Friday, March 20, 2009

Dynamit in grüner Seide/Death and Diamonds/Dynamite in Green Silk (1968)

Despite the fact that the previous 5 Cotton movies had been filmed by four different directors, it is ironic that the series started falling apart just when Harald Reinl came on board to direct the last three movies. Having Germany’s best known action director of the time in charge for a continuous string of movies should have been an opportunity to streamline the success formula and raise the movie series to new heights.

Instead pretty much everything that had made the films so popular was discarded for Cases 6 and 7:

Richard Münch had enough of playing Mr High and went back to stage acting in Vienna. Rather than to replace him with another actor, the following movies had various non-descript actors playing Cotton’s superiors and often make clumsy attempts at having High involved despite his absence. We regularly see other actors relay High’s messages to Cotton and Decker or see Cotton talk to him on the phone off screen.

Both Death and Diamonds as well as Death in the Red Jaguar also see Cotton leave his familiar New York territory and go to California. In actual fact if watched close together it becomes painfully obvious that the two films had to rely on a very limited amount of Californian stock footage. We often see very similar looking shots of roads and airports. The semi-documentary approach was abandoned altogether for these last movies and no narrator was employed to provide commentary to the action. Even Cotton’s famous red Jaguar is rarely ever seen!

And even though the Cotton series of movies was never exactly renowned for their sophisticated plot devices, with the first two Reinl movies plot holes reached mythic proportions. In Death and Diamonds Cotton becomes the world’s worst undercover agent: Rather than draw attention away from himself when he infiltrates a gang, he behaves like an elephant in a china store and rarely misses an opportunity to start a fight, ask stupid questions or otherwise raise suspicion. Never mind his attempts at playing an Englishman. His ineptness in this department is only outmatched by the gang of killers in Death in the Red Jaguar who - even though they are very clearly on the list of suspects – can’t help but to continue killing their victims in the most obvious way and drive attention to themselves. At one stage we even see Cotton about to be crushed by an oncoming train. He is tied and bound at a railway junction and this despite the fact that the gangsters are trying to make this look like an accident!

If all this sounds as if Cases 6 and 7 are a miss, well, they’re not. These movies still are very fast paced and entertaining, but lack a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. Despite both of them having some very memorable stand out scenes, they often come across as more conventional paint-by-numbers actioneers than their predecessors. One fight scene follows the next, but is often missing a critical over-the-top ingredient. Or at least an over the top location: Cotton seems to have also lost his love for high wire stunts.

Mind you: When these films do manage to shine, they do so with an ingenious punch that sets them clearly apart from similar productions of the area.

Following the theft of a large quantity of poisoned gas in preparation of an upcoming diamond heist, Cotton is required to go underground and expose the gang leader, a mysterious shadow figure called Stone, behind the robbery. In his guise he is not allowed to smoke, drink whisky or eat fish. He has to take a crash course in electronics in order to pose convincingly as the safecracker, is allowed to chase blondes (though we still don’t see him in any kind of romantic shenanigans) and….. play with little toy cars! Apparently the real alarm system specialist (Claus Tinney) he is impersonating is a dedicated fan of the truly manly game of model car racing and if you didn’t know it, this film will teach you that Mini Racing Centres in the 1960s were really cool places to mingle with fellow aficionados! The red toy Jaguar we see Cotton playing with is a sad reminder of the real McCoy, however, that in this film does not get an opportunity to crash.

We also learn that bars frequented by gangsters inevitably have a bunch of Go-Go Girls dancing around pool tables. A very ingenious shot has one of the pool player’s looks turn back and forward between two very tantalisingly placed pool balls and the jiggling brimming bra of one of the dancers. The gang’s HQ hangout is called “Green Silk” and explains the German and the alternative English title of the movie. Somewhat.

Following the diamond heist, Cotton gets trapped in an incinerator out of which he miraculously manages to escape, prior to running off with the diamonds himself which he then uses as a ruse to identify the master mind behind the theft.

Up til that point Death and Diamonds was a fast paced, somewhat routine, slightly uninspired actioneer. The last half hour or so, however, raises the bar by a gear or three. The moment the real Trevor is released from prison, he starts tracking his impostor’s moves and connects with a common acquaintance: an equally common damsel in a delightfully see-through négligé who writes down a contact number on a packet of Lucky Strike.

