WHO KILLED JOHNNY R.?
aka Wer kennt Johnny R.? , aka Una Bara (Coffin) per Ringo, aka 5000 $ für den Kopf von Johnny R.
Spain-Germany, released May 1966
starring LEX BARKER and JOACHIM FUCHSBERGER
with Marianne Koch, Sieghardt Rupp, Ralf Wolter
directed by JOSE LUIS MADRID
review is of a widescreen Spanish-language print
WHO KILLED JOHNNY R.? is a Spanish-German co-production, made in the second half of 1965 and released in early 1966. Shot on location in Spain and with a largely Spanish crew, the German element (besides the financing from CCC) is most evident in the casting of the lead roles. What makes the film unique is that it pairs two actors who were major stars in popular film series in Germany, very different kinds of film series. Lex Barker was a huge box office draw in Germany because of the many “Winnetou” films he made, based on the novels of legendary German adventure author Karl May, starring Barker as “Old Shatterhand.” Joachim Fuchsberger, on the other hand, had starred in many German “krimi” films based on the writings of the famous British mystery-crime author Edgar Wallace. He was often a detective or if not an actual detective or police inspector then someone who wound up tracking the criminals and solving the crimes in these eccentric and stylized crime films–he was the hero and the audience viewpoint character. Pairing Barker and Fuchsberger was a nice touch–the biggest star in German westerns with the biggest star in German crime films–and it made a kind of sense that the vehicle for the two would be a western, but a western with a crime/whodunit angle.
The film opens with a gunfight in a town square—-outlaw Johnny Ringo and some of his men are holed up in a hotel, shooting it out with the local law. Ringo’s girlfriend Bea holds a white flag out the window and she is allowed to leave, at which point the gunfight resumes. Bea takes off to a local ranch where Ringo’s men have taken the family–mother and children–hostage while they hide out. We see some of Ringo’s men attempt to escape and then get shot. We never see Ringo, and the battle continues. Finally, it seems as though Ringo escapes and gets away on a horse. However, all of this is presented in a somewhat confusing way–the way a murder is depicted in a whodunit where we are supposed to see the crime but not who did it. At the ranch, some of the sheriff’s men approach, while simultaneously a lantern is knocked over and sets the house aflame. Some people escape, but the family who live at the ranch and were tied up and kept hostage DO NOT escape–they burn to death. Johnny Ringo is presumed dead, as a burned body is found wearing the ring his girlfriend gave him.
Some time later, Captain Conroy, the husband (Sieghardt Rupp) of the wife who was killed in the fire–a military man who was away in service at the time–finds a kind of detective, Sam Dobie, who is played by Lex Barker, and tries to hire him to find Johnny Ringo. Barker explains that while the well-paying offer is tempting, most everyone believes Ringo is dead, so he can’t find someone who is dead. However, the Captain convinces him to simply find out what happened–if he’s dead and Barker can prove it, then that’s fine. He’ll still get paid. Barker then poses as a somewhat dude-like, somewhat milquetoast (!!!!) gun salesman, selling a new repeater pistol, travelling from town to town.
In one of those towns, he meets Clyde Smith (Joachim Fuchsberger), an unassuming fellow who has most recently worked as a miner, but who is an amazing shot. Because of that and some other circumstantial evidence, some people start believing that HE is Johnny Ringo. Barker hires him to do fast-shooting demonstrations from town to town to help sell the guns, and the pair then work as a team. However, people still pick fights with Smith, thinking he is Johnny Ringo, and Smith is clearly enjoying this situation and to some extent milking it along as he’s getting attention and respect that he’s never gotten before.
Clyde Smith is by far the most interesting and entertaining character in the film. Fuchsberger clearly is having a ball with the role, and he’s also got a real gift for comedy. His backstory is never explained, and he gives intentionally ambiguous answers to pretty much anything he’s asked.
During the period of their travelling, Barker is ostensibly still looking for Johnny Ringo, though he is very private about it and mentions it to no one (only he and the Captain know). Then Ringo’s old girlfriend Bea (Marianne Koch, like Rupp also someone who’d appeared in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) shows up in the town where the gun company Dobie and Smith are working for is located. At this point, the action heats up, the Captain re-connects with Sam Dobie, the suspense multiplies, and the film heads toward a climax (which I will not give away).
