Deadlock (1970)

I first came across Deadlock while perusing dusty corners of streaming services, on the hunt for unusual westerns. And as schlocky as the poster looked, as soon as I read “with a soundtrack by CAN”, my interest was piqued.

If you don’t know, CAN were an experimental German rock group, a mash up of psychadelic, jazz, funk and noise fronted by the maverick Damo Suzuki, who sung freeform, improvised lyrics, often in no particular language.

Like CAN’s music, Deadlock, by writer, producer and director Roland Klick, is at once composite and wholly its own. Klick takes some of the western genre’s most popular tropes – in this case High Noon and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – and twists them into something new, that can only be described as an existential, acid noir spaghetti western.

The film opens on a sun-blasted wasteland as a young man, the Kid – played by a marvellously nihilistic Marquard Bohm – staggers bloodied and wounded into the desert from a railroad track, clutching a suitcase. Whatever has happened, wherever he’s come from, it doesn’t matter; now he’s in the wilderness, where there’s no water, no shade, no help and no law.

Although in the Kid’s case help, of a kind, does arrive in the form of Mr Dump (Mario Adorf), a desperate, self-delusional man clinging to existence as the “caretaker” of an abandoned mining town. Finding the Kid unconscious, and the suitcase full of money, he considers stoving the young man’s head in with a rock, before reluctantly giving him shelter.

Dump’s former home is like himself, beaten down, now just a carapace of human existence.

If we were in any doubt about the revisionist, noir elements of Deadlock, the faded billboard above the former saloon depicts the figure of a cowboy, gun arm broken off and swinging hopelessly in the wind. Here’s the dark side of the American West; a nameless, forsaken no-place, proof of the violence wrought by greed, and the despair left in its wake.

The cast is small, which only emphasizes the film’s ominous claustrophobia. Dump lives in the abandoned town with an unhinged, aging, former showgirl (Betta Segal) who may be his wife or lover, and a young, semi-feral woman, Jessie (Mascha Rabben) who could be his daughter. The three seem to have barely any relationship to each other, simply existing in the same space because they are unable to leave.

The Kid and his stolen cash represent a catalyst, a desperate, one-shot chance at a future that won’t come along again. The problem? The Kid is waiting for his partner, Mr Sunshine, who he insists will be along at any moment, to claim his half of the money.

Much of the film’s plot addresses the subsequent deadlock between the characters: this is the Mexican standoff of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but drawn out with increasing tension as each man navigates loyalty, fear, greed, betrayal, hope and cruelty in this forgotten place at the end of the world.

Dump in Deadlock

There’s a true sense of auteur-ship and vision here, in the characters, the repeated motifs, the daringly choreographed shots and, of course, the choice of soundtrack. Far from being a gimmick or an afterthought, CAN’s music is woven through the narrative; among the money in the Kid’s suitcase is a single 45″ record – CAN’s sinuous, sultry ‘Tango Whiskeyman’. The song itself is obviously important to the Kid, and unsettles Mr Sunshine, especially when the record becomes stuck as it plays hauntingly across the ruined town, leading to a moment of unbearable tension.

So why hadn’t I heard of Deadlock before now? There’s a rumour that although it was selected to be featured at Cannes, it was thrown off the programme when a group complained it wasn’t representative of Young German Cinema. Whatever the case, as a bleak and poetic acid western with stunning cinematography, characters as raw-edged and memorable as Leone’s and an absolutely killer soundtrack, Deadlock deserves to be better known.

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