Mabel (Marlies Dräger), a mysterious brunette in green, helps to kidnap Cotton and blonde gangster moll Lana (Sylvie 3-2-1 Countdown for Manhattan Solar). Cotton had previously prevented Lana from being raped, but she is now being bullwhipped by Mabel in order to have Cotton confess. This is a violently fetishistic scene of a kind that would have previously been unimaginable for a Cotton movie, but was soon becoming symptomatic for the Reinl directed films and taken to an extreme with the last production, Fatal Gunshots on Broadway.

When Cotton manages to escape from the gang he stops an approaching car by karate jumping feet first (!) through the windscreen and knocking out the driver. In a subsequent manic chase sequence he makes quite a great figure on a motor bike.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Die Rechnung – eiskalt serviert/ Tip Not Included/A Cold-Blooded Affair (1966)

A version of this review was first published on my Hammer Glamour pages.

In Tip Not Included Yvonne Monlaur plays Violet, a nightclub singer in a Playboy Bunny-esque lounge, and gets to sing two of Peter Thomas’ catchy tunes. (“I want to be near to you/I want to be kissing you/If I close my eyes/I’m in paradise.”) Truth be told it may not necessarily be Monlaur herself who sings – I strongly suspect that she was dubbed – but she nevertheless strikes quite a stylish pose in this black and white thriller. Her character is involved with an unemployed chemist (Christian Doermer) whose expertise is needed to develop bombs for an ingenious heist by the Charles Gang. His attempt to double-cross his gang by selling the info out to a mysterious stranger (Rainer Brandt) leads to his early death.

Cotton first encounters Violet and her boyfriend when he visits the bar in which she performs in order to enjoy a relaxing after work whiskey. Needless to say, he is not able to finish his drink: A little bit less than a sip later he is already madly involved in an elevator brawl with a couple of thugs who are after Violet’s sweetheart.

From then on the film takes off with the usual breathtaking speed that can be expected from a movie of the series. The film’s heist of an armed treasury van involves a clever magnetic bomb device that gets attached to the van from underneath a bridge and blows the car to pieces. Cotton nobly accepts responsibility for sending the multi million dollar transport off to prevent the suicide of the guilt ridden director of the treasury department (Walter Rilla)… just to see him succumb to a heart attack only seconds later! That temporarily costs Cotton his licence, though it’s still him who Violet prefers to call when she gets kidnapped. When Cotton takes the call in his swell apartment he is seen wearing a suave bathrobe with JC monogram. He straight away jumps into his Jaguar to save the damsel. He can save Violet in a big shoot out, nearly gets arrested – suspended FBI agents shouldn’t carry guns! –, then follows a lead into a wrestling arena. One double cross follows the other. There just ain’t no loyalty amongst thieves any more. And just when the pace threatens to slow down we see gangster moll Mary (Birke Bruck) taking a very revealing shower. She wears nothing but her glasses which manage to stay steam free. Wow, that was a first for a Cotton Krimi! Cotton generally has little time for romantic hanky panky so fast forward to a scene where he nonchalantly jumps off a sky scraper (!) to hang on to an escaping helicopter. The subsequent flight action is marred by the dodgy rear projection, yet picks up when the helicopter approaches a lake and we see the stunt man hanging on for his life when his feet are gliding through the water.

For Monlaur this proved to be her final motion picture. She subsequently only had one more appearance in Der Tod läuft hinterher, an incredibly popular German TV Krimi serial in three parts that also starred a bunch of familiar faces from the Edgar Wallace movies such as Joachim Fuchsberger, Pinkas Braun and Elisabeth Flickenschildt.

Horst Tappert secured the part as the head of the treasury robbing Charles Gang after playing a similar part as the “Major” earlier on that year in Die Gentlemen bitten zur Kasse, a 3-part German TV mini-series based on the Great Train Robbery in 1963.

Rainer Brandt makes for a very convincing menacingly mysterious figure looming in the shadows. Though he is an excellent actor in his own right, he is primarily known for his dubbing work as he owns the most famous dubbing studio in Germany. He already had his first encounter with Jerry Cotton in the previous film 3-2-1 Countdown for Manhattan for which he dubbed Allen Pinson’s character Harry. Ironically for someone who is widely known for his dubbing work, his part in Tip Not Included required him for the largest part to loom silently in background.

Overall Tip Not Included is a very typical and entertaining example of the Jerry Cotton series at its best. This would be the last black and white production. The remaining movies were all shot in colour, though the subsequent one (Der Mörderclub von Brooklyn/Body in Central Park) still started with a black and white pre-credit scene that consisted of material shot but not used for Tip Not Included in which Cotton and Decker discover a bunch of gangsters hidden in Cotton’s apartment that is accessed with a private lift and contains a private mini race track with toy Jaguar.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Das Geheimnis der weissen Nonne/The Trygon Factor (1966)

With costs amounting to 4 Million Deutschmarks, The Trygon Factor is the most expensive Wallace film of the series and it sure manages to show every Pfennig spent on it.

