Friday, 16 January 2009

The Trygon Factor / Factor One / Das Geheimnis der weißen Nonne / The Mystery of the White Nuns

[This review is out of sequence, the film dating from 1966; it also contains spoilers]

The Trygon Factor
/ The Mystery of the White Nuns must rank as the most unusual of the Preben-Philipsen / Rialto film Edgar Wallace krimis. It’s not just the British director, The Witches' Cyril Frankel, and predominantly British cast, but almost the whole structure of the film. For in addition to incorporating giallo and superspy / comic book elements, the film repeatedly plays with familiar krimi film tropes in thoroughly unexpected ways that leave one wondering what exactly was intended and whether some of those involved might even have been at cross-purposes with one another.

What, no Edgar Wallace?

The opening pre-credits sequence sets this out quite nicely: It’s established that London is being plagued by a series of audacious heists that have left Scotland Yard baffled, until now. One of Superintendent Cooper-Smith’s (Stewart Granger’s) men, Sergeant Thompson, believes he has a lead and has gone to a country home, Emberday, to meet up with his contact, Sister Claire (Diane Clare).

The titular family are old, respectable and moneyed – albeit perhaps not as wealthy as they once were, assuming they have not let part of their home be used by the nuns out of philanthropy alone...

Who says nuns have no fun?

The Sergeant is right to be suspicious, all the more so when he happens to notice some of the nuns taking part in a cheesecake style photo-shoot with Trudy Emberday and finds his ‘innocent’ look around the grounds attracting excessive attention.

Unfortunately, having also been spotted by some of the other nuns talking with Sister Clare, he has also clearly learnt too much and is thus murdered by a black-clad, masked assassin who drowns him, with appropriate impiety, in the font.

Giallo murder #1

So far, so krimi, except for the way that the story then continues is by identifying each and every one of the criminal gang for us; suffice to say that the mystery of the white nuns isn't.

Consequently, rather than being aligned with Cooper-Smith as he continues the investigation – why did Thompson’s body turn up in Wapping, some fifty miles away and why did his lungs contain fresh rather than Thames water being the first of the many questions; the link between the convent’s pottery factory and its London-based distributors the next – we are positioned more as external observers watching a game of move and countermove between the gang and Scotland Yard.

The times they are a changing

Besides the appearance and modus operandi of the murderer, with another victim later being drowned in the bath in a possible Blood and Black Lace reference, another giallo-esque aspect is a belatedly revealed – and thus none too effectively incorporated, except retrospectively in playing spot the perhaps lesbian-coded man-hater – element of gender confusion that wouldn’t have been too out of place in the likes of Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

Done with mirrors

The comic book or superspy aspect comes into play through the presence of Eddi Arent, as the sole krimi regular within the cast of the English-language version under review here. He plays a Continental safecracker smuggled into the country to help the gang penetrate an otherwise impenetrable safe with his rocket gun whilst wearing a yellow armoured suit, these being two pieces of apparatus that wouldn’t look out of place in Diabolik or Fantastic Argoman.

Arent goes to work

Another thing that is unusual here is the fate that befalls Arent’s character, along with the other men recruited for the job: It’s 'just not cricket,' a far cry from the usual Wallace criminal organisation that demands and rewards its members’ loyalty.

This said, the gang’s betrayals do feature another Wallace staple, namely the vehicle with the rear gas fill-able compartment, one of those elements that, if prefigured in Fritz Lang’s Weimar films, I’ve often wondered about in the post-WWII krimi in relation to the Einsatzgruppen of the intervening period...

In a similar manner the nuns’ order seems characteristic of Wallace’s treatment of religion and charitable organisations, modulating what might be seen as an attack on the former – i.e. a convent of criminal nuns – by foregrounding the latter – i.e. that these nuns do not represent any real order. Returning to the giallo, it’s a bit like the plethora of films there that feature fake or defrocked priests as killers, compared to the relative minority with actual killer priests, a have your cake and eat it strategy that lets the viewer take the message they want from the text.

Giallo murder #2

The marriage trajectory of the typical krimi damsel in distress is also spoofed somewhat, with the suave, droll and self-deprecating Cooper-Smith romancing a French hotel worker young enough to be his daughter and who quite candidly admits to being on the lookout for a wealthy English husband.