Director Jose Luis Madrid helmed 21 films in Spain between 1960-1984, but none of them ring a bell with me (and I’ve seen many Spanish productions of the period)–I would guess that few if any of those other films were available in English dubs or made available to US television. He’s certainly good with actors, and he uses the widescreen composition well. Except for some of the sets, the film does not really look like an Italian western….and it’s in a totally different universe from the Winnetou westerns which were shot on location in the former Yugoslavia and featured panoramic landscapes and sweeping western-themed symphonic musical scores. There’s no shortage of extras in crowd or bar scenes, and the dancehall and theater scenes are well-staged, so no doubt because of the stars involved with this, it had a somewhat higher budget than the usual Spanish western that would star someone like, say, James Philbrook or Robert Woods.
As a Lex Barker fan since childhood, I’d wanted to see this for decades. Barker’s German “Winnetou” westerns were shown often on TV in Denver, as were his Dr. Mabuse films and his non-Winnetou western with Pierre Brice, A PLACE CALLED GLORY, a favorite from my childhood. In the last few years, I’ve tried to track down Barker’s lesser-known European films in English-subtitled versions, and finally found a great-looking Spanish-language letterboxed print from ETC. You can also watch this same subtitled version (semi-full-screen, not fully letterboxed) on Amazon Prime…and if you are willing to watch it with ads, you can watch it FREE without even being an Amazon Prime member (I did to see what it looked like)! This was Barker’s final NON-WINNETOU western. He looks great in it, and for most of the film he’s pretending to be something of a greenhorn, so there are a few comedic sequences related to that…but there are other levels of artifice going on here too, and Barker manages to capture that complexity well. Although the film is not presently (to my knowledge) available in English, I can’t imagine any of Barker’s fans NOT enjoying seeing him in it…unless they can’t watch a film with subtitles.
The real treat here is Joachim Fuchsberger (right in the picture below, looking vaguely like Harry Morgan in that pose). He’s by far the most interesting and complex character in the film, and when the film is over, he’s still the one we know the least about. His comic timing is perfect, he can pose as bumbling when he needs to, but he can also make the people in the towns they visit believe that he is outlaw Johnny Ringo, even when on the surface his character is telling everyone who’ll listen that he IS NOT. Fuchsberger had a sixty-year (!) career in German cinema, playing a wide variety of roles. Many years ago I reviewed a 1972 children’s action-comedy film he starred in (SUPERBUG, SECRET AGENT/Ein Käfer gibt Vollgas–see poster at bottom) on the IMDB (mine is the review credited to DJANGO-1). He somewhat reminds me of the pre-Naked Gun Leslie Nielsen, when LN was working in dramas and crime films and TV guest shots, before he re-invented himself as a comic actor. Fuchsberger always has a certain charm and dynamic presence, so it’s not hard to see why he was so well-accepted as a leading man who could hold his own in the German crime films which had such an odd and off-putting post-Expressionist visual style and over-the-top musical scores by the likes of Peter Thomas. It takes an actor with gravitas to underplay his role in such a way that he is not overshadowed by the visuals and the music and the outlandish plot developments….and yet still commands attention and sympathy as the audience viewpoint character, the prism through which we view the proceedings.
While the film was released in Germany in 1966, it seems as though it took a while to get released in other countries, appearing 2-3 years later in most of them. That’s a shame because it’s enormously entertaining, and it’s not at all a typical Eurowestern. I’m not sure whether you will find the ending acceptable–the first time I saw it, I was quite dissatisfied, but the second and third time, it was clear that the seeds had been planted to justify the ending. However, some will find it a cheat.
Why is the film titled WHO KILLED JOHNNY R.? when the character is Johnny Ringo, and that is the kind of marketable character name you often see on Eurowesterns? A little IMDB research showed that at the same time this was released, there was another western titled KILL JOHNNY RINGO (see poster below), starring Brett Halsey, coming out, so presumably the change from RINGO to R was a last-minute change to avoid confusion.
If you are a fan of Eurowesterns and you’re looking for something different….if you are a Lex Barker fan and want to see him in a role that highlights him well in a film you probably have not seen….if you are a fan of the various German Edgar Wallace crime films and you want to see star Joachim Fuchsberger in a VERY different setting and see him in a complex role with a good amount of humor in it….you should check out WHO KILLER JOHNNY R.? In the US, you can watch it free on Amazon Prime. It’s not the widescreen version I am reviewing, but it’s a good print….and it’s free (at least now, when I write this, it is).
poster for the film KILL JOHNNY RINGO, starring Brett Halsey, also released in May 1966
poster for the 1972 film SUPERBUG, SECRET AGENT, starring Joachim Fuchsberger, which I reviewed in 2008 at the IMDB (it’s still there–read it if you’ve got insomnia some night)