Kinski Watch XX: Neues vom Hexer (1965, Alfred Vohrer)

Neues vow Hexer  is certainly one of the better Edgar Wallace krimis. All things considered, and a few drinks in, it is even a rather entertaining affair, with an early death from Klaus Kinski's character, a bearded and relatively tame Eddi Arendt, some ridiculous (and in one case, cringe worthy racist) high-jinks with the Hexer duping the police by wearing masks, and enthusiastic direction by Wallace veteran Alfred Vohrer. It is pure camp, it is oftentimes silly but Neues vom Hexer has a lot going for itself.

For those (most) of you who don't know, the Hexer (literally "sorcerer" in English) was a clever murderer in Der Hexer, a previous hugely popular Edgar Wallace krimi. He escaped to Australia at the end of the film. In this sequel, the wealthy Lord Curtain is murdered by his nephew and his butler (Kinski). They use the Hexer's modus operandi and leave his business card at the crime scene. Which brings back to mind that before there were omnipresent surveillance cameras, DNA traces and "mentalists" who can unmask killers by simple mind games, there used to be a time when criminals in movies would leave a card at the crime scene to brand their mischief. I remember distinctly several films from the 1950's and 60's I watched with my mother, who loves krimis, as a young kid where this was the case. It obviously left a strong impression on me because this simple detail brought back a lot of film watching memories from my childhood. In Neues vow Hexer, the titular character decides to fly back to London with his wife and Butler in order to prove his innocence.

What ensues are Edgar Wallace histrionics at their best. Heinz Drache plays his Inspector Wesby with all the arrogance, phony wittiness and misogyny he can possibly muster and Rene Deltgen as the Hexer is asked to make a fool of himself repeatedly but does so with a gleeful insouciance. Vohrer, who's oftentimes childish visuals have already been the highlight of many previous Wallace entries, does his job well and gives us several striking shots that mystify but ultimately stay with us (a room filled with men sleeping with a newspaper unfolded over their faces anyone?). During shooting, the director fell ill and had to be replaced by Will Temper who apparently quickly lost interest and was ousted by assistant director Eva Ebner and cinematographer Karl Loeb. As far as I could tell, the film didn't suffer from it significantly. I kept trying to spot sequences that seemed less lively than Vohrer's signature style but couldn't make out any.

Kinski, donning scruffy facial hair for this film, phones in his performance and is done with it by the halftime mark, when he is shot to death by Inspector Wesby. But we get one fabulously ludicrous scene at the very beginning, when the camera slowly pushes in on a coffin that magically opens to reveal Kinski lying in it. A man approaches him and Kinski sits up, smiles and utters: "It fits!" It's quintessential Edgar Wallace: it goes for the shock factor that grabs one instantly, it doesn't make any sense, it's vaguely poetic, and it never figures into the final denouement. Edgar Wallace krimis are a lot like American Horror Story at the moment: it's a collection of attention grabbing moments without a core. But in both cases, that can be enough for an entertaining viewing experience.

Kinski Watch XIX: The Pleasure Girls (1965, Gerry O’Hara)

1965 was not a good year for Klaus Kinski as far as the quality of the films he appeared in is concerned. The Pleasure Girls, a watery “Swinging London” film that tries to simultaneously explore the familiar country-girl-seeks-fortune-in-big-city theme while also dabbling in some darker film noir stuff, marks no exception. It might not be his worst movie that year but it might be the dullest.

Who knows what the film might have become if either director or producers had had full creative control. O’Hara had initially planned to work with producer Raymond Stross on the project but finally landed at Compton Films for which he had previously shot That Kind of Girl in 1963. Compton Films was interested in the film as a prospect for a wild exploitation movie that would drive audiences to the theaters for sex and violence. O’Hara, of course, had never intended his movie that way. Constantly pressuring for more nudity and sex, the production house finally took the final cut rights from O’Hara and inserted the orgy scenes they wanted themselves. The director alarmed the British Board of Film Censors and those scenes were ultimately cut from the film. 

As it is, The Pleasure Girls remains a fairly well shot indie flick (especially considering it was shot in 20 days for a mere 30,000 Pounds) with performances from Klaus Kinski and a young Ian McShane that seem phoned in at best. The story follows three young women who live the 60’s “Swinging London” lifestyle of parties parties parties, and their romantic entanglements. Klaus Kinski plays a shady landlord who houses the girls. There is a storyline involving some crime elements and one of the girls arrives in the big city to pursue a modeling career while experiencing some inklings of frustration with the London lifestyle, but the film never explores any potentially interesting story avenues.

Kinski’s landlord was modeled on the real life Peter Rachman, a notorious landlord in West London who drove out white tenants from his properties, offered them to African immigrants struggling to find housing under racial segregation and overcharged them immensely. With a character like that it would have been the perfect opportunity to show the underbelly of the “Swinging London” era – something of more interest than Ian McShane courting an aspiring model with no personality. We get a lot of scenes set in a gambling parlor and one of the girl’s boyfriends sells off some of her jewelry to pay off some debt and wants her to get an abortion when he learns she's pregnant (another theme that would have been interesting to explore in the “Swinging London” context) but the film ultimately has not much else in mind than to show some well-off people dancing in apartments and racing around in cars.

Whether that’s the writer/director’s fault who couldn’t craft a significant story, or the result of producers pushing for less story and more smut is up for debate, I guess. One thing is for sure, however: it doesn't make for a stimulating viewing experience.

Kinski Watch XVIII - Das Verrätertor (1964, Freddie Francis)

It is interesting to survey the critical response to Das Verrätertor, the first installment of the Edgar Wallace series directed by a british director and shot entirely on location in London. Some laud the film as a zany and fast-paced thriller, while other characterize it as boring and by-the-numbers Edgar Wallace fare. Both sides are right to some extent. While something like actual suspense is never achieved in Das Verrätertor, it is a rather well-structured film (which can't be said about a lot of Wallace adaptations) and has some impressive sequences. It's pure camp, of course, and most characters are cartoonish beyond belief but that's to be expected from the Edgar Wallace movies.

Das Verrätertor is not a typical murder mystery and that might be one reason why it didn't really caught on with audiences at the box office. The film follows a bunch of criminals, lead by the greedy businessman Trayne, who prepare and execute a nifty plan to steal the crown jewels from the impenetrable London Tower. The plot, while rather pedestrian by today's caper movie standards, breezes by rather nicely, and Francis, a horror and suspense veteran, knows his way around a camera. Kinski assumes his usual role as a deranged killer and brings an impressive physicality to his otherwise unremarkable role.

There is one memorable scene in which Kinski's shooting someone is intercut with a surprisingly explicit striptease. The editing is crisp and Kinski's deadpan performance brings just the right amount of menace and mystery to the table. In another scene, the crooks rehearse the robbery in a room that has been built out just like the London Tower - in true Ocean's 11 form. The script emphasizes process more than anything else, which gets us a lot of scenes of the bandits observing and studying their target but unfortunately not a lot of suspense.

In another instance of world cinema name calling bloopers, Trayne calls Kinski's character "Kinski!" instead of "Kane", which is odd because the film was shot in English and later dubbed in German. Did he call him Kinski in the original or was the mistake made in the voice-over studios? In any event, it's one of those weird moments when one is instantaneously taken out of the movie and the grand illusion that is created when suspension of disbelief and film craft meet is broken.

Kinski Watch XVII - Last Of The Renegades (1964, Harald Reinl)

After Der Schatz im Silbersee and Winnetou, 1. Teil, producer Horst Wendlandt, who also played a major part in concocting the Edgar Wallace series, went immediately to work on the Winnetou sequel. Last Of The Renegades (Winnetou, 2. Teil in German), based on the popular Karl May novel, was a huge box office success as well and marks the high point of the Winnetou craze in postwar Germany.

I didn't enjoy a single second of it.

I don't know if it's the mild racism, the labored dialogue, the by-the-numbers love story, Eddi Arendt's tired slapstick routine, or that horrible bear dress in the film's first scene, but it was a real struggle to get through Renegade. When the film was released, the Allgemeine Zeitung Mainz wrote that Klaus Kinski is the only artful performer in the film, and that is certainly true. Pierre Brice as Winnetou and Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand might have attained cult status in Germany due to their dignified performances in the Winnetou films, but Kinski is the only one who brings life and excitement to his acting. All the other members of the ensemble resort to cliches or are just bland.

The script takes some episodes of Karl May's Winnetou novels but is essentially designed to allow for as much location shooting and action set pieces as possible. In one memorable sequence, an oil field is set on fire during the night which allows for some neat visuals. And of course the Yugoslavian scenery is breathtaking. The producers knew that people would flock to theaters to see the newest Winnetou and banked on the fact that the audience would already know the characters and their world. Thusly, showmanship was the only thing they concerned themselves with and dispensed with character work and interesting plot development entirely. That's why the film opens on a bear attacking a helpless young woman, and a drinking game could be played every time senseless gun fire erupts.

