Thursday, August 23, 2012

REAR WINDOW

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

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)

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

THE GREEN ARCHER

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).

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Krimi: A Guide to West German crime films

Krimi, which refers to Kriminalfilm (or Kriminalroman, a type of novel), is a genre of West German crime thrillers typically based on the works of British mystery and crime novelist Edgar Wallace (1875 - 1932). Wallace is best remembered for creating King Kong in a short story he co-wrote, but he was an incredibly prolific writer. In addition to his novels and short fiction, he was also a journalist, screenwriter, and playwright. Wallace’s works became popular in Germany between the World Wars and though several early film adaptations were made, production ceased by 1935 due to Nazi censorship. In the late ‘50s, Danish company Rialto Film produced The Fellowship of the Frog (1959) with Constantin Film, a West German distributor. The film’s success led to Rialto buying the rights for Wallace’s novels and ultimately producing a series of 32 films over the next decade, ending in 1972, making it the longest running series in German cinema. Though krimi were generally disdained by critics, their wild popularity led to other production companies following suit with adaptations of the novels of Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, some non-Wallace krimi films, as well as similar series like Dr. Mabuse and Commissioner X.

These mid-budget films typically share a large number of themes and stock characters. Generally, a Scotland Yard detective wades through a cast of potential victims and possible killers to pursue the real, usually masked or costumed criminal genius who commits a series of strange crimes. A policeman or private detective is almost always the protagonist of the film and has to collaborate with and later protect the heroine. It is not unusual for them to eventually fall in love. Unlike earlier noir films, all krimi characters essentially have a distinctly black and white morality code, even if those are not apparent until the end of the film. 

Like noir and police procedurals, krimi have a set number of themes that act as motives for murder, such as sex, drugs and blackmail, as well as many financially-motivated murder and revenge plots. There were some genuinely gruesome moments in the films, which led other countries to promote them as outright horror films, though they also borrow heavily from earlier, established mystery tropes. For instance, the plot of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which characters in a fixed location begin to die off one at a time, is frequently used. There are also an abundance of red herrings, fake identities (in particular, fake nationalities), kind or disabled characters who wind up becoming the villain, and “locked room” mysteries, where the crime committed seems physically impossible. As the genre progressed, there was more of a pulpy, exploitative element that increased when the films switched to color in 1966. These elements led directly to the later Italian giallo films and some of the early gialli are Italian-West German co-productions based on Wallace novels. 

Unlike the later gialli, one of the primary characteristics of the genre was tongue-in-cheek humor, usually delivered by a side character like the butler or Inspector’s assistant. The series managed a trademark familiarity with audiences through the catch phrase, "Hallo, hier spricht Edgar Wallace!" Translated to “Hello, Edgar Wallace speaking,” this was usually announced from a telephone speaker before the opening credits. Despite the early black and white films, almost all the opening titles were written in vivid red letters, occasionally green. 

The krimi sets, many of which were shared between films, depicted a shadowy, fog drenched London, heavy with both noir and Gothic atmosphere. Though the plot are set in the city, many of the main events take place in spooky castles, decaying mansions and country homes rife with hidden passageways. There are almost always a few shots of Scotland Yard and many have more risque side locations like night clubs, basement torture chambers and insane asylums. Though all of the films were set in England, they were filmed in West Germany with added stock footage of famous London locations. 

Another thing that made the krimi so memorable was the shared pool of directors, writers, and actors. The actors, in particular, generally played the same type of stock character and there was a later emphasis on manipulating these types. The young, morally upright detective or private investigator was usually played by Joachim Fuchsberger, Heinz Drache, or Siegfried Lowitz. All three actors are most famous for their appearances in the Wallace krimi, though they would all go on to sustain film and television careers. Fuchsberger is an actor and TV host best known for his role as the heroic detective inspector. Forced to be a member of the Hitler Youth and later sent to the Eastern Front, Fuchsberger took a job as a coal miner after the war, climbing his way into the publishing business and radio, before making his acting debut in a series of Paul May war films. He became a star after he was cast in the first Wallace krimi, Fellowship of the Frog (1959). He went on to star in thirteen total Wallace films. 

