We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale
Edited by Neil Snowdon PS Publishing 491pp.
Publishing date: June 2017
The Gremlins director talks about the ground-breaking British screenwriter best known for the Quatermass serials and films. This is an edited version of Neil Snowdon’s interview with Joe Dante on Nigel Kneale, which is published in the newly released book We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale.
Joe Dante is one of the great heroes of American cinema. His highly subversive, wildly entertaining movies are unique in the landscape of Hollywood cinema. Cine-literate, politically aware and scathingly satirical, his extraordinary filmography from The Howling and Gremlins to The Burbs and The Hole will make you laugh, feel and think. Dante is also one of Hollywood’s great advocates for cinema history. His encyclopaedic knowledge is on display in all his movies, and at his website, trailersfromhell.com.
Based on a real-life yakuza, Nikkatsu’s gritty 1960s crime series is about a man on the wrong side of both the law and rival gangs.
Produced in rapid succession over the course of about a year and a half, Nikkatsu’s six-part Outlaw series exists within an interesting hinterland between two distinct phases of the Japanese yakuza genre. The first and perhaps most famous entry in the run, Toshio Masuda’s Gangster VIP (1968), was released by Nikkatsu in the wake of Seijun Suzuki’s spectacularly unceremonious dismissal from the studio following their dissatisfaction with Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), a move that caused great waves of discontent within the industry at the time. And the series wrapped up more than two years before the genre’s next major shot in the arm, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles without Honour and Humanity (1972) for Toei, which spawned a series totalling five films (also released recently by Arrow Video), a second series dubbed New Battles without Honour and Humanity and numerous in-name-only spinoffs. The popularity of Fukasaku’s films can be attributed to their kinetic execution, grisly violence and the tabloid-esque sensationalism generated through them being based on a series of newspaper articles that were in turn based on the memoirs of notorious yakuza Kôzô Minô.
Despite the ‘all events and characters in this film are fictional’ disclaimer that appears at the start of Gangster VIP, and intermittently throughout the rest of the series, the Outlaw films are based on stories by Gôro Fujita, a former yakuza all too familiar with a lifestyle that’s governed by clan loyalty and debts paid with blood. The Outlaw series, then, can be seen as a missing link between the ‘Borderless Action’ and ninkyo eiga (chivalry films) that characterised the genre during the preceding decade or so, and the jitsuroko (true account, or actual record) films that came to dominate throughout the 1970s such as Battles without Honour and Humanity. Incidentally, Fujita’s writings would also go on to be adapted by Fukasaku with Graveyard of Honour (1975), another hit for Toei.
Starting in the mid-1950s, the Outlaw series stars Tetsuya Watari as Gôro Fujikawa, an on-again off-again yakuza henchman who often finds himself on the wrong side of both the law and rival clans (and sometimes even his own). But despite his best efforts to resist the pull of yakuza life, he frequently has to get his hands dirty to correct personal injustice. The first – and strongest – film of the series, Gangster VIP, sees Gôro freshly released from prison after a three-year stretch for stabbing a hitman in a bar (his former mentor Sugiyama, who now works for an opposing gang). A free man once more, he is disenfranchised with the kill or be killed mentality of his former peers and intends to shun his old ways. However, he finds his old clan in serious decline, pitted against the stronger Aokis group. He also has to frequently dissuade the curious advances of Yukiko (series co-star Chieko Matsubara), a young woman he happened to save while she was being harassed by a street gang. Yukiko becomes overly intrigued by both Goro’s criminal life and his attempts to abandon it, dutifully tidying his messy lodgings, supplied to him by his old clan. Goro manages to patch things up with Sugiyama (Kyôsuke Machida), who survived Goro’s blade but is now ailing from tuberculosis. But when gangland power plays culminate into personal tragedy, Goro feels compelled to exact gruesome revenge.
Perhaps best known in the West for the similarly-themed noirRusty Knife (1958) and the Japanese sequences of 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (along with Fukasaku), Toshio Masuda perhaps wasn’t the most audacious director working for Nikkatsu. However, he imbues the series opener with enough stylistic curveballs to elevate it above much of the competition. It’s also a film with a deceptive amount of emotional pull. Its climatic scene of vengeance, hauntingly set to the crooning tones of a nightclub singer, adds a satisfying twist to what could’ve easily turned into a disappointingly standard good-guy-gets-revenge-by-killing-all-the-bad-guys sequence. And a scene where one of Goro’s assigned underlings attempts to flee the city with a newly-requited love, only to be met with merciless refusal by his profession, is a more heart-breaking moment than the genre is usually willing to permit. Watari’s character often philosophises over the wasteful and futile nature of the yakuza game, with a regular motif throughout the series being Goro trying to protect those who naively get caught up in the carnage and to get them out before it’s too late. However, his efforts are usually met with failure. He is also haunted by memories of a tough upbringing, as illustrated by the film’s monochrome opening credits sequence featuring young versions of Sugiyama and himself escaping from a detention centre for delinquents. Indeed, Watari, and by extension the film, may not be ‘cool’ in the same way as number three assassin Jô Shishido in Suzuki’s jangly Branded to Kill, or the shotgun-toting Shishido in Yasuharu Hasebe’s Massacre Gun (1967), but that’s arguably not the point of his character (a latent self-insert for Fujita, exorcising the regrets of his real-life criminal past). Having said that, Gôro does rise to the occasion in fine style when the going gets tough, often finding himself a key player in many of the series’ chaotic raids, messy knife fights and protracted back alley brawls. And his effectiveness quickly earns him the title ‘Gôro the Assassin’. These sequences are surprisingly grisly for the period and bring a sense of scrappy realism to the whole series.
The second film, Gangster VIP 2 (1968), directly continues the story, starting with Gôro and Yukiko, along with Sugiyama’s seriously unwell wife (Kayo Matsuo), trying to make a new life for themselves in the countryside. But as Yumeko’s condition worsens, Gôro has no choice but to accept a job that will take him back into the fray. Using his wits and his trusty blade, he has to survive a new series of deceptions and double crosses as turf is fought over. Keiichi Ozawa replaces Masuda in the director’s chair for Gangster VIP 2 and manages to replicate the formula of its predecessor admirably. Gôro remains an enigmatic yet sympathetic protagonist and continues to be eminently watchable, and Matsubara’s Yukiko possess a quality that subtly sets her apart from other female hangers-on. However, this film doesn’t quite gel as well, even though most of the elements from the first film are present. What is missing is Masuda’s subtle yet effective stylistic flair. Ozawa’s attempts at visual creativity, such as intercutting the film’s final knife fight with stylised cutaways of nearby students playing volleyball, are interesting additions but feel muddled, and don’t land as well as Masuda’s forays into similar territory. Gangster VIP 2 is an enjoyable sequel to be sure; it just doesn’t quite match the quality of its predecessor. As a bonus, eagle-eyed fans will notice a young Meiko Kaji (of Lady Snowblood and Female Prisoner Scorpion fame) in an early yet somewhat pivotal supporting role.
Ozawa is replaced by Mio Ezaki to helm the series’ third film, Outlaw: Heartless (1968). Written by Ezaki and Gan Yamazaki, the film doesn’t directly follow on from Gangster VIP 2 in the same way that that film had followed on from the first. Instead, Heartless seems to almost function as a soft reboot, as indicated by the change in series nomenclature and, most intriguingly, by the complete recasting of Matsubara. Indeed, the recasting of actors into different roles from one film to the next in a given series was a typical strategy for Nikkatsu at the time, and as such it becomes an increasingly more common sight as this series progresses (actors Eiji Go and Kunie Tanaka show up a couple of times in different guises for instance), but Matsubara’s changes are the most readily apparent and have the most noticeable impact (or lack thereof) on the dynamic of each film.
Heartless starts with Gôro, now working as a yakuza enforcer, trying to save a man who has been unfairly duped into owing money to the Mikimoto clan. The man, Sawada, is however slain by one of Gôro’s entourage, concerned that ‘the Assassin’ has gone weak. Gôro forcibly steals the 3 million yen that the clan had cheated from Sawada to give it to Sawada’s widow. Gôro is pursued by the gang, as well as Sawada’s irate brother (a character who goes by the name ‘Ken the Razor’), who mistakenly believes Gôro to be the murderer. Matsubara plays Keiko, the naïve daughter of a former yakuza-turned-bar owner, who Gôro crosses paths with. Like Yukiko before her, Keiko is drawn to Goro’s tough yet sympathetic demeanour, despite the disapproval of her father and from Gôro himself.
One can’t help but feel that a rinse and repeat policy is in force with Heartless, as the film is littered with recycled moments: a knife fight that takes place behind the scenes of a nightclub as a song is performed echoes the superior climax of Gangster VIP, for example. But despite their familiarity, the film’s violent clashes (arguably bloodier than its predecessors) remain bracing, sometimes thrilling. Watari remains eminently watchable, even though creative changes behind the scenes have diminished some of the shading that made his character especially interesting in the first two films (for instance, the opening framing device that sheds light on Gôro’s traumatic upbringing is absent here and will be for the rest of the series). Matsubara also excels playing a new character in a now somewhat familiar universe, and her chemistry with Watari remains as strong as before even though she has a somewhat more incidental role to play this time.
Keiichi Ozawa returns to see out the remainder of the series. Outlaw: Gôro the Assassin (1968) sees Gôro, after another year in the slammer, taking a handyman job at a hotel resort. A woman who works there (Matsubara in yet another role) is embroiled with some gangsters, with one of them slipping her regular payments as a means of trying to redeem himself for the murder of her father several years prior. As the yakuza begin to throw their weight about the hotel, Gôro has little choice but to get involved, as they are all too familiar with his now legendary status as an outlaw in relation to both the police and fellow yakuza. Meanwhile, Gôro is also trying to track down the sister of his former cellmate to pass on an important message, requiring him to search various gang-controlled nudie bars and strip clubs. As a result, Gôro the Assassin moves the series into slightly sleazier territory, anticipating the wider industry’s move toward more exploitative fare in the early 1970s.
Penultimate entry Outlaw: Black Dagger (1968) plays the most with the continuity of the series. The black dagger of the title pertains to Goro’s famed weapon of choice, which is feared and respected by Goro’s enemies in equal measure. However, this marks the first time in the series when any kind of big deal has been made about it. Towards the tail end of the film’s opening night time knife fight between Goro and some bad guys in an abandoned snowy street, a woman from Goro’s past makes an unexpected appearance. Yuri (Matsubara) has ignored Gôro’s advice to stay away and has returned, just long enough to be accidentally stabbed by one of Goro’s opponents (Sueo, the ‘young master’ and son of the leader of the Buso clan). She dies in Gôro’s arms while Sueo makes his escape. A couple of years pass (moving the series into the early 60s) and Gôro manages to find work at a quarry. However the owner, Miura, is in debt to the Buso clan. After an accident on the site, Goro is put in the care of a nurse (played again by Matsubara). Her identical resemblance to Yuri sends Gôro on a little bit of a loop, and Sueo develops something of an obsession with her as well. As the Buso clan square off against Miura, as well as some old friends who are loyal to a rival group, Gôro unsheathes the black dagger once more.
The series’ final film Outlaw: Kill! (1969) starts with a clan boss going to jail after an assassination attempt results in a tempura restaurant being wrecked during the ensuing carnage. With a power vacuum now in full force, the fraught status quo between various underbosses and rival clans begins to unravel. Goro, back in town, resists falling back into the yakuza life once more and seeks legitimate employment. Out shopping (for pants of all things), he soon crosses paths with a group harassing Yumiko (Matsubara), a department store elevator girl. Later, he looks up an old friend he first met in prison, a veteran yakuza called Moriyama, who offers him a place to stay. Little does Gôro know, however, that Yumiko is the sister of Moriyama’s wife, Minako, and that she is also staying with them. Inevitably, Goro winds up becoming the target of various movers and shakers in the underworld, despite Moriyama’s best efforts to keep him out of their affairs. As one may expect, this doesn’t end well, prompting one final killing spree – perhaps the most gruesome and spectacular of the lot.
With Ozawa’s return, the second half of the series starts to rest on its laurels somewhat. As such, Gôro the Assassin, Black Dagger and Kill! do run the risk of blurring together for the viewer. Black Dagger may be the highlight of the latter half of the series, featuring several moments of compelling drama in what is an otherwise efficient potboiler. But part of the problem with the series in general lies in the excessive repetition of plot points; every film pretty much ends the same way, and there is only so many times a formula can be applied before an immunity is built up. Kill! may be the biggest offender in this regard, as it tries to recreate several moments from the past, especially from the first film. The swift and surreptitious assassination of a key supporting character while out in public with his wife is extremely redolent of Gangster VIP’s most emotionally charged moment. And its climatic fight in the VIP and backstage areas of a nightclub uses the same audio visual technique that worked so well in that same film – having the fight unfold without diegetic sound, accompanied only by the music being played by whoever is performing on the stage of the club (except this time it’s a psychedelic rock band instead of a melancholic club singer).
Although Watari still sells the hell out of the role, Gôro’s character is also on autopilot at this point, seeing as his arc hasn’t really developed since Gangster VIP 2. Matsubara also suffers from a similar malady. Although she always remains perfectly likeable, each of her characters basically embarks upon the same arc – a somewhat naïve love for Goro that develops within 10 minutes of knowing him. This dynamic is changed up somewhat in Black Dagger, where Matsubara plays two roles, one of which states in no uncertain terms her disapproval of yakuza. But it is strange to see Goro and other characters get hung up on the fact that one character is (understandably) the spitting image of the other, whereas Matsubara’s other incarnations in other films of the series are treated as new entities with zero baggage. It bizarrely draws attention to her predictable yet paradoxically mercurial presence throughout the Outlaw series, and it’s a tactic that undermines the development of any real emotional investment in the overall continuity of the series, as an actor who is killed in one film may very well turn up as a different character in another. Any relationships that do manage to blossom, such as the budding romance between Watari and Matsubara’s characters in Gangster VIP and Gangster VIP 2, get swept under the rug by time the next film starts. However, maybe there is something deeper to be said about the series seemingly going back to the drawing board, severing emotional bonds and repeating the same mistakes – a thematic extension of the vicious circle that is Goro’s vicious life.
That’s not to say that there isn’t any more fun to be had. Ozawa’s confidence in handling the films’ action set pieces visibly grows as the series goes on, although the introduction of a stylised stabbing sound effect does detract from the realism of these sequences a little bit. This building prowess reaches critical mass in the aforementioned nightclub scene that caps Kill! and the Outlaw series. Despite it being a conceptual carbon copy of Gangster VIP’s conclusion (which had already been sort of replicated by a sequence in Heartless), it still manages to stand out as one of the most visceral and exciting moments of the series. The use of the floor with clear glass sections between the dance floor above and the VIP room below is a particularly inspired location. These horizontal windows, used by horny businessmen to sneak upskirt looks at the young clientele dancing above them, are put to creative use by Ozawa and his camera team when the blades are drawn, making for a more expertly realised juxtaposition than Ozawa’s previous attempt with the volleyball players in Gangster VIP 2. It may get bogged down by repetition, but at least the series goes out on a high.
Overall the Outlaw series, while formulaic, offers up decently entertaining yakuza thrills for the most part. The first film is definitely the highlight, perhaps even a minor classic of the genre, and while the rest of the series is not quite up to that same standard, there are still plenty of things to like in each entry. Watari is excellent throughout and is the glue that holds it all together. The series’ shifts between savage drubbing and crestfallen romanticism (the latter wonderfully underscored by a recurring, and very Enio Morricone-esque, music motif of strummed acoustic guitar and solemn trumpet) offer an interesting, if a little too consistent, variant on the genre as a whole. For fans of Japanese genre cinema from this particular period, the Outlaw series is definitely worth checking out.
The second part of a diary of watching Mario Bava films over a week.
It was January, cold, and everyone was dying. I chopped enough wood for the week and stored it against the wall with the kindling. There were frosts every night at Castle Bleasdale – my current residence, a shuddering pile located on the River Piave where the plains meet the first mountains of the Dolomites – but while my wife and children slept fitfully upstairs, I would get the fire roaring, turn out all the lights and watch a film by Italian horror director Mario Bava. Prior to this week, I’d never seen any of his 30-odd films. This is the second part of my scientific record of the Mario Bava season at Castle Bleasdale.
Read part one of watching Mario Bava films over a week.
Friday, 15th of January, 2016
The funeral took place in the local cathedral and outside the sun was strangely, unseasonably warm. I know I’m not going to stir up controversy on my next assertion but I don’t like going to funerals. This one was not the worst. My student, although not old-old, was not young either. He filled a cathedral with family and friends and because of my damned atheism I stood outside and listened to singing of the choir of Alpine soldiers coming from the church. Afterwards they brought out the coffin and people tried not to be too loud when they met friends they hadn’t seen for months, years in some cases. Funerals have this strange social substratum. I wandered home depressed, stopping at the supermarket to stock up on firelighters and food for the weekend. I was going to stay inside and watch as many Mario Bava films as I could. I wanted nothing to do with the sunshine and blue skies. I would close the shutters and keep going. The film I took to next was Black Sabbath – from whence the name of Ozzy Osborne’s heavy metal band – an anthology that is a little too in awe of its Hollywood legend Boris Karloff and young American star Mark Damon. The first film is about a beautiful woman who is bothered by a telephone call from a stalker – possibly her ex who has escaped from prison. It’s a Tale of the Unexpected and highly effective in a sinister voyeuristic way. The second is a classic tale of vampirism and possession but it is fairly rudimentary. The colours are excellent. Mario Bava colours everything with the vividness of boiled sweets. Reds and greens, blues and vermillion. The last story is the one that is really creepy as a nurse (Jacqueline Pierreux) is called to a house to prepare the body of a dead medium for burial. The rictus grin of the freshly dead is off-putting enough to ward anyone off but our nurse spies a ring that she would like to steal.
Saturday, 16th of January, 2016
It has just occurred to me that I haven’t seen my wife or my children since the end of last week. Could it be they aren’t upstairs after all? I’ve been eating alone. Bowls of boiled potatoes sprinkled with vinegar and black bread with white butter. The same meal again and again. Hatchet for the Honeymoon does away with any vestige of mystery and takes on the murderer’s point of view. Blessed with the kind of Crystal Ken handsomeness that only existed in 1970, Stephen Forsyth plays John Harrington, the owner of a haute couture house that specializes in bridal wear. Unhappily married to Laura Betti, Harrington is also a self-aware psychopath who kills brides-to-be with a cleaver – not, note, a hatchet. Bava takes a slender plot with many familiar genre elements – a suspicious police detective circulates, Mrs Harrington has a séance – and makes it into something stylish and weird. Harrington’s objectification of women, his impotence and his mania are coolly represented. His charisma and his honesty make him a proto-Patrick Bateman. He watches his prey with a set of binoculars and then, sitting with his wife, reverses them so she is far away. This kind of visual originality is something I’ve come to expect from Bava and the murders are all used as moments of striking invention, each one vaguely trippy as the screen dissolves into a liquid state, colours explode and the soundtrack lays it down heavily. Each murder also brings about a further flashback, a little like Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West (1968), to the kind of Freudian backstory that Hitchcock loved. At the end of Black Sabbath, Bava pulled his camera back to reveal that Karloff was in a studio riding a fake horse and surrounded by stage hands moving the scenery about him. Bava likes to show that he’s not taking everything seriously, and here again he uses one of his own films on television as an excuse for the screams the policemen heard. Does watching horror films cause violence? No. But they can be handy in getting away with it. I also watched The Evil Eye, an early film about an American woman visiting Rome and witnessing a murder. It was black and white and John Saxon was in it, the way he pops up in films all over the place. He stars in a Dario Argento movie but I’m too tired to type his name into IMDb tonight. The fire died and the room is full of smoke.
Sunday, 17th of January, 2016
The bells in the village toll for another death. This time the 90-year-old mother of a friend. I can tell that it is her. She’s been at death’s door since Christmas. The bells toll once for a man, twice for a woman, and they toll twice so it must be her. It can’t be anyone else. They bury the dead quick in Italy so the funeral will be tomorrow or Tuesday at the latest. Today is the last day of my Mario Bava season and I still have many films to get through. I begin with Rabid Dogs. Completed in 1974, the incomplete film was seized following a bankruptcy wrangle and didn’t get cut and released until the late 90s. Bava is trying his hand at the Polizia genre, which exploded in the mid-70s in Italy and told brutal, violent stories of cops and robbers. Following a heist gone wrong, three bandits grab a hostage and carjack an unsuspecting father who is taking his son to the hospital. The atmosphere is laden with tension and the claustrophobia of a sizzling car in the middle of a Roman summer gets progressively more uncomfortable. The bandits are a psychopath, a leering, sweating rapist and one icy professional. A fantastic twist elevates the film. The same is true for Bay of Blood, a slasher often cited as a primary inspiration for all the Friday the 13th style movies that were to follow. A complex legal case regarding a piece of property on a bay is the MacGuffin, but essentially Bava produces a daisy chain of stylish, elaborate and occasionally ridiculous kills with a variety of weapons and murderers capped off with one of the funniest and most daring twists of any of his films.
Monday, 18th of January, 2016
I woke up early this morning. I just lay in bed and listened to the sound of the wind that always blows strongly in the valley in the morning following the river down from the mountains. I wonder about the morality of what I’ve done. Mario Bava took time to make those films. A lot of time. Poured a lot of effort into them. But I just watched them in a week. Half a lifetime’s work probably. And I watched it in a week. It seems unfair, disproportionate somehow: the asymmetrical warfare that criticism wages against art. I can’t help but hope that people stop dying now. January has been so fatal. I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t have the strength to lift myself, like the corpse in the ‘Drop of Water’ sequence of Black Sabbath. Maybe I too wear a horrid grin. I wonder if the wind blowing outside is the same Italian wind that blew in Mario Bava’s imagination. It is blowing so strong that it almost takes away the sound of the bells tolling. This time they only toll once.
Before the release of recent international hits like Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt, 1998), Good Bye Lenin! (2003) and Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004), much of the attention post-war German cinema had received had been directed towards art-house favourites such as Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. However, from the mid-1950s to the late 70s, West Germany had a thriving and popular movie industry, producing a seemingly endless wave of pop-culture films, from so-called ‘Sauerkraut Westerns’ to an impressively large number of soft-core sex comedies and pseudo-documentaries, including the notorious Schoolgirl Report (Schulmädchen-Report, 1970-1980) series.
Perhaps the finest of all these German genres and sub-genres was the Krimi (short for Kriminalfilm), a lucrative, highly entertaining series of crime thrillers that dominated the domestic box-office from 1959 until 1972. In that 13-year span, more than 50 Krimis were produced, with 11 released in 1963 alone – almost one a month. The majority of them were produced by just one company, the Danish-German production house Rialto. From the start, Rialto relied upon a stock ensemble of German actors, some of whom would appear in dozens of these films and quickly become A-list German celebrities – among them, the young but ambitious Klaus Kinski, for whom the Krimis became the first step towards international stardom.
The crime thrillers produced during the 60s and early 70s were primarily inspired by the works of a single author, English mystery writer Edgar Wallace. As well as providing the script for the classic King Kong (1933), Wallace wrote hundreds of novels, short stories and plays – many of them adapted for the big screen – eventually becoming one of most successful authors of his day. Although his fame declined elsewhere after his death in 1932, he remained an exceptionally popular figure in Germany, his works kept alive in the 1950s by made-for-TV productions and stage performances. The success of these led Rialto boss Constantin Preben Philipsen to begin producing a series of big-screen Wallace adaptations, starting with The Fellowship of the Frog (Der Frosch mit der Maske) in 1959, based on the novel of the same title. When the film became a box-office smash, two more Krimis were rushed into production, The Red Circle (Der rote Kreis) and The Terrible People (Die Bande des Schreckens), both released in 1960. That year also saw the release of The Avenger (Der Rächer), an independently produced Wallace adaptation. Threats of legal action from Rialto put paid to any more of these, but CCC (Central Cinema Company, Rialto’s main competition in the genre) pressed ahead with their own Krimis, most of which were based on stories written by Wallace’s son, Bryan Edgar Wallace, or by lesser-known writers such as Francis Durbridge.
Watch the German trailer for Der Frosch mit der Maske:
These four films established the pattern for most of the subsequent Krimis, including cast, characters, locations and plotlines. Typically the films star either Joachim Fuchsberger or Heinz Drache as a dashing young detective – private or official – matching wits against a criminal mastermind responsible for a wave of murders, robberies or blackmail attempts. Known by a nickname such as ‘The Frog’, ‘The Shark’, ‘The Magician’ or ‘The Laughing Corpse’, the villains usually wear a costume or disguise that varies from the unlikely – in The Mysterious Magician (Der Hexer, 1964), the criminal puts on a facemask and becomes the spitting image of a cop, right down to the voice (!) – to the ludicrous – ‘The Frog’ wears a cape, elbow-length rubber gloves (all in green of course) and a fencing mask with what appears to be two ping-pong balls glued to the front. Naturally, the climax usually features a grand unveiling, in which the villain is revealed to be one of the film’s least threatening characters. In many respects, the villain is the polar opposite of the detective hunting him down. Unlike the exciting, youthful heroes, the villains are usually stuffy, older men, stuck in boring but respectable jobs, with solicitors, office managers or clergymen being the most common. On several occasions they harbour a secret romantic desire for the main female character, but are pushed aside quickly when the dashing young hero arrives on the scene. Such films typically end with the villain kidnapping the girl, allowing the hero to come to her rescue. There are exceptions: The Door with the Seven Locks (Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern, 1962) features a mad scientist trying to sew a man’s head on to a gorilla’s body in a bizarre parody of Nazi scientific experiments.
Equally as important are the supporting characters, who were just as popular as the leads; even more so in some cases, since the villain was generally played by a different actor each time, whereas the lesser characters were almost always played by the same handful of actors. One of the most famous supporting actors was undoubtedly Klaus Kinski, who made his first appearance in a Krimi playing an ill-fated small-time crook in the independent hit The Avenger. After the success of The Avenger, Rialto quickly put Kinski on their payroll, along with his co-stars Heinz Drache and Siegfried Schürenberg. He would go on to appear in a further 20 similar films, almost always as a minor criminal – often a safe-breaker, blackmailer or smuggler – destined to die long before the end credits roll, killed off by much more important villains. Arguably, his best Krimi performance was in 1962’s The Inn on the River (Das Gasthaus an der Themse), in which he plays a slimy black market trader, looking truly unpleasant in a dirty white suit, a panama hat and in desperate need of a shave. Ironically, it’s also the only time Kinski plays one of the good guys: he’s a brilliant undercover cop trying to crack a smuggling ring led by the mysterious ‘Shark’.
Watch the German trailer for Das Gasthaus an der Themse:
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Krimis was their location. With a handful of exceptions – including a lonely Scottish castle and a Spanish holiday resort – the majority of them were set in London. Few of the films were actually shot in England, however, with the streets of Hamburg and Munich filling in for Whitechapel and Soho, while Denmark and the Schleswig-Holstein region doubled for the Home Counties. This somewhat shaky illusion was complemented by oft-repeated stock footage of double-decker buses in Piccadilly Square and bowler-hatted businessmen crossing Westminster Bridge, not to mention numerous portraits of the Queen on office walls. Needless to say, the London of the Edgar Wallace films bears little similarity to the real city, and occasionally sports hilariously surreal touches. The most bizarre of these can be found in the final scene of The Inn on the River, where two characters stand on the south bank of the Thames, with cargo ships going by and the Oxford-Cambridge boat race taking place in the foreground! Not quite so over the top are the omnipresent telephone boxes (even in forests and on wharfs), the striking Rhineland castles just a few miles from London and the decidedly continental strip-clubs and jazz bars.
Influenced by 1940s film noir, the majority of the Edgar Wallace films were shot in black and white, with Rialto only making the change to colour in 1966 with The Hunchback of Soho (Der Bucklige von Soho). Although the quality declined with the advent of colour, the best of the Krimis boast stylish, atmospheric black and white cinematography that rivals anything produced by Hollywood during the period. Much of this was due to the partnership of Alfred Vohrer, the most prolific of the Kriminalfilm directors, and his regular collaborator, Karl Löb, a veteran cinematographer who served his apprenticeship in the 1930s and had recently worked on Fritz Lang’s final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (Die 1000 Augen des Dr Mabuse, 1960). Together, the pair created a distinctive double world for the Krimis, with the first a stereotypically English London: stately homes, blue-blooded aristocracy, double-decker buses and the Houses of Parliament. Beneath that is the other London, a dark underworld of sleazy bars and clubs, shady-looking characters and a wealth of vice, violence and crime. The first London is populated by pretty young girls and respectable men in suits; in the other, most of the men bear scars or some form of disfigurement, and the women are a little older and wear too much make-up. This contrast is reflected in Löb’s cinematography: scenes in the above-ground London are generally brightly lit and shot in sunshine, while in the underworld it always seems to be night, and even the interiors are dark and dimly lit.
Watch the German trailer for Die Toten Augen von London:
Vohrer and Löb made their auspicious debut in 1961 with The Dead Eyes of London (Die Toten Augen von London), a film widely considered to be the finest Edgar Wallace production ever made, and perhaps the closest the form ever came to genuine horror. Based on a Wallace story that had already been adapted as The Dark Eyes of London (1939) with Bela Lugosi, the German version stars Joachim Fuchsberger as a Scotland Yard detective trying to solve a wave of murders committed by a gang of blind criminals as part of a life insurance scam. The victims are all short-sighted, rich businessmen drawn into the fog-bound rabbit warren of the London back streets – where the blind killers have the advantage – and subsequently drowned. Vohrer and Löb exploit the horrific potential of the material to the hilt, painting a portrait of London as a city of perpetual fog and darkness, where the shadows are deep enough to hide a monster in – even a monster the size of ‘Blind Jack’, an enormous creature played by Ady Berber. In the 1940s and 50s Berber had been a professional wrestler, before retiring and moving into films, where his hulking frame and lopsided grin made him an ideal monster. Berber appeared in several Edgar Wallace films, and his roles are among the most morally complex in the entire genre. Although he sometimes behaves like a monster, he is always depicted as being mentally disabled, and is often abused or manipulated by the villains, which makes him a more sympathetic character than the majority of the criminals. In The Dead Eyes of London, Blind Jack is only a minion, being controlled by a man who poses as a priest running a home for the blind. His tenants are being bullied into carrying out his schemes under threat of death. Wallace Krimis often feature low-level crooks in similar positions, who frequently end up as victims before they can ‘do the right thing’ and inform the police. In contrast, the main villains are ruthless and greedy, without a shred of decency or compassion.
Still a criminally (no pun intended) overlooked strand of European cult cinema, the Edgar Wallace Krimis deserve to be rediscovered, and this may be helped by the handful of ground-breaking articles written on the subject, not to mention a series of recent, high-profile German DVD releases, some of them with English subtitles and audio tracks, which will allow international audiences to sample the considerable pleasures to be found in these exceptional films.