Death of a Salesman is a fundamentally silly blaxtaploitation film that’s only intermittently as good as screenwriter Bima Stagg and director Christopher Rowley’s considerable ambitions. If you can stomach wading through the film’s mostly inert fight scenes, bad acting, and clumsy, expository dialogue, you’ll see that Rowley and Stagg, crassly amateurish social commentators that they are, are trying to highlight the cycle of duplicity and rampant corruption inherent in race relations in South Africa. The sophistication of their parable more often than not compensates for the crudity of their storytelling. So while it’s easy to dismiss a film alternately titled Soul Patrol and Black Trash, skeptics should nevertheless give Death of a Snowman the benefit of their patronage before dismissing it as clever trash.
Death of a Salesman is mostly as sharp as it is thanks to the intricacy of Stagg’s clumsy screenplay. A shadowy figure calling himself the “War on Crime” (Madala Mphahlele) starts to wipe out crooks in Johannesburg, one rifle blast at a time. Lt. Ben Deel (Chariots of Fire‘s Nigel Davenport) is on the case, but his objectivity is clouded by the fact that he’s good friends with prime suspect Steve Chaka (Ken Gampu). There are, however, several reasons why Chaka, a scrupleless muckraker, is the killer: He always has the dirt on the War on Crime’s activities first, has even had an exclusive in-person interview with the self-styled Robin Hood figure and has previously written fiery screeds against the rise of urban crime. He also out-and-out tells Ben that he has no compunctions about allowing his personal biases to overshadow the news he reports.
Still, the audience knows that Ben can’t be the War on Crime because we actually see the encounter between the two men and don’t just hear about it. The fact that we’re privileged with footage of that meeting speaks to the casual way Stagg dismisses Chaka as a suspect for us. Stagg wants us to focus on Chaka’s transformation from a passive reporter to a badass killer that takes out the trash for himself, starting with the War on Crime.
Chaka’s revanchist fantasies are later realized in a poorly lit action scene that looks like the aesthetic predecessor to the fight scenes in Ang Lee’s Hulk. But while Chaka’s building up his courage, the white people in the film are busy proving how powerful they really are. To be fair, everyone betrays everyone else in the film regardless of their race, but while the conspicuously dark-skinned War on Crime pretends to be a one-man operation working to save his community, even he’s hobbled by Whitey.
The War on Crime’s operation is only really threatened after Deel starts to investigate white ally Alcock (Stuart Brown), who subsequently demands that the War on Crime fix things. This means that white hitman Johnson (Stagg) has to clean up the War on Crime’s mess. The responsibilities of that role eventually take a toll on Johnson, a ridiculous, chilly assassin (in one scene, Stagg blathers stiffly about how when he pulls the trigger of his comically large magnum, he’s compensating for the “gravitational pull of the moon” and not feeling anything beyond that), and turn him against the War on Crime. Double-crosses abound throughout the film, but almost all of them are either motivated or executed by honkeys—until Chaka gets it together.
Death of a Snowman‘s novelty lies primarily in the way that Stagg dismisses the validity of the factionalism embedded in his story. Gang wars are equated with the bickering between reporters in Johannesburg and New York because almost nobody is telling anyone else the whole truth and everyone’s hiding something. In one scene, a cop blithely looks over a couple of chalk outlines at a crime scene and remarks, “Oh, that’s a bogus policeman and a Chinaman.” Stagg’s hitman is also winningly ludicrous, one of two key white guys given parodically phallic names. Johnson is wont to spout out nonsensical one-liners like “Each man kills the thing he loves, to coin a phrase.” Obviously the film is campy, but lines like that give you the sense that Stagg is in on the joke, literally making fun of himself.
Rowley also displays an intermittently impressive level of experimental ferocity in the way he films Stagg’s weird plot. A scene where a cop (or is it a crook? It doesn’t really matter) eavesdrops on a group of nervous thugs from across the street using a high-tech microphone is especially effective. The gangster’s conversation in that sequence audibly drops in and out of the film’s soundtrack while Rowley’s camera swivels in and out of focus, possibly as an homage to The Conversation. Likewise, the parallel editing featured in an exceptionally well-paced scene where Deel saves a little girl from being picked off by Johnson effectively compensates for Davenport and Stagg’s clumsy performances. Flawed though it may be, Death of a Snowman is so much smarter than it has any right to be.
Synapse did nothing to improve the fllm's original negative, though they at least preserve its original 1:77.1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. The copious grain in the film's stock isn't as distracting as how dark and out of focus the picture is. The audio track is similarly lousy: The music soundtrack thunders over much of the film's post-dubbed dialogue, requiring you to reach for your remote frequently so you can hear what any of the characters are scheming—unless you like to piss off your neighbors, in which case don't reach for your remote)
There are no extras on this skint release, save for a trailer. It's a good trailer though.
While it's easy to dismiss a film alternately titled Soul Patrol and Black Trash, skeptics should nevertheless give Death of a Snowman the benefit of their patronage before dismissing it as clever trash.