If the role of Luke Emberday, the obligatory upper-class twit cum madman who ought to be in the attic, cries out for Klaus Kinski, Robert Morley makes for a more than satisfactory Werner Peters stand-in as the ever-nervous Hubert Hamlyn, manager of the pottery’s distribution arm.

The Trygon, by the way, refers to the distinctive (de)mark on some of the pottery, three triangles (representing the three stated aims of the convent) which together enclose/delimit a fourth and create a fifth, that the gang uses to transport their ill-gotten gains and which perhaps recall The Lavender Hill Mob, or vice-versa, given the 1928 date of Wallace’s original novel, Kate Plus Ten.

In summary, an atypical krimi that may be best appreciated / approached by those already familiar with the more conventional aspects of the form.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Another Giallo/Krimi locandina poster

'A giallo by Edgar Wallace'; for The Hunchback of Soho, but broadened out to The Hunchback of London:

Die Toten Augen von London / The Dead Eyes of London

[Note that this review contains a spoiler]

This is one of the quintessential krimis, part of a select group along with The Hexer and The Sinister Monk that would inspire sequels or remakes. It is also noteworthy for having a relatively famous predecessor in the form of the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Dark Eyes of London, one of the few pre-war Wallace adaptations to reach a wider audience; here we might have a quick straw poll on how many have heard of the Weimar German versions of, say, The Hexer or The Squeaker, or have seen them?

It is also important for being the series debut of Alfred Vohrer, who would go on to direct approximately half of all the titles in the series, far outstripping his closest rival Harald Reinl. Putting it another way, Vohrer was to the krimi what Terence Fisher was to Hammer horror, or Mario Bava to the giallo: the man without which the genre would otherwise be just about impossible to imagine.

As Tim Lucas and others have noted, Vohrer and Reinl's directorial styles are different, each man putting his own particular stamp on the material. The thing that really stands out here is how much fun he and his team appear to be having with all sorts of trick shots.

Though some, like the impossible POV shot from inside a man's mouth as he cleans his teeth with a water pick, exist purely as moments of cinematic spectacle, others, like the repeated use of anachronistic irising effects; the device of having a character move in front of and away from the camera in lieu of an obvious cut; or the reflection of one character in another's mirror shades, are more neatly intertwined with the theme of vision running through the film.

Another of Dead Eyes's merits is the sadistic glee with which Vohrer handles the murder set pieces, ranging from the burning of a man's hands with a lighted cigarette so that he plunges to his death down an elevator shaft, to a strangulation to a shot-through the eye a la Argento's Opera some 26 years later. (The killer, along with almost everyone else, wear black gloves, extending the 'fashion to fetish' trajectory identified by Gary Needham in relation to Bava's The Girl Who Knew too Much and Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage; giallo fans will also appreciate some loving close-ups of gleaming knife blades.)

Plot wise it's the usual clotted affair, where just everyone who shows up on screen is improbably inter-related and involved in one way or another, beginning with the recruitment of Karin Dor's Eleanor Ward - a meaningful surname in the Wallace universe, where very few young women appear to have been brought up by their natural parents - to read a barely legible Braille message on a scrap of paper. Said scrap was found in the pocket of a wealthy Australian gentleman fished out of the Thames, an apparent accident of a type that has been occurring with alarming frequency of late, leading to well-founded suspicions of foul play.

But there are also those near certainties you can use to make sense of it all; I say near because as the series wore on the film-makers would occasionally experiment with casting someone against type for an added frisson.

To wit: Joachim Fuchsberger's Inspector Larry Holt is above suspicion and reproach, as is Eddi Arent's comic relief, Sergeant "Sunny" Harvey, while Klaus Kinski's Edgar Strauss is either a suspect or red herring and Dor's foundling the woman-in-peril cum love interest for Fuchsberger. (Is it just me or would anyone else like to see a krimi where it's the Scotland Yard man who is behind the conspiracy as a means of capturing the love interest and the fortune she typically seems about to inherit.)

The nature of Ady Berber's Blind Jack, the henchman who provides the murder gang with muscle is also of interest. A mentally subnormal ape-like throwback, with a tendency towards violence and a string of previous convictions behind him, he's the type of somewhat un-politically correct 1920s Wallace character whose existence in a 1960s German krimi seems daring, naive or something of both in the light of the Nazi period with eugenics, extermination und so weiter.

Since we see Blind Jack in the pre-credits scene, bundling a victim into a van, his role is not a mystery, rather it is the identity or identities of the leaders of the gang, the ones controlling him.

