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: http://videowatchdog.blogspot.com/2007/03/more-victims-of-der-rcher.html]

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Some krimi posters

From Germany:




and the former Yugoslavia:

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Edgar Wallace - Der Frosch mit der Maske / The Fellowship of the Frog / Frøen med masken

To quote Frank Booth: “This Is It!”

The it in question being the beginnings of the modern krimi film, the first of some 40 odd works based on the work of Edgar Wallace and his son Bryan Edgar Wallace to be made in West Germany between 1959 and 1972.

But whilst many such European genre film firsts are necessarily somewhat tentative, as with the 25 or so Italian westerns made before A Fistful of Dollars that imitated rather than transformed the pre-existing American models, it emerges as a surprisingly confident production whose imprints can still be felt in many a later entry in the series.

Certainly the missing elements, such as stock footage establishing that the film was 'really' shot in London – or more to the point wasn't – the colour credits sequence, and the twelve gunshots followed by the “Hier spricht Edgar Wallace” announcement are in the minority and only really become evident when the film is considered in the light of hindsight.

To itemise what we do have: a strangely attired master criminal; professional and amateur investigators, the former from Scotland Yard; a Soho nightspot, complete with singing femme fatale; a damsel in distress; a would-be avenger; a comic-relief butler; a blind peddlar who isn't all that he seems; a country house; the criminals' secret base; some neat self-referential touches – one investigator goes undercover as a lighting man and records a crucial crime scene with a concealed camera; a distinct propensity for British bobbies to seemingly carry firearms as a matter of course; and a confusingly large number of somehow interconnected characters to provide intrigue, victims and suspects as and when required.

The master criminal is the titular Frog, the head of a three-hundred strong gang identifiable by their numbers and the brand they all wear. His own identity is unknown, with the quest to unmask him propelling the story onwards at a characteristically breathless Wallace pace, wherein one year of undercover work by Inspector Higgins is telegraphed into a single sentence and a brief scene in which he tries, unsuccessfully, to apprehend the Frog.

As Higgins' body is found, complete with a couple of potential clues, footprints which do not match and a reside of cement dust in the dead man's mouth, the true investigators are revealed in the form of Inspector Hedge of the Yard and Richard Gordon, an American of independent means who affects the manners and lifestyle of an English gentleman – he is also the employer of the butler – and might as well be one.

Gordon and his butler are played by Joachim Fuchsberger and Eddi Arent, soon to become typed as the definitive hero and comic relief figures respectively, although Fuchsberger's heroes would hereafter tend more to be offficial representatives of the law.

With the man with the non-matching footprints soon identified as Mr Bennett we are next introduced to his son Ray and daughter Ella, whom the more attentive viewer might already recognise as one of the Frog's next targets, Higgins being the other.

While Ella is the dutiful daughter, concerned for her father's and brother's well-being – Mr Bennett always seems pre-occupied by his trips into London on unspecified business – Ray is somewhat wayward, with a desire for an easy life that leads him into trouble as in a short space of time he goes on to ignore the advice of the avuncular Mr Johnston at his work; anger their employer, the fearsome permanently be-gloved Mr Maitland, and winds up in a Soho club where he falls for the resident singer, named Lolita.

Sure enough, she is also involved with the Frog; even if we're still no clearer as to his identity – though Gordon suspects he may be wearing the mask to conceal his identity as missing master criminal Harry Lime, on the grounds that some sort of disfiguring mark would be too obvious / straightforward – we at least now have a number of suspects to work through.

Lime, of course, is also the name of 'The Third Man,' the post-war profiteer in Graham Greene's story memorably brought to the screen by Carol Reed, with that Anton Karas zither score and Lime / Orson Welles's speech about cuckoo clocks and the Borgias; there was also a TV series around the time of the film in which he was reinvented as a detective hero.

Whether intentionally or otherwise Ray and Lolita are vaguely reminscent of characters from Weimar German films such as Asphalt, to recall the era of the first Wallace craze within Germany – one swiftly ended by the Nazis – and the way in which the novels and these films, though now coming across as naïve, harmless kitschy reminders of a more innocent-seeming age, were often shocking and controversial enough in their day.

Lolita's song, entitled “Night and Fog on the Thames,” has some interesting connotations here, in suggesting not only the danger of the area as presumably intended by its authors but also the phrase used by the Nazis when they arranged the “night and fog” disappearances of those they deemed undesirable.

Two other shock moments of note here the dispatching of an unfortunate policeman who happens upon the Frog's gang in the middle of a robbery and the way in which the Frog silences an over-noisy female prisoner. In the first, we don't get any POV shots of the attack as we might get in a later film, nor the actual the moment when throat is slit, but do get a surprisingly graphic hands clutching throat shot. In the second the Frog unexpectedly whips out a submachine gun and somewhat needlessly drills the woman full of holes to shut her up for good.

Away from Fuchsberger and Arent two other krimi regulars making their debut genre appearance are Fritz Rasp and Dieter Eppler, the latter also a familiar face from a number of straight horror productions of the time such as The Head and Castle of the Walking Dead.

Coincidentally or otherwise, Castle was also directed by Fellowship of the Frog helmsman Harald Reinl, who would go on to direct a further half-dozen Edgar Wallace entries, making him the second-most prolific director in the series after Alfred Vohrer.

With most of the camera set ups, angles and movements functional and the editing classical, the Expressionistic aspects of the film come primarily through elements within the frame, as this street or that interior is made darker and more dangerous looking or a light source 'just happens' to cast some suggestive pattern; the one time Reinl does break out some Third Man-esque Dutch angles is when a fist-fight breaks out, with this being a scene that also features some more dynamic camerawork and editing.

Willy Mattes's jazzy score is pleasing if comparatively lacking in the quirky qualities.that would came to the fore in later films.