Opposite Fuchberger’s detective inspector was a young, beautiful actress like Karin Dor, Karin Baal, Uschi Glass, or Margaret Lee, who would double as an accomplice and a love interest, eventually needing the stout-hearted detective’s protection. In many films this pair winds up romantically entangled and presumably living happily-ever-after. Dor became famous for playing Wallace heroines, as well as appearing in Karl May Westerns. She reached international fame for her roles in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969). During the years of the Wallace films she was married to regular director Harald Reinl and appeared in a number of the krimi he directed. 

The actor with the most number of krimi appearances is Eddi Arent (1925- ). The Polish-born actor, comedian, and cabaret star was cast in 23 Wallace krimi, usually as the comic relief in roles like the inspector’s assistant, butler, reporter, etc. Arent appeared in almost 100 films, including the popular Karl May series. The second most popular actor and standby comic relief was Siegfried Schürenberg, who typically played the bumbling Scotland Yard supervisor. This prolific actor is also known to Germans as a voice over star, doing the dubbing work for classic American films like Gone with the Wind (1939) and later Disney films. 

Probably the most famous krimi actor was Klaus Kinski (1926 - 1991), who later went on to star in many of Werner Herzog’s art films in the New German Cinema during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Kinski reached international fame both through his acting ability and intense, controversial persona. The Polish-born Kinski moved to Berlin with his family and was later forced to join the Wehrmacht, where he was captured by the British and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp. In camp and after the war, Kinski taught himself to act and eventually moved from the theater into cinema with difficulties brought on by mental illness and his wildly unpredictable personality. The krimi films are where he really got his start, though he would soon move onto European exploitation films and spaghetti westerns. He usually played villains, henchmen or mentally unstable red-herring characters who wound up as victims. 

The villains in these films are generally flamboyantly costumed, larger-than-life arch-criminals who would feel at place in the ‘60s Batman television show or on an episode of Scooby Doo. Many villains, including the Frog in the first krimi, Fellowship of  the Frog, resemble characters from superhero comics. Other actors regularly cast as villains or henchmen were Fritz Rasp, Gert Fröbe (Goldfinger), Pinkas Braun, Dieter Borsche, and Ady Berber. Berber was a Vienna-based Austrian actor, wrestler and restaurant owner. He appeared in almost 40 films, including Ben Hur (1959) a number of Edgar Wallace krimi films, including The Dead Eyes of London (1961), The Door with Seven Locks (1962), and The Indian Scarf (1963), as well as Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse (1963). Due to his large physique, Berber was frequently cast as henchmen.

Rialto also consistently used the same directors throughout the series. Two directors in particular dominated the genre -- Alfred Vohrer, Rialto’s primary director, and Harald Reinl -- though Adrien Hoven, Franz Joseph Gottlieb, Paul May, Helmut Ashley, and a handful of others also made an impact. Alfred Vohrer directed almost 50 feature films, including half the Rialto Studio Edgar Wallace krimi series. With 14 krimi under his belt, Vohrer is the foremost director of this subgenre. His unique style and imaginative camera work influenced the later Italian giallo subgenre and other Eurohorror films in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Initially, Vohrer planned to become an actor, but when he lost an arm during World War II he volunteered with UFA, which turned into a position as assistant director and later as dubbing director. When his good friend Horst Wendlandt became head of film production for the German branch of Rialto, Vohrer made his first Edgar Wallace film for the studio, The Dead Eyes of London (1961). It’s success insured subsequent krimi films and he soon became the studio’s most prolific director. His collaborations with Wendlandt as producer and Karl Löb as cinematographer resulted in 20 films for Rialto, including some of the widely popular films based on Karl May’s Western-inspired action adventure novels. At the end of his career he was involved in a variety of genres, including erotic comedies, crime films and television. 

Harald Reinl was an Austrian director, known mainly for the 5 Wallace krimi he directed for Rialto and a handful of Karl May action-Westerns. He also explored a variety of traditional German film genres like war and mountain films, and a handful of krimi-related works. Reinl directed the first Rialto krimi, The Fellowship of the Frog, two Mabuse films, The Return of Dr. Mabuse (1961) and The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1962), the Christopher Lee vehicle The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), and the last three Jerry Cotton spy films. Tragically, his career was cut short when he was stabbed to death by his last wife, Czech actress Daniela Maria Delis.

Adrian Hoven was an Austrian actor, producer, director and screenwriter who appeared in 100 films during his career, which began in 1947. Hoven was injured during World War II as a paratrooper in North Africa. After the war he worked as a theater actor until director Helmut Weiss discovered him. His acting career covers a broad range of genres, including krimi, Eurohorror, and more conventional dramas and comedies. He appeared in the Wallace krimi The Secret of the Red Orchid (1962) and in the Ákos Ráthonyi film Cave of the Living Dead (1964). In the late ‘60s he was in a series of Jess Franco Eurohorror films — Succubus (1968), Sadist Erotica (1969), and Kiss Me, Monster (1969). He also directed a few films, including The Castle of Bloody Lust (1968), un-credited work on the Inquisition horror classic Mark of the Devil (1970), action-fantasy epic The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried (1971), and Mark of the Devil 2 (1973), among others. Hoven was also in a number of crime dramas and caper films like The Black Cobra (1963) and Inside Out (1975), starring Telly Savalas. Later in his career, he regularly appeared in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, including World on Wire (1973), Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), and Lili Marleen (1981). 

The main producer of the series was Horst Wendlandt, a Russian-German who joined the Luftwaffe during the war to avoid imprisonment for his Russian heritage. He was captured by Americans and spent the rest of the war in a labor camp. When Wendlandt eventually returned to Berlin, he began working for different film companies and was hired by Artur Brauner to work for his CCC Film production company. Brauner founded CCC Film -- or Central Cinema Company Film -- and helped lure a lot of German filmmakers back into the country after the war, reinvigorating the national cinema. Brauner and CCC Film later became Wendlandt’s biggest competitors with the Wallace series, but due to copyright issues, CCC Film was forced to adapt the novels of Edgar Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace. Wendlandt joined Rialto as a producer in 1961 and took over the krimi series, turning it into one of the most successful film series in Germany at the time and certainly the longest running. 

Composers were another small pool of contributors reused in multiple films. These distinct, jazzy soundtracks were usually scored by Martin Böttcher or Peter Thomas and helped modernize the dated material being adapted. Peter Thomas composed the majority of krimi soundtracks and these innovative scores were aped by later Eurotrash films, particularly those of Jess Franco. There were also scores composed by Willy Mattes, Heinz Funk, and three of the later West German-Italian co-productions were written by the great Ennio Morricone. 

While krimi are not strictly horror films, they are an important stepping stone between German Expressionism, American noir, Italian giallo films, and the Eurohorror of the ‘70s. Their influence can be felt in the films of Jess Franco, many European exploitation-crime films, and through out the early career of Dario Argento. These later works are more sexual and more violent, due to the lax standards of censorship in the European film market in the ‘70s. Though krimi are still well known in Germany today, many of them are finally beginning to see the light of day for English-speaking audiences. During the ‘60s, dubbed theatrical versions were available for American audiences for film or television, many of which were censored. Fortunately the German company UFA has begun releasing many of the films, particularly the Rialto canon. They generally lack English dubbing tracks or subtitles and are formatted for PAL players, but lately American distribution companies have slowly begun following suit with NTSC DVD releases. 

Edgar Wallace, Bryan Edgar Wallace and non-Wallace Krimi Filmography:
*Adapted from the works of Edgar Wallace and produced by Rialto film unless otherwise noted
Der Frosch mit der Maske (1959) aka The Fellowship of the Frog aka Face of the Frog 
Die Bande des Schreckens (1960) aka The Terrible People aka The Hand of the Gallows
Der Racher (1960) aka The Avenger (non-Rialto Wallace film)
Der Ratsel Der Grünen Spinnen (1960) aka The Mystery of the Green Spider (non-Wallace, non-Rialto krimi) 
Der Rote Kreis (1960) aka The Red Circle aka The Crimson Circle
Das Geheimnis der Gelben Marzissen (1961) aka The Devil’s Daffodil aka The Daffodil Killer 
Der Geheimnis der schwarzen Koffer (1961) aka The Secret of the Black Suitcase (a Bryan Edgar Wallace film produced by CCC Film)
Der Grüne Bogenschutze (1961) aka The Green Archer 
Der Falscher von London (1961) aka The Forger of London 
Die Toten Augen von London (1961) aka The Dark Eyes of London aka The Dead Eyes of London 
Das Gasthaus an der Themse (1962) aka The Inn on the River 
Ipsnosi (1962) aka Hypnosis (non-Wallace, an Italian-Spanish-West German co-production)
Das Ratsel der roten Orchidee (1962) aka The Secret of the Red Orchid 
Der Rote Rausch (1962) aka The Red Rage (non-Wallace, non-Rialto krimi)
Die Seltsame Grafin (1962) aka The Strange Countess
Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes (1962) aka Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (non-Wallace French-Italian-West German co-production helmed by CCC Film)
Der Teppich des Graulens (1962) aka The Carpet of Terror (West German-Spanish-Italian co-production based on the work on Louis Weinert-Wilton
Die Tür mit den Sieben Schlossern (1962) aka The Door with Seven Locks 
Der Fluch der Gelben Schlange (1963) aka The Curse of the Yellow Snake (This is based on an Edgar Wallace novel, but it was produced by CCC Film)
Das Geheimnis der Schwarzen (1963) aka The Secret of the Black Widow (non-Wallace, non-Rialto West German-Spanish co-production)
Der Henker von London (1963) aka The Hangman of London aka The Mad Executioners (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Das Indische Tuch (1963) aka The Indian Scarf 
Die Nylonschlinge (1963) aka The Nylon Noose 1963 (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Der Phantom von Soho (1963) aka The Phantom of Soho (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Der Schwarze Abt (1963) aka The Black Abbot 
Scotland Yard jagt Dr. Mabuse (1963) aka Scotland Yard vs. Dr. Mabuse (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Die Weiss Spinne (1963) aka The White Spider (based on a Louis Weinert-Wilton novel)
Der Wurger von Schloss Blackmoor (1963) aka The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Der Zinker (1963) aka The Squeaker 
Das Geheimnis der chinesischen Nelke (1964) aka The Secret of the Chinese Carnation (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Die Gruft mit dem Rätselschloss (1964) aka Curse of the Hidden Vault
Der Hexer (1964) aka The Ringer aka The Mysterious Magician 
Nebelmörder (1964) aka The Foggy Night Murderer (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Piccadilly, Null Uhr Zwolf (1964) aka Piccadilly, Zero Hour (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Ein Sarg aus Hong Kong (1964) aka Coffin from Hong Kong (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Das siebente Opfer (1964) aka The Seventh Victim aka The Racetrack Murders (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Das Ungeheur von London City (1964) aka The Monster of London City (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Das Verrätertor (1964) aka Traitor’s Gate 
Das Wirtshaus von Dartmoor (1964) aka The Inn at Dartmoor (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Wartezimmer zum Jenseits (1964) aka Mark of the Tortoise (non-Wallace, but produced by Rialto)
Hotel der toten Gäste (1965) (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Mädchenjagd in St. Pauli (1965) aka Girl on the Chase in St. Paul’s (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Der Mörder mit dem Seidenschal (1965) aka The Murderer with the Silk Scarf (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Neues vom Hexer (1965) aka Again the Ringer 
Der unheimliche Mönch (1965) aka The Sinister Monk
Der Bucklige von Soho (1966) aka The Hunchback of Soho
Das Geheimnis der weissen Nonne (1966) aka The Trygon Factor
Das Rätsel des silbernen Drejeck (1966) aka Circus of Fear (based on a Wallace novel, but co-produced by the UK and West Germany)
Der Tod eines Doppelgängers (1966) aka The Death of a Double (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Der Würger vom Tower (1966) aka Strangler of the Tower (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Die Blaue Hand (1967) aka The Creature with the Blue Hand 
Der Hund von Blackwood Castle (1967) aka The Horror of Blackwood Castle
Der Mönch mit der Peitsche (1967) aka The Monk with the Whip aka College Girl Murders 
Die Pagode zum fünften Schrecken (1967) aka Five Golden Dragons (based on a Wallace story, but non-Rialto)
Das Rasthaus der Grausaman Puppen (1967) aka Inn of the Gruesome Dolls (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Im Banne des Unheimlichen (1968) aka Hand of Power aka The Zombie Walks 
Der Gorilla von Soho (1968) aka The Gorilla of Soho aka The Gorilla Gang
Der Mann mit dem Glasauge (1968) aka The Man with the Glass Eye 
Das Gesicht im Dunkeln (1969) aka Double Face
Schreie in der Nacht (1969) aka Screams in the Night (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Sieben Tage Frist (1969) aka School of Fear (non-Wallace, non-Rialto)
Das Geheimnis der schwarzen Handschuhe (1970) aka L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo aka The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian-West German co-production advertised as a Bryan Edgar Wallace film)
Der Teufel kam aus Akasava (1970) aka The Devil came from Akasava (based on an Edgar Wallace novel, but produced by CCC Film and co-produced by Spain)
Cosa avete fatto a Solange? (1971) aka What Have You Done to Solange?
Il gatto a nove code (1971) aka The Cat O’Nine Tails (Italian-French-West German co-production based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel)
Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso (1971) aka The Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (Italian-West German co-production based on a Wallace novel) 
Die Tote aus der Themse (1971) aka The Dead Woman from the Thames aka Angels of Terror 
Das Geheimnis des gelben Grabes (1972) aka The Secret of the Yellow Grave aka The Etruscan Kills Again aka The Dead are Alive (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
Der Todesrächer von Soho (1967) aka The Corpse Packs His Bags (based on a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel, produce by CCC Film)
La morte negli occhi del gatto (1973) aka Seven Dead in the Cat’s Eye (non-Wallace Italian-French-West German co-production)

