Saturday, 1 March 2008

Die Weisse Spinne / The White Spider

When her husband Richard dies in a car accident Muriel Irvine (Karin Dor) is surprised to learn that she is the beneficiary of a larger than expected insurance policy he had taken out only days before, £50,000 rather than £5,000. (Remember that this was back when having £50,000 meant you were actually worth something.)

It offers the prospect of wiping out Richard's debts to exclusive Soho bridge club and secret gambling den Club 55 and of leaving her with a tidy sum besides.

Unfortunately the Anglo Insurance Company suspect foul play – especially since Muriel only identified her husband's horribly burnt remains from his distinctive white glass spider good luck charm – and are reluctant to pay up. Indeed, having had several similar occurences recently, they even pass on details of the case to the police.

Inspector Dawson goes to Club 55 to investigate and is found floating in the Thames the next morning, prompting Scotland Yard's bosses to call in world-famous criminologist Conway from Australia to investigate further.

Worse follows as Mrs Irvine discovers that Richard also owed family lawyer Mr Summerfield money. It is a small sum, but still more than she can afford after paying for the funeral.

Who is behind the conspiracy?

Happily Summerfield, however, agrees to fight the case in exchange for a percentage of the insurance money and also finds Mrs Irvine a job working for a charitable foundation he is connected with. Its mission, as it so happens, is helping ex-convicts settle back into society. Two such cases, with no love lost for one another and old scores to settle, are ex-Dartmoor men Ralph Hubbard (Joachim Fuchsberger) and “Kiddie” Phillips (Horst Frank), released after stretches for extortion and armed robbery respectively.

As the story unfolds we learn that Club 55 has an even more sinister business, performing murders for hire. A multitude of questions emerge.

Who is behind the operation?

Who commissioned Richard Irvine's murder?

What are the relationships between the insurance company, the club and the foundation?

Is Richard still alive, having done something of a Double Face with his car and another's body?

Who, if anyone, can the viewer trust?

And, in more meta terms, when is a krimi not a krimi?

The broader use of the term would, after all, imply any crime film, after the origin of the term
and subgenre in taschenkrimi – i.e. pocket crime novel. The narrower use of it would however apply specifically to adaptations of Edgar Wallace and his son Bryan Edgar Wallace. This puts Die Weisse Spinne / The White Spider in an in-between position: it’s a krimi by criterion A, but not by criterion B. To compound matters, it's by neither Rialto nor CCC.

The curse of the pan-and-scan strikes again

It looks as if the film's producers Arca-Winston wanted to get onto the Wallace bandwagon, but couldn't find an actual Wallace property not already taken by Rialto or CCC and thus settled on something in the same style by Louis Wiener Wilton, before setting about recruiting as many of the Rialto team as they could, including director Harald Reinl, his actress wife Karin Dor and, of course, perpetual Scotland Yard man Joachim Fuchsberger.

Behind the Wallace-esque pseudonym of Albert Tanner hides frequent krimi screenwriter Trygve Larsen, also known as Egon Eis. Intriguingly Eis had actually scripted a 1931 adaptation of Wallace’s The Squeaker before returning to the author 30 years later with The Fellowship of the Frog, The Red Circle and others for Rialto as Larsen.

Though they didn't get Eddi Arent for the comic relief role English-born Chris Howland makes an agreeable substitute, while the one-two-three of Horst Frank, Dieter Eppler and Werner Peters more than compensates for Klaus Kinski's absence.

The lack of a Siegfried Schurenberg style Sir John figure can be explained away by what is arguably the film's key departure from formula: the relegation of Scotland Yard to a subsidiary role, with Conway intriguingly presented as a Mabuse-like figure in a way that serves to highlight his affinities with the criminal mastermind behind the white spider murders and which seems intended to make you wonder just how far the murderous web might actually stretch.

The mise-en-scene positions us with Fuchsberger and Dor, lessening the sense of ambiguity

Unfortunately it's a conceit that doesn't quite come off, for the simple reason that we're likely to immediately reason that Fuchsberger's Hubbard is in actuality Conway and very definitely one of the good guys. Putting it another way, the filmmakers' willingness to experiment and to alienate their audience doesn't go that far – or far enough for their (white spider's) strategem to work.

Instead, the vague pretence that Fuchsberger is a bad guy overcomplicates and overextends the narrative while lessening our point of enagagement with it, especially since we're already working through something similar in relation to Dor's character.

It works better in her case because of the basic ground rules of this universe: an upstanding Scotland Yard man can always be trusted, whereas a woman may be an ingenue in peril, a treacherous spider woman, a combination of the two or even something else.

Far better, one thus suspects, had Reinl presented Conway and his nemesis to us as two sides of the same coin but let us know the former face of it from the outset – an approach, moreover, that would have been more consistent with his hero Lang if we think of Spione and the Weimer era Mabuse films.

Everything else – Peter Thomas's crime-jazz score; Frank's menacing professional killer with his unsettling preference for referring to himself in the third person; the talismanic, mythical qualities afforded Soho and Dartmoor; the anachronistic neo-expressionist German backlot vision of London; the surveillance technology etc. – is in perfect accord with the krimi formula, such that you would probably attribute the film to Wallace senior and Rialto if you missed the opening credits and ignored the absence of the ende joke.

Though compromised by a panned and scanned, badly dubbed VHS-rip with choppy sound, this ersatz Wallace is worth a look for the krimi completist. Others, however, would be better served by the real thing.

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