More than a decade before he took on the lead role in the forgotten spaghetti western Find A Place To Die (1968), Jeffrey Hunter played John Wayne’s sidekick in The Searchers (1956), arguably the best of America’s traditional westerns. Although Hunter had already appeared in a dozen films, it was his critically praised performance in this John Ford masterpiece that brought his classic good looks and powerful screen presence to the masses, and establishing him as one of Hollywood’s most promising young actors, one bound for stardom.
Hunter followed The Searchers with prominent roles in two more Ford films, The Last Hurrah (1958) and Sergeant Rutledge (1960), before he reached his career’s premature climax as Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1961). He did, in the following year, put on a great though brief performance in the classic war epic The Longest Day (1962), but his name was buried under the bigger names in the cast like Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, and again John Wayne.
By this point, Hunter had found a constant companion in alcohol. With his opportunities beginning to narrow, he went all-in as the title character in the television series, Temple Houston (1963-1964), but the show was canceled after its twenty-sixth week. Perhaps in a moment of desperation, he then agreed to play Captain Christopher Pike in the very first pilot episode of Star Trek (1964). It was a role that could have brought Hunter the fame he once seemed destined for, but when NBC requested him to continue the character he refused. He said he wanted to focus on making movies.
The bigwigs of Hollywood, however, had become weary of him and his hard-drinking reputation, and it wasn’t long until the only work he could find was on B-movies filmed in Mexico, Hong Kong, or Italy. It was while filming the Italian movie, Viva America (1969), that an on-set explosion gone wrong left the troubled actor with a troubling concussion. He supposedly went into shock on the plane ride back to America; after being inspected and released by doctors, he fell down a set of stairs at his home in California and cracked his skull. Brain surgery was unsuccessful, and Hunter died in 1969 at the age of 42.
Because he starred in it just a year before his tragic and mysterious death, Find A Place To Die is, for fans of Hunter, a must-see spaghetti western. The character he plays, Joe Collins, is an ex-confederate, booze-soaked, gringo gun-runner who is, like the title says, trying to find a place to die. Although the character doesn’t have much depth, Hunter does an excellent job of channeling his own off-screen persona through him. With his blank stares, his deep voice, and is hopeless outlook, Hunter perfectly portrays a down-and-out man who, in the end, finds that he has a consciousness in spite of all the evils flourishing around and within him.
We are first introduced to this character of Collins in a makeshift saloon built among the eroding stones of an ancient Mexican building. He sits there drinking his sorrows away as the stunningly beautiful Juanita (played by Daniela Giordano, who had been elected Miss Italy two years earlier) sings the film’s theme song. It’s a great song, and the sight of the drunken Collins watching Juanita’s smooth brown skin glisten with sweat among the shadowy ruins of the set creates a moody scene that is truly memorable.
But the leading lady isn’t Giordano; it’s the French actress Pascale Petit. She plays Lisa Martin, the wife of an American geologist (Piero Lulli) who struck gold in the Mexican mountains. To open Find A Place To Die, director Giuliano Carnimeo shows the couple resisting an ambush by El Chato (Mario Dardanelli) and his gang. They manage to kill most of the bandits by throwing sticks of dynamite at them, but the explosions cause an avalanche, and a pile of boulders pin Lisa’s husband to the ground. She has no choice but to go look for help, and it is the saloon in which Collins is drinking that she finds first.
Collins agrees to help but since Chato and much of his gang are still in the mountains, he recruits a group of mismatched Mexicans for the task. These men include Reverend Riley (Adolfo Lastretti) who shoots vultures because they are “messengers of death”, a half-bit pimp named Paco (Reza Fazeli) who seems to be in love with his only whore, a dim-witted brute named Gomez (Giaanni Pallavicino) who looses his mind when watching Lisa skinny-dip in a pond, and the triple-crossing Fernando (Nello Pazzafini) who acts as an informer to Chato before overthrowing him and leading his gang against Collins. But Fernando isn’t alone in his desire for the gold. As Collins tells Lisa, “These men are here for only two reasons: her and the gold.”
It’s a good story with a lot of interesting characters. The action is solid and well-dispersed. The lush setting is unique for the genre. Hunter is perfect in his imperfect role. The generous screentime given to the Italian beauties, Giordano and Petit, creates a sense of eroticism that is much appreciated. But there’s not enough in Find A Place To Die to push it pass the standard spaghetti western. The characters, including Collins and the sexy seductresses, aren’t developed enough, and as a result the action, and often the acting, comes off as nothing more than fun and games. We don’t care enough about the characters, and there’s not enough at stake. For fans of Jeffery Hunter, however, it is a must-see curtain call.