Friday, August 3, 2012

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG

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.

THE FORGER OF LONDON


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

PROMETHEUS

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.

THE DEVIL'S DAFFODIL

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.

THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON

Alfred Vohrer, 1961
Starring: Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Baal, Dieter Borsche, Klaus Kinski

One of the most famous and beloved of the early krimi, The Dead Eyes of London was based on a 1924 Edgar Wallace novel The Dark Eyes of London. There is a previous British adaptation from 1939, The Dark Eyes of London aka The Human Monster, which introduced horror elements into the narrative and was essentially a Bela Lugosi vehicle. The 1961 version relies more heavily on the British film adaptation than on Wallace’s novel, though it remains more faithful to the source material than later krimi, which frequently diverged from Wallace’s works. The film was very popular in Germany and marks director Alfred Vohrer’s krimi debut for Rialto films. He directed 14 krimi in his career and would become Rialto’s most prolific director in the genre. 

Old, wealthy men begin to disappear on the foggy streets of London and reappear later in the Thames, drowned to death. Scotland Yard discovers that all the men carry sizable insurance policies under the same company. When they also discover messages left in braille, Inspector Holt realizes the drownings are a series of murders pointing to “The Blind Killers of London,” a notorious group of criminals. A young girl who is able to read braille assists Holt and goes undercover in the church community of a blind reverend, a seemingly kind and charitable man. But is he really? Does he have a connection with a murderous, monstrous blind man roaming the street on foggy nights? 

Produced by Horst Wendlandt and written by Egon Eis, The Dead Eyes of London helped establish many of the conventions that would make the kirmi genre so popular. Eis’s script suffers from some meandering dialogue, but presents an exciting, linear mystery that gains ground in the second half of the film. There is beautiful black and white photography by Karl Löb, making the most of a German location that is supposed to be London (another krimi/giallo trope). Stark black and white perfectly captures the fog-filled nights, ominous, narrow streets, and hidden passageways, giving the film a slightly Gothic feel. 

Vohrer’s unusual style of direction seems to have been an influence on the later Italian gialli film. There are such imaginative and gimmicky shots as a reflection in the dark sunglasses worn by Klaus Kinski, filming from inside a mouth, an eye through a spy hole, a shot of a murder in an elevator shaft, etc. Vohrer makes use of odd angles, close ups, and panning shots. The title sequence is also influential and appears in red over top of the black and white. This was used in later krimi both in and out of the Rialto series. The music in the film is another provocative choice. While the score composed by Heinz Funk (yes, that is his name) is typical of the jazz style used during the period, Vohrer also incorporates classical music in the melee, namely Beethoven’s 5th Symphony during scenes of violence and murder. 

The casting is predictable, but the performances are solid. Krimi star Joachim Fuchsberger plays the typical lead, a Scotland Yard Chief Inspector. Karin Baal, another krimi regular, co-stars as the young, braille-reading heroine, and the two make an excellent crime solving duo. They appear again in Massimo Dallamano’s odd German-Italian krimi-inspired giallo What Have You Done to Solange? (1972). The inimitable and always entertaining Klaus Kinski plays the villain in one of his earliest cult roles. Eddi Arent, another popular krimi actor and co-star of the German-British co-production/Christopher Lee vehicle Circus of Fear (1966), appears as the Inspector’s colleague and primarily functions is as the comic relief. This classic Rialto line-up is headed by Ady Berber, the gruesome, Tor Johnson-like “Blind Jack.” Berber was an Austrian-born wrestler and his huge physique and menacing presence made him a regular fixture in krimi and some of the Dr. Mabuse films. 

The Dead Eyes of London is a great place to start for those unfamiliar with the krimi genre. It has a classy, Val Lewton-like feel and has more of a Gothic influenced than some of the later works in the Rialto series. The set is enriched with creaking floorboards, deep shadows, dark alleys, long staircases, and, most of all, London fog. The murders only occur in this heavy fog, which gives certain set pieces a relationship to Fritz Lang’s seminal M (1931) and some of the early Universal Studios classic horror efforts like Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). 

A definite air of the macabre and grotesque is highlighted by little details, such as characters with pale, pupil-less eyes and props like a skull that doubles as a cigarette case. Some of these elements blur the line between the absurd, if not the outright cheesy, like an elevator death scene and a bullet-firing television set (!), which results in some unintentionally humorous moments. These gimmicks would appear in later krimi, as well as Eurotrash or Eurohorror cinema in general through out the late ‘60s and ‘70s.  The film is also surprisingly violent for the time period. While European cinema of the ‘70s pushed many boundaries of sex and violence, there was still a certain cultural conservatism in place in West Germany the ‘60s. What The Dead Eyes of London lacks in eroticism or exploitation, it makes up for with the macabre. There is a dank basement torture chamber with a variety of unpleasant tools and implements, death by drowning and elevator, as well as the cunning use of a blowtorch. 

The villains are dastardly and red herrings abound, though this is essentially a tight, logical mystery with plenty of suspense. There are some slumps with dialogue-heavy scenes and convoluted plot lines, but otherwise this is a prime example of krimi films and stands as a solid effort in the larger mystery genre. This is certainly one of the most influential krimi due to its early entrance in the canon and, overall, is one of the strongest in Rialto’s Edgar Wallace series. It was a big hit in the box office and helped introduce Kinski to a wider audience. His black gloved, dark sunglass-clad villain is something of a precursor to giallo films, as are the bizarre, yet stylized murders.

The Dead Eyes of London is available on DVD from Retromedia, as part of a double feature with Riccardo Freda’s The Ghost (1963), an Italian horror-crime film starring the lovely Barbara Steele. There is an above average print that appears to be uncut and this is currently the best region one version available. The film is also available as part of a region two Edgar Wallace box set from Ufa, which I'd love to get my hands on one day -- it also includes The Devil's Daffodil (1961), The Forger of London (1961), and The Strange Countess (1961).