Saturday, February 28, 2009

Das Gasthaus an der Themse/The Inn on the River (1962)

A harpoon killer called “The Shark” is terrorising London’s docklands.

The Inn on the River feels like a Best of version of the Wallace thrillers. Although it has some tremendous stand alone scenes and quirky ideas, it still fails to establish this certain Je Ne Sais Quoi that would raise it to an absolute Must See level. It is a very good average for the series and – based on audience numbers – actually became the most popular entry.

Although the plot as such is not very original, the film itself oozes atmosphere: A lot of the scenes are set near the Thames – well, Hamburg’s Alster river – and even have some wonderful underwater photography and underwater fights which slightly predate similar ones in Thunderball, albeit in a more basic fashion. Alfred Vohrer has some of the scenes in the eponymous inn beautifully lit with strong black and white contrasts and loves to play with mirrors, reflections and close-up shots of human eyes.

Martin Böttcher’s music absolutely rules this film: In the first quarter of an hour alone we first have one of the looniest Jazz hybrid tunes ever composed including the sounds of barking dogs, manic screams and cuckoo clocks being followed shortly afterwards by one of the best songs of the series (about all the things that can happen at night) sung – or better hoarsely whispered – by Elisabeth Flickenschildt.

Eddi Arent dances the twist and rows a boat. Joachim Fuchsberger returns back to the series as a member of the river police. Brigitte Grothum is a very tomb boy-ish and asexual love interest. Klaus Kinski catches us by surprise as a mysterious moustachioed hoodlum in a white suit… or does he?

The Inn on the River marked the departure of scriptwriter Egon Eis from the series. Up until now the source novels were relatively closely adapted for the screen. From now on they would gradually stray further from the originals up to the point where they would be nearly completely new productions with only the remotest link to Edgar Wallace himself.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern/The Door With Seven Locks (1962)

One by one the owners of seven keys for a door leading to a mysterious treasure get killed off.

The Door With Seven Locks marks the Rialto Wallace debut of hedgehog lookalike Heinz Drache. He was previously seen in CCC’s The Avenger and an incredibly popular German TV star thanks to the mega success of the TV series Das Halstuch, based on Francis Durbridge’s novel The Scarf. Drache plays Inspector Martin, amateur Magician and fan of Krimi radio shows, who is assisted by Eddi Arent.

Siegfried Schürenberg also made his Wallace debut as Sir John. Klaus Kinski has an ultra short part as a Mac wearing nervous crook who approaches Inspector Martin for help and gets killed pretty much instantaneously.

Another Wallace debutant is Werner Peters who hams it up wonderfully as Bertram Cody: In one scene we seen him sitting on a throne-like chair that is quite obviously too large for him. His legs keep dangling in the air. The chair is in the shape of an African woman with legs ending in high heel shoes; its body contains a record player that plays Bach’s Toccata, a piece that Cody’s wife (Gisela Uhlen) pretends to play on an organ which in actuality hides a house bar.

Unfortunately, those inspired moments of madness are few and far between in this production. For its first hour The Door With Seven Locks is a very pedestrian affair with little to speak of in its favour. In the last half hour, however, it switches gears when Pinkas Braun’s Dr. Antonio Staletti surprisingly brings us into Mad Scientist territory.

We have previously seen Ady Berber killing people as a wonderfully sweaty brute with a huge scar around his forehead who gets distracted in a surprisingly innocent childlike fashion by a music box that plays God Save the Queen. We now discover that he is the result of one of Staletti’s experiments aimed at creating an immortal Übermensch by transposing human heads on simian bodies. We see Pinkas Braun holding a skull in true Hamlet style while an actor in ape suit grimaces behind the bars of an underground laboratory. When exposed as a charlatan, Braun goes into maniacally cackling overdrive and jumps on his laboratory table while shaking his head uncontrollably. One of Germany’s best and most OTT cinematic Modern Day Frankensteins who manages to save an otherwise very mediocre Wallace production.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Das Geheimnis der gelben Narzissen/The Devil’s Daffodil (1961)

A version of this review was first published on Dantenet. 

