Sunday, January 17, 2021

Rediscovering Heather Gardiner (Das Hotel der toten Gäste, 1965)


After discovering the corpse of a hotel detective in his London office, reporter Barney Blair (Joachim Fuchsberger) travels to San Remo in Italy in order to investigate the murder at the hotel where the victim had worked. 

 The Hotel ATLANTA is currently abuzz with visitors over the annual San Remo Italian Song Festival. Blair discovers his colleague and friend, fashion reporter Gilly Powell (Karin Dor), also on location and gets to know a string of often suspicious and dubious members of the International Jet Set: singers, producers, playboys and millionaires. 

When wealthy Ruth Cornell (Gisela Uhlen) gets murdered in her hotel room, the disappearance of a necklace may be the first clue in finding her killer. 

Blair and Powell team up with Inspector Forbesa (Hans Nielsen) from the local police to solve the mystery. 

 Source Novel and Writer Info 

 Little is known about Heather Gardiner, the author of the source novel. 

Born Heather Sharp in Nedlands/Perth, Western Australia, she was based in Melbourne with her husband when she published her first novel, Money on Murder (1951). While a student of English at the University of West Australia she had previously published a couple of short stories and articles. 

 Gardiner considered her writing a hobby and she and her husband sure appear to have been people of independent means as they headed off on a two-year trip to the Himalayas shortly after the publication of her debut novel. 

Upon return she spent a small amount of time in London where Hutchinson, her publisher, confirmed acceptance of her second novel, Murder in Haste, just a day before she headed off back to Australia again.

 Gardiner’s life and writing career were tragically cut short when she died in 1954 in her late 20s as a result of a car crash. She appears to have had plans for a third novel set in London. 

Both her novels were published shortly after her death in German as part of Goldmanns Taschen-Krimi. This series of mystery and crime fiction with their distinct red covers also published the Edgar Wallace novels. 

 Gardiner’s books appeared at a relatively early stage of this publishing venture and in quick succession as numbers 78 (Die rote Vase/Money on Murder) and 83 (Wettlauf mit der Vergangenheit/Murder in Haste) respectively. 

Gardiners novels are distinct in that they both feature the same female character and are set in Australia among the sporting community. 

Money on Murder is a neatly told classic murder mystery set mainly in a hotel during the Melbourne Cup. Society/Fashion reporter Gillian Amery is caught up in the murder of a rich lady who had just recently married the man Amery was engaged to. 

Told in first person narration from Amery's point of view this features a very likeable heroine who is neither a super sleuth nor a helpless damsel in distress but someone who needs to make a living while being surrounded by the High Society and who makes mistakes yet is able to learn from them. Though she is central to the mystery, it is not her but a police officer investigating the crime that solves the murder which, let's be honest, is actually somewhat more realistic than in other more famous mystery novels, yet an angle that rarely if ever gets explored. 

The follow-up novel, Murder in Haste, has an intriguing premise: Amery perchance meets a girl in a coffee shop who had just arrived from England. They have a pleasant chat until the girl suddenly runs off. Something that Amery said appears to have triggered that reaction. A few hours later at a society party that Amery is asked to cover for her newspaper, the girl's corpse gets discovered and Amery is again involved in a Whodunnit featuring some of her friends and acquaintances. 

Common themes and similarities between her two books are: 

  • They both feature "Murder" in the title (Murder in Haste, Money on Murder)

  • Both have some loose sporting connections (Melbourne Cup, Cricket match in Sydney)

  • Both of course feature Gillian Amery. She may be the driving force in solving the murder but never the actual detective. That role is always left for members of the official police force. 

Both books are highly entertaining little time wasters. Gardiner may not have redefined the genre but she sure was capable of writing Whodunnits that stand the test of time. The likes of Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith may have come before her but to the best of my knowledge she was Australia’s first female mystery writer which makes her early demise and subsequent slip through the cracks of the reading public’s mind ever more tragic. 

 The Production

 Hotel der toten Gäste [Hotel of the Dead Guests] would prove to be the only adaptation of Gardiner’s novels. Though predominantly a German Krimi this was a co-production between the studios Music House in Germany and Carthago Films in Spain and features a number of Spanish talent in front of and behind the camera. For international Krimi Fans this would prove to be somewhat difficult to obtain as outside the German speaking countries it only ever seems to have found a a release in Spain where according to IMDb this was known as El enigma de los Cornell or El extraño caso de Lucy Cornell. (IMDb also indicates that in Austria it may also have been known as Der Harpunenmörder [The Harpoon Killer].) 

