Thursday, 23 June 2016

Krimi Casebook:
Das Verrätertor / ‘Traitor’s Gate’
(Freddie Francis, 1964)

BLOGGER’S NOTE: It was actually a complete coincidence that I had this post, which discusses the intricacies of a curious Anglo-German co-production, scheduled to appear on the day of the UK referendum on membership of the European Union. As a strong believer in co-operation between nation states, open borders and the breaking down of cultural & economic boundaries, I’m unsure at the time of writing whether I’ll be weeping tomorrow morning or merely putting the whole sorry mess behind me and moving on, but – checks watch – I believe there’s still time to get to the polls today, so would urge all UK citizens reading to please consider rejecting petty nationalism and doing the decent thing. And hey, why not let this tale of zany Germans running around idyllic 1960s London waving guns about guide your hand..? (Ok, maybe not.)

[Political mithering ends. / Movie review begins.]

By late 1964, Copenhagen-based Rialto films had been churning out Edgar Wallace ‘krimis’ for the West German market for nearly five years, and had released no less than seventeen entries in the loosely connected series.

Given this level of productivity, and the creative burnout it must inevitably have incurred in the studio’s small stable of writers, directors and actors, it makes sense that someone in Rialto’s boardroom must have sat up one day and realised that the film industry in the UK – where all of these films were ostensibly set – also boasted its own, equally efficient, genre movie production line, as exemplified in particular by Hammer studios, whose unprecedented international success in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s could scarcely be ignored by other European producers.

Perhaps those fuzzy stock shots of Big Ben and Trafalgar Square were starting to get a bit ragged, or constantly redressing those ‘Scotland Yard office’ and ‘cobbled East End back street’ sets was getting a bit tedious - or perhaps Joachim Fuchsberger and Harald Reinl just REALLY needed a holiday - but whatever the reason, feelers were extended, hands shaken, and when ‘Das Verrätertor’, the 18th entry in Rialto’s Wallace series, went into production, it did so in actual, real life London, with Freddie Francis (fresh off ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’) in the director’s chair, and a script provided (under a pseudonym) by Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster.

Sadly, the eventual result of all this bold co-productionin’ sass is an odd mish-mash that basically plays out as if a few of the more distinctive faces from the ‘krimi gang’ (Klaus Kinski and Eddi Arent) had accidentally blundered into a mediocre British thriller in which everyone inexplicably speaks German - but nevertheless, it is not without its merits, and it remains vaguely interesting as a historical curio, at the very least. (1)

Things certainly get off to a good start, with an edgily shot prison break from a joint that I suppose is supposed to be Dartmoor (eventual destination of all krimi ne’erdowells). Bleak, wide angle overhead shots are here mixed with juddering, handheld footage and a tense, mod jazz soundtrack, as our protagonist (British actor Gary Raymond) scrabbles across scrubland with armed guards in close pursuit, only to find himself rescued by a Luger-toting Kinski, who ushers him into a waiting helicopter in which the pair make their getaway.

Back in London however, it soon becomes clear that this going to be another one of those creaky old “plan to steal The Crown Jewels” type heist capers, with all the discussions of alarm systems, guard duty rotas and unspeakably tedious footage of Beefeaters trooping about exchanging keys that that invariably entails.

Perhaps this might have all carried a bit more of a sense of novelty to German audiences than it does to us Brits, but it’s more likely that ‘Das Verrätertor’ simply suffers the kind of narrative structure that – much like that of the routine whodunit – has withered particularly badly under the glare of our somewhat different 21st century entertainment expectations.

I mean, first off, hands up who really gives two shits about the Crown Jewels? I suppose back in the ‘60s they probably still carried a certain mystique and cultural importance vis-à-vis British identity and so on, but now… well, you tell me when concern for their security last crossed your mind. And do any of us *really* care that much about the rather routine and unsurprising methods by which some fictional crooks might go about stealing them..?

No, what we really want to see in a story like this is the excitement that ensues during the after the heist, as things go wrong and people get hurt, as the perpetrators flee the law and double-cross each other, and so on. The jewels themselves should be little more than a McGuffin to set up the human drama. Unfortunately though, this is a point that Sangster and Francis (and perhaps Wallace, assuming anything in this yarn can actually be traced back to him) largely fail to appreciate, instead choosing to take us again and again through the not-terribly-riveting aspects of the gang’s planning whilst saving the big jewel-grab itself for the final reel.

Normally, Sangster was a writer who could be relied upon to put a cynical new twist on the formulaic genre material he was assigned to work on, but, perhaps playing it safe for a co-production aimed at an overseas audience, ‘Traitor’s Gate’ is an uncharacteristically bland effort, hitting the expected beats of its plotline with nary a trace of surprise or innovation. (A shame, as the twisted aesthetic of the krimis might in other circumstance have made for a perfect match with the black humour and imagination of Sangster’s better writing.)

Elsewhere in the film, Eddi Arent pops up as – I bet you never saw this one coming - a bungling German tourist, who gets inadvertently involved in the heist gang’s plans when, in the course of his day-to-day bungling, he accidentally visits a pleasantly authentic-looking Soho strip joint, the “Dandy Club”, wherein he witnesses triggerman Kinski doing away with a snitch – the gunshots muffled by the drummer in the house band playing a roll on the snare.

