DVD: Death of a Snowman (1976)

March 15, 2011 | By

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Film: Good/ DVD Transfer: Very Good/ DVD Extras: Standard

Label: Synapse / Region: 0  (NTSC) / Released: November 9, 2010

Genre: Crime / Exploitation / Grindhouse

Synopsis: A detective and a local beat reporter thwart a crime lord’s atempt to stamp out competition in Johannesburg.

Special Features: Theatrical Trailer

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Review:

Also known as Soul Patrol and Black Trash in the U.S., this 1976 production is a rare South African grindhouse crime thriller designed to please patrons of action, gunfire, and cocky characters, and while very crude in spots – the editing is exceptionally rough and clumsy – it does deliver most of the goods (except, uhm, nudity, bloodletting, and sleaze).

One gets the impression screenwriter Bima Stagg and director Christopher Rowley tried to dress up their anti-corruption / anti-drug trade / anti-racism messages using standard genre tropes, and they somewhat succeeded in conveying Johannesburg (never mentioned, but inferred by showing landmarks such as the Hillbrow Tower) as a city beset with serious problems that are eating up governmental resources that could be redirected towards helping kiddies if the crime rate wasn’t so robust.

The arguments are presented through a simplistic TV movie plot where an organization self-branded as “War on Crime” alerts the newspapers (well, just one) and police (well, just one copper) of an imminent murder of some top crime figure – a pimp, a drug dealer, whatever.

Clearly the group’s goal is to wipe out competition and control all levels of organized crime, but for a while their mandate doesn’t sound so bad to beat reporter Steve Chaka (Ken Gampu), who finds his decade-long friendship with Lt. Ben Deel (Nigel Davenport) strained until the increase in bloodshed has both pooling resources to identify the ringleader and stop the madness.

Chaka uses his connection at a New York City paper to check the records, and maybe match a sketch of the gang’s leader with someone on file. Meanwhile, Chaka keeps himself busy by tagging along with Deel, following leads, and doing his own respective investigating.

Stagg’s dialogue is perfunctory (and silly in spots) save for a few sharp quips, but the main cast (and even some of the secondary actors) manage to transcend the material. Gampu (The Naked Prey, Rhodes) is excellent as the crusading reporter, whereas Davenport gives his standard detective character a good measure of believable sincerity (possible only because Stagg wrote a handful of unconventional little scenes in which the two men discuss the stressors affecting their friendship).

Stagg himself plays the role of Johnson, a hired gun who weirdly has some love for his otherwise driftwood-stupid moll (whom he simply addresses as “Woman”). Johnson’s a mechanical killing machine, and Stagg plays him like a cross-section between a Huggy Bear-type pimp and a thin and wily fur-ball.

Whoever decided on Johnson’s look was probably just thinking about the film’s cool poster art, because Stagg is crowned with a planetary mound of hair, a Grizzly Adams beard, and a carpet of chest hair that makes the character look like an extra from Stanley Kubrick’s Dawn of Man prologue who never bothered to remove all the chimpanzee hair after 2001: A Space Odyssey had wrapped.

Rowley’s direction is a bit rough at times (the scene transitions are sometimes spastic, with sound bleeding over from the prior scene, and music ending on a cut or cleanly fading out), but the film’s grungy look and use of real locations really gives Snowman a lot of gritty realism.

The use of British actors and virtual lack of South African accents (except for a radio dispatch officer) was a mistake, even though the decision to stick with ‘the Queen’s English’ may have been to make the film more palatable towards British and America audiences. (The theatrical trailer also re-orders scenes and makes the story appear to take place in New York, and some urban city with a lot of black folks – which is not the case.)

The big surprise among the cast & crew, however, is the involvement of Trevor Rabin, who would become a top Hollywood composer 18 years later. The DVD’s sleeve notes wrongly brand the score as disco; Rabin at the time was involved with the band Rabbitt in his native South Africa, and more than anything the score (which he supervised and co-scored with three other newcomers to film) is pure seventies prog-rock. Rowley’s spasmodic edits and bad mixing muck up what are generally effective rhythm tracks, introspective guitar solos, and a few rare rock and orchestral cues.

(Rabin would later leave South Africa and join Yes, after which he would become part of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures team. The earnest question is whether Zimmer’s tutelage and mentoring gave Rabin a firmer grasp on film scoring, or affected his own musical style with the corporate sound that made MV’s team predictable, and banal.)

A secondary plus: when guns are fired, their targets are struck with a force that sends them crashing through glass, wood, and other solid surfaces in slow-motion. This may be pure cinematic fancy, or a freak of nature whereby the density of a bullet increases x1000 once it leaves a gun barrel and is exposed to African sunlight.

Snowman was apparently Rowley’s only theatrical film. In 1995 he began a prolific career directing and producing TV movies and documentaries. Stagg’s other writing credits include Survivor (1988), the Arthur Penn-directed TV movie Inside (1996), and the superb South African crime docu-drama Stander (2003).

Synapse’s transfer is made from a surviving print, and although the image is clean and colours are balanced, there are a few film breaks which may explain (to a small degree) why the film edits are a bit wonky. The original mono mix has rather shrill hot spots, but the crackling audio artifacts seem to have been processed to lessen distractions near the end of certain reels.

Death of a Snowman is mostly for connoisseurs, but the film represents a rare slice of South African filmmaking designed by local filmmakers for the export market.

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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Related links:

DVD / Film:  Stander (2003)

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External References:

IMDB Composer Filmography

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Buy from:

Amazon.com – Death Of A Snowman

Amazon.ca – Death of a Snowman

Amazon.co.uk – Death of a Snowman [DVD] [1978] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

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