Oct 1, 2009

Movie Review: Death In A Red Jaguar (1968)

I’ve been familiar with Jerry Cotton for quite a while now, through reading about him in The Eurospy Guide and on Permission To Kill, through listening to Peter Thomas’s weird, awesome, jazzy music on the double CD 100% Cotton, and through seeing Cotton star George Nader in a few other movies, like Lindsay Shonteff’s The Million Eyes of Sumuru. But I’d never actually seen a Cotton movie, as they were–until quite recently–rather hard to come by in the United States. Through those combined other experiences, though, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of who and what Jerry Cotton was. And, honestly, the main thing that kept me from trying too hard to seek them out was Nader. Based on what I’d seen, I wasn’t a fan. Sure, I admire the guy as a person; it took a lot of balls to be a (more or less) openly gay action star in the 1960s. (In fact, by some accounts that choice is what got him banished to Europe, the American studios supposedly preferring to protect the reputation of Nader’s more famous friend, Rock Hudson.) But as an actor, I’ve always find him a little bit repulsive. It might have something to do with that red mesh shirt he ill-advisedly wears all through Sumuru, or it might have to do with his odd, overslicked helmet of hair, but mostly I think it’s his general lack of charm and charisma in the roles I’ve seen him in. Now I’ve got to admit, that’s not a fair way to judge Jerry Cotton. Not because in this particular role Nader suddenly just oozes charm and charisma; quite the opposite in fact. Because in this particular role, charm and charisma simply aren’t required. Jerry’s got other things going for him.

The Jerry Cotton movies are famous for their stunts, and with good reason. While there’s nothing so impressive that it will wow Bond fans used to parachute jumps on skis, what is impressive is the fact that the Jerry Cotton crew tries so hard. Other Eurospy movies often settle for a few fist fights and maybe a knife fight to pass for the requisite action scenes demanded by the genre (and some get away with that just fine, if they have other things going for them), but Jerry Cotton serves up pretty much wall-to-wall action in Death In A Red Jaguar (Der Tod im roten Jaguar), the seventh film in the series. And that’s impressive. One small chunk of the film stays with me most, as director Harald Reinl manages to pack multiple action setpieces into so short a period of time, each one more elaborate than the last.

We start off with a gun and fist fight in a slaughterhouse. Yeah, I know, the slaughterhouse/meat-packing fight is a pretty tired Eurospy cliche (probably because it’s a somewhat unusual yet relatively inexpensive setting), but here it’s well-done (no pun intended). It’s a cut above the rest. (I’ll stop, I’ll stop!) While most Eurospy movies that include slaughterhouse fights give themselves a nice pat on the back after that and then move onto some silly exposition or some ogling of lovely ladies, Reinl doesn’t rest on his laurels. This scene leads immediately into another action sequence, wherein Jerry clings to the underside of a speeding truck. Knowing he’s there, the driver parks it on the railroad tracks and scurries away. Within seconds, a train collides with the truck with an impressive explosion, plowing it out of the way as Jerry manages to keep still between the rails, watching the train cars pass over him. But he still doesn’t rest. He continues in his dogged pursuit of the fleeing bad guy–into a convenient rock quarry. Another familiar location for these things, but I’d say that the ensuing action is actually my favorite rock quarry scene I’ve seen in a spy film! Machine guns pop out of slots in the side of a sinister black van and open fire on our hero as the van speeds away. But Jerry still doesn’t give up!

Thinking fast, he fashions a makeshift zipline out of a hook and a telephone wire, and zips down the wire, across the quarry, intercepting the van and dropping on top of it. Peter Thomas’s infectious Jerry Cotton Theme plays all the while. Of course there’s some dodgy bluescreen action going on, but it’s still a very impressive bit. It’s not over, though. Jerry drops down to the side of the moving van, pulls his gun out, and points it through the passenger window to surprise the driver. But it’s Jerry who’s surprised–and us. What he finds instead of a driver is one of my very favorite Sixties spy tropes: the expressionless mannequin! (This is a variation on the robot, but animated or inanimate, it’s that blank facial expression that really gets me every time these guys pop up in Sixties spy movies or TV shows.) It turns out the van is being operated by remote control by more bad guys up on a cliff! Jerry has ziplined his way right into another deathtrap. Needless to say, the sequence still isn’t over, but I won’t spoil any more of it. I just wanted to share enough to get action fans’ mouths watering a little bit. This is good, exciting stuff! I also love how the bad guys knew Jerry so well–and his love of pulling off ridiculous physical feats–that they had actually anticipated his zipline swashbuckling! How else do you explain their decision to drive their remote-controlled van away so quickly? They must have known he would fashion an improvised zipline to catch up!

Hopefully that little taste of Cotton action will sell the naysayers on why, exactly, Jerry fits into the Eurospy canon. Technically, he’s not a spy; "G-Man Jerry Cotton" is an FBI agent who does most of his sleuthing in the US of A instead of abroad. (Or at least in German locations substituting–sometimes hilariously–for US ones... although there are some legitimate San Francisco settings on display in this one.) The no-nonsense lawman himself is more of a Federal Joe Friday than a James Bond, but his stunts and physical derring-do put him squarely in the 007 camp. You’ll never see Joe Friday ziplining through a quarry onto the top of a van! Besides the exotic locations, all the other trappings one hopes for in a Sixties spy outing are present and accounted for: cool cars (Jerry feels naked without his red Jaguar XKE, hence the title), fun chases with ample rear projection, nifty gadgets (including a car with a tire spike dispenser), beautiful babes (led by Daniela Surina of one of my favorite guilty pleasure gialli, The Dead Are Alive), dastardly villains, double-crosses and, of course, the death-defying stunts. For good measure you've also got Irma Bunt herself, Ilse Steppat, a year before On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

As fun as the action is, though, there are other offputting touches to hamper any purely escapist expectations a bit. There is an abundance of violence toward women (at least four were dead by midway through the film, the fate of most female characters introduced), and even a cute little girl ends up the (offscreen) victim of a creepy, babyfaced, bald killer. At least one female character knows how to defend herself, though, and gets in some good fight moves ("Only a bit of karate," she says modestly when Jerry asks what she did to her assailant). Apparently this is something of an anomaly for the Cotton series, which is too bad because the capable female character makes a good foil for Jerry.

The plot itself is standard-issue cop stuff, pretty much. Jerry investigates a syndicate of hitmen described as "murder by mail order." But clearly, as evidenced by the remote control van with the dummy driver, these villains are more than common crooks. They think like Bond villains, and that’s enough to elevate the run-of-the-mill plot. Furthermore, a Jerry Cotton movie is about the action, not the plot, anyway, and the action–as I’ve mentioned–is top notch! The stylish direction (including lots of great, very Sixties camera moves and competent zooms) and outstanding, offbeat score also help overcome any nascent mundaneness. Overall Death In a Red Jaguar made an excellent introduction to the character, and I’m eager to see more Jerry Cotton movies. (Many are now available on Amazon as DVD-Rs from Sinister Cinema for just $8.99 apiece.)

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