Thursday, August 23, 2012


Alfred Hitchcock, 1954
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr

Despite the fact that it stars two of my least favorite Hitchcock regulars, Rear Window is among my favorite of his works, in part because I find it to be one of Hitchcock's most personable, accessible, and genuinely likable films. Jeff, a professional photographer, is holed up in his apartment complex and confined to a wheelchair because of a broken leg. He is looked after by a no-nonsense, sardonic nurse and by his doting, fashion model girlfriend, Lisa. The rear window of his apartment looks out over a courtyard also faced by the rear windows of other tenants, all of whom have their windows open during a heatwave. Out of boredom, Jeff spies on them with a telephoto lens, soon uncovering something suspicious. A salesman and his invalid wife have an argument and then the wife disappears. Jeff sees the man later cleaning knives and carrying suitcases out of the apartment and begins to suspect murder. His girlfriend, nurse and old detective friend think he is merely suffering the ill effects of boredom, but Jeff is determined to get to the bottom of Mrs. Thorwald's disappearance.

Rear Window works because it is first and foremost a comedy thriller and one that appears to take itself not very seriously. This is where Hitchcock deceives us, because he is actually addressing some serious issues like voyeurism, the male gaze, the spectacle of cinema, and various gender issues. What does it mean to look? What does it mean to be looked at? Unlike the thematically similar Rope, this doesn't feel simply like a cinematic exercise in the perfect murder (or the perfect murder witness). It is a compelling film with warm characters and stands as a perfect example of some of Hitchcock's effortless filmmaking at work.

As I said earlier, I'm not the biggest fan of either James Stewart or Grace Kelly. While I like these actors in some other films, they are far from my favorite Hitchcock stars (though Kelly is fantastic in To Catch a Thief). But there is something about both of them here that makes it impossible to dislike Jeff or Lisa. On many levels, the film is a psychodrama about their relationship. Jeff is not the kindest or most generous person, but his flaws are the reason his character works so well. Like many of Hitchcock's other male leads, he is dismissive of his romantic partner. He only seems to tolerate Lisa because he is stuck in a wheelchair. She inexplicably and tirelessly tries to convince him that a more permanent arrangement would be ideal.

Throughout the courtyard, the other characters and their relationships mirror Jeff's unconscious anxieties or hopes about his relationship with Lisa. There are the newlyweds, first romantic, then the wife is dissatisfied and nagging. There is Miss Lonelyhearts, who holds dinner parties for imaginary callers and tries to kill herself before winding up with a frustrated composer living in another apartment. An older married couple follows a repetitive, boring schedule. The lovely dancing girl, dubbed Miss Torso, entertains a variety of men throughout the film before her real love returns for the conclusion. This psychodramatic element also adds to the dreamy quality of the film. Cutting techniques and fades, plus a variety of night shots and scenes of Stewart asleep by the window give the scenes he observes a dreamlike feel. He seems to be stuck in a loop, living out his subconscious anxieties about relationships until they can be resolved in some way, though the conclusion is vague about this.

Gender issues are also dealt with in the restricted space of the apartment complex. The passive masculine and assertive feminine combination of Jeff and Lisa is countered, in a rather sinister way, by the assertive Thorwald and his passive wife. Jeff, normally a world-travelling photographer, is forced into passivity by his broken leg. He, in turn, forces Lisa into action. Her perfection and elegance is complicated by her frustration and Kelly is wonderful here in what I think is her greatest role. In her quest to prove to Jeff that she would make a good photographers wife, capable of living in the jungle or desert, she becomes embroiled in the murder mystery and seeks adventure and danger where Jeff is forced to remotely observe. This gives her character a depth Kelly's other characters utterly lack, such as Dial M for Murder from the same year, where she is a vapid, powerless character being acted upon by the males in the film.

There are so many reason to see Rear Window. Last, but certainly not least, is the beautiful cinematography from the inimitable Robert Burks. The creative shots and vibrant use of Technicolor truly make the apartment complex set stand out as its own character within the film. Rear Window comes with the highest recommendation and is available as a single disc DVD from Universal or as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda De Banzie, Bernard Miles, Alan Mowbray

The Man Who Knew Too Much, a 1956 remake of Hitchcock's 1934 U.K. film of the same name, has long been one of my least favorite Hitchcock films. For starters, I dislike the "wrong man" premise that Hitchock revisits throughout so much of his work. I also -- I know this is probably going to be shocking -- am not the biggest fan of Jimmy Stewart. Doris Day, Hitchcock's first choice for the role of Jo McKenna and only in her early thirties here, looks somewhat tired and washed up. The first half of the film concerns a child, which is another obstacle for me. But I realized I hadn't seen The Man Who Knew Too Much in more than 10 years, so I forced myself to watch it again and hopefully develop some new opinions.

The McKennas, an American family vacationing abroad, meet a stranger during a bus trip in Morocco. The mysterious Frenchman, Louis Bernard, never answers direct questions about himself. Later that night, he promises to take them to dinner, but cancels, only to show up at the restaurant with someone else. They meet another friendly couple, the Draytons, who they become fast friends with. When they McKennas witness an Arab being murdered, they realize it is Louis Bernard in disguise, who whispers a secret message with his dying breath - a statesman is going to be murdered in London. Soon after, the Draytons kidnap their son and the McKennas realize they are in the middle of an extremely precarious situation involving espionage, murder and blackmail.

I can appreciate that this film is certainly technically superior to the original, though there are a lot of inexplicable plot changes that made this version feel like little more than an experiment. Supposedly the film was made to fulfill a contract with Paramount, which makes sense. Initially, the script suffers from some unlikable characters. Jo is paranoid and complains a lot; Ben is dismissive of her feelings and seems to prefer reading the paper or interacting with strangers. Their son is a very two-dimensional child, but when he gets kidnapped, things begin to heat up. We learn of the cracks in their personalities, Jo's occasional hysteria, and how fame has affected her. I think that my initial assessment of Doris Day being annoying was correct, but I think Hitch did it on purpose. She plays a housewife married to a small-town doctor who has had to abandon fame and a successful career for love, but perhaps also for darker psychological reasons that are only hinted at. Ultimately, she does a great job breaking out of the icy blonde mold. She is unfortunately allowed to sing, but we later realize Hitch is getting his money's worth and using it as a clever plot device.

There is some beautiful cinematography from the great Robert Burks, responsible for shooting the majority of Hitchcock's films in the '50s. The shots of London alone make the film worth viewing at least once. Though I generally hate the plot device of a normal couple involved with spies and international intrigue, there are some nice moments and the film is rounded out with a quick, charmingly comic ending.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is still not one of my favorite Hitchcock efforts. It suffers from a sometimes clumsy, sometimes dull script and a particularly anticlimactic suspense scene at Albert Hall that just feels silly. I enjoyed it more than I remembered, particularly the amusing mix ups that occasionally occur, but overall it is one of Hitch's lesser, more formulaic efforts. You can find it as a single-disc DVD from Universal or in the wonderful Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection box set.

Monday, August 13, 2012


Jürgen Roland, 1961
Starring: Gert Frobe, Klausjürgen Wussow, Karin Dor, Eddi Arent, Harry Wüstenhagen

Though this is one of Edgar Wallace's most well-known novels and was already adapted as a feature length film several times before this version, this is one of the weakest entries in the Rialto krimi series. The complicated, convoluted plot essentially centers around a haunted British estate. The alleged ghost is a figure called the Green Archer, who dates back to the 14th century and was known to terrorize the aristocratic manor-owners in a Robin Hood-like fashion. The current owner is Abel Bellamy, an American businessman with a questionable past. When some of his estranged family members move into a nearby estate against his wishes, the Green Archer returns with his lethal bow and arrows to cause havoc. 

The Green Archer suffers from typical krimi issues. There are too many story lines that intersect too late, red herrings that dead end on themselves and a plot so convoluted it frequently leaves the Green Archer in the dust. The major offense of the film is its poor attempts at humor by way of Eddi Arent, who stars as the comic relief in a wide variety of krimi. In this film, his character, a reporter, introduces the film and makes interludes about the action. These self-referential attempts at humor and irony fall incredibly short and distract from both the plot and the pacing of the film. It has a William Castle-like gimmicky feel to it, but is unfortunately not well written enough to actually be funny or clever. The Green Archer is completely ignored for much of the film and during the conclusion the revelation of his character is disappointing. The plot runs so far afield and there are so many twists and turns that it is difficult to tell what is going on at times. The sheer number of characters and subplots feels frustrating. 

The best thing that I can say about this film that there’s a wonderful performance from Gert Fröbe, known to international audiences for his portrayal of Auric Goldfinger in Goldfinger (1964). Where he is serious and menacing in Goldfinger (“Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.”), here he absolutely rages. Though it is hard to believe that an obviously German actor with a thick accent is remotely American, he still manages to steal the film and deliver one of the most robust performances in the entire Rialto series. Karin Dor and Eddi Arent feel underused and wasted, though they appear in their traditional roles of alluring victim and comic relief. The lackluster Klausjürgen Wussow stars as the Scotland Yard detective, though this is his second and last Wallace film. 

The Green Archer has entertaining moments and moves at a fairly quick pace, but it ultimately drowns in its desperate attempts at irony and humor. There is no region 1 DVD available, though there are two German region 2 versions, both presented by Ufa. The film is available as a single disc and as part of an Edgar Wallace box set that also includes Fellowship of the Frog (1959), The Terrible People (1960) and The Crimson Circle (1961).

Friday, August 3, 2012


Harald Reinl, 1959
Starring: Joachim Fuchsberger, Elfie von Kalckreuth, Jochen Brockmann, Carl Lange

The Fellowship of the Frog is notable for being the first Rialto Edgar Wallace adaptation. Though it was a Danish-West Germany coproduction like the later krimi, the film was shot in Copenhagen, rather than a West German studio. It does contain the poorly edited London stock footage that became one of the many trademarks of the series and was a cheap attempt to make the set feel more authentically British. 

Scotland Yard investigators and a wealthy American amateur detective are on the trail of a stylish criminal mastermind dubbed “The Frog,” because of his ostentatious frog mask, the frog stamps he leaves at the scenes of his robberies and the frog tattoos on the arms of his gang. Like the later Italian Danger: Diabolik (1968), the Frog’s specialties are cracking safes and stealing the impossible. A local aristocrat is one of the Frog’s targets and his son (who is in love with a suspicious, yet sexy cabaret girl) gets involved, as well as his lovely daughter, who attracts the attention of both the American sleuth and the Frog. Scotland Yard panics when they meet red herrings and the Frog’s goons at every turn. Can the American playboy and his butler get to the bottom of things before more corpses pile up? 

Produced by Horst Wendlandt, directed by Harald Reinl, written by Egon Eis, starring Joachim Fuchsberger and co-starring Eddi Arent, The Fellowship of the Frog immediately begins to establish some of the regular cast and crew who would appear in or work on krimi through out the ‘60s. Some of the regular plot elements are present as well, including murders, kidnapping, elaborate twists, booby traps, and even a judo match. There is also romance, seduction, and a nightclub scene that was probably unintentionally similar to those used by Jess Franco. Like later krimi villains, the Frog is a criminal genius with eccentric means of killing his victims -- in this case, he uses poison gas. There is a surprising amount of violence for the time, particularly during the third act, which balances out the pulpy tone and frequent comedic interludes. While this is the film that spawned (see what I did there?) a lengthy series of crime-mystery films, it is an experiment and not an entirely successful one. The plot, like many krimi to follow, is overly complicated and sometimes confusing. Eis at least attempts to include semi-coherent red herrings that contribute to the plot, though this occasionally fails. The number of supporting characters and unresolved subplots is dizzying. 

The Fellowship of the Frog was successful upon its release because it was so different from the mystery films that came before and so different from German cinema at the time. Though it was largely ignored or disdained by critics, audiences loved the film, which inspired the lengthy Rialto Wallace series, as well as non-Rialto adaptations and similar works. It's is available from a number of sources, including a region one collection from Retromedia, The Edgar Wallace Collection, Volume 1, as well as a German Ufa box set.


Harald Reinl, 1961
Starring Karin Dor, Hellmut Lange, Siegfried Lowitz, Eddie Arent

Based on the Edgar Wallace novel, The Forger, this is Rialto’s seventh Wallace-sourced krimi and was directed by their second most popular director, Harald Reinl. This is one of Reinl’s five krimi for Rialto between 1959 and 1965 and one of over 20 films he made with his wife, actress Karen Dor, who co-stars. Peter, a wealthy playboy, is believed to be part of a counterfeit ring, but due to a bizarre combination of amnesia and schizophrenia, he claims he can’t remember. When his new, young wife Jane finds a money printing machine hidden in the house and she suspects that he is the infamous “Forger of London.” When they honeymoon at Longford Manor, odd things begin to happen. Jane is attacked and then witnesses Peter printing money in a secret room, though he later claims ignorance. When Jane’s friend is murdered by an unknown assailant, Peter’s doctor recommends that he should be declared insane and Jane should claim her inheritance. Anyone with information about the counterfeiting ring begins to drop like flies and two rival inspectors are determined to prove Peter’s innocence or guilt. 