The story is not really worth mentioning, suffice it to say that it centers on Winnetou's love to a girl from another tribe who has to be married off to a white officer and that the delicate peace brokered between the Indian tribes and the white settlers is threatened by a bunch of wild criminals. Guess what side Kinski's character belonged to?

As much as I enjoyed the scenes involving Kinski (it is a oddly intense performance from the young actor who, at that time, was mainly known from his work in theater and his appearances in the Edgar Wallace films) Last Of The Renegades is still not worth plowing through. Der Schatz im Silbersee, employing much of the same tropes, is a vastly superior entertainment if you're a Karl May aficionado or simply looking for some fun, light adventure fare.

Kinski Watch XVI: Die Gruft mit dem Rätselschloss (Franz Josef Gottlieb, 1964)


My quest to see every Klaus Kinski movie continues. Unfortunately, a lot of the movies he appeared in during the sixties are not available through the channels I usually get my movies from. Die Gruft mit dem Rätselschloss (in the off chance that there are German spelling fanatics among my readers I might note that the word “Rätselschloss”, which translates to mystery castle, is spelled with a double s in the credits and on the movie posters, which, at the time, would have been a spelling error. The right spelling would have been “Rätselschloß”. Notice the difference? Nowadays, the “ß” used instead of a double s has mostly disappeared), another entry in the seemingly endless Edgar Wallace series, is a rather labored affair that's not worth losing a lot of thought about. Audiences apparently had the same reaction at the time of the release. Die Gruft mit dem Rätselschloss is one of the few flops of the Edgar Wallace series.

The story could have been interesting but is treated with pure inaptitude. Real, the owner of a casino, betrayed and deceived his customers with fishy practices in his establishment, basically extorting money from them and living large. Did the 99%ers kill him in a fit of rage? No, he simply dies of old age but regrets his deeds just in time and sends his daughter to distribute his considerable wealth hidden in an booby-trapped vault among the ones he wronged. But before she can do so she is kidnapped by a gang of ruffians who also feel betrayed by Real and want to force her to give up the riches to them. As you might imagine, wackiness and deaths ensue.

But the film has no atmosphere, no suspense, no real humor. Die Gruft mit dem Rätselschloss gets off to a good start though. It begins with a riveting shootout between cops and gangsters. Just when the obligatory helpless girl-caught-in-the-crossfire is saved, “The End” is superimposed over the screen. The camera pulls back and we realize that we are in a movie theater where, as it turns out, one of the patrons has been murdered. In the opening twenty or so minutes, we also get a lot of cool (for a lack of better term) shots, using steep camera angles and medium shots. But it’s almost as if the film was shot chronologically and Gottlieb lost interest as filming went on. By the end, the direction is plain dull. And Kinski? He is mostly reduced to staring at the action from afar.

Not recommended viewing at all.

Hiroshi Inagaki - Samurai Banners (1969)

By all accounts, Samurai Banners, a sweeping three-hour history lesson/war film/samurai epic, was director Hiroshi Inagaki's passion project. It is said that only this one and Samurai Trilogy were regarded upon favorably by the director at the end of his career. Much as with Kurosawa and Red Beard, it took Inagaki years to set up the project. At the time of shooting, it was the biggest Japanese production ever mounted. And, like Kurosawa's film, it is both a challenging viewing experience and an instance in which the director distilled his style to its purest form, thus offering what I would be inclined to call the definitive entry in his filmography.

If I ventured to arbitrarily categorize Inagaki’s movies, I would group Samurai Trilogy and The Rickshaw Man into the character study category and leave Incident At Blood Pass in the plot-oriented/caricature category. Samurai Banners falls somewhere in between. The characters are all pretty simple archetypes and the focus is clearly on dominant and conquering masculinity; the plot machinations are laid out in great, sometimes tedious details; the movie, however, still finds a few moments in which characters can be characters without having to advance the unrelenting plot-steamroller. Especially the scenes between the main character Yamamoto Kansuke (Toshiro Mifune) and Princess Yu, a woman he secretly loves but is a concubine of Kansuke’s employer Takeda, serve to make Mifune’s character, a ruthless, calculating and brutal individual, a little more likable and tragic.

