Movie Fan Man: Cinema Connoisseur

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Undercover Work: Italian West Style

by Tony Nash

(A Part of Western Wednesdays)

(Mild Spoilers)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(This review is of the Italian language version of the film)

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La Morte non Conta i Dollari (Death Does Not Count the Dollars/Death at Owell Rocks) (1967) PG-13 ****

Mark Damon: Harry Boyd/Lawrence White

Stephen Forsyth: Lawrence White/Harry Boyd

Nello Pazzafini: Doc Lester (as Giovanni Pazzafini)

Luciano Pigozzi: Judge Warren (as Allan Collins)

Spartaco Conversi: Old Man Lester

Pamela Tudor: Elisabeth Pearson

Luciana Gilli: Jane White

Dino Strano: Mike Lester

Hardy Reichelt: The Sheriff of Owell Rocks

Ignazio Spalla: Gen. Pablo Rodriguez (as Pedro Sanchez)

Aldo Cecconi: Bernie Nolan

Written by: Luigi (Giuseppe) Masini (story) & Riccardo Freda (as George Lincoln)

Directed by: Riccardo Freda (as George Lincoln)

Synopsis: Siblings Lawrence and Jane White learn that Doc Lester and his brothers organized a bank robbery, a takeover of the town of Owell Rocks and the death of their military father to get the White family’s land. Lawrence realizes the Lester Brothers will be looking for him and arranges a scheme with friend Harry Boyd, a skilled gunman and occasional bounty hunter, to fool the brothers into a trap.

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Riccardo Freda (credited here as George Lincoln), one of Italy’s veteran genre filmmakers, tackles his first and only Western with La Morte non Conta. Freda takes the popular American Western story motif of bad guys taking over a little town while trying to steal the land of the area’s popular citizens and transfers it to Italy and Spain. Freda adds Italian West flavor by having a dust laden drifter take interest in the situation, but keeps who his allegiance truly lies with close to the vest. While known more for his Horrors and Thrillers, Freda utilizes this background well in giving his Western a very mysterious feel, keeping the individual helping the White siblings successfully in the shadows as he makes certain those trying to cheat them don’t succeed. Adding that no one has seen the murdered town patron’s son in several years since he went East gives Freda’s Mystery tie in more depth and interest as something shrewd could be taking place behind the outlaw gang’s back. Taking more influence from the American Westerns than from the already influential films of compatriots Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, Freda still manages to evoke a film that puts elements of both worlds together in working harmony. The pacing is similar to Duccio Tessari’s first Ringo film in easygoing lightheartedness, but at the same time keeps the traditional elements of violence having consequences and that no one is spared in the calamity.

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Mark Damon, one of the many American actors who decided to make their fame in Europe, is an intriguing delight in the role of Harry Boyd. Taking pages from Giuliano Gemma’s original Ringo character, Damon has his character cracking jokes, out-conning Lester gang members, and getting into various brawls. Also taking notes from the roles played by Clint Eastwood, Franco Nero, and Lee Van Cleef, Damon adds a hint of mystery to the character as he never really speaks about himself and is always watching and listening. Like Giuliano Gemma, Damon had a handsome face that allowed him to take on a leading man like quality, a rarity for most Italian Western stars. While his character’s reputation is apparently well known, the villains who’ve taken over the town don’t seem too worried about his presence, and even get him to replace the murdered sheriff who had been on their payroll. Damon’s Hollywood background served him well in not only his approach to playing the character of Harry, but also in how he handled action scenes. While the fight scenes go through the traditional rough cuts as punches are thrown and baddies go through walls and windows, Damon’s training in fight choreography helped to enliven the scenes above the usual fray, though are still second to the Gemma fight scenes director Freda was trying to capitalize on.