Written by regular krimi writer Johannes Kai (aka Hanns Wiedmann), he was forced to use a pseudonym because of his writing career during the National Socialist period. Kai includes are a number of unusual elements in the The Forger of London, such as the slew of unlikable characters, most of whom are openly financially motivated, including Jane. Played by Reinl’s wife Dor, she was a regular krimi fixture from the first film in the series, Fellowship of the Frog (1959), usually appearing as the innocent love interest. Dor reached international film a few years later when she appeared as the first German Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice (1967). 

Unlike most other krimi, the film lacks a defined moral center, a role usually filled by the protagonist/Inspector. Like the later Klaus Kinski vehicle, The Creature with the Blue Hand (1967), The Forger of London includes potential mental illness as a major plot element. Because Peter’s character wavers back and forth between innocence and guilt, sanity and insanity, Reinl cast the mostly unknown Hellmut Lange in the starring role. Lange would go on to become one of the most popular German television actors in the late ‘60s. 

This is an unusual entry in the series in the sense that it attempts to tread some new ground with plot material. Though it is flawed and occasionally confusing, the film borrows some interesting plot elements from Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse series and some visual cues from his American noir, Scarlet Street (1945). This is one of the loveliest black and white krimi and has a definite noir sensibility with it’s expressionistic set pieces and stark emphasis on black and white. 

The Forger of London is only available in the U.S. as a Sinister Cinema DVD-R, though there are two German releases from Ufa. Here's hoping for a English-friendly krimi box set in the near future.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Ridley Scott, 2012
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green

It took me a long time to actually write this review. In general, if I hate a film, everything I have to say about it sort of gushes out in a textual babbling brook of semi-coherent rage. I've given it a lot of thought in the last month or so, and it's fair to say that if I don't actually hate Prometheus, I certainly dislike it.

I think the only things preventing me from hating it are as follows:
--The stunning appearance of Michael Fassbender, who is fabulous in everything. His role as David, the android everyone knew had to appear in the film, saves it from being completely terrible. His performance is nuanced - childlike, curious, excited, cold, sympathetic, creepy. He was also part of an incredible viral campaign that is more successful than the finished film.
--Noomi Rapace gives the best performance she can, considering the limited, flawed material she had to work with. After The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, she gives the sort of demanding, physical performance audiences have come to expect of her.
--The Giger artwork that was unused in the first Alien film makes a welcome appearance here. If you still have the chance to see this film in a theater, it is worth doing so only to see his forbidding, strangely erotic landscapes.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Prometheus, as everyone already knows, was intended to be a prequel to Alien and a return to the series for director Ridley Scott. Penned in a hurry by Lost writer Damon Lindelof, Prometheus follows two scientists, Shaw and Holloway, who manage to secure funding from the Weyland Corporation to track their findings to a very distant moon. They believe humanity has alien creators, which they dub the "Engineers," and that they reside on this moon. They find evidence of a species they believe to be the Engineers, who seem to have died from a mysterious epidemic. When a major storm approaches, they are forced to discover what killed the Engineers and find the reason humanity was created.

I don't intend to give away any spoilers with this review. Aside from a variety of small, nitpicking issues that I won't bother wasting the time or space to address, I have two major concerns with the film. First and foremost, the two main characters are religious scientists who eschew evolution. A film about a religious scientist (or a pair of them) could be incredibly successful and thought provoking with a well written, developed script that asks interesting questions. Prometheus does none of these things and expects us to accept that two scientists allegedly at the top of their field (archaeology) are not only motivated by a passionate belief in a creator, but are also a romantic couple. The use of science itself is also extremely troubling, as Holloway, the male half of the partnership, does little but complain or sulk during his screen time. Shaw makes up for this by carrying the emotional weight of the film and doing all the science imaginable. All of it, despite the fact that she is an archaeologist, not a trained biologist, geneticist, geologist, etc. About the only thing she doesn't do is physics. Maybe that will be in the deleted scenes.