But most of the time, Kansuke, a real historical figure, is a monstrous and cold-blooded bastard. Not that it’s a bad thing for a film character. It would be too much to recap the details of the plot, so let it suffice to say that Samurai Banners chronicles the expansion efforts of Takeda Shingen, ruler of Kai Province, who, during the 16th century, sought to control neighboring provinces and eventually possess coastal land. The climatic battle of the movie is fought with Uesugi Kenshin of Echigo Province who would give Takeda access to the Western coast of Japan (for those of you more knowledgeable than I am in the intricacies of this war, feel free to correct me if I got anything of this wrong).

But while Inagaki stages the battle sequences with all the confidence of a master director, shows us meetings in which Kansuke and Takeda discuss strategy, and even gives us title cards detailing the year of the respective battles, the exact location of the battle and the names of the parties involved (at one point we can marvel at Takeda's imperial venture on a map that highlights the shifting power dynamics in medieval Japan), the movie's true aim is to spotlight the relationship between Kansuke and Takeda. If the sheer mass of historical details wouldn't distract from it, Inagaki would have delivered a convincing intimate play of two people invested in an informal tug and pull over who has real power and calls the shots.

For Kansuke murders his way into the court of Takeda Shingen by staging a robbery of a vassal from Takeda clan with another ronin, then killing off his partner to shine in front of the emperor. Thankful for his heroic services, Takeda offers him a job and Kansuke quickly becomes the emperor's chief advisor. His bold stratagems are not always met with approval but they all work in the clan's favor and we get a sense that Mifune's character might be manipulating Takeda and having a private agenda that doesn't necessarily benefit the clan. When he is asked what his motivations are, Kansuke replies that he simply wants to acquire "more and more land!" and that he dreams of a unified Japan under one single ruler. Earlier, while musing about the neighboring provinces, he soon has a vision of the ocean, thus convincing himself and then the emperor that Takeda clan needs to get land access to the coast - something that can only be achieved by wars of aggression.

But the ronin-turned-army-general is also constantly reminded that he is a far cry from being part of the ruling class. He has to accept that Princess Yu offers herself to the emperor. When she bears Takeda a son, Kansuke tries to place him as the emperor's heir but his aides torpedo the plan. And he messes up the strategy for the final climatic battle with Uesugi Kenshin. Kansuke is a man who dreams big, knows how to enroll people to work in his favor, but he also battles his origins and his emotions at all times. He is restless and always plots the next coup because pausing would mean reflecting, and reflecting would mean accepting his true nature. When Princess Yu confesses to him that she plans to murder Takeda, he finds himself in loose-loose situation and struggles to find a solution.

In the second half of the film, Takeda and Kansuke are both inducted as Buddhist monks, seemingly to acquire more ferocity in warfare. It is interesting that Kansuke's self-effacement in the light of his imperial ambitions goes so far as to offer himself to a sect that is supposed to bring out his worst impulses, and even manages to drag Takeda into it. Surprisingly, Inagaki's depiction of militant buddhism goes against the philosophy of his previous movies. If, as Isolde Standish argues in her New History of Japanese Cinema, "Buddhism tempers the violence of judo/bushido through compassion and self-abnegation through 'transience'" (2006: 281) in Samurai Trilogy and arguably in Incident At Blood Pass, Samurai Banners depicts the opposite. Kansuke is not out to attain a higher mental state, to be a more valiant warrior or to engage in any "transience" whatsoever. He is simply trying to fulfill geopolitical goals and, from what I was able to deduce, not for the sake of any form of enlightenment, but for wholly selfish reasons.

It is unfortunate, then, that we don't get to spend more time with the characters and delve deeper into their psychologies. Visually, Inagaki showcases once again a solid if mostly unagitated style. The battle sequences harbor many highlights, although the editing seems confusing at times. Frequently, Inagaki will use long POV shots with soldiers coming at the camera, as if they wanted to fight the audience. The camera shakes and tumbles, creating a disorienting and distressing effect that intensifies the dread of the battle scenes. One bravura shot, and I'm sure his most famous among connoisseurs, is a glorious image of an army of 22,000 advancing through the mountains. We get a wide areal shot that shows us the trail of soldiers marching through woods and the camera slowly, very slowly pulls back, gaining in height, revealing more and more soldiers until they are reduced to mere points on the landscape. It's the opening shot in Werner Herzog's Aguirre, only in reverse.