Kinski Watch XI: The Inn On The River (Alfred Vohrer, 1962)

A quick lesson in plot construction:

Scene 1: Inspector Wade (Joachim Fuchsberger) and Dr. Collins (Richard Munch) discuss mysterious murders committed with a harpoon. The killer is dubbed the "Shark" and has, until now, always eluded Scotland Yard.

Scene 2: At the Mekka, the titular inn on the river, owner Nelly Oaks (Elisabeth Flickenschildt) performs a seductive song, while her innocent step daughter Leila Smith (Brigitte Grothum) has to fight off advances from horny seamen. Wade stops by to interrogate both about a murder committed by the "Shark" not far from the Mekka. No one has heard anything, of course, and if they have, they're not willing to share any information with the police. Wade also makes the acquaintance of Gregor Gubanow (Klaus Kinski donning a mustache), a mysterious businessman who seems to know more about the murder than he is willing to spell out.

Scene 3: Leila is commanded to the cellar to make an inventory. While she is there alone, camera work and music strongly imply that the "Shark" is preying on her. Just as he is about to grab her, Wade appears to question Leila. Do we get to see the "Shark"'s face? Yes: it's Kinski. Leila tells Wade that she saw the "Shark" on the night of the murder. Wade urges her to keep it to herself, lest the "Shark" will most likely kill her.  But the "Shark" is presumably already listening to the entire conversation in the shadows.

Thus, the intrigue is set up in a few story beats and after ten minutes one knows exactly in which direction the story is heading. But Edgar Wallace wouldn't be Edgar Wallace if there wouldn't be numerous complications along the way. The problem is that these plot twists and reversals aren't integral to the outcome of the story, namely the reveal of the "Shark"'s identity.  Granted, we learn that Leila is the unsuspecting inheritor of a large sum of money and we suspect that the "Shark" eliminates everyone around her to get to that money. But it is never explained and the killings ultimately make no sense.

The Inn On The River, while more focussed than The Door With Seven Locks for example, is still a rather sensationalist whodunnit that sacrifices plausibility for shock value and is wholly uninterested in explaining any of the character motivations. The reason why Wade gets involved at all is because he fancies Leila (who, by the way, is not even of legal age) and fears for her well-being. And because the plot demands it, both kiss at the very end of the movie, although no real relationship developed during the film.

At first, Kinski plays his typical Edgar-Wallace-Kinski sleazebag, but in an interesting plot twist, we discover that he is a police officer who supposedly worked undercover the whole time. Did Wade know that? It's not clear. Kinski's character dies in a chase with the "Shark" (oops, spoiler alert). When Wade sees the body he mutters: "It's a pity. He was one of our best men". But what was he doing posing as a shady business man before? Was he feeding Wade with information from the underworld, or is it just one plot point more that is not supposed to make sense and is merely introduced to shock and wow? In any event, Kinski's character is never mentioned again after his sudden death and the investigation immediately continues as is he had never existed.

Quiet some fun is to be had doing the guessing game of who the "Shark" might be, and after the one hour mark, we quickly burn through several candidates who are then either killed immediately by the real "Shark" or are proven innocent. And the only palpable character trait Wade has is his frustration with the fact that Scotland Yard is seemingly unable to catch the killer, which is nicely exploited at the end of the movie when it looks like Wade won't be able to lay his hands on the "Shark" although he mobilizes a sizable amount of police officers to surround the harpoon-wielding murderer.

The "Shark"'s real identity is a disappointment and a little ridiculous. It makes no sense from a story point of view and is not satisfactory on an emotional level. Audiences, however, didn't seem to mind. The Inn On The River was the most successful Edgar Wallace krimi of the series with over 3.5 million tickets sold at the box office in 1962.

Kinski Watch X: The Door With The Seven Locks (Alfred Vohrer, 1962)

A thoroughly enjoyable movie, the script for The Door With The Seven Locks still exhibits major structural problems, bereaving the film of any real suspense. There are two sides to the Seven Locks coin: the first half of the movie, a swift and pulpy affair that comes up with silly humor and effective photography sets up the intrigue rather nicely and hopes are raised for a consistently thrilling thriller – if you’ll excuse the pun. In the second 45 minutes, however, the plot gets unnecessarily convoluted and confusing, and the movie loses its tension and focus until the fun silliness of the first half loses all its fun.

The plot concerns the heirs to the deceased Lord Selford whose wealth is supposedly kept in a vault only accessible if one possesses seven keys necessitated to unlock the vault’s door. One by one, the heirs turn up dead with one of the seven keys on them. Inspector (not commissioner, as he specifies) Dick Martin (Heinz Drache) begins his investigation. His aides are a librarian with spellbinding legs (Sabina Sesselman), Martin’s goofy sidekick Holmes (Eddi Arendt, of course) and the shady attorney Haveloc (Hans Nielsen) who manages Lord Selford’s will.

All is well and the story breezes along until somehow Dick Martin and Holmes, who’s shenanigans are at times amusing and maddening, are relegated to be simple onlookers as a crazy scientist, a moronic hulk of a hit man, and a couple of rich aristocrats and their butler who stage several abductions find their way into the script and pretty much take over and complicate things where we just wanted to see Holmes trying to learn magic tricks while discussing clues with Martin, and feel vicarious embarrassment observing Martin hit on the allowedly charming librarian Sybil. It is telling, in that regard, that the solution to the murder intrigue comes about not thanks to Martin’s investigative skills, but because he is simply in the right place at the right moment. Not that I’m against experimentation in the way to tell a crime story, but if the leading detective doesn’t even interfere in the plot for large chunks of the film and turns up at the end to resolve everything by pure chance something went wrong.

Kinski’s presence in the movie is peripheral at best. He has one extended speaking scene, where his character Pheeny reveals to Dick Martin that he was commissioned to break open a door with seven locks but refrained from accepting because the whole affair seemed fishy. A few scenes later and not even ten minutes into the movie, Martin finds Pheeny was murdered. Given Kinski’s self-proclaimed proclivity to lure female bit players into his bed during shooting, maybe he didn’t agree to a bigger role because the only young female actress on the set was Sabina Sesselman and the prospect of spending weeks on a set where carnal release was not possible in the amount desired drove Kinski away from this one.

Or it could be that shooting for The Door With The Seven Locks had to be rescheduled repeatedly (initially, the film was supposed to be done by the end of 1961) because producer Horst Wendlandt wasn’t satisfied with the script. The Mystery Of The Red Orchid was rushed into production instead, providing Kinski with a much bigger role than he had previously had in any Edgar Wallace krimi. Even before the latter film hit theaters, shooting for Seven Locks began. It is no surprise then that a lot of actors typically cast in Edgar Wallace films were absent (Heinz Drache replacing Joachim Fuchsberger as the quirky detective) and Kinski had only a very small role. Though rejected by critics, Seven Locks was hugely successful at the box office, reaffirming the public's hunger for Edgar Wallace murder mysteries after the commercial failure of The Mystery of the Red Orchid.

Kinski Watch IX: The Mystery of the Red Orchid (Helmut Ashley, 1962)

A group of gangsters are playing poker in a hotel room. Whiskey, Fedoras, cheap three-piece suits - the whole nine yards. After a few witty exchanges, the door swings open and a group of rivaling gangsters with automatic weapons mow them down. Cut to main credits - it's on. The tenth Edgar Wallace krimi The Mystery of the Red Orchid abandons the murder mystery formula for the first time and comes up with a classic gangster story. And isn't shy of wearing its influences on its sleeves. Chicago gangsters terrorize London millionaires demanding protection money. If they don't pay or go to the police they're murdered. And all through the movie, the British cops underline the fact that these methods are "American" methods. And to counteract, an American detective is brought in. Kinski plays "handsome Steve", right hand man of the mobster boss. Not a very juice role but that probably has to do with the production history.

After the wide-spread success of The Strange Countess, producer Horst Wendlandt wanted to follow up with The Door With Seven Locks. But he wasn't satisfied with the script. The contracts with the entire crew supposed to work on the film, however, were already signed. Thus, In order to fulfill the contracts, and because theater owners in Germany had already reserved the date for the next Edgar Wallace premiere, Wendlandt decided to go ahead with the filming of The Mystery of the Red Orchid instead, as he felt that the script was much stronger. Unfortunately, the movie was not well received and was the least financially successful Edgar Wallace krimi to date.

It has often been mentioned that, although a German production and mostly filmed in Hamburg, none of the main actors in The Mystery of the Red Orchid are German (Kinski is originally from Poland, Marisa Mell Austrian and Christopher Lee is, of course, British) - another oddity in this out and out strange production. Clearly an homage to 1940's and 50's action pics from Hollywood, the movie is an unfortunate melange between the typically convoluted Wallacian "mystery" fare, riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies, and a rather sad attempt at capturing the exciting and menacing atmosphere of American gangster flicks. The script, as well as Helmut Ashley's uninspired directional work are an utter disappointment.

However, The Mystery of the Red Orchid remains a fascinating contemporary document illustrating how the German krimi industry (by 1962 well-alive and swinging) interpreted and aped Hollywood fare. One could, rather boldly, propose that the German postwar fascination with everything American was concentrated on the superficial, as the elements that were lifted from American mobster movies were limited to clothing, mannerisms, plot tropes and zingy one-liners - nothing of substance. If the atmosphere of that type of movie was of obvious interest to the movie makers, Hollywood-type story (what one could tentatively call "substance") was not. But surely I'm reading too much into this. The Mystery of the Red Orchid is, after all, a failure on all counts.

Kinski Watch VIII: The Strange Countess (Josef von Báky, 1961)

A prestige Edgar Wallace. Producer Horst Wendlandt's dream was to bring together pre-war UFA talent for a new project, and he indeed assembled an eclectic bunch for this film. Silent film star Lil Dagover plays the titular Countess, Marianne Hoppe, Fritz Rasp and Rudolf Fernau are featured as well, screenwriter Robert Adolf Stemmle was responsible for the 1931 classic Emil und die Detektive, director Josef von Báky had had successes with Das doppelte Lottchen and Münchhausen, and even director of photography Richard Angst was known for his pre-war work. The production history is tumultuous. Stemmle was brought onto the project after the initial writer Curt Hanno Gutbrod delivered three drafts of the script and was fired by the studio due to creative differences. During shooting, director  von Báky fell gravely ill and had to be replaced by Jürgen Roland. It was von Báky's last work as film director. He died in 1966. German critics picked the film to pieces, but due to its star ensemble The Strange Countess remains one of the better-known Wallace krimis to date.

The story is convoluted yet dull. Margaret Reddle, a young secretary, is the victim of several attempted murders. When she is hired as a secretary by Countess Moron and moves to her castle, she thinks that she finally might be safe. One night, she steps on a balcony and is almost killed when the balcony gives way. Accident or another attempted murder? She flees the castle, but due to different plot machinations, finds herself in a psychiatric institution run by Countess Moron's physician. She is saved by Detective Mike Dorn (who's presence in the film is never really explained) and brought back to the castle to confront the Countess. Family secrets are unearthed and everything is explained - but the only way to still be around for the denouement is if one keeps busy by counting the plot holes.

Kinski plays a patient of the psychiatric institution who apparently is allowed to come and go as he pleases. He frequently calls Margaret Reddle and warns her that she is about to get killed. Otherwise, his ties to the plot are rather incidental and ultimately unimportant. Kinski however gets his own title card for the first time in the Edgar Wallace series. That's the only thing worth mentioning in this otherwise forgettable offering.

Kinski Watch VII: Red Rage (Wolfgang Schleif, 1962)

Kinski’s first main starring role, and it would define the type of characters he would embody for years to come. He plays Josef, a serial killer who escapes from a psychiatric institution in Eastern Germany and crosses the border to West Germany to find work on a farm. He can’t remember the murders he committed and is perfectly harmless most of the time. For a reason that is never explained, his killing instinct is only ignited when he sees women wearing a red pearl necklace. Will the police find him? Will the people on the farm find out about his true identity? Will he kill again?

Red Rage can be placed in a long tradition of German made for TV krimis that comment on societal preoccupations at the time of production by rooting the narrative in a theme that can be tied into the larger social and political discourse. It takes the typical “ripped from the headlines” concept one step further in that the films are usually not based on a specific prominent crime, but speak to broader themes being discussed in the public sphere (most recently, for example, the very popular krimi series Tatort addressed the issue of homophobia in the world of soccer).

Red Rage addresses two questions that are typical for the beginning of the sixties: how can one define a “normal” and a “mentally ill” person? And how should society treat the mentally ill? In the movie, we get several long scenes in which a psychiatrist explains that Josef can not really be made responsible for the murders he committed, as he didn’t act consciously. His killings are not the result of a deliberate decision but the unfortunate outcome of an illness Josef can’t control. He can't resist killing. Is he a total nutjob because of it? A psychopath that needs to be locked up until the end of days? Or is he rather a poor individual who needs help and care? These are the questions that come up and the film addresses them in a straight-forward if unsubtle way.

Kinski’s portrayal of Josef is remarkable and, by all accounts, cemented his star status at the time in Germany. I mentioned in my previous post that Kinski performs with his entire body, and Red Rage is an impressive example. The actor seems at times fragile and innocent like a kid, threatening like a maniac, or lifeless like a flat tire. His hands seem to have the ability to grow and shrink on command – they seem deadly when he puts them around a woman’s neck, and consoling when he plays with a child. His eyes are, of course, spellbinding, and the entire cast seems subpar compared to him. The scene in which he is accidentally locked in his room on the farm and he hallucinates being back in his cell in the psychiatric clinic is a fantastic piece of film. As is his recitation of the Oscar Wilde story The Selfish Giant in a scene in which he and a child play with puppets.

In 1962 already, Kinski had a reputation as a maniac. He had raving fits during several press interviews for the film and pretended to live in a tent on a lake for the duration of the shoot while in reality he occupied the same hotel as the other cast members. In the climatic scene of the film, Josef's true identity is discovered and he tries to flee back over the border. The people of the village set the reed on fire and we get several shots of Josef running around a swamp, flames shooting in the sky all around him. During filming, the wind allegedly turned unfavorably and Kinski was trapped in the flames, almost burning alive.

Kinksi Watch VI: The Devil’s Daffodil (Akos Rathonyi, 1961)

The Devil’s Daffodil was the first German-British co-production of the Edgar Wallace series. A German and English version were shot simultaneously in England. I have seen the German version with Klaus Kinski (his character Peter Keene was played by Colin Jeavons in the English version) and was not impressed with it. The murder mystery is utterly uninteresting and the gimmick central to the film (the murderer places a bouquet of daffodils on every of his victims) turns out to be utterly pointless unless I have missed something, which could well be the case as I was three beers in by the end of the movie and barely awake. The daffodils are used to smuggle drugs but the victims in the movie don’t really have any ties to that case, which makes the entire intrigue, well, unintriguing. Joachim Fuchsberger, of course, plays the hero Jack Tarling but his presence in the movie is puzzling. He is a member of the "Global Airways Security Service" but takes the lead investigating the murders, interfering with Scotland Yard and approving the torture of a suspect by a Hong-Kong detective (played by Christopher Lee in Chinese make-up in both versions). What exactly is his authority?

Kinski has a more prominent role than in the previous Edgar Wallace films. He plays an ex-convict who is dim-wittedly devoted to his boss, a shady nightclub owner. Spoiler alert, Kinski is responsible for the murders who were commissioned by his boss (as far as I remember). I don’t know if it’s me looking for more than what’s actually on the screen, but the whole movie is such a labored and stark affair that the non-chalantness and lunacy Kinski brings to his role infuses everyone of his scenes with a freshness the film otherwise lacks. Peter Keene is far from being a major achievement from the actor, but even in this kind of role he could play in his sleep, Kinski’s screen presence is imposing. He is an actor who plays with his entire body. His physique, his posture is radically different from movie to movie, even in these forgettable offerings. In the end though, even Kinski can’t save this film from being a snore from beginning to end.

We get a little bit of location shooting in London, but The Devil’s Daffodil totally lacks any atmosphere or suspense, something Edgar Wallace krimis usually were pretty good at. The sets are often laughable (the nightclub owned by the central bad guy looks like the production designer put a counter, a few chairs and a slot machine in someone’s living room), and Rathonyi’s direction is rather clunky and uninteresting. According to his autobiography, Kinski slept with nearly every actress and female crew member of the Edgar Wallace movies, and the only fun to have while watching The Devil’s Daffodil is to speculate which of the very few female bit-players ended up in bed with Kinski.