In an outrageous mix of caper and nunsploitation movie elements, we see an international gang of female beauties dressed in white habits driving motor boats and shooting and murdering their way into a bank vault that is then cracked open in an elaborately staged heist sequence.

This production was filmed in English with some scenes being shot with alternative actors (Siegfried Schürenberg replaces James Robertson-Justice as Sir John) for its German dubbed version. Being filmed in the Shepperton Studios and at actual locations around London The Trygon Factor may lack some of the usual Teutonic inconsistencies, but for that very reason is also the most accessible one for non-German audiences.

It is an exceptionally well cast production: Stewart Granger is the most suave Wallace hero and was very popular in Germany at the time due to a series of Karl May movies for which he played Old Surehand. Robert Morley plays his usual pompous character and Brigitte Horney is excellent as the head of the nuns’ order. The biggest surprise is Eddi Arent who had his final appearance in the series here: Cast completely against type in a serious role he is absolutely convincing as a professional safe breaker. The first time we see him seemingly dead in a coffin during his funeral. For the robbery he is seen wearing something resembling the original yellow Iron Man suit of armour while shooting bullets against the safe from a futuristic looking high power machine gun. Not a sight you’re bound to forget in a while.

Sophie Hardy goes topless in a well staged murder sequence that alternates her bathroom scene with the killing of another girl in an adjoining room and that would not have been out of place in a giallo. We also have a cross dressing crook straight out of an Ed Wood movie and an infantile man who still wants to play with his mammy. Add a mysteriously masked killer and we have one helluva of a zany and fast paced production and quite possibly one of the best Wallace movies of the entire series. A definite Must See and a lorra lorra fun.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Der Todesrächer von Soho/The Corpse Packs His Bags (1972)

Directed by Eurotrash hack Jess Franco, The Corpse Packs His Bags was a coloured remake of the very first black & white Bryan Edgar Wallace movie, The Secret of the Black Trunk. Franco’s film very closely follows the plot of its predecessor and Franco even goes so far as to copy entire scenes from that one. Whenever he strays, however, he pushes the irreverences to the n-th degree.

Siegfried Schürenberg (Rialto’s Sir John) is delightfully cast against character as the unscrupulous leader of the drug ring with a laboratory that appears to have been left over from a previous Frankenstein shooting. One beautiful shot has Inspector Robert Redford [sic!] (Fred Williams) and Horst Tappert stand in front of two oval mirrors that reflect their images ad infinitum. A couple of shots from staircases invoke German expressionism or a camera man with a few drinks too many.

These occasional glimpses of talent, however, are only very few and far between and for the most part Corpse is one of the most amateurish and blandest Krimis ever to see the light of day: The film was quite obviously not shot anywhere near London. Instead Soho appears to be just minutes away from the Spanish countryside. It is littered with Franco’s trademark blurry close-ups and rather dodgy day-for-night shots; Luis Morris as Andy Pickwick, a crime scene photographer, is an annoying Chris Howland copy who himself was really a second rate Eddi Arent in the original movie, though he at least carries a few nudie pictures with him of women that are better looking than the ugly wenches that are cast as hookers for this film. Franco himself plays a knife expert.

It is just so annoying: Nothing wrong with a film that fails on some levels, but the director should at least have tried. Franco, however, leaves the impression that he just couldn’t give a toss.

Filmed in April 1971, it took until November 1972 for the film to find a cinematic release. Not surprisingly it proved to be a financial flop and was effectively the last of the classic Krimis to grace the screens.

As tempting as it would be to blame Franco personally for the demise of the Krimi genre, the German public was simply Krimi-d out at the time. From the following year on they would also be able to watch the Rialto series on TV and get their fix on the small screen.

Still, the genre would have deserved a better swan song than Corpse.

Krimi R.I.P.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Das siebente Opfer/The Racetrack Murders (1964)

A series of murders at a race track. A dead man who appears to come back alive to seek revenge years after his execution. Thanks to Franz Josef Gottlieb’s superior direction, The Racetrack Murders is the best of all Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptations, a true gem of a Krimi that is well worth checking out and easily stands its own ground even outside the true canon of Rialto Wallaces.

Gottlieb loves long sweeping camera movements and bizarre angles. We see a fight scene filmed through the legs of the fighters; reflections captured in pools of rain; life footage captures the exciting atmosphere at a race course including the bookmakers’ bizarre secret hand communication.