Stephen Forsyth as Lawrence White (Harry Boyd) in Death at Orwell Rock (1967)

Stephen Forsyth, a Canadian actor who later became a music producer, does a fine job as the sophisticated, but still mysterious Lawrence White. Away for a time living in the East and being educated, White returns to help his sister figure out how their father died and make certain the Lester Brothers don’t take over the town or grab up their father’s lands. Forsyth plays White as calm and professional, and while very concerned about his sister and what the Lester clan has planned for the town, he doesn’t really act like a traditional Easterner of the time. That he really starts digging into what happened regarding the recent events of his father’s death and the sudden bottled up, tight lipped nature of the citizens contradicts how an Easterner would react to such conditions and would normally be minding their own business. When he decks a member of the Lester gang for tripping him in the street, the mystery deepens as an Easterner would never strike another man flat-out and simply apologize for being clumsy. This leaves the audience wondering just what sort of education did Lawrence get while out East and why how he acts totally differs from how he responds to acts of aggression.

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Nello Pazzafini, here credited under his birth name of Giovanni Pazzafini, gets a rare opportunity at playing the central bad guy in Doc Lester. Wanting all the territory owned by the White family for himself and his brothers, Doc Lester organizes a coup that involves not only taking over the town, but getting the sheriff on their side, robbing a bank, and killing the town patriarch. Pazzafini does really well with the role, showing he was more than just a secondary character player or henchman to the main villain, exuding a menace and hulking nature. Both ruthless and cunning, Pazzafini has Doc as someone who the heroes need to catch with his pants down in order to get him. It wasn’t often Pazzafini got to play the main bad guy, but here he does it exceptionally well. Spartaco Conversi, another mostly secondary character player and 2nd Unit production crew worker, gets an equally rare opportunity at a good role with the character of the Old Man Lester, the patriarch. More behind the scenes with making the plans to takeover Owell Rocks while son Doc is out making it happen, the older Lester still abides by his son’s decisions. Conversi doesn’t get as much dialogue or scenes, but he still makes a good second baddie to Pazzafini.

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When it comes out that the two male leads have exchanged identities briefly to ensure the rightful heir to Owell Rocks is able to bring his father’s murderers to justice and free the town from the terror of the killers makes for an interesting plot twist.

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Freda’s attempts at recreating the magic Duccio Tessari achieved with the inaugural Ringo film with Giuliano Gemma fell a little short, but the Mystery aspect of the film more than makes up for what might have at the time been seen as a poor man’s Una Pistola per Ringo. The characters still very much ft the pattern of the typical Italian Western characters: mysterious and keeping their intentions to themselves. The heroes are more humane in their behavior and the baddies fit the typical mode of “B” grade Western villains, but the atmosphere around them helps make them work. The plot is very much generic and typical of the Western genre, but Freda’s years of experience in directing and writing allow the plot to expand and become a little more intricate and interesting. While a bit more American in style, and somewhat void of the more pessimistic Anti-Heroes associated with the genre, Owell Rocks is a fine entertaining genre entry that is certainly a pleaser to people who enjoy both Westerns and Mystery Thrillers.

(I highly recommend this film as even though it’s nothing overtly spectacular, it’s still a lot of fun and extremely entertaining. It might evoke more of an American influence, but that doesn’t stop it from being a good, middle of the road fare for a veteran director’s only crack at the genre. The cast and story are finely done, and there’s not a dull moment in the film. The Mystery aspect is a nice touch from director Freda and makes the film the only Italian Western with that type of twist. The DVD from Germany’s Koch Media is excellent, offering a good transfer, only one or two scenes clearly suffering the effects of irreparable age. The Italian language track is the best one to watch with as it’s the clearest. There’s an English audio, but it’s very subpar and almost unwatchable, so the best bet is either the German or the Italian audio.)

All images courtesy of Images and their respective owners (including Once Upon a Time in the Italian West)

For more information

IMDB/Death at Owell Rock

Wikipedia/death at Owell Rock

The Spaghetti Western Database/La Morte non Conti i Dollari

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Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

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