dir. Alfonso Balcázar
1967 / Bengala Film / 86′
a.k.a. Con la Muerte a la Espalda
written by Alfonso Balcázar, José Antonio de la Loma and Giovanni Simonelli
cinematography by Victor Monreal
music by Claude Bolling
starring George Martin, Vivi Bach, Rosalba Neri, Daniele Vargas, Klausjürgen Wussow, and Michel Montfort
A gang of international evil-doers has invented a drug that can be used to provoke completely innocent members of the military into pushing the Big Red Button that would loose the Big One. Does it show I’m so old I even remember the Cold War?
Anyway, that drug may not sound all that useful to you or me (for what good is destroying the world, really, unless you’re an insane cultist of some eldritch god?), but “the third power” we will certainly not call China (oops) is very interested in acquiring it.
Fortunately, our international evil-doers make a very public test run of their drug, giving one of those professors of every discipline you can imagine called Professor you often find in these films enough data to develop an antidote against it. For once, the Americans and the Russians (as represented by agents called – I kid you not – Bill and Ivan) are of one mind, and are even willing to share the antidote with each other, if with gnashing teeth.
For some reason, the good guys ship the Professor and his assistant Monica (Vivi Bach) off to Hamburg, where he is supposed to give a suitcase containing the antidote and/or the formula for the antidote to the proper authorities during some rich woman’s party. Of course, the international evil-doers get wind of that particularly useless plan, and gun down the Professor. If not for the intervention of suave/smarmy thief Gary (George Martin) who just happens to be a sucker for beautiful women and suitcases containing valuables, they’d be able to kill Monica and steal the suitcase too.
Having acquired Monica and the suitcase, Gary isn’t quite sure what to do with them – sell them on to the Chinese? The Russians? The Americans? Be a gentleman thief and protect Monica? It would be nice if our hero (or not) had some time for further deliberation, but each and every faction who knows about Monica and the suitcase wants to capture, kill or buy him, leaving the poor jerk hardly a second to breathe or put the (horrible) moves on women. What’s a thief to do?
It has always been one of the pleasures of the Eurospy genre for me to encounter unexpectedly fun films like With Death On Your Back. Its director Alfonso Balcázar is one of those workhorses who spent much of their career during the 60s and 70s churning out films in the popular genres of the day, trying their best to craft fun movies out of clichés, pieces taken from other movies, and actual talent. In Balcázar’s case, a lot of his work took place in the Spaghetti (or is it Paella in this case?) Western, but I have to admit I don’t remember having seen a single one of them, which may either speak against their quality, my memory, or my knowledge of European genre films of the 60s and 70s.
Be that as it may, With Death On Your Back seems to be the director’s only Eurospy film, which is a bit of a disappointment given how entertaining the film is. Sure, much of what happens on screen is the usual mixture of a suave/jerk-y (why do these words seem to be synonymous to me by now?) hero charming the ladies in improbable ways, punching goons in the face (or whatever other body parts look most punchable), and going through various chase sequences to acquire and keep a McGuffin, but Balcázar just as surely knows how to make the generic just pretty darn fun.
For me, the light variant of the Eurospy movie to which With Death certainly belongs has a lot in common with the comedy genre. Both don’t thrive as much on originality as on an ability to make the well-known and expected feel new and exciting, and both genres often survive problematic plotting through the timing of their delivery. Balcázar’s movie is nothing if not good at timing and pacing, letting hardly a second go by that doesn’t have something exciting happen in it, never stopping for longer than a joke or a kiss until its hero stumbles into the next punch-up or the next chase, keeping the audience hooked through breathlessness and – always an important factor in a genre movie – a willingness to entertain that makes it easy to just overlook minor flaws like the fact that the scriptwriters don’t always seem to realize Hamburg is situated in Northern Germany and not in Bavaria or the silliness of most everything going on.
Balcázar is helped in his endeavour of keeping the audience away from thinking about plots, plot holes and other dumb stuff like that by an ultra-generic – or archetypal – soundtrack by Claude Bolling that’s just bound to swing things along, a cast – also featuring Rosalba Neri and a very unexpected Klausjürgen Wussow as mid-level baddies – that has no problems at all to go with the silliness instead of against it (there is, as you probably know, not much worse than an actor trying to be all thespian-like in what is basically an adventurous romp), and some very decent stunt work.
Plus, there’s a scene documenting the eternal struggle between earthbound human and small plane (hello, Mister Hitchcock), guest starring machine pistols, so what’s not to like?