[spoiler warning]

On the krimi-giallo connection it also worth noting here the occupation of one of the gang's leaders, as a presumably Protestant counterpart to the Catholic priests and fake priests who pop up with alarming regularity in the giallo.

[spoiler warning]

Heinz Funk's score again mixes the conventional and the unusual, with some of those not quite sure what they are, or are supposed to be, timbres. It's all in good fun, nonetheless, just like the rest of the film.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

A couple of Italian krimi posters

More evidence of the krimi-giallo crossover, if any were needed: Italian locandine for a couple of German krimis

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Die Bande des Schrekens / The Terrible People

The second krimi to be made for Rialto by director Harald Reinl, Die Bande des Schrekens / The Terrible People begins much where his first, The Fellowship of the Frog, had ended, as the mysterious master criminal Shelton who has hitherto run rings around the police is captured at last.

In case anyone doubts that we're really in London, England

Gunning down a policeman in a desperate bid to escape Shelton is sentenced to death by hanging. Facing the executioner in prison, Shelton seems remarkably calm, indicating that he will have his revenge on those present and the others he holds responsible for his death.

The hanged man's revenge?

Believing Shelton's warnings to be nothing more than an idle threat, Inspector Long (Joachim Fuchsberger) is about to resign from the force and take up a job in his father's Lord Long's bank.

Two things put paid to this plan.

The first is the Inspector's promotion to Chief Inspector, received on account of his bringing Shelton to justice. The second – far more important – is the question of whether Shelton, who apparently took his own life with poison to cheat the hangman, is in fact dead as a series of apparitions and accidents ensue.

Not believing in ghosts, Long orders the exhumation of Shelton's body, revealing a coffin filled with bricks and a hit list of targets, some already effectively crossed off and the remainder including himself and beautiful young bank worker Nora Sanders (Karin Dor, Reinl's wife at the time).

Though things get somewhat bogged down at this point with a confusing number of characters and subplots and a locked room mystery as another victim is somehow shot in the head in his hotel room – the various individuals having been gathered there to better allow Long to protect them whilst contuining the investigation – they pick up for the third act with a suspenseful game of cat and mouse between hero and villain(s) in the latter's trap-laden hideout.

Shelton's appearances and disappearances are well executed

If there is perhaps already a sense of deja vu about some of the characters and situations, the more Mabuse-like figure of Shelton provides Reinl more scope to play Langian games than the Frog did, pointing the way towards his actual Mabuse films, whilst the introduction of Eddi Arent's soon to be patented comic relief figure – here a police photographer who habitually faints at the sight of blood or a corpse – points the way forward for the Rialto series as a whole. (Arent had appeared in Der Racher, but it was not a Rialto production and proved to be a one-off from Kurt Ulrich Studios.)

Visually the film presents an advance on its predecessor, with some pronounced expressionist touches around the phantom Shelton's brief appearances in the shadows and / or fog, various chiaroscuro effects and some attention-grabbing but nevertheless restrained compositions alongside the elegant dolly work.

The good-humoured Long responds to the phantom's note by correcting his rank to Chief Inspector

There are also some repeated visual motifs such as the frequent Langian clocks – Reinl tellingly overlaying the first with his credit and cutting away from it at the exact moment of Shelton's intended execution – and the sudden appearance of a noose before the hangman in an ironic reprise of the noose he had placed before Shelton. (Reinl's way of introducing the nooses into the frame is also somewhat reminiscent of Leone's in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly)

The process shots, featuring racing cars and speedboats, are less satisfactory unless we work on the possible but unlikely seeming premise that this was intentional on Reinl's part, as a way of giving the film more of a 1920s or 30s feel, or of further drawing attention to its filmic nature beyond Arent's character. (Here it's worth remembering, however, that some of critics who would likely have taken Reinl to task here may well have been more sympathetic to the equally obvious process work in Hitchcock's Marnie, indicating the difficulty of drawing a clear distinction between bad filmmaking and Brechtian distanciation.)

Shelton as Mabuse

Heinz Funk's score is more experimental than its immediate crime-jazz predecessors, featuring some suitably disquietingly weird timbres and effects alongside the more usual suspense cues.

There is no ende gag yet, nor any Hier Spricht Edgar Wallace, though the Goldmann's novel is specified – nummer 11 in the series.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Der Rächer / The Avenger

The Avenger is one of the odd films out amongst the 40 odd krimis made between 1959 and 1972, as the sole film within the cycle to be produced by Kurt Ulrich Filmproduktion rather than the more familiar Rialto or CCC.

Seeing the success of The Fellowship of the Frog, Ulrich quickly moved to make an unofficial Edgar Wallace adaptation, beating Rialto's Die Bande des Schreckens to West German screens by a few weeks in August 1960. Rialto had the last laugh however, taking Ulrich to court and preventing his company from making subsequent films – a decision which in turn explains why CCC used the work of Bryan Edgar Wallace rather than his better known father when they began making krimis shortly thereafter.

Though Kurt Ulrich Filmproduktion only made one krimi, it was nevertheless to prove an influential one, featuring the genre debuts of a number of krimi stalwarts in Heinz Drache, Siegfried Schurenberg and Klaus Kinski, along with one of the cycle's more memorable monsters in the form of Al Hoosman's Bhag, a non-too PC primitive type (variously referred to as “a negro”; “an animal from the jungle”; “a demented creature”, and “The best servant in the world: he doesn't think, he doesn't speak, he doesn't answer” brought to England from the wilds of Borneo.



Additionally, it also pushed the self-referential aspect that bit further than its immediate predecessor by locating the investigation amidst the making of a film, giving Kinski an early opportunity to play the tortured artist as its highly-strung screenwriter.

Though far from this type himself in own approach to writing, Edgar Wallace had started working for the cinema in the 1920s (most famously penning the original story for King Kong shortly before his death) while Bryan Edgar Wallace would subsequently actually work in the film industry, including with CCC on adapting some of his own thrillers.

A painting that may or may not prove important

Besides this, we also see an early – albeit quite possibly coincidental – instance of the krimis influencing the later Italian giallo when the film's director, Mr Jackson, elevates an extra, Ruth Sanders, to the position of lead after getting fed up with the diva antics of his star, Stella Mendoza, in a manner reminiscent of Dario Argento's Opera. It is, as Jackson says, the sort of incredible thing which normally only happens in the movies.

If this connection seems a spurious one, we can also note that the German name for the killer, der kofpsjager, or 'the headhunter', also prefigures that of the maniac in the Italian director's Trauma. (Admittedly here the killer does not keep the heads, however.)

Faces at a window

Similarly while The Fellowship of the Frog had featured covert filming that revealed a vital detail, here we have a similar detail – a woman at the window, no less – being captured purely by chance, much like the murder in the park in Antonioni's anti-giallo Blow-Up.

Some nice old dark house thing lurking in the shadows action

The typically convoluted plot opens in media res: An apparent maniac known as 'The Executioner' has struck no fewer than 12 times, decapitating his victims on each occasion. The last victim was beyond reproach, a fact which seems to have spurred the authorities into action at last, the majority of the previous victims having been incorrigible criminals.

Fortunately special investigator Brixan (Drache) has several clues to work with: the killer is extremely strong, having beheaded his victims with a single blow from a heavy blade; uses a typewriter on which a couple of the keys are distinctively out of alignment, and posts cryptic messages in the newspaper under the name of “the Benefactor”. (Curiously, however, Brixan is not a Scotland Yard man, rather being associated with the Foreign Office.)

Posing as a journalist sent to cover the making of the film, Brixen is quick to uncover a number of potential suspects, including the aforementioned Bhag – albeit as the tool of his white master Sir Gregory Penn, a womanising adventurer type – and Kinski's screenwriter, Voss, on whose typewriter the messages seem to have been written...

Of course this surfeit of suspects only serves to further complicate things, as do the array of quirky supporting characters, such as the harmless old eccentric Longman and – in one especially 'what the' moment – a swordsman who seems to have stepped out of a wuxia, coupled with the inevitable romantic subplot that develops between Brixen and Ruth, herself also another of Wallace's orphans / nieces / wards in peril.

Director Karl Anton was an industry veteran whose career dated back to the Czech cinema in the 1920s. Though clearly a competent filmmaker, his direction here old-fashioned and routine, though he does use the zoom lens to nicely augment / express the undoubtedly shock of finding a severed head in a box on a couple of occasions.

Admittedly, however, a fair evaluation of Anton's contributions is not helped by the overly dark, somewhat panned and scanned copy under review, originally released on video by Sinister Cinema in the 1990s.

[More information on the versions of the film and its relationship to the Wallace text:]

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Some krimi posters

From Germany:




and the former Yugoslavia: