Early on in Deadlock, Roland Klick’s cult German Western, the marvellously named Charles Dump (Mario Adorf) finds the unconscious Kid (Marquard Bohm) lying unconscious on the side of the ride near to a metal suitcase. Shortly before, we have seen Kid – face dirty and scorched by the sun (a malign presence in the film – the film’s most vicious character is named Sunshine), his arm bloody from a gunshot wound – staggering through the desert carrying the case. On opening it, Dump finds it contains stolen money – no surprises there – and a jukebox record. The money is ostensibly what Deadlock is all about – its three male antagonists appear to form and betray alliances with one another over it. While it has a modern-day setting and its only Italian connection is one of its actors, Deadlock has Sergio Leone (and the Italian Western more generally) writ large upon it. It’s a film of stare-outs, waiting for killers to arrive on trains, money (possibly) hidden in graveyards, a raincoat worn like a duster, desert heat and dust storms, double crosses and sadistic games. It’s the type of film where cold-eyed killers bark ‘Where’s the money!’ But it’s also a film where a few moments later, the same killer insists that he doesn’t care about the money (and seems to actually mean it) – that it’s not about the money. In some ways, it’s that record that tells us more about the film. Firstly, because music is central to Deadlock’s enduring cult status – the soundtrack is by Can, comprising three tracks that appear on the ‘Soundtracks’ album (1970), and can also be played as extras on the German 451RedLine DVD of the film. When the record is played on the (otherwise empty) jukebox, what we hear is Can’s ‘Tango Whiskeyman’ – several times in the course of the film. As Kid plays the record repeatedly, his older partner Mr Sunshine (Anthony Dawson) suspects some kind of significance in it – ‘How long will this stupid game go on?’ he wonders. During the climax of the film, the record sticks and perhaps reveals its real significance – these are characters in a locked groove, unable to escape or progress, fated to constantly return to the same point until death intervenes. When Dump first finds Kid, he intends to kill him with a large rock. He can’t go through with it and drives off. He changes his mind and returns, clutching a monkey wrench to complete the task, but Kid (temporarily) gets the better of him. Back at the almost deserted former mining town – population: three (Dump, what seems to be the local whore and her, and possibly his, daughter) – he keeps coming back to the matter of killing the weakened, wounded man. He points a gun at him, then insists (seemingly to himself as much as anyone) that he will allow him to die from his bullet wound, prevents Jessy (Mascha Rabben) from removing the bullet (‘The bullet stays in!’) – and then finally does it himself. At night, he clutches the stolen money as if in prayer, and sobs with self-loathing.
Three men play a series of deadly games over ill-gotten wealth – little wonder the film has been compared particularly with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Like Eastwood’s Blondie, Kid is ruthless up to a point but with some capacity for humanity (he wants to spare Dump and is protective towards Jessy) – both characters have their handsome features temporarily ruined by the brutal desert sun. Mr Sunshine is the most like his counterpart, Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes – the sadistic older killer. That leaves Dump as equivalent to Eli Wallach’s Tuco – an abject figure, a kind of Holy Fool. But where Tuco is a quick-witted trickster – someone we like in spite of ourselves – Dump is a genuine all-out loser. He isn’t a bandit but a low-level employee of the North American Mining Company – it isn’t clear what he actually does, although he boasts police powers. Even his name is abject – seemingly both a reference to his living arrangements (he remarks that his bed stinks, at one point) and human waste (‘I’m a piece of shit!’ he declares whilst pleading for his life.) As with Leone – and Peckinpah (another point of comparison one finds in some reviews) – this is an unremittingly masculine world (by which I mean, film.) Jessy – beautiful but virtually mute and vacant-eyed, either mentally challenged or (as Dump seems to imply at one point) doped to the eyeballs – is passive and sexually available (‘She’ll do anything you want’, Dump boasts to Kid.) But while Leone’s characters like to play their sadistic games – with nooses, with unmarked graves – they are more obviously and literally goal-oriented. Deadlock is the kind of thriller that often prompts the word ‘existential’ – populated by uncommunicative violent individualists (and also men who unwisely talk too much) with a dawning realisation that they are engaged in a meaningless game in which every victory, including survival, is empty. Take Point Blank, for example – another film about a man constantly demanding ‘his’ money – in which Walker’s (Lee Marvin) vendetta ever-diminishes into a series of mechanical acts of violence and the growing sense that he can’t fully remember why he started.
Mario Adorf gets the best role in the film, and he’s no stranger to such loser roles (in the films of Fernando di Leo, for example.) In the English version, he gets the best deal with the dubbing, too – the gravelly line delivery is reminiscent of Jason Robards’ Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West. But it’s Anthony Dawson who’s the revelation – not because he’s never impressed as an actor but because he might not have struck anybody as the Lee Van Cleef type. A reliable, and occasionally inspired, British character actor, Dawson is probably best remembered as either the hired killer that Grace Kelly gets the better of in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder or as one of Dr No’s underlings Professor Dent, despatched in a particularly cold-blooded manner by 007. He’s better still as the Marques Siniestro in Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf, a character who could easily have wandered in from a de Sade novel. Here he’s grizzled, one eye nearly shut, sometimes seen striding through the desert like one of Leone’s hired killers, or waggling his fingers mockingly when Dump points a gun at him. But ultimately even Sunshine isn’t entirely what he appears to be and so Dawson is called upon to do rather more than the more taciturn Van Cleef was generally required to. With its spare narrative, striking performances and settings (a cowboy sign with an arm hanging loose that seems to mock Kid’s injury), and the obvious appeal of its soundtrack, it’s little wonder that Deadlock has a growing reputation as one of the best European Westerns. It also makes you hear those Can tracks slightly differently, inevitably overshadowed on ‘Soundtracks’ by the mighty ‘Mother Sky’. But if ‘Soundtracks’ ends with ‘She Brings the Rain’, once you’ve seen Deadlock, those first three tracks are likely to make you think of the sun – the burning, unremitting sun and its deadly namesake.
The 451RedLIne DVD features an excellent transfer (especially when upscaled) and German and English language tracks (no subtitles on the German track.) Trailers are also available in both languages, but all other extras (bar the Can tracks) are in German only with no subs – a commentary by and interview with Roland Klick and an archive documentary about the casting of the female lead.