Slickly staged by Francis, this episode is just as much fun as it sounds, and indeed, there are some lovely bits of authentic London street footage to enjoy here too, largely shot around Piccadilly and Soho, all of which serves to make the corresponding passages of ‘changing of the guards’ / ‘buggering about with the beefeaters’ type material go down a little easier. (2)

In fact, Francis’ direction is probably the film’s strongest suit. He keeps things brisk and visually interesting through even the dullest stretches, occasionally experimenting with bold techniques and stylish moments which, it must be said, do not really equate to anything found in the British horror films he was directing at around the same time. This leads me to wonder whether he was in fact simply following the dictats of his producers in tailoring the look of the film to fit Rialto’s preferred “house style”, incorporating the kind of tricks (wide angle and deep focus shots, use of on-screen camera lens and mirrors, handheld shots and the like) that we have previously attributed to ‘krimi’ specialists like Reinl and Alfred Vohrer.

As you might have expected given the plot-line, ‘Traitor’s Gate’ features absolutely none of the macabre or fantastical elements that have livened up the others krimis we’ve thus far examined in this review strand, but as a straight-down-the-line crime caper, it is executed with what must have passed for a somewhat glamorous, high-tech sheen in 1964, exhibiting a particular fascination for camera lenses, telescopes, hidden tape recorders, clocks and so forth, verging momentarily into the realm of total ridiculousness for one particularly enjoyable moment in which the film’s heroine falls afoul of a specially modified taxi that fills the back-seat with knockout gas at a simple button push from the driver.

For the most part however, ‘Das Verrätertor’ is disappointingly down to earth. Presumably due to the fact that it was actually made in the UK with the participation of British personnel, the “bizarro world London” flavour that gave films like ‘Dark Eyes of London’ such a unique, out-of-time atmosphere is entirely lacking here, as the more buttoned down, English way of doing business vis-à-vis low budget thrillers leaves us instead with a far more quote-unquote “realistic” portrayal of London in 1964, completely devoid of psychotic masked villains, knife-wielding vagabonds, subterranean gangster hideouts, blood-thirsty fetishized murders and the like, although the presence of Kinski does at least bring a hint of this kind of thing to the table.

Spending much of his time obsessively licking his fingers and dispassionately threatening people with guns as only he can, one particularly surreal scene back-stage at the aforementioned strip joint sees Klaus lurking about near the head of a pantomime horse, whose teeth he at one point pretends to examine. In fact, I’d say that Kinski’s presence alone makes ‘Das Verrätertor’ worth seeking out, were it not for the fact that the unspeakable bastard made so many other films through the ‘60s in which he similarly delivers the goods, making such completism unnecessary for any but the most dedicated fans of his unique brand of strangely hilarious psychopathic menace.

Above and beyond the various drawbacks I have outlined above, there is one central fault that I feel stops ‘Traitor’s Gate’ from overcoming them and hitting home as a decent bit of entertainment, and that is the fact that no one else in the film is remotely interesting. With the exception of Kinski and Arent (who are both basically just goofing on their established screen personas), there is not a single character here who will stick in your mind after viewing – in fact I can barely remember a thing about any of them, and I watched this damn thing twice for review purposes.

A far cry from the sweaty-palmed blackmailers, seedy servants and playboy detectives we expect to find rounding out a krimi cast-list, in ‘Das Verrätertor’, the crooks, the innocent lead couple whom the persecute and the cops who peruse them barely have two character traits to rub together, and the blandly professional cast play out their assigned roles within the story as if they were simply experiencing a mildly stressful day working in an insurance office.

As a result, there is simply no suspense, and nothing beyond the occasional nice shot or visual flourish to even keep us awake. Will the heist succeed or not? Will the crooks be brought to justice? What do we even care, when we barely know enough about anyone concerned to decide who we should cheer or boo?

Though the film’s production values and technical credits are solid and the Rialto crew do their best to entertain, it is easy to conclude that ‘Traitor’s Gate’ – which remains one of the more obscure entries within the already obscure krimi canon - has been lost to history for good reason, relevant only to genre historians seeking an easy explanation for the reasons why the rich possibilities for Anglo-German krimi co-productions were never really followed up. (3)


(1) According to IMDB, Rialto’s only production partner on ‘Traitor’s Gate’ was an outfit named “Summit”, and my assumption is that this must be said company’s only known venture into the film industry, given that IMDB lumps them in with a US distributor of the same name who have no credits prior to 1983.  (Actually, it’s a fair bet that the IMDB page in question amalgamates the credits of at least three different companies, but it’s scarcely our business to complain about that here.)

(2) Outside of central London, one particularly lovely establishing shot captures the riverside beer garden of the London Apprentice pub in Ilseworth, Middlesex, which remains largely unchanged to this day.

(3) In so far as I can tell, only other Rialto krimi to feature significant UK input was 1966’s The Trygon Factor, which was directed by Cyril Frankel (‘The Witches’, ‘Never Take Sweets From A Stranger’) and starred Stewert Granger and Robert Morley. Again, no actual UK production partner is listed, and I’m not aware of the film being much of a hit on either side of the channel.

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

I've seen a truckload of krimis but never this title.