The action never stops. One killing leads to another: a horse throws off its rider when a snake is thrown in its path, a trumpet player gets shot in the middle of a solo, people get killed by pitchfork, harpoon or hangman’s noose. The hookers in the local pub, The Silver Whip, wear the most amazing pieces of highly revealing strap tops.

It is also one of the best cast films of the series: Hansjörg Felmy wears goofy metal-rimmed glasses and paints cartoons. Trude Herr is his fat dietician. Ann Savo is drop dead gorgeous – though quite clearly not a Chinese as she is meant to be – and allows her breasts to be groped by Harry Riebauer. Peter Vogel as a butler for a change is not really comic relief, although he is allowed to make a few quips. Wolfgang Lukschy is a wonderfully ruthless loan shark who puts pressure on Helmut Lohner. Also starring Ann Smyrner, Hans Nielsen and Walter Rilla. Oh, and also look out for Werner Peters in a blink or you’ll miss it silent walk on cameo!

Although this is Krimi entertainment at its best, The Racetrack Murders flopped at the box office so it took CCC a few years before they decided to go back on Bryan Edgar Wallace territory.

The next few films marketed as such really had absolutely nothing to do with Bryan Edgar Wallace’s oeuvre and in some cases bore more resemblance to Fredric Brown adaptations. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) were Dario Argento’s first three films. The Etruscan Kills Again (1972) was directed by Armando Crispino. Although co-produced with German money these movies belong quite clearly more to the Giallo genre and as such will be not be up for discussion here.

The last proper Bryan Edgar Wallace Krimi, however, would prove to be Krimi’s final hour: Der Todesrächer von Soho/The Corpse Packs His Bags (1972).

Friday, March 6, 2009

Das Ungeheuer von London City/The Monster of London City (1964)

A play in the Edgar Allan Poe Theatre depicting the murders of Jack the Ripper leads to a number of copycat killings in the film’s contemporary London.

With The Monster of London City Edwin Zbonek returned to familiar Bryan Edgar Wallace territory after his previous directorial stint for The Mad Executioners.

Though much is made of the fictitious play’s apparent accuracy towards the Autumn of Terror, a lot of the details are more part of Ripper fiction. The whole stance of having a West End play spark a series of vicious murders and invoke debates to have the drama banned is not so much thought provoking, but exposes the more typical middle class, conservative audience of the 1960s Krimis. At a time when London started to swing, students worldwide were on the verge of revolt and pop culture became a political force it must have been comforting to see a rather old fashioned drama involving actors wearing suits and ties causing a stir. And potential son-in-laws would still ask a father for the daughter’s hand. Not exactly Helter Skelter.

But then again, Krimis were never shot to deal with serious social issues, but first and foremost served as pure escapist entertainment. And though not a master piece, this film does give us a healthy dose of midnight murders and red herrings. We even get short glimpses of black and white nudity and a scene with a child witnessing one of the murder scenes would later become a common motive in Gialli. Overall this is one of the best Bryan Edgar Wallace movies.

Hansjörg Felmy is slightly miscast as the drug riddled troubled soul of an actor who finds it ever more difficult to separate reality from fiction. Dietmar Schönherr is his doctor and friend. He would later turn into a popular German talk show host like his colleague Joachim Fuchsberger. Marianne Koch as the girl admired by both later got a medical degree and became a celebrity doctor.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Der Henker von London/The Mad Executioners (1963)

The Mad Executioners marks one of the few times when a Bryan Edgar Wallace movie featured mysterious villains in disguise. This time a bunch of hooded judges - who look remarkably similar to the baddies in later “proper” Wallace films such as The College Girl Murders - hold judgment over criminals who managed to escape the traditional justice system. Their verdict is invariably death by strangulation courtesy of the hangman’s rope that gets stolen in regular intervals from Scotland Yard’s Black Museum. Their court room is full of coffins and skulls just for added atmosphere. Their macabre success even spawns copycats: criminal gangs who use the imminent threat of execution to terrorise some straying gang members.

Half way through the film it switches focus to an apparent sexual predator who decapitates young girls, one of them the sister of Inspector John Hillier (Hansjörg Felmy). The killer needs those heads to perform Frankensteinian experiments.

Chris Howland is a crime reporter in various disguises. He sings… badly. He cross dresses... badly. Dieter Borsche is a pervy old man who still manages to get the gals with the help of some incredibly bad chat up lines. A veritable lady killer.

