Sunday, 19 October 2008

Edgar Wallace - Der Frosch mit der Maske / The Fellowship of the Frog / Frøen med masken

To quote Frank Booth: “This Is It!”

The it in question being the beginnings of the modern krimi film, the first of some 40 odd works based on the work of Edgar Wallace and his son Bryan Edgar Wallace to be made in West Germany between 1959 and 1972.

But whilst many such European genre film firsts are necessarily somewhat tentative, as with the 25 or so Italian westerns made before A Fistful of Dollars that imitated rather than transformed the pre-existing American models, it emerges as a surprisingly confident production whose imprints can still be felt in many a later entry in the series.

Certainly the missing elements, such as stock footage establishing that the film was 'really' shot in London – or more to the point wasn't – the colour credits sequence, and the twelve gunshots followed by the “Hier spricht Edgar Wallace” announcement are in the minority and only really become evident when the film is considered in the light of hindsight.

To itemise what we do have: a strangely attired master criminal; professional and amateur investigators, the former from Scotland Yard; a Soho nightspot, complete with singing femme fatale; a damsel in distress; a would-be avenger; a comic-relief butler; a blind peddlar who isn't all that he seems; a country house; the criminals' secret base; some neat self-referential touches – one investigator goes undercover as a lighting man and records a crucial crime scene with a concealed camera; a distinct propensity for British bobbies to seemingly carry firearms as a matter of course; and a confusingly large number of somehow interconnected characters to provide intrigue, victims and suspects as and when required.

The master criminal is the titular Frog, the head of a three-hundred strong gang identifiable by their numbers and the brand they all wear. His own identity is unknown, with the quest to unmask him propelling the story onwards at a characteristically breathless Wallace pace, wherein one year of undercover work by Inspector Higgins is telegraphed into a single sentence and a brief scene in which he tries, unsuccessfully, to apprehend the Frog.

As Higgins' body is found, complete with a couple of potential clues, footprints which do not match and a reside of cement dust in the dead man's mouth, the true investigators are revealed in the form of Inspector Hedge of the Yard and Richard Gordon, an American of independent means who affects the manners and lifestyle of an English gentleman – he is also the employer of the butler – and might as well be one.

Gordon and his butler are played by Joachim Fuchsberger and Eddi Arent, soon to become typed as the definitive hero and comic relief figures respectively, although Fuchsberger's heroes would hereafter tend more to be offficial representatives of the law.

With the man with the non-matching footprints soon identified as Mr Bennett we are next introduced to his son Ray and daughter Ella, whom the more attentive viewer might already recognise as one of the Frog's next targets, Higgins being the other.

While Ella is the dutiful daughter, concerned for her father's and brother's well-being – Mr Bennett always seems pre-occupied by his trips into London on unspecified business – Ray is somewhat wayward, with a desire for an easy life that leads him into trouble as in a short space of time he goes on to ignore the advice of the avuncular Mr Johnston at his work; anger their employer, the fearsome permanently be-gloved Mr Maitland, and winds up in a Soho club where he falls for the resident singer, named Lolita.

Sure enough, she is also involved with the Frog; even if we're still no clearer as to his identity – though Gordon suspects he may be wearing the mask to conceal his identity as missing master criminal Harry Lime, on the grounds that some sort of disfiguring mark would be too obvious / straightforward – we at least now have a number of suspects to work through.

Lime, of course, is also the name of the post-war profiteer in Graham Greene's story memorably brought to the screen by Carol Reed, with that Anton Karas zither score and Lime / Orson Welles's speech about cuckoo clocks and the Borgias; there was also a TV series around the time of the film in which he was reinvented as a detective hero.

Whether intentionally or otherwise Ray and Lolita are vaguely reminscent of characters from Weimar German films such as Asphalt, to recall the era of the first Wallace craze within Germany – one swiftly ended by the Nazis – and the way in which the novels and these films, though now coming across as naïve, harmless kitschy reminders of a more innocent-seeming age, were often shocking and controversial enough in their day.

Lolita's song, entitled “Night and Fog on the Thames,” has some interesting connotations here, in suggesting not only the danger of the area as presumably intended by its authors but also the phrase used by the Nazis when they arranged the “night and fog” disappearances of those they deemed undesirable.

Two other shock moments of note here the dispatching of an unfortunate policeman who happens upon the Frog's gang in the middle of a robbery and the way in which the Frog silences an over-noisy female prisoner. In the first, we don't get any POV shots of the attack as we might get in a later film, nor the actual the moment when throat is slit, but do get a surprisingly graphic hands clutching throat shot. In the second the Frog unexpectedly whips out a submachine gun and somewhat needlessly drills the woman full of holes to shut her up for good.

Away from Fuchsberger and Arent two other krimi regulars making their debut genre appearance are Fritz Rasp and Dieter Eppler, the latter also a familiar face from a number of straight horror productions of the time such as The Head and Castle of the Walking Dead.

Coincidentally or otherwise, Castle was also directed by Fellowship of the Frog helmsman Harald Reinl, who would go on to direct a further half-dozen Edgar Wallace entries, making him the second-most prolific director in the series after Alfred Vohrer.

With most of the camera set ups, angles and movements functional and the editing classical, the Expressionistic aspects of the film come primarily through elements within the frame, as this street or that interior is made darker and more dangerous looking or a light source 'just happens' to cast some suggestive pattern; the one time Reinl does break out some Third Man-esque Dutch angles is when a fist-fight breaks out, with this being a scene that also features some more dynamic camerawork and editing.

Willy Mattes's jazzy score is pleasing if comparatively lacking in the quirky qualities.that would came to the fore in later films.

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