With the likes of Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor and Ady Berber, the film stars a good number of familiar faces from the popular series of Edgar Wallace Krimis. However, what sets this production apart is that this is set in the Schlager-Milieu. “Schlager” is the German name for their catchy (and kitschy!) native pop tunes, the kind of music that from a more Anglo-Saxon point of view is easily mockable, yet over the decades would prove to be incredibly popular for the local market with the singers being major stars in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. 

A lot of the Continental European countries would have their own variety of homegrown pop music. To this day the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual event that features entries from all the European countries. The Sanremo Music Festival that features prominently in Hotel is generally considered to be a precursor of the Eurovision. 

Music House at the time of shooting was primarily known for shooting musical comedies featuring well known Schlager-Stars such as Rex Gildo (Tausend Takte Übermut [A thousand bars of mischief], 1965) or Udo Jürgens (Das Spukschloß im Salzkammergut [The haunted castle in the Salzkammergut], 1966). 

Hannelore Auer who had a cameo as herself in Hotel was one of their most prominent stars appearing in most of their movies. Austrian born Auer appeared in a number of 1960s musical films as well as in two Kommissar X productions (Three Golden Serpents (1967) and Kill Panther Kill (1968)) and later became better known as the wife and occasional duet partner of Heino, one of Germany’s most prominent singers. His baritone voice, white blonde hair and dark sunglasses together with a certain affinity to often questionable musical material has often led him to become the victim of parodies. 

 So with the popularity of both Krimis and Schlagermusic in Germany it must have sounded like a good idea to combine both elements and create the very first Schlager-Krimi. 

And even though they wisely hired some of Krimi’s most prominent faces, when it came to the director they opted for Eberhard Itzenplitz as a replacement for the vastly more experienced Alfred Vohrer who was initially meant to helm this project, a relatively inexperienced director who was only at the start of his career. Hotel was his feature film debut and even though he would in later life become known as a journeyman TV director for popular German TV Krimi series such as Derrick, Tatort and a wide range of other unassuming middle-of-the-road TV shows, he would very rarely ever venture back to directing feature movies. 


 Frei nach Die Rote Vase

 This disclaimer - freely adapted after the novel "The Red Vase" - is one of the most important ones to help evaluate the production. 

Though the main framework of the plot is still there, major liberties had been taken. Whereas the novel is set during an Australian sporting event, The Melbourne Cup, the film takes place during a music festival in Italy. Rather than focus on Karin Dor’s character who is the heroine of the novel, the emphasis in the film is (as usual) on her male co-star Joachim Fuchsberger. Dor’s character also undergoes a name change from the book’s Gillian Amery to the film’s Gilly Powell. 

Given that this is a mix between Schlagerfilm and Krimi it is surprising how uneventful even the music is. The background track is unassuming and often non existent. As the score was written by Gert "Schoolgirl Report " Wilden this is actually quite a disappointment. 

Other Krimis that did not claim to be part-musical production often had songs woven more intelligently into the actual plot, e.g. Eva Pflug’s “Nachts im Nebel an der Themse” in The Fellowship of the Frog (1959). 

Despite its "schlager" progeny, there are just two actual songs in this production: 

 Hannelore Auer sings Mikis Theodorakis’ “In Athen gibt es ein Wiedersehn”. 

 More importantly Fräuleinwunder and well known German export Elke (A Shot in the Dark, 1964) Sommer also appeared as herself and sang “Ich sage No” as well as the Italian version “Ma ora No” off screen. Sommer’s scenes are filmed in front of an orchestra and she is never seen interacting with any of the other characters (in contrast to Hannelore Auer). Given the otherwise threadbare production value it appears that her performance had been filmed separate to the rest of movie. It’s fair to say that her short scenes are easily the highlight of the entire production… albeit only shortly as the movie otherwise fails to even remotely convey the genuine hustle and bustle of such a festival. Instead all we mainly see are dull studio reproductions of hotel rooms and hallways , anonymous corridors and apartment house fronts without the slightest flair for the genuine location. 

Sommer’s song was released as a soundtrack single. 

 But what about the actual Krimi part of this production? I am afraid to say that Hotel der toten Gäste isn’t much to write home about in this regard either. 

Though it begins in London, the only thing that points to the UK are English posters and newspapers. Don’t expect any archive footage of Big Ben or the like. 

And as for San Remo? 

Yeah, we don’t get any feel for Italy either as the action is mainly centred in anonymous corridors or outside non-descript apartment house fronts. Truth be told, even the Hotel Atlanta, supposedly THE place to be for this prestigious festival does not ooze much of an atmosphere. (Having a large part of the action set in a hotel is something taken over from the source novel.) 

Even the characters appear and behave typically German. This at least is what this production has in common with the better Edgar Wallace Krimis which, however, managed to create something of a fake London feel in their productions which made them so much more appealing. 

The direction for Hotel der toten Gäste is dull. Despite having such a large contingent of popular movie stars at his disposal, Itzenplitz does not succeed in doing anything with them.The acting is just routine and the director never manages to display a genuine feel for the genre. It’s one of those productions that on paper sounds so much more exciting than in practice. 

For the most part the characters want to walk and talk and chase romances and marriage proposals without the slightest bit of chemistry between them. The murders feel purely incidental and to give everyone a chance to snoop around a bit more, than continue walking and talking and chasing romances without genuine chemistry. It’s yap yap yap without any trace of wit or style or memorable dialogue. There never appears to be any genuine threat. The viewer never really gets to care much about the mystery, the characters and their fates. Everything is forceably mysterious with everyone a suspect. Yes, the manager wears sun glasses and the jewellery robbing killer black gloves but those small nuggets can't ever deter from the genuine lack of flair and excitement. 

The camera hardly moves at all. Don’t expect any intriguing angles. For the most part this feature film is filmed liked a contemporary German TV production. Even a shooting is uninspired. Everything is just very humdrum, talky and totally unimaginative. 

 The finale of the film is a prime example for this. At last we get a small bit of action including a fight with the ever reliable Fuchsberger and the killer who falls out off a window… offscreen!!!!!! 

 The sheer number of contemporary popular actors truly carry the movie and are ultimately the reason why watching it is not a total waste of time. Most of them do whatever they usually do best and stick to the persona that made them famous. 

Joachim Fuchsberger is a pipe smoking crime reporter. When one of his sources is found dead in his office, the trace leads him to San Remo. 

Karin Dor wears flowery dresses, is surprisingly cool about some of the corpses she encounters and reads DIE BUNTE, a still popular society and celebrity magazine. No doubt by featuring this publication the makers were hoping for popular exposure of their production. 

The beautiful but tragic Renate Ewert is allowed to stay on longer than in the novel where her character became the first victim. 

One of the few truly unusual faces in this movie is that of Frank Latimore as Larry Cornell whose character comes across as a strangely stuffy kind of playboy. He is the brother of a successful record producer played by Gisela Uhlen, the first victim in Italy and owner of a diamond necklace that subsequently goes missing and appears to be connected to all the following murders. This is the only part in a German film production for this comparatively little known American actor which makes one wonder why he was even picked for this film as he would bring very little name value to it. Mainly known for supporting roles in bigger roles in James Cagney’s 13 Rue Madeleine (1946) or Vincent Price’s Shock (1946) or later on Patton (1970) and All the President’s Men (1976), he had appeared as a lead in a number of Italian productions at the time (Captain Phantom, 1953) that often hadn’t even been seen outside of their country of origin. Nevertheless, it is likely that his presence in Europe let to him being hired by the Spanish co-producers. 

And Ady Berber

 Well, Ady Berber at least gets a bigger speaking role in this production than in most of his other films. Of course he appears threatening and is the biggest red herring of them all. He ultimately has arguably the most interesting role in this production. Spoiler alert… rather than being the main culprit his character is in reality a hobby novelist who is currently writing “Menschen im Hotel , Part 2”. (Menschen im Hotel was a very popular novel that through the years saw a number of adaptations, including the 1932 Oscar-winning Grand Hotel with Greta Garbo.) 

Also watch out for Hans Nielsen as the Inspector, Claus Biederstaedt, Monika Peitsch and Wolfgang Kieling who would all occasionally feature in other Krimis. 

 Overall this is a bland Krimi set in a bland building with routine performances and an uninvolving storyline, a film that fails both as a Krimi and a Schlagerfilm. 

In the end maybe the best part of this production is that it’s finally giving Heather Gardiner more of her due and us a chance to discover - or better even: re-discover - a promising author who was tragically cut down in her prime.

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