Wednesday, 28 March 2007

The Phantom of Soho

This 1964 krimi presented me with something of a dilemma. It was a film I eagerly wanted to see on account of a Tenebrae connection made by Tim Lucas in The Video Watchdog Book, but which I was wary of approaching through Alpha Video's DVD

And, now, turning to write about the film, I face another version of this dilemma. It is a film I want to recommend, but on a DVD which I cannot – its quality is shockingly poor, the sort of thing for which there is really no excuse and for which Alpha do not deserve your hard-earned money for the simple reason that they do not seem to have done any work themselves.

Bryan Edgar Wallace; note how the image is also slightly cropped

The film itself was one of those produced by Artur Brauner's CCC from a story by Bryan Edgar Wallace, who appears in the credits sequence. Nevertheless, despite a few concessions to contemporary tastes, most notably some exposed breasts in a night-club routine, the setting is otherwise that comfortably familiar krimi neverwhen, the 1920s and the 1960s colliding in a German studio set evocation of an imaginary London populated by outmoded stock types.

Is that a Suspiria-like Bird with a Crystal Plumage?

Whatever the case, that is certainly Werner Peters

A voyeuristic / exhibitionistic ecdysiast performance

The case begins when Archibald Bissell, a prominent businessman, is dispatched by a silver-gloved, knife-wielding assassin. The motive was not robbery. Indeed, rather than taking the £100 Bissell had on him – a tidy sum whether the year is 1924 or 1964 – the killer left a distinctive African fetish doll.

It is the latter feature that causes Sir Phillip to assign the case to Inspector Patten (Dieter Borsche; that and the fact Patten was also Bissell's batman when they were in the colonial service in Africa together and so may also have a personal interest in the case.

His investigations soon uncover a mess of blackmail, white slavery and insurance fraud, all centred on the Soho night club Sansibar. Quite how this all relates to the Phantom – as Sir Phillip's crime writer friend Clorinda Smith (Barbara Rutting) dubs the killer, who soon strikes twice more, first assassinating an Italian posing as a Bedouin knife-thrower(!) and then an MP, to futher add to the confusion over motivation – seems almost another matter entirely.

Some of Franz Josef Gottlieb's striking compositions, ably photographed by Richard Angst and all but destroyed by Alpha's non-presentation

Without wishing to give too much away – but let us face it, if approaching the film with Tenebrae as primary reference point there is a strong sense of deja vu to dialogue like “You must admit: mystery writers have it easy compared to us [...] But the fact is you know from the very first who the culprit is, we criminologists rarely know up to the very end.” – the resolution to the whole mystery revolves around the crime author, allowed to participate in the investigation in the hope that she might provide the Scotland Yard men with a fresh perspective, that of the amateur who has hitherto dealt solely with fiction.

This said, what is different about the films, as another reminder of The Phantom of Soho's krimi status, is the downplaying of the psychosexual element to the killer's crimes. He – or she – is motivated neither by a desire to wipe out “human perversion” nor the legacy of traumatic sexual experience, as with Tenebre's multiple maniacs; unless, that is, we decide to extend the sexual to the point of being all-encompassing and thereby, I would content, fundamentally useless as explicatory tool.

Franz Josef Gottlieb's approach as director can basically be summed up as never to use a straightforward shot if he can find a more imaginative and visually striking one, including mounting the camera on the rotating wheel of the knife-thrower's assistant. It is a strategy that certainly sustains interest should the plot convolutions get too much and helps to create the desired atmosphere most of the time, albeit with the odd moment that is perhaps too self-indulgent or mannered for the good of the film as a whole.

The Phantom about to strike...

... and to be unmasked; note that at least in the version I saw we do not see the Phantom's mask until this point

Thus, if the old-fashioned black and white cinema-photography and Martin Bottcher's excellent crime jazz score further distance The Phantom of Soho from the impossibly modern feel of Argento's film, this same attitude also leads one to suspect that Gottlieb would happily have incorporated “unmotivated” Louma crane shots or machine-driven synthetic rhythms had the technology been available.

To sum up: a very good and interesting self-referential krimi, marred by an abysmal presentation.

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