Dead Men Don’t Count
by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue
Dead Men Don’t Count is a Western from 1968 directed by Rafael Romero Marchent, who was born in Madrid in 1926 and whose brother, Joaquin Luis, directed the notorious Cutthroats Nine.
It stars the stony-faced, very tall Anthony Steffen (an Anglicized marquee name for Italian/Brazilian/Prussian actor Antonio Luiz De Teffe) and American actor/producer Mark Damon as a pair of morally tarnished bounty hunters who stumble into an Arizona town in the midst of a land grab. Farmers are being strong-armed; the sheriff is in on it. We don’t know for sure until the end of the film, but it’s a safe bet it’s due to either oil or a railroad. So it plays very much like an American second feature from several decades earlier, except when the protagonists are brutally beating information out of people, hanged corpses are played for goofy laughs, and entire families are being slaughtered in cold blood to the tune of gothic organ music. B-Westerns from the 1930s were more violent than one might expect, but they weren’t this violent. Watching Dead Men Don’t Count is like entering an alternate dimension in which B-Western and Spaghetti Western sensibilities coexist in smooth-flowing narrative harmony. If that sounds like a good place to be, you will probably enjoy the film.
It’s also a movie about two men, one young (Damon) and running so hard from buried emotions, he doesn’t know he has them, nor does he know much of anything else. It is a thoughtful touch that this character remains oblivious to the foundation-shaking revelations about his own life others have had by the end of the film. The other man (Steffen) is a hardened, battered mercenary who through the course of the film develops social responsibility that has probably long been missing from his life. He accepts the appointment of sheriff given him by ranchers he has only just met with pensive disbelief. Together, these men have a long history of violence; we know this because they have a shorthand for elaborate tactical plays that they communicate facilely in tense situations using simply the names of towns. “Like Abilene?” “Yeah, like Abilene.” Though the film itself focuses on gunfights, horse chases, romance, revenge, and comic relief (and does it all well), the standard western scenarios are populated and experienced by characters whose traits are detailed slyly and subtly. You could completely ignore this fact and still enjoy the movie as an atmospheric thrill ride, or dig a little deeper. The film works either way.
Rafael Romero Marchent’s other Westerns as a director include Garringo (1969) and Revenge Of The Resurrected (1972), both of which have a similar feel. It is worth noting that although many of the sixties films referred to as “Spaghetti Westerns” were Italian/Spanish co-productions that featured exterior locations in Spain, Dead Men Don’t Count is one of a number that were directed by actual Spaniards. These particular Spanish Westerns tended to blend more traditional Western story elements with their Spaghetti Western tropes. Their characters, though sometimes flawed and brutal, tended to be more on the side of law and order, and even when many of them weren’t, as in the case of Cutthroats Nine, the distinction was much clearer than in the Italo-Westerns. Once drawn, these lines could be crossed and explored in a different way than in the Italian-directed Spaghetti Westerns, the latter of which tended to be cynical and morally ambiguous and to sometimes contain left-wing political subtexts. I’m not sure whether this difference was a result of censorship in Spain under Franco, Spanish culture in general, or something else.
From its early shootout in the yard of a ruined church, Dead Men Don’t Count is, above all, a trip to that place where all Westerns live. It is a place of chaos, guns and horses, childlike innocence, and untamed terrain. Marcello Giombini’s score transports you to that place using infectious guitar melodies, church organs, flutes, and wistful trumpets (there is some controversy as to whether Dead Man Don’t Count was scored by Giombini or by Riz Ortolani, or whether Ortolani scored some alternate cut of the film, but the on-screen credit on both English-language copies of the film I have owned is to Giombino and it sounds like Giombini, who also scored Garringo, which also sounds great). The evocative western town set used in the film existed in Spain from 1963-1974 and appears in countless Spaghetti Westerns. The costumes and guns all look right and not chintzy, at least for a pulp western, and some have real panache. A gold-handled revolver figures prominently in the plot. The swagger of character actors like Raf Baldassarre, who has probably appeared in more Eurowesterns than all of their top-billed stars combined, brings something to the proceedings that you would not find in a careless production. Budget notwithstanding, this is no cheap knockoff. It is a WESTERN. The action and gunfights, the ominous approaches of bad men, the roaming camera shots, all are handled well. There is nothing here you haven’t seen before, but if you liked it then, you are going to like it in Dead Men Don’t Count.
– The Acolyte