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Here's a treat for those looking for a thriller done with style, smarts and intelligence, with cast of unfamiliar yet excellent actors. English disc companies have been importing Nordic Noir' films and TV series for several years now, mostly long-form murder mysteries and crime stories. This import is from Denmark at the turn of the Millennium, a classy period piece with a really attractive setting not often tapped in film entertainment available to Americans.
The Spider (Edderkoppen) is a lurid crime conspiracy drama that takes place in 1949 and 1950 in Copenhagen, Denmark. We're told that an organized mob called The Spider did exist, and that something like these events really happened, but it's all new to us. What did the Copenhagen police force look like, or the interior of a Danish newspaper office? The freshness of everything we see is liberating -- I can't identify any of the European cars on view. The Danish language is fascinating, even as we see an American influence slipping in, through a character returned from ten years in New York City.
The screenplay hews a smooth path between naturalism and slightly hardboiled talk. A dozen great characterizations connect continental pulp roots with our own noir ethos, but without any obvious homages, in-references, or copycat tropes. A Danish crime epic in the vintage mold of our own Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, Edderkoppen is a highly enjoyable thriller experience.
Just 22 years old, cub reporter Bjarne Madsen (Jakob Cedergren) ignores his regular assignments to take a tip from the older Weasel (Claus Ryskjaer) to investigate a hairy smuggling operation run by the brutish Arthur Naeslund (Lars Bom). Bjarne uncovers connections between a pair of corrupt cops and the legendary crime lord of the Copenhagen mob called The Spider, ostensible car dealer Svend Aage Hjalmar (Bjarne Henriksen), and begins to tie in some recent murders with a group of former resistance guerillas, including the Minister of Justice, Ingvar Gordan (Peter Steen). Bjarne resists being pulled back by his newspaper, The Social Democrat, even though the paper's real crime reporter H. C. Vissing (Bent Mejding of Italian for Beginners) demands that he stop playing with things he knows nothing about. Bjarne is surprised to be encouraged by clothing manufacturer and philanthropist Georg Vanbjerg (Flemming Enevold) but immediately earns the ire of both the crooks and the cops.
Bjarne's personal life is
chaos as well. His father was a noted union activist murdered by the Nazis, and his mother Vera (Birthe Neumann) shows the psychic scars of the experience. His black sheep of an older brother Ole (Lars Mikkelsen) became a Nazi and left Denmark almost immediately. Ole now turns up suddenly, having learned Jazz in New York. He's excited about opening a Harlem-style night club in Copenhagen. The newspaper's assignment editor Eva Lund (Louise Meritz of The Boss of it All) carries a torch for Bjarne, but the wealthy, glamorous actress Lisbeth Gordan (Stine Stengade) captures his heart. Elsbeth seemingly goes both for Bjarne and his hip-talking brother Ole. The problem: her father is the corrupt Minister of Justice Invar Gordan. When pressed, Gordan galvanizes his police force by speaking about their loyal service during the occupation, when some of them were shipped to Nazi concentration camps.
Bjarne's mentor Vissing joins with the younger man when evidence of a larger conspiracy emerges, mainly because the fearless Bjarne uses underhanded means to obtain it. Bjarne isn't afraid to face down the bad guys and the imperious officials that are clearly covering their own tracks. Ole foolishly accepts a car and a club lease from the diabolical Hjalmar, and is pulled into the workings of The Spider. Lisbeth falls for the idealistic Bjarne on New Year's Eve, 1950, But she balks when her new boyfriend seems intent on attacking her increasingly nervous father. Bjarne keeps getting new breaks on his story, which leads to new killings and new revelations about the fate of a vast fortune in Denmark's gold, miraculously hidden from the SS in WW2. Who is the mastermind pulling the strings in this murderous charade -- and perhaps guiding even Bjarne Madsen's steps?
Edderkoppen pretty much has everything we want in a thriller -- a tense drama, action, suspense, glamour, music and a little sex. The context is continually fascinating. We have to figure out for ourselves which policemen are crooks and which are honest, while the terrific mob of Danish smugglers seems the missing link between modern criminality and the colorful "3 Penny Opera" crooks of stories like The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Hjalmar's gang of thugs and perverts are halfway to being bad guys in a Dick Tracy comic strip, with distinguishing appearances, costumes and attitudes. The brutish Arthur, a former pimp and pusher, reminds us of the square-jawed Gustav Diessl of silent Lang pictures; his past and that of the upstanding Vissing intersect in a family tragedy. Bjarne Henricksen's red-haired crime kingpin Hjalmar is a great characterization, that combines the vulgarity of Gert Frobe with the instincts of Al Capone. Bjarne's verbal duels with Hjalmar are a highlight.
I count the unfamiliarity of the actors as a big plus -- the show comes off as something we recognize, yet takes place in an alternate universe of new faces. They remind us of American actors, or aspects of American actors. Leading man Jakob Cedergren is the miniseries' big discovery - he's a more handsome Albert Salmi, just good looking enough to attract the glamorous Stine Stengade. She has the sharp looks of a femme fatale barracuda, yet is a relative innocent. Across the eyes Stengade reminds me somewhat of Madeline Kahn, in a very good way. Stengade and star Mads Mikkelsen (TV's Hannibal, Casino Royale, 2006) co-starred in the very good Flame and Citron from 2008, also by director Ole Christian Madsen.
Mikkelsen's character in Edderkoppen is a loser trying to live down a teenage involvement with the Nazis, which may have led to his father's death. Now obsessed with his music, Ole has imported a combo of black musicians for his Harlem Club, through which he hopes to introduce modern Jazz to Copenhagen. Unfortunately, Hjalmar gets his hooks into him first. Ole finds himself forced to bury bodies, and is set up to be the fall guy in various frames.
Edderkoppen has a strong sentimental streak. Ole and Bjarne eventually develop a brotherly relationship, and Lisbeth finds it necessary to be 'disloyal' to her father. Bjarne is a substitute son for the elder Vissing, whose own adopted son has become a male prostitute. Conspirators, crooks and corrupt cops were among the noble resistance fighters, lending a sense of tragedy to some of their fates, as when a detective threatens to kill himself, or the wife of a suspected 'Mabuse' figure turns out to be incredibly loyal.
The downside to Edderkoppen is slight -- perhaps one too many frame-jobs, with the villains showing impossible timing. There are no overdone action scenes, but we're more than entertained by the profusion of clues and meaningful revelations -- a car's broken headlight, a receipt for a fur coat that could bring down a government. The overall mystery is like Chinatown in that the actions of the crooks directly impact historical events in Denmark's postwar economic recovery -- how did the country manage to retain its gold reserves through the Nazi occupation?
Viewers will find Edderkoppen absorbing and exciting. Director Ole Christian Madsen gives us great scenes, one after another, done with style and pace -- romantic dances, tense standoffs on the street, a crooks' orgy on New Years' Eve. One scene shows Hjalmar taking possession of fifty cars smuggled in from the American sector of Berlin, the entire operation done with the complicity of the cops. Seen in this novel context, with such interesting and unfamiliar talents, old stories become new again.
Arrow Video's "Nordid Noir" Region 2 PAL DVD of The Spider (Edderkoppen) is a dazzling presentation, from its classy opening montage to its slick soundtrack. 'Forties hits both European and American are sung by Marguerite Viby, Katrine Madsen, Ellen Gottschalch and Karen Jonsson; Al Agami sings a Jazz song in Ole's club.
The images vary according to the scenes, with some treated in monochrome tones and others knocking us out with color, like those showing off the dazzling Stine Stengade. The overall look is unstressed noir, that plays out on interesting Danish streets. This isn't a travelogue, as we take no detours to see Tivoli or The Little Mermaid. But Copenhagen suddenly becomes an attractively visual place, back when most of Europe was struggling in poverty and rationing.
The six episodes are divided between two discs; I only saw one brief shot in the entire six hours that looked like it had an encoding error. With its lush sets and lavish production values, Edderkoppen is a visual delight.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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