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When European genre filmmaking is mentioned, Italy's Sword 'n Sandal epics, Spaghetti Westerns and various styles of Eurohorror tend to lead the discussion. But Germany actually started the trend of Euro-westerns before the Italians, and they initiated a series of fanciful crime thrillers that preceded Italy's later obsession with slasher 'Giallo' pictures.
The German 'Krimi' films are plot-driven who-dunnit potboilers derived partially from the successful revival of the Dr. Mabuse thrillers and often inspired by stories from mystery author Edgar Wallace. Variety reviews tended to dismiss these films as unsophisticated 'local' fare unsuited for American audiences. Although the original soundtracks had style and polish, cheap dubbing jobs made them seem comical to English-speaking audiences.
Retromedia's double feature presents English-language versions of two Krimi thrillers set in London but filmed mostly in Berlin.
The first title up is presented in its uncut export form, with brief moments of nudity intact. The most familiar player is the beautiful Marianne Koch, who had a featured role in the same year's Fistful of Dollars opposite Clint Eastwood. Das ungeheuer von London City is a fanciful updating of the Jack the Ripper story that uses the character of Richard Mansfield, an actor who was performing in London when the original 1888 Ripper attacks took place.
The Monster of London City is perhaps an atypical Krimi in that it sticks to a conventional mad killer plot and avoids the genre's more flamboyant touches. Nervous Hansjörg Felmy fears that he may be killing loose women in between performances of Jack the Ripper, and Robert A. Stemmle's straightforward script brings several likely suspects to our attention. The fiend could be Felmy's publicity-seeking producer, who also wrote the play. And it could be a hypocritical Member of Parliament who thinks the play should be stopped immediately but sneaks out alone at night for an unspoken purpose.
Actually, anybody familiar with television mysteries should have no trouble spotting the real villain within a few minutes. The Monster of London City is an interesting opportunity to see German taste applied to a faux-gothic slasher story. The 'good' female lead is quiet and supportive, as opposed to the provocative actresses that fall victim to the Ripper's blade. Tense pursuits take place in dark allies and in claustrophobic chambers beneath the theater. And for a comedy subplot, silly detective Teddy Flynn (Peer Schmidt) blunders onstage in the middle of a performance to encounter a naked actress.
The killings are mostly straightforward attacks by a cloaked menace wielding a nasty straight razor. The detective's comedic wife almost becomes a victim when she wins a role in the play, only to be menaced when someone replaces actor Felmy's prop knife with the real thing. And one especially effective suspense scene has Ms. Koch follow her mysterious uncle into the night, to find the secret he wants to keep hidden.
Retromedia's presentation of The Monster of London City is a full-width 2:35 enhanced transfer of a good film source. Contrast and sharpness aren't ideal but it's an attractive likeness of what must have been a handsome original show. The quality of the English dubbing is surprisingly good, and Martin Böttcher's jazzy score has a definite German flavor.
Side two of the flipper disc has this more typical Krimi thriller, a wildly improbable and often-laughable crime fantasy again set in London but with Englanders and Yankees played by a wild selection of international actors. Thanks to the fast-paced action and unusual cast, it's an amusingly goofy blend of genre ideas.
The Secret of the Red Orchid was surely meant to be at least a little funny, as the Germans made much darker crime stories about drugs and prostitution. This escapist thriller seems partly inspired by the popular Untouchables TV show, although gangster fans might not recognize the connection -- one American émigré mobster is a polite fellow who tips his hat, and the other works behind a cigarette counter!
This time around the plot is almost beneath serious consideration. The extortion racketeers are allowed to carry machine guns into the homes of threatened millionaires, and leave many witnesses to their crimes. Scotland Yard takes a blasé attitude to a literal invasion of London by Murder Incorporated. Kerkie (which in the film sounds more like "Turkey") Minelli practically admits to the cops that he's behind the murders, but nobody touches him. The FBI agent's big contribution to the case is to tag along with Inspector Hoven and swap tense dialogue lines. They watch as victims are shot or tricked into bizarre accidents. One frightened lady drives off the road to avoid a strategically-placed mirror, a gag later lifted for the 007 film Goldfinger. One extortion victim is a big-game hunter who invites his gun-club friends to defend his country estate. They line up on the roof to fire at a low-flying aircraft they think is carrying a bomb!
The Secret of the Red Orchid introduces many red-herring clues, like the Red Orchids of the title, to throw us off the track. It also has so many villains that they end up stumbling over each other: A bomb set by one malefactor misses its target, but reveals another underhanded crook's secret passageway!
All of this is made more palatable by an interesting international cast. Christopher Lee tries his best to be 'American' as the FBI expert; his big moment comes when a would-be assassin can't beat the future Scaramanga's two-gun quick draw. Klaus Kinski's Chicago hood masterminds a new London-based criminal empire while tending a tobacco counter. Exotic actress Marisa Mell (Danger: Diabolik) is the virtuous heir to a fortune, and always delighted to receive the attentions of her admirers. Capable Adrian Hoven makes for a handsome hero; he'd eventually turn producer and director for a series of violent horror films. Pinkas Braun (Dog Eat Dog) is the mysterious dispossessed heir and Eric Pohlmann (the voice of 007's Blofeld) is an unlikely henpecked Chicago mobster. A bigger mystery is the appeal of Eddi Arent, a popular German comedian who plays a cowardly butler -- all of his clients become murder targets. Arent's popularity is confirmed by the fact that he's still working forty years later - in Edgar Wallace television thrillers.
Retromedia's source for The Secret of the Red Orchid is a flat print that appears to be intact, but is neither as sharp nor as pleasing as Monster of London City. Masking the image off to 1:77 results in chopped heads, which means that the original format was probably a little wider. Audio is just okay, mainly because of the English-language dub job -- the voices barely match the actors' lips and the American gangsters all sound like bad cartoon characters. Christopher Lee is dubbed by someone else, losing the substantial benefit of his voice.
No video extras are included, but there is an insert reproduction of the original German program book for Das rätsel der roten orchidee.
Retromedia's Krimi double bill gives us a good peek at a colorful film genre, although we'll also keep a lookout for original version releases in subtitled German.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
An Informative note from Guido in Germany, 4.08.06: Hello Glenn --I'm always surprised when you're reviewing German movies released in Region 1, your take on these movies is really fascinating. Das Monster von London City isn't available in Germany, but Secret of the Red Orchid was released in 2004 as part of the Edgar Wallace collections by Universum.
I haven't seen the German disc myself, but all of the Wallace DVDs have outstanding transfers, and Orchid is available in anamorphic 1.66:1 with both German and English soundtracks. The original soundtrack is really German, I think even Christopher Lee did his dialogue in the German version himself.
Eddi Arent is actually a very popular German comedian who started his carrer together with Chris Howland and other sidekicks like Ralf Wolter in Edgar Wallace and Karl May movies. Arent isn't famous for the Wallace TV Thrillers - these were only a handful cheap tv productions from RTL which are no match for the 60s productions. -- bye, Guido