The Devil’s Daffodil was Rialto’s first co-production with Britain. Both an English and a German version of the film were shot simultaneously. 
 At first glance the film seems to have all the typical Wallace ingredients: A mysterious killer who always leaves daffodils as his trademark at the scene of the crime. People get tortured, knifed, hanged and shot, not to forget the nasty death of an old biddy whose wheelchair gets pushed down the stairs. Everyone’s a suspect and everybody seems to lead a double live with secrets of their own. 
 Nevertheless, the film ends up being a very pedestrian contribution to the canon. Where other films of the series have mysterious monks, skeletons, archers or killers hiding behind frog masks stalking the grounds, in this production the chief culprit simply wears a black stocking over his head. The only secret doorway is actually not very secret, but pretty openly covers the entrance to an office in the Cosmos Club. Even the “mystery” of the daffodils that are placed on all the murder victims is not very mysterious: From one of the first scenes on, it is obvious that they are used to smuggle drugs. And not even an Eddi Arent in sight as comic relief. 
  The Devil’s Daffodil even fails when it comes to the location. Shot in Shepperton Studios and being a UK/German co-production it had every chance of reproducing the “typical” English flair better than most other parts of the Edgar Wallace series. 
Despite a few scenes shot on location on Piccadilly Circus and in other parts of London, the majority of the film, however, comes across even less English than most of the other films. Most sets look strangely sterile, deserted and non-descript. Even the Cosmos Club – apparently one of Soho’s most notorious hot spots - rarely ever has more than one or two guests. How that club ever managed to make money is beyond me. 
 Christopher Lee as Hong Kong detective Ling Chu, anxious to avenge the murder of his own daughter, has by far the best role in the film. This is his third outing in Chinese make-up after Hammer’s The Terror of the Tongs (1960) and an episode of the TV series Tales of Hans Andersen (1953), The Nightingale, in which he played the Emperor of China. All of these were, of course, only precursors to his most famous Chinese part as Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu in five instalments of the series shot between 1965-68. 
 His character appears in both the English and the German version of the film. Being multi-lingual you can hear his own voice in both versions. Though dressed in a very un-Asian pervy looking raincoat and – as Joachim Fuchsberger’s character’s friend - clearly on the right side of the law, Lee’s part already has a healthy dose of Fu Manchu in him. 
In the most memorable scene of the film, he is shown gleefully torturing a suspect in search for information. To drown the cries of the victim he has a radio blasting at full power. For the rest of the film, his main contribution is to dispense bits of Confucian wisdom that have been oh-so popular ever since Charlie Chan was teaching son Number One the ways of the world. 
At least in this case his character admits that he has them all made up. 
 In The Films of Christopher Lee he is quoted as saying: “I played a Chinese detective in English and German. It wasn’t exactly easy playing in German with a Chinese accent, but I seem to have managed it.” 
 Well, he didn’t… 
Though his German is pretty much faultless, there sure is no trace of any kind of Chinese accent in it. The other memorable part of the film – at least in the German version – goes to Klaus Kinski. In the English version his character was played by Colin Jeavons. Kinski plays Peter Keene, ex-convict and loyal to the point of obsession to his boss and mentor, Raymond Lyne (Albert Lieven). From one scene to the other, his character can switch from being a slimy, flattering lick arse to a maniacally raving psycho, defending his boss against anyone that may stand in his way like an obedient dog who just wants to please his master and protect him from any attacks. 
 Fuchsberger has his standard role as the clean living, straight-faced hero of the Wallace films. This time he is Jack Tarling of Global Airways’ security service. That profession seems to give him semi-offical status as Scotland Yard opens all doors and files for him. He clearly has carte blanche to do anything he wishes to progress in his investigation, even going as far as allowing Ling Chu to torture a witness in the line of duty. In one if his best scenes, he barely escapes death by falling through an elevator shaft. 
 Ingrid Van Bergen plays Gloria, performing artist in a nightclub. She sings and also does a very innocent strip tease. Van Bergen was later involved in a real life murder mystery: She was imprisoned for 5 years for the murder of her lover in a fit of jealousy. A passion crime if ever there was one. 
 Walter Gotell, who plays Superintendent Whiteside in The Devil’s Daffodil, also appeared in From Russia With Love (1963) as Morzeny and subsequently had a regular part as General Gogol in a couple of later Bond movies. 
 Albert Lieven’s lecherous businessman would have sexual harassment charges against him left, right and centre in these more politically correct times. Lieven later returned for other Wallace Krimis (Das Verraetertor/Traitor’s Gate, Der Gorilla von Soho/Gorilla Gang). 
 Overall The Devil’s Daffodil is worth a look for Lee and Kinski alone, but otherwise only a very average Wallace production, and a missed opportunity to take proper advantage of its English location shots.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Die toten Augen von London/Dead Eyes of London (1961)