Also starring Wolfgang Preiss as Hillier’s superior in Scotland Yard, Harry Riebauer as Hillier’s friend and police surgeon and Maria Perschy as the token blonde love interest and decoy to help catch the decapitating mad doctor. Rudolf Fernau is a butler with a wonderfully fixed gaze.

The final solution does for a change come as a surprise and is unusually downbeat.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Der Würger von Schloss Blackmoor /The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle (1963)

On the eve of his knighthood, Lucius Clark’s (Rudolf Fernau) dodgy colonial past comes back to haunt him. He is in illegal possession of millions worth of raw diamonds that are hidden amongst the secret vaults of Blackmoor Castle and that an anonymous strangler is aiming to unearth.

Overall The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle is a very pedestrian affair. Action director Harald Reinl does not shine in a lot of scenes and the film just keeps plodding along at a very leisurely pace. Most of the actors (Hans Reiser, Harry Riebauer) are unfamiliar faces without the slightest bit of charisma and even Karin Dor is very mousy and unmemorable in this production. Dieter Eppler also shows up from the Rialto series as a diamond obsessed butler.

Composer Oskar Sala wrote a track that unlike most other Krimi scores just uses electronically manipulated sounds. Though interesting as a concept and well ahead of its time, this is an experiment that ultimately fails as these sounds are incredibly slow and monotonous and only underline the film’s general lack of direction. Sala put a similar concept to much better use for Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The identification of the killer also centres on the fact that he only has nine fingers, yet no-one seems to have been aware of this more than revealing missing digit in the case of the true perpetrator of these crimes.

But all is of course not lost with this production: The film features a scene in which a biker gets decapitated by a steel line cast across the street, a scene more violent than usual for the time. Decapitations appear to be quite common around Blackmoor Castle. One of the victims who manages to keep his head on then has the letter M cut into his forehead, a nice homage to Fritz Lang. Walter Giller in kilt and massive handle bar moustache makes for one of the most entertainingly ludicrous Teutonic Scotsmen the Krimiworld has ever seen. And Ingmar Zeisberg as a fake blonde and gangster moll oozes sex appeal out of her low cut tops. Even a telephone operator manages to identify her as a Blonde just by listening to her voice! Zeisberg was to return back to Krimi territory that same year with The Inn on Dartmoor (1964).

The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle proved to be a resounding commercial success and pathed the way for further Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptations: Next on the list was the strange Mabuse/Wallace hybrid Dr. Mabuse Vs. Scotland Yard (1963).

Monday, March 2, 2009

Das Geheimnis der schwarzen Koffer/The Secret of the Black Trunk (1962)

Artur “Atze” Brauner’s Bryan Edgar Wallace series kicked of with The Secret of the Black Trunk: A series of murders committed via an oriental knife leads Scotland Yard on the trace of a drug ring. All victims have just recently arrived in London and to their surprise discover shortly before their demise that their suitcases had already been packed for them. After the murders these cases all go missing.

The Secret of the Black Trunk is a solid start for the new Bryan Edgar Wallace series having many of the ingredients of the original and fulminates in a chase through some underground caverns that had also been used for other Krimis.

The male lead Joachim Hansen is a colourless character and a relatively unfamiliar face although he ended up having a long, though not very distinct film career. Following up on one single clue that could have easily been discussed on the phone, Inspector Finch is even allowed to travel to the United States under the tune of the Star Spangled Banner. Senta Berger brings star quality into this production. Confusingly enough we end up seeing her in captivity at one stage without ever being given the benefit of watching the actual kidnapping.

Chris Howland became a very popular discjockey in Germany. Born in London his distinct English accent became his trademark that also proved popular in a lot of Karl May movies and another Bryan Edgar Wallace Krimi, The Mad Executioners. In The Secret of the Black Trunk he plays an Eddi Arent like comic relief character, a collector of sounds who constantly stumbles across clues with the help of his portable reel-to-reel recorder.

The Secret of the Black Trunk is Wallace Lite, a quick fix if you don’t have the father’s movies at your disposal. Though full of illogical plot holes it does have some charming off-the-wall moments especially when we are confronted with one of the character’s nieces (Elfriede Irral) who for no apparent reason decides to dress as the Queen’s page boy. A tree with a Cyrillic inscription reading “MONTI 1945” gives away the fact that this was filmed in Berlin, not London. Helga Sommerfeld who is the film’s token sexy bar maid also featured in Playboy’s November 1964 issue as one of the “The Girls of Germany”. Director Werner Klingler’s next film was to be The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The Secret of the Black Trunk was later to be remade by Jess Franco as The Corpse Packs His Bags.