The second issue I have with Prometheus is the absolute waste of secondary characters, side plots, and a total failure to discuss or explore character motivations. Not a single character, except maybe Shaw, is given any sort of decisive motivational factor that feels developed. We learn she's religious because of her father, but not why that has so thoroughly impacted her career, why Holloway puts up with these shenanigans, or why the Prometheus's crew is able to choke it down. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. To fully discuss the wasted characters and incomplete plot elements, I would have to reveal spoilers and, more importantly, I would have to waste more time writing about this disappointing, mediocre film that pales dramatically in the shadow of all of its predecessors. Yes, even David Fincher's Alien 3.


Ákos Ráthonyi, 1961
Starring: Joachim Fuchsberger, Sabine Sesselmann, Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Ingrid van Bergen, Marius Goring

The Devil's Daffodil is the seventh Edgar Wallace film produced by Rialto and is based on Wallace’s novel The Daffodil Mystery. This film is a special case in that it was a co-production with the British company Omnia Pictures Ltd. Filmed at Shepperton Studios in Middlesex, there were two versions of the film made, a German-language version and an English version, both shot at the same time. Though the same director and crew were used, there is a variation in cast. William Lucas replaces Joachim Fuchsberger as the lead, Penelope Horner replaces Sabina Sesselman as the female co-star and Colin Jeavon replaces Klaus Kinski. All of the other actors, including Christopher Lee, were in both versions.

The plot is a fairly typical if subdued Wallace formula. An unknown murderer who wears a black stocking to disguise his face -- a la Sergio Martino’s later giallo classic Torso (1973) -- leaves a bunch of daffodils at his crime scenes. Jack Tarling, an airline security service officer, teams up with Scotland Yard and takes charge of the investigation. Hong Kong detective Ling Chu tags along to avenge the murder of his daughter and is not afraid to dabble in a little torture to get results. They are led back to a seedy nightclub and a possible ring of drug smugglers. 

Produced by the Austrian-born Steven Pallos who worked in British cinema, and written by krimi scribe Egon Eis, The Devil's Daffodil was helmed by Hungarian director and screenwriter Ákos Ráthonyi, also responsible for Eurohorror effort Cave of the Living Dead (1964). It is one of the only Edgar Wallace films with non-stock exterior shots of London, though unfortunately the British shooting location was not fully taken advantage of and there are only a handful of actual shots around Piccadilly Circus and other locations. 

Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee are the real draw for this film. Lee appears as detective Ling Chu and steals the show, whether he is happily torturing suspects for information or dispelling Confucian wisdom a la Charlie Chan. He first appeared as a Chinese character in Hammer’s The Terror of the Tongs (1960) and went on to star in the five film Fu Manchu series (1965-1968). Unusually for the time, Lee’s voice is used in both versions of the film, as he speaks German (but what else would you expect?). Soon after, he appeared in another Wallace krimi, The Secret of the Red Orchid (1962), again speaking German. 

Klaus Kinski is delightfully demented as the sleazy club owner’s loyal henchman and gives a raving performance. Allegedly he terrorized fellow cast members on set, living up to his future reputation. In his autobiography, he claims to have had sex with most of the female cast and crew. Joachim Fuchsberger unsurprisingly appears in the lead role, though this time as a security service agent rather than a Scotland Yard Inspector. Why he is allowed to step in and take charge of the investigation is never really addressed. Ingrid Van Bergen plays the female lead, a performing artist in a nightclub. She also appeared in The Avenger (1960) with Kinski and Albert Lieven, who has a supporting role in The Devil's Daffodil and later Wallace krimi. 

This is unfortunately an average krimi with a lack of the normal suspense or atmosphere. There’s a typical amount of violence with shootings, stabbings, torture, a near-elevator death, and a nasty wheelchair-related fall. Most of the characters appear to be suspects at one time or another and there are red herrings around every corner, but the script is unable to deliver on its potential. There are flimsy, inadequate sets and lackluster directing. The absence of Eddi Arent, normally the sidekick and source of comic relief, is another detriment to the film. The film is not available on DVD in either the U.K. or U.S., but it's included in a German box set from Ufa.