A gang of blind peddlers terrorise London under cover of night and fog and kill rich visitors from overseas who all had insurances with the same company. Messages left behind in Braille give Scotland Yard the first clues as to the identity of the killers. 
  Dead Eyes of London was Alfred Vohrer’s Wallace debut. With 14 Krimis he was soon to turn into Rialto’s most proficient director.
 In this movie he already established a lot of his typical cinematic quirks that were often reminiscent of Dario Argento’s ideas a decade later: The camera films a mouth wash from behind a set of teeth; Kinski’s dark sun glasses clearly reflect a roulette table and Harry Wüstenhagen’s image; a victim’s eyes are shown approaching through a little spy hole in a wall shortly before he’s being shot.
 Vohrer’s most ingenious directorial ideas, however, were in the use of classical music. In contrast to most of the other Wallace movies which generally relied on specially composed, often jazzy, tracks, Vohrer opted to have Beethoven’s 5th symphony played to accompany scenes of torture, murder and general mayhem, a device which predates Kubrick’s similar use of the composer’s music for A Clockwork Orange by more than a decade.
 Although this was also Klaus Kinski’s Rialto debut he had his first Wallace outing a year earlier in Kurt Ulrich Film’s rival production Der Rächer/The Avenger (1960).Though his character can see, he is constantly wearing large, dark sun glasses that obscure his eyes and underline his involvement with the gang of blind men. Any time he removes his glasses, he goes into widely staring overdrive.
 Joachim Fuchsberger unsurprisingly plays the lead, a Scotland Yard inspector. What else?
 Eddi Arent is his colleague and comic side kick who knits woollen jumpers incessantly in order to calm his nerves and is nicknamed “Sunny” on account of his cheerful disposition.
 Dieter Borsche is a blind Reverend who runs a soup kitchen for blind down and outs. Or is he?
 Karin Baal is a young girl who reads Braille and helps Scotland Yard by going undercover in Borsche’s church community.
 Franz Schaftheitlin introduces the character of Scotland Yard’s Sir John who was subsequently played by a couple of different actors until finally finding his quintessential interpretation with Siegfried Schürenberg from Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern/The Door With Seven Locks (1962) on.
 The film’s most memorable part, however, is cast with Ady Berber. His Blind Jack, a big, blind brute of a man, is the kind of iconic role that would otherwise have been cast with Tor Johnson or Milton Reid and like these two he also was a professional wrestler before going into films. His hulking, threatening presence is emphasised by the fact that he never seems to utter a word and just looms quietly. His massive, hairy hands that he uses to choke his victims are genuinely frightening. When we finally hear him talk, he begs for his life in incomplete baby-ish kind of German, just to emphasise the childlike mind set that is hidden behind his murderous persona.
  Dead Eyes of London is a relatively violent Wallace production for its time. We see a torture chamber complete with specially designed drowning tanks and attacks by Bunsen burner. We also have smoky gambling joints, a happy hooker with strong Eastern European accent, a death through an elevator shaft, a TV set that shoots bullets and a skull that doubles as a cigarette dispenser.
 This is the first Wallace Krimi that presents the title sequence blood red on top of the otherwise black and white images - a gimmick that was soon copied by other Krimis outside the Rialto series - and is overall one of the best of the early Wallace series.
  Dead Eyes of London was previously filmed in 1939 with Bela Lugosi and Rialto themselves subsequently made an unofficial remake of sorts with Der Gorilla von Soho/Gorilla Gang in 1968 again directed by Vohrer.

Der grüne Bogenschütze/The Green Archer (1961)

If it wasn’t for the domineering presence of Mr Goldfinger himself (Gert Fröbe) this Wallace film could otherwise be considered something of a flop as the film is trying too hard to be ironically self referential in a pre-Scream kind of way.

Eddi Arent knowingly introduces himself to the camera at the start of the film questioning why people would even want to see it. At the end he explains that some shooting in the background was the noise of the next Wallace movie being made, then unknowingly gets shot by the archer and asks the audience to leave the arrow behind should they find it in the cinema. During the film he regularly glances into the camera and at one stage mentions that he saw a similar murder before in Stahlnetz, director Jürgen Roland’s TV series. These scenes are trying very hard to be playful winks for the viewer – and already indicate how successful the Wallace series has become with only its forth outing -, but in reality they are just plain annoying and interrupt the viewing pleasure.

While trying to score points with a contemporary knowing audience, the film forgets to properly concentrate on its thriller aspects by making the Green Archer of the title a completely secondary figure with nary an important scene until well past the film’s halfway mark.

But it is Fröbe who saves the day. His roaring and screaming bully of a man is one of the series best ever performances. When we first see him he descends from an airplane’s gangway and (at least in the original German score) shouts in his native Saxonian accent that, as an American millionaire, he shouldn’t be a suspect in the Archer murder. That’s rather funny as it is the equivalent of having a Good Ol’ redneck boy from the Deep South pretend he’s French!

We also have Karin Dor in a hot pant pyjama and pony tail and Klausjürgen Wussow in his second and final appearance in a Wallace film. He plays an undercover Scotland Yard inspector and Master of Disguise who wouldn’t fool a blind man with his tricks. We also have Stanislav Ledinek as a Bar Manager: He’s big, he’s bald, he’s brute, wears sun glasses and looks like an overblown Easter Egg. Heinz Weiss (Jerry Cotton’s Phil Decker) has a small, but important role. And even in the middle of a gun battle English police insist on their traditional tea break. An informer strikes himself with a whip when calling the police. Fröbe’s character hides girly pictures in a drawer and his mansion has an abundance of secret doorways and passages.

Looking back at it: Maybe the film isn’t so bad after all.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Die Bande des Schreckens/The Terrible People (1960)

Just minutes before being executed Clay Shelton (Otto Colin) vows he will take revenge from the grave and kill all those responsible for his capture. He swears it by his “gallow’s hand”. Inspector Long (Joachim Fuchsberger) who is present and a known gambler places a bet against this, but will soon start doubting the sanity of this judgement when several murders are committed under the sign of the gallow’s hand. Shelton is seen present at some of the crime scenes and his corpse has mysteriously left his coffin.

The Terrible People from all the Wallace movies until then has by far the highest body count. Within the first 20 minutes of the movie hardly a scene goes by without a more or less ingenious murder: The hangman ends up in a noose. A telephone shoots bullets. We also have a gal in a swimsuit (Karin Kernke) who caresses a cheetah and is very adept at throwing knives. Kernke had previously lost her head in 1959’s wacky production of The Head where she plays a hunchbacked nurse whose (you guessed it) head gets transplanted to the body of a stripper.

The final solution again comes as quite a surprise, though doesn’t bear too much thinking about as it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

This is Harald Reinl’s second Wallace Krimi, and the first that he shot with his wife Karin Dor. Dor gets tied and bound twice in this film. Those bondage scenes are something of a specialty for Reinl who later on relished in these with his stint for the Jerry Cotton movies.

Eddi Arent plays a police photographer who faints every time he sees a corpse. Fritz Rasp for a change plays a relatively positive and less sinister figure than in his previous outings. He is Inspector Long’s aristocratic father. Long’s friends call him “Blacky”, i.e. Fuchsberger’s real and well known and publicised nickname. Elisabeth Flickenschildt, the Grande Dame of German stage and film, has her glorious Wallace debut has Mrs Revelstoke, a domineering lady who does not appear to be afraid to be on Shelton’s Death List and lives in a manor full of quaint gadgets.

Der rote Kreis/The Crimson Circle (1960)

The Crimson Circle, the film’s eponymous bad guy, bears an uncanny resemblance to Walter Gibson’s Shadow: In his first pulp fiction outing, The Living Shadow (1931), the character saves Harry Vincent’s life by preventing his suicide from jumping off a bridge and subsequently makes Vincent one of his crime fighting agents. 

The Shadow wears a broad brimmed hat and cape and can be identified by his very distinct laugh. One of the later novels is even titled The Shadow Laughs. Halfway through the film The Crimson Circle prevents a bank manager from jumping to his death. He, too, wears similar looking hat and cape and can be identified by his laugh. In one scene we see several policemen cackling away in the vein attempt to help spur a witness’ memory. 

Edgar Wallace’s source novel pre-dates The Shadow’s debut by a full nine years. Of course, The Crimson Circle is no crime fighter like The Shadow, but on the other side of the law. 

Eight years previously his execution in France was botched up by a drunken henchman who overlooked a nail stuck in the guillotine. The Crimson Circle subsequently escaped and went on a killing and blackmailing spree. He always leaves behind the mark of a red circle as his calling card.

 Klausjürgen Wussow and Karl-Georg Saebisch repeat the previous film’s buddy team of old Scotland Yard Detective and young private eye. Saebisch returned to the Wallace canon in the next film where he played twins in a double role. 

 This film proved to be the only part in the Rialto series for Renate Ewert who plays seductive and mysterious Femme Fatale Thalia Drummond. The actress ended her life prematurely by committing suicide in 1966. 

 Fritz Rasp has his second Wallace outing, this time as misanthropic cheapskate and millionaire Froyant, another one of The Crimson Circle’s victims. 

Eddi Arent is a Yard detective who draws a lot of attention to himself by appearing in a variety of different disguises. 

 The revelation of who is behind the mask does come across as a real surprise twist and is supported by the fact that the voice of the man behind the mask is dubbed by a different actor than the one playing the part.

