The Price of Death/Il venditore di morte (1971)

‘You’d have to be a millipede to satisfy everybody.’

The saloon in Appleby is held up by three masked men on the same night as a young Mexican woman is brutally stabbed to death. Only one of the gang escapes the botched heist with his life. The blame falls on a local troublemaker, who is found guilty after trial and sentenced to hang. His lawyer hires a notorious gunman to help prove his client’s innocence…

Unusual attempt to spoof the Spaghetti Western from writer-director Lorenzo Gicca Palli, who throws significant elements of the Giallo thriller into his offbeat mixture. Genre stalwarts Gianni Garko and Klaus Kinski are along for the ride in this Italian production filmed at the Elios Studios in Rome.

It’s a busy night in the one-horse town of Appleby. Pretty young Carmen Morales (Franca De Stratis) is home alone making supper when she’s attacked and murdered by an unknown assailant. Over on main street, fun times at the saloon are on hold when three masked men burst in with guns demanding the evening’s proceeds. It looks like a bloodless heist until one of the patrons comes downstairs unexpectedly, and the bullets start to fly. Two of the gang are shot dead in the street outside by arriving Sheriff Tom Stanton (Luciano Catenacci), but the third escapes. The finger points toward local bad boy Chester Conway (Klaus Kinski), and in no time at all, he’s up before Judge Atwell (Alfredo Rizzo) and a jury of his peers. Convicted after a show trial, he is sentenced to hang.

Convinced of Kinski’s innocence, defence lawyer Jeff Plummer (Franco Abbina) hires old friend Mr Silver (Gianni Garko) to investigate and find the real culprit. The parents of the murdered girl have already retained his services as that crime has seemingly gone unnoticed by the official forces of law and order. From the start, Garko faces anger and resentment from the townsfolk and no co-operation from Catenacci. Everyone seems convinced of Kinski’s guilt, from sawbones Doc Rosencrantz (Luciano Pigozzi) to churchman Reverend Tiller (Giancarlo Prete), from fire and brimstone reformer Mrs Randall (Laura Gianoli) to her husband, Banker Randall (Luigi Casellato). The one person willing to help is saloon owner Polly Winters (Mimma Biscardi), and that’s only because she’s Kinski’s ex-lover and wants to hang him herself!

For a modern audience, this is an oddball film that never achieves a consistent tone with either its drama or its comedy. The opening murder is lifted straight out of the Giallo playbook, being shown almost exclusively from the killer’s point of view. We get hands clutching at De Stratis’ throat, her agonised, screaming face and her unsuccessful defence with a kitchen knife. Likewise, the heist and its gunplay are played as a straight action sequence.

Things start getting seriously weird at Kinski’s trial, which is presented as a farce. Blowhard defence attorney Abbina is constantly interrupted by the Prosecutor (Andrea Scotti), and Judge Rizzo repeatedly fines Abbina for protesting about it. Witness Biscardi gives her testimony dressed in a yellow trouser suit and big hair, looking like she stepped into a 1970s boutique on her way to the courtroom! All this is somewhat baffling to a modern audience. It’s a satirical dig at the judicial system, obviously, but it’s remorselessly heavy-handed, and there’s a suspicion that some of the humour may have been inspired by real-life events of its time. Whatever the intention, it comes right out of left-field after the serious opening.

Garko’s investigations lead to the exposure of further smalltown hypocrisy; everyone is sleeping with everyone else, and those that shout loudest for high moral values are the most guilty of sin. Uptight harpy Gianoli is bankrolling Biscardi’s bordello/saloon on the quiet because they are secretly sisters. The diary of the call girl killed in the robbery prompts a bidding frenzy amongst the town’s leading citizens when it’s publicly auctioned by Sheriff Catenacci. It’s highly probable that the writer-director had an axe to grind when it came to figures in authority, both those in the political arena and self-appointed guardians of public morals.

There’s some good potential for sly comedy here, but it’s so broad, overdone, and relentless that it quickly loses its impact. However, it’s only fair to reiterate that some of the satirical barbs may have been lost to the passage of time and the film’s journey across international boundaries. One example is when Garko’s mission takes him out of town to a gold mining camp where he rescues a man from a lengthy comedy beating. Who is he, and what is his function in the story? The audience never finds out because he is shot dead less than a minute after Garko gets him back to town, and he’s never mentioned again.

That’s not to say there are not some enjoyable moments here, just that they never coalesce into a coherent whole. It seems as if there may have been an intention at some stage to present a freewheeling satire of movie tropes and conventions of all kinds, but the finished product only hints at this possibility. When we first meet Garko’s Mr Silver, he is hanging out with two bikini-clad lovelies, and a cool drink in a tall glass in the same way James Bond might wait for the inevitable call to duty. He even works out with an uncredited Japanese martial artist who repeatedly throws him to the mat before a frustrated Garko lays him out with a straight right to the jaw. Again, none of this goes anywhere or comes up again in the rest of the film. Of course, this scattershot approach to comedy can work, but not when other parts of the story play as straightforward drama.

Fortunately, the principal cast keeps things watchable, and Gicca Palli doesn’t allow a lot of time to ponder the many unresolved plot threads and general incoherence. Garko and Kinski were veterans of the Old West by this time, and both give reliably charismatic performances. However, Kinski enthusiasts may be disappointed by his role, as he spends almost his entire screentime ranting and raving in his jail cell. Similarly, Giallo fans are likely to find slim pickings here. Yes, there’s a string of murders committed by a hooded killer whose identity is revealed at the climax, but this part of the plot often feels strangely incidental.

The handsome Garko had been appearing on the Italian screen for almost a decade before his big break arrived with a leading role as Sartana Liston in Spaghetti Western ‘Blood at Sundown/1000 dollari sul nero’ (1966). The character name stuck, and his starring role in ‘If You Meet Sartana… Pray for Your Death/Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte’ (1968) led to his leading three of the subsequent films in the series. By then, he had also played gunslinger Django and, later on, he made a one-off showing as supernatural gunman Holy Ghost in ‘Uomo avvisato mezzo ammazzato… Parola di Spirito Santo’ (1972), a character usually portrayed by Vassili Karis. In later years, as the genre declined, he moved increasingly to television, including an unlikely guest appearance in Gerry Anderson’s science-fiction series ‘Space: 1999’. Although his big-screen credits became more occasional, there were still leading roles in hamfisted space opera ‘Star Odyssey’ (1979), Bermuda Triangle close ‘Encounters in the Deep’ (1979) and opposite Lou Ferrigno in Luigi Cozzi’s wonderfully trashy ‘Hercules’ (1983).

A satirical mash-up between Spaghetti Western and Giallo presents possibilities, but what emerges is an unbalanced, unsatisfying experience.