We begin with the obligatory pre-credits shock, as treasure hunter Mr Smooth (!) meets the titular abbot, with predictably fatal consequences. “Edgar Wallace” then introduces himself, followed by the assorted suspects, red herrings and plots that it is up to us and Scotland Yard, in the form of redoubtable Detective Puddler and his bumbling assistant Horatio W. Smith (Eddi Arent), to sift through.
First of all we have Lord Harry Chelford and his cousin Dick (Joachim Fuchsberger), representing the last of their line. Dick doesn't want Harry to marry, with all that implies in terms of an heir, and so tries to encourage Leslie Gine to break off her engagement to him.
Lawyer Gilder (Werner Peters) is also in love with Leslie, whose brother Arthur, an inveterate gambler, has forged Lord Chelford's signature on several documents that have come into Gilder's possession...
Chelford's butler, Fortuna (Klaus Kinski) is in Gilder's pay and keeps him abreast of developments at the abbey.
Mary Venner is the wild-card, seeking the treasure and / or a man to keep in her the style to which she would like to become more accustomed.
Finally there is the mysterious Dr Loxon, the Chelford family physician, and the small matter of the missing, presumed dead Lady Chelford, Harry's mother...
I revisited this 1963 krimi on the basis of having picked up the 1926 novel of the same name and wanting to see how faithful or otherwise an adaptation it was. The first main difference is the introduction of new characters, namely Mr Smooth, Dr Loxon and Horatio W. Smith, and some changes to those it includes. In the novel Dick is Harry's younger brother, while Mary has a more substantial role and displays more nous when, unwittingly given a contract signed in invisible ink she learns how to make it reappear. A second is the film's faster pace. In the novel the Abbot does not make an appearance until about a quarter of the way through and no-one is killed until midway through, so that the existence or otherwise of the Abbot and the treasure are initially in doubt. Likewise Puttler first appears as an essentially private investigator: while still from Scotland Yard, he's there in as a form of vacation. A third – and the one that really shows the film-makers' craft – is the way they have discarded the slightly more rarefied aspects of the mystery, where the location of the treasure is revealed to the reader through etymological clues (what is chesil?!) in favour of a more visually stylish, cinematic approach in which less talk and more action is the order of the day.
As with most krimi films The Black Abbot has that strange sense of temporal and cultural displacement stemming from being a 1960s German evocation of a 1920s England that was probably already half-mythical at the time of its creation. Yet it's these kitsch and camp aspects that are a large part of the appeal of the krimi to me, so it was pleasing to also find them in Wallace's novel. One cannot imagine something quite working in the same innocent way these days, however:
“You can come and sleep with me,” said Leslie. “I've got a big bed.” And this offer was most gratefully accepted.
“Have a look under your bed first,” said Miss Venner nervously, and not until this ritual had been observed did she commence very slowly to undress.”
Or how about the way Dick describes Harry:
“I am wholly responsible. I have always known my brother was queer, and about a year ago I was certain that the horrible taint of madness which his poor mother transmitted to him was developing in a way which could only have one end. I begged him to see a medical man, but he hated doctors. I brought down the best alienists from London in various guises...”
But for that Wallace almost certainly wasn't consciously thinking about it perhaps we could imagine a story entitled The Case of the Missing Gay Subtext...