The Crimson Circle was a movie debut for Jürgen Roland. He had previously become known as director of the German TV Krimi series Stahlnetz (“Net of steel”). As an in-joke the credits of this movie are played on top of an image of a net of steel.


Der Frosch mit der Maske/Fellowship of the Frog (1959)

The Harald Reinl directed film that started the whole Krimi wave already has all the ingredients one came to expect from the series.

A criminal master mind dressed up in an off beat costume - ever thought anyone could be scared of… a frog? – terrorises foggy London with his dock side murder gang. Red herrings and dodgy characters are abound; several plot layers cleverly intertwined.

Siegfried Lowitz plays an underappreciated Inspector Elk - Hedge in the English version - who turns deaf at convenient moments. Joachim Fuchsberger is Sir Archibald’s (E.F. Fürbringer) American playboy nephew and amateur detective and teams up with Lowitz to expose the Frog and woo the leading lady (Elfie von Kalckreuth, later to become a very popular German TV announcer, plays under her then pseudonym Eva Anthes). Eddi Arent is his butler and comic relief who also gets to practise some judo tricks on him.

Fritz Rasp plays Maitland, a genuinely scary boss from Hell and prime suspect who teaches Ray Bennett (Walter Wilz) how not to apply for a pay rise. The menace of his character is further highlighted by the fact that – bar a couple of sentences in his last scene – he never utters a word and only communicates through frightening glances. Eva Pflug gets to sing - or at least lip synch - a song about not being left alone on a foggy night at the Thames.

With the mysterious and even tragic figure of Old Ben, the executioner (Carl Lange), Fellowship of the Frog manages to capture one of the series most fascinating and memorable characters.

One of the suspects of the film (and the true culprit of the source novel) is called Harry Lime. Though Orson Welles’ Third Man is the more famous name sake, Wallace created his character nearly a quarter of a century before Graham Greene wrote the script for Carol Reed’s movie.

The film was shot in Copenhagen. Stock footage of London was shot over two days and added in to create more genuine British atmosphere.

Overall this was an excellent start to the Wallace series and rightly acted as a pattern for further episodes of the series. In the characterisation of its protagonists, this film still has a bigger emotional impact and slightly more depressive mood than any of the other later Wallace Krimis that are more action oriented.

Krimi? What's that?

Does the world really need another film related blog? Well, if it is dedicated to Krimis, I think it does as this is one genre that – at least in English – has not been written about too much yet and deserves to be more fully explored.

“Krimi” is a German term. It is the short form for either “Kriminalroman” (crime novel) or “Kriminalfilm” (crime movie) and in German can refer to any crime or mystery related novel or film. An Agatha Christie novel e.g. would be a “Krimi”. A Film Noir? A Krimi. A Sherlock Holmes story? Yep, you guessed it: That, too, would be considered a Krimi in the Fatherland.

In the English speaking world and amongst movie buffs, the term “Krimi” is more closely associated with a series of German film productions from the late 50s to the early 70s. Following the success of the Edgar Wallace adaptation Der Frosch mit der Maske/Fellowship of the Frog in 1959, dozens of other Krimis were produced for more than a decade. The series finally came to a stop with its last adaptation Das Rätsel des silbernen Halbmonds/Seven Blood Stained Orchids (1972), a film that was co-produced with Italy and features in lots of giallo overviews. I would personally define the Jess Franco movie Der Todesrächer von Soho/The Corpse Packs His Bags as the last true Krimi production. Though filmed in April 1971 it didn’t hit the German cinemas until November 1972 and as such marks the real true end of an era.

The following series would all constitute Krimis and will over time all be covered in this blog:

• Edgar Wallace movies (produced by Rialto or other companies)
• Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptations
• Jerry Cotton series
• Kommissar X movies
• Dr Mabuse series (of the 1960s)
• Louis Weinert-Wilton adaptations
• Father Brown duo of films
• a number of individual productions outside of regular series (such as Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes/Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) or Das Wirtshaus von Dartmoor/The Inn on Dartmoor (1964)

A cursory glance at this list will show that there may at times be a certain amount of overlap with other sub-genres such as Giallo, Eurospy or even Science Fiction.

While I will focus primarily on these movies I can envisage to occasionally also focus a bit more on the talent in front of and behind the cameras. Krimis had their fair share of easily identifiable talents, either in form of the actors (Klaus Kinski anyone?), directors (Alfred Vohrer, Harald Reinl) or composers (Peter Thomas) to name but a few.

Looking forward to sharing those reviews and initiating some discussions with all of you about one of my favourite genres.