson Burke, Emilio Carrer, Carlo Tamberlani | Screenplay: Rudolf Zehetgruber, Giovanni Simonelli, Paul Alfred Muller | Directors: Rudolf Zehetgruber, Gianfranco Parolini | Cinematographers: Georgio Garibaldi Schwarze, Angelo Lozzi | Music: Francesco De Masi (“I Love You, Jo Walker” written by Bobby Gutesha, performed by Angela Monti) | Producers: Fadel Kassar, Theo Maria Werner | Alternate Titles: Kommissar X – Drei Grune Hunde