Twelve months later in London, a number of prominent businesspeople get killed after being blackmailed and refusing to pay protection money. All clues lead to the suspicion that the two gangs from Chicago are now setting up base in London.
Visiting American Capt. Allerman (Christopher Lee), an authority on those suspects, teams up with Inspector Weston from Scotland Yard (Adrian Hoven) to put a stop to these mobsters.
Weston has more than just a passing interest in Lilian Ranger (Marisa Mell) who works for Tanner (Fritz Rasp), an 86-year old whose grandfatherly interest in her lead him to suggest a marriage of convenience to ensure she is being looked after financially if something happens to him….
… which it does when he becomes one of the victims of the protection racket before she can even ponder the offer. She still becomes the old man’s heiress just to discover that he apparently only left debts behind. She also gets introduced to his nephew Edwin (Pinkas Braun), an orchid hunter, who was absent for years and never around to look after Tanner himself.
And then there is Butler Parker (Eddi Aren’t), the “Butler of Death”, who just happens to always be employed by the very same rich who soon afterwards perish violently for non-payment.
It was filmed between December 12, 1961 - January 15, 1962 in Hamburg (both the city and the local REAL Film Studio).
The film is based on When the Gangs Came to London. First published in 1932, the year of his death, this was Edgar Wallace’s final novel outside of some later post-humous releases.
Wallace died unexpectedly on February 10, 1932 in Hollywood where he had lived since November 1931 in order to work on the first King Kong script.
No doubt his exposure to the US influenced him when he introduced American gangs into London for the plot of this novel.
1932 was a time when Chicago Gangs were still very much in the news. It wasn’t until May 1932 that Al Capone would begin his sentence for tax invasion so having this kind of gangland related plot in a novel made more sense than seeing it as part of a contemporary movie from the 1960s.
Gangs with mysterious gang leaders are of course a popular trope both with Edgar Wallace in his novels in general as well as with the Rialto series up to this point in particular but here the focus is much more on the gangs and less on the mystery.
In actual fact Secret of the Red Orchid features neither a major secret nor a red orchid, never mind a red orchid that contains a secret.
The only mystery in this production is whether O’Connor, believed dead, is really still heading one of the two gangs and what disguise he may have assumed. This, however, for the most part, makes not an iota of difference to the film’s main plot that features sufficient enough gang murders, action and bloodshed even without an added forced upon mystery.
The film begins with scenes of individual murders before escalating into all out gang warfare when both gangs decide to put pressure on the same individual while not accepting gangland boundaries. Clearly everyone involved is guilty and when at the negotiating table, O’Connor is never needed so who cares about this particular mystery?
And as for the red orchid? Pinkas Braun’s character is a famous orchid hunter who hands out orchids left, right and centre to any woman that tickles his fancy, however, this is a black and white production so their colours are never that obvious and one orchid in particular is even described as being yellow!
The mystery aspect about O’Connor being alive or dead was an element that was added to the film and did not feature in the source novel. And whereas a lot of the plot was transferred over faithfully this additional forced bit of mystery as well as the humorous elements specifically with Eddi Arent’s “Butler of Death” change the overall mood quite significantly.
With Helmuth Ashley Secret of the Red Orchid featured a director who was generally not associated with the series so far and apart from Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski and Fritz Rasp also featured a number actors who, though perfectly capable and occasionally seen in other Krimis as well, would also not usually be considered as typical for the series at the time.
Shooting this film does not seem to have been a pleasant experience for Lee.
In The Films of Christopher Lee he is quoted as saying:
“In this I played an FBI man. A very unremarkable film, although it did well in Germany. I did the entire film in the German language. Incredibly cold weather - - we were working in temperatures well below freezing.
The thing I remember most about that film was the director, Helmuth Ashley, apparently a well-known cameraman in Germany. He was excessively unpleasant, rude, and unhelpful.
He constantly criticized my German accent, which as a matter of fact is very good. It came to the point one day, where I had a bit of a blow-up on the set and I said: “Now I can understand how it was that Hitler was an Austrian.” That went down, of course, terribly well. Ashley was also from Austria - - which I already knew.
I am not accustomed to this sort of behavior, and I was not going to take the kind of Nazi attitude that Mr. Ashley indulged in every day, shouting and yelling at people.
Not a happy film for me, but I did it for the experience. I have worked in many pictures in various countries and in various languages during my career, in order to be accepted in a sense as a local actor. In these days of international co-production, this has proved invaluable because the public in many countries is accustomed to seeing me work in their own language, and this is a big plus for an actor today all over the world.”
In his autobiography he expands that Ashley specifically critisized his “American-German accent” and that openly falling out with a director was highly unusual as it was something he had “sworn never to do with any director”.
Lee was not the only actor to criticize Ashley. Others also mentioned that on set he appeared to be more interested in looking after his mastiffs than focus on the shoot at hand. As a result Wendlandt was so annoyed with him that he never rehired Ashley for any of his future productions and didn’t even invite him for the studio’s Christmas party in 1961.
Lee’s German can absolutely not be faulted as it is pretty much perfect with just a small trace of an English accent. It’s apparent that he speaks the language so fluently that he doesn’t just phonetically mimic the sounds but properly expresses himself and is comfortable acting in it. Of course that wasn’t enough for Lee. Just as he perpetuated the myth that he spoke German with a Chinese accent for Das Geheimnis der gelben Narzissen/The Devil’s Daffodil (1961), his claims that for this production he didn’t just speak German but German with an American accent is equally exaggerated. After all, none of his fellow German actors on this movie made any attempts to disguise their native language and add English accents to their voices either.
And although Lee actually dubs himself for the original German version of the film, he is badly dubbed by someone else for the English language version. Go figure!
Lee is one of the main stars in this production and has some of the best scenes. He plays an FBI agent and an authority on Chicago gang crime who just happens to be in London professionally and is able to assist Scotland Yard.
When followed by a gang member aimed to kill him, he whips out not one but two guns out of his mackintosh, shoots the threat, then whirls the guns around in Western movie fashion, blows the gun smoke away and utters a one-liner.
In another scene he is meant to resemble a worker at a building site but is instead wearing a beret and dressed in commando gear more suitable for general warfare while being involved in yet another massive shoot out.
Despite the number of movies Lee ended up having under his belt, it is rare to see him actually being involved in contemporary action scenes so for that alone Secret of the Red Orchid is worth watching.
When confronting Kinski in one the scenes he also makes good use of his height by towering over him.
Though one of the main stars, this film is not one to rely on a single hero. It is more an ensemble piece and as such we have a variety of performers next to him.
Adrian Hoven is the regular Scotland Yard detective, who at this time in the series would more typically be played by Joachim Fuchsberger, and Marisa Mell, the Karin Dor-Ersatz romantic interest.
Austrian Hoven in the 1950s was a very popular actor mainly known for his Sonny Boy image, playing young romantic heroes and charmers. Yet despite his type casting he comes across as somewhat stiff when trying to flirt with the stunning Marisa Mell. From the mid-1960s on he changed direction and started directing and producing some notorious Trash, most notably the witch/torture shocker Mark of the Devil (1973). He also acted in a number of Jess Franco films (Necronomicon, Sadisterotica, Kiss Me Monster).
Fellow Austrian Marisa Mell is one of those actresses who, regardless of the quality of the movies she appeared in, just can’t do no wrong.
Best known for Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1968). She would return to Rialto at the very end of the Wallace cycle for another unrelated orchid themed thriller: Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972), an Italian-German co-production that in Germany was promoted as the 32nd and final entry to its Edgar Wallace cycle but that abroad is mainly considered a classic giallo.
For Secret Mell was at the beginning of her career and this was one of her first bigger productions. Her character, Lilian Ranger, oozes charm and charisma and it’s no wonder (but no less creepy) when her octogenarian employer (played by Fritz Rasp in his fifth and final Wallace performance) offers to marry her in order to secure her future. Wallace movies often have some sleazy elderly gentlemen with an eye for younger ladies but this is still one of the weirder “arrangements” on offer, even more so as Rasp’s character genuinely seems to operate out of a feeling of concern for her. But when one looks like Rasp, it does get wonderfully icky easily.
And then we have Eddi Arent as the butler who comically always seems to pick employment in the very same households that fall victim to the extortion rings and is in his element when he helps to fortify a rural castle belonging to a Colonel under attack by one of the gangs.
Of course the baddies always have more fun and are generally more memorable. And amidst all the machine gun carnage in good old London Town, Klaus Kinski as “Der schöne Steve” (Beautiful Steve) and Eric Pohlmann stick out.
Both play opposing gang leaders (Kinski is working for the mysterious O’Connor) intent on taking over London with their rivalling extortion schemes and in one scene can be seen on opposite sides of a gigantic office table in diplomatic talks over the division of the city.
Kinski is dressed in classic Chicago gangster style and operates a tobacco shop with a secret passage way and a parrot that warns him of the oncoming police.
And Pohlmann is wonderfully hen pecked by his wife.
If you never saw Pohlmann before you’re still bound to have heard him nevertheless as he had provided the voice of Blofeld in From Russia With Love and Fireball.
And in between the good’uns and the bad’uns we have Pinkas Braun’s as Edwin, Rasp’s globetrotting nephew.
Swiss born Braun is one of the series' most powerful and convincing actors. Secret was only his first appearance in a Krimi but over the years he became a semi-regular for Rialto and other companies and can also be seen in the next movie of the series Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern/The Door With Seven Locks (1962).
Braun’s character is by far the most interesting as he operates in an obscure twilight sphere. Little is known of his whereabouts and he can be both charming and genteel as well as ice cold and threatening when the situation demands it. When the police is unable to guarantee Lilian Ranger’s safety after her unexpected windfall, Edwin not only doesn’t take the loss of his inheritance personal but also contacts Minelli’s wife, the wonderfully ditzy Cora (Christiane Nielsen), and manages to scare her so much by way of some very well placed ambiguous compliments that she alone manages to convince her husband to turn the pressure off Lilian and apologise for the “misunderstanding”.
Overall Secret of the Red Orchid is worth a watch as an entertaining riff on the already fading classic gangster genre. For the most part lacking any of the familiar Gothic elements that are usually associated with the series, it is understandable that it tends to always play second fiddle to some of their more famous entries but taken on its own, this is a fast moving well acted ensemble piece. Ashley, the director, may not have made a lot of friends on set but did still manage to create a very decent workmanlike production.
At least in its original German version.
Tread carefully before you approach the English dub.