Saturday, 30 August 2008

Der Gorilla von Soho / The Gorilla of Soho / The Ape Creature / The Gorilla Gang

The bodies of drowned men, all elderly, wealthy foreigners with no relatives in the UK, keep being hauled out of the Thames. While the first seemed like an accident – the victim's wallet still being full – the fourth in as many months offers a challenge to statistical probability and suggests that something more sinister may be afoot.

Here we see the Gorilla of Soho, in its natural habitat...

As it so happens the victim, an Australian millionaire, was found with something else in his possession: a doll with writing on it.

The first problem facing Inspector Perkins (Horst Tappert) and Sergeant Pepper (Uwe Friedrichsen) is that the writing, in addition to being obscured, is in an language they do not know.

Yet another doll

Accordingly Miss Susan McPherson (Uschi Glas) is brought in. An expert on African languages, she soon identifies the words “crime,” “murder” and, most revealