Wednesday 22 April 2015

Krimi Casebook:
Der Frosch mit der Maske /
‘The Face of the Frog’

(Harald Reinl, 1959)

The phenomenal popularity in Germany of British mystery writer Edgar Wallace, which continued in spite of two apocalyptic world wars between the nations, is one of those odd twists of popular culture that seems to largely defy explanation. The truth is, I suppose, that whilst he had a more pronounced influence upon German culture than that of other countries, Wallace’s work was basically popular more or less everywhere it was published. Though rarely read these days, he was unquestionably one of the most successful authors of the early 20th century, with sales of his work reaching an oft-quoted estimate of 50 million copies worldwide.

Though he died in 1932 (whilst hard at work on the screenplay for ‘King Kong’), Wallace nonetheless maintained enough popularity to justify a huge number of film adaptations in his native land during the 1960s - The “Edgar Wallace Mysteries” series of b-pictures, shot at Merton Park studios by Anglo-Amalgamated, ran to 47 installments between 1960 and 1965, and numerous other adaptations were made around the same period, including a number produced by the ubiquitous Harry Alan Towers.(1)

Often though, these British Wallace films turned out to be quite dreary, uninspired affairs. Possibly this was simply due to the fact that, for those working in the film industry in the British Isles during the mid-20th century, Wallace’s writing evoked a landscape and culture as depressingly familiar as a cold cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon. From the sampling I have taken of the British Wallace films, it seems that this familiarity resulted in scores of grimly utilitarian sixty minute murder mysteries, largely set within pebble-dashed suburban bungalows and Bayswater solicitors offices; the kind of films in which about the most exciting scenario you’re likely to encounter with is that of John Le Mesurier waiting for a malfunctioning lift, or someone who once played a supporting role in Dr. Who tampering with Her Majesty’s Mail.

Thankfully, the German film industry took an entirely different approach to adapting Wallace for the screen, with the very cultural barriers that separated them from the quote-unquote ‘Britishness’ of their source material ironically leading them to hit upon a far more exciting formula whose results remain thoroughly entertaining to this day.

To the Germans you see, the very same Wallace stories that seemed so dull to us Brits became rich with exotic, escapist possibility, offering them a springboard into a whole world of bizarre and fantastical adventure. With crowd-pleasing thrills and censor-baiting transgressions firmly in mind, scriptwriters and directors soon began forcing the lurid imagery of Victorian penny dreadfuls through the merciless meat-grinder of 20th century urban thrillers, wantonly mixing in elements pulled from noir and gangster films, gothic horror and Bond-style comic book action capers along the way, creating an entirely new genre of pulp cinema that went on to dominate the lower reaches of the European box office throughout the ‘60s – the hallowed ‘Krimi’ (a shortening of the self-explanatory ‘Kriminalfilm’).

Though other studios and producers would go on to release their fair share of ‘Krimi’s later in the game, the genre’s aesthetic was initially defined and popularised entirely by the series of German language Wallace adaptations produced by a Denmark-based company named Rialto Film. Though Rialto’s loosely connected series of Wallace films rattled on in some form into the early ‘70s, it began in 1959 with the movie we’re looking at today – Krimi ground zero to all intents and purposes - Harald Reinl’s ‘Der Frosch mit der Maske’, which for the sake of argument we shall henceforth call ‘The Face of the Frog’.(2)

Often, retrospectively defined, time/place-specific movie genres such as the Krimi have a tendency to begin slowly, gradually coalescing over a number of years into what later generations of fans recognise as their ‘core form’, as formulas and clichés slowly solidify alongside audience expectation. By contrast though, what is so refreshing about ‘The Face of the Frog’ is that these Rialto cats apparently had their game-plan down right from the outset, as the movie explodes out of nowhere with a full set of the kind of ridiculous and lurid traits that would go on to define the Krimi.

Set within a “London” largely defined by shaky second unit footage of Westminster landmarks and Piccadilly Circus, life in Britain’s capital according to Reinl & his collaborators is a breathless whirl of everything a young German inexplicably raised on a diet of dusty Anglophone pulp might have hoped for: masked criminal master-minds skulking around abandoned Limehouse dockyards, cult-like fraternities of flat-capped henchmen, dogged Scotland Yard detectives getting hassled by their titled superiors, knife-throwing assassins lurking amid National Trust woodlands, aristocratic amateur sleuths and their kung-fu fighting butlers, seedy Soho nightclubs, daring jewel heists, poison gas canisters, tommy guns and trap doors.(3)

Needless to say, it’s a hoot. Do you really need to know the story? I hope not, because I certainly haven’t got the energy to bother coming up with a full synopsis, but let’s just say that events herein concern a master safe-breaker and criminal overlord known only as The Frog. The Frog preserves his anonymity by way of a neat diving suit/gas mask-styled outfit and accompanying croaky voice, whilst the distinctive seal that he brands upon the wrists of his henchmen and leaves prominently displayed at the scenes of his robberies also does wonders for his brand identity. For reasons that remain vague at best, a number of innocents (OR ARE THEY?) find themselves drawn into the web (or maybe, I dunno, frogspawn..?) of The Frog’s nefarious endeavors, with only playboy crimefighter Richard Gordon (Joachim Fuchsberger), his two-fisted butler James (Eddi Arent) and the shrewd Inspector Elk of Scotland Yard (Siegfried Lowitz) on hand to figure out what’s what and bring the assorted evil-doers to justice.

Beyond that, there’s not a great deal I can tell you that cannot be gleamed from the list of exciting elements featured in the preceding paragraphs, but needless to say the script here is slapdash, overly convoluted and frequently ridiculous, offering little in the way of actual ‘mystery’ beyond an inevitable Scooby-Doo style final reveal and generally refusing to cohere into anything that makes any more than the barest minimum of surface level ‘sense’… and, frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The great thing about the German Wallace films y’see is that they’re not so much interested in presenting logically coherent mystery stories as they are in simply reveling the more ghoulish and fantastic aspects of the ‘mystery’ genre – an approach that, as well as greatly appealing to me on a personal level, also gives the films a breezy, self-aware “fun for the sake of fun” kind of feel that allows them to remain quite engaging to us over-stimulated 21st century viewers, where so many other low budget ‘50s thrillers now seem plodding and tedious by comparison.

Indeed, the comic book unreality of the film’s world allows for a fast-paced yarn that moves from one suspense / action sequence to another (together with a few comedy asides and saucy night-club sequences for good measure) with only a bare minimum of expositional connecting tissue, demonstrating a dedication to pure entertainment value that it is hard not to applaud. It helps of course that the film is very well made – in fact it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that we’re looking here as a Germanic equivalent of the kind of craftsmanship & professionalism mustered by Hammer in the same period.

In between all the whiz-bang good times, a certain amount of stuffy drawing room chit-chat and weak family/romantic sub-plotting inevitable remains, but Reinl’s roving camera is almost always on the move around the lavishly appointed sets, with smooth tracking shots keeping things visually interesting even through the story’s duller passages. The B&W photography is top notch too, full of rich, deep shadow, and the densely cluttered mise en scene seems designed to compliment the rambling baroque madness of the storyline, never missing a chance to throw a wrought-iron railing, dusty lampshade or suit of armour into the foreground.

The cast meanwhile comprises a small army of what I assume to be West Germany’s finest character players, featuring a delightful variety of heavies, weirdos and misfits, many of whom look like they could have walked straight out of a Warner Bros gangster flick, including numerous ‘faces’ who would go on to carve out a niche as regulars in subsequent Krimis.

Even the film’s imitation of an English setting isn’t too bad, relatively speaking. There are a few details that will almost certainly seem a little ‘off’ to British viewers (a reference to somebody being taken to “central prison”, the misspelling of ‘Salisbury’ on a sign-post, etc), but no absolute howlers are in evidence, whilst bowler hats, hook-handled umbrellas and police helmets were clearly in plentiful supply from the costume department, lending a nice, pre-Avengers sort of feel to the more outré events portrayed.

My guess is that some second unit stuff WAS actually filmed in London (rather than just relying on stock footage), and I enjoyed the way that the mixture of authentic London locales with (presumably) German sets and locations serves to create weird, non-existent landscapes for the characters to rampage around in, thus further aiding the film’s distance from reality. The fog-shrouded ‘abandoned cement factory’ where The Frog has his HQ, looming upon some desolate vision of the Limehouse docks adjacent to a riverbank that really doesn’t look very much like the Thames, provides a good example, as did the somewhat Bavarian looking thatched cottage sitting neatly at the side of a road junction “exactly eight and a half miles from London”, and the German-themed ‘Lolita Club’ lurking in the middle of a particularly shadow-haunted Soho Square.

‘The Face of the Frog’s already slightly murky cultural heritage is muddied further when the name of no lesser personage than HARRY LIME suddenly pops up mid-way through the story, almost prompting a comedy double-take from yours truly. As in ‘The Third Man’, Mr Lime is introduced as a reclusive and infamous villain whose whereabouts are unknown even as his name is whispered in hushed tones. I tied my mind in knots trying to figure out the hows and whys that led to Graham Greene’s shadowy avatar of post-war corruption and black market cynicism suddenly popping up in the middle of a German Edgar Wallace adaptation at the dawn of the ‘60s, but as it turns out, it’s probably just the result of a particularly uncanny coincidence.

The name “Harry Lime” appeared in Wallace’s original story, published in 1925, and, according to ‘The Face of the Frog’s Wikipedia page, the film’s producers actually changed it to avoid confusion with the character in ‘The Third Man’. For reasons unknown, the name seems to have been subsequently changed back to ‘Harry Lime’ in the dubbed American version of the film I watched, and, well - there ya go, another potentially intriguing bit of pop culture symbiosis scrubbed forever from the blackboard.(4)

Yet another thing that stands out about ‘The Face of the Frog’ in comparison to its contemporaries in the thriller market is the sheer level of violence. The movie is big on enthusiastically rendered fist-fights and gun blasts throughout, with a couple of gleefully bloody murders that sit just about at the limit of what a British or American horror film might have gotten away with in 1959, but all of this is blown out of the water by one absolutely staggering moment of brutality that occurs during the film’s finale. Herein, a provocatively dressed showgirl, already looking battered and bruised as she is tied to a chair in the villains’ lair, is graphically machine-gunned to death by the now-thoroughly-crazed Frog, in full-on Peckinpah blood-squib style. I tell you friends, as an amateur historian of early on-screen nastiness, my jaw just about hit the floor.

A wholly shameless moment of unhinged, sexually charged sadism, this ‘shock’ moment provides a clear pointer toward the increasingly salacious and blood-thirsty content that would come to dominate the Rialto Krimis as the cycle went on. Indeed, as has been noted by the few English language critics who have written on the genre, the bold, style-over-content approach pioneered by the Wallace films, in combination with their increasing fixation on gruesome and often misogynistic violence, exerted a powerful influence upon the parallel development of the giallo aesthetic in Italy.(5)

Beyond this, it could even be argued that films like ‘The Face of the Frog’ helped to cement the more visceral, thrill-packed style of filmmaking that went on to define the entire spectrum of exploitation movies in the 1970s, and that in fact remains the dominant mode for thrillers, action films and self-aware “cult movies” to this very day.

For this reason alone, the case could be made for ‘..Frog’ being a film of significant historical importance, and whose potential field of influence stretches way beyond anything its makers could possibly have imagined. But, even if you disregard such high-falutin’ claims entirely, what he have here is, at the very least, a movie that when viewed today seems refreshingly ahead of its time whilst still being very much OF it - a witty, smart and thrill-packed pulp time-bomb that easily transcends it’s b-picture programmer status, and a testament to the wisdom of a notion I believe all potential filmmakers could learn from.

Namely, if you’re working with source material that’s basically quite hackneyed and childish and have no particular drive to rework it into a great work of cinematic artistry, then just being all dour and boring about it certainly isn’t going to get you on the Oscars short-list. Instead, embrace the stupidity, keep things moving, give the people what they want, and who knows; ‘The Face of the Frog’ spawned over twenty-five follow-ups, countless imitations, and nearly 60 years later there are still rubes like me sitting here on the internet praising its virtues. We now cut to the image of a hoity-toity British film director circa 1960 looking all flustered and disgusted, and look forward to evaluating whatever these wacky Edgar Wallace-adaptin’ Germans bring us next.


(1) Though their titles and casts may sound tempting, readers are advised that Towers/Wallace flicks like ‘Circus of Fear’ (’66) and ‘Coast of Skeletons’ (’65) rank amongst the most extraordinarily tedious motion pictures your correspondent has ever sat through.

(2) Literally translating as ‘The Frog with the Mask’ and based on a Wallace story entitled ‘The Fellowship of the Frog’, this film is known in English both by that name and also the slightly snappier ‘The Face of the Frog’, which I’ve gone with here.

(3) Actually, James the butler practices a novel form of callisthenic wrestling alongside his master, but let’s not split hairs.

(4) Of course, you COULD argue that perhaps Greene took the name “Harry Lime” from the broadly similar character in the earlier Wallace story, but I distinctly recall Greene describing, in his introduction to his prose treatment for ‘The Third Man’, how he and Carol Reed came up with the name by combining a deliberately prosaic first name with the surname redolent of (at the time) potentially dodgy importing of exotic fruit. I’ll leave you to decide whether or not you want to take Britain’s foremost 20th century novelist at his word, but to further stoke the fires of coincidence, I will needlessly point out that the aforementioned Harry Alan Towers, who produced a number of Edgar Wallace adaptations during the ‘60s, first name his name in radio, producing the Third Man-inspired series The Adventures of Harry Lime for the BBC in 1951-52. COINCIDENCE?

(5) At this point, it would be remiss of me not to point out that Mario Bava’s pivotal ‘Blood & Black Lace’ began life as an attempt to jump the Wallace/Krimi band-wagon, and indeed, the tangled bloodlines intersecting the krimi and giallo genres are more complex and varied than I could possibly expound upon in this already over-long review. Hopefully we’ll get around to looking at it in a bit more depth if this review strand continues as planned though.

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

Joachim Fuchsberger was the man. You don't see many actors of this caliber any more. I'm surprised he never made any films in America. He was great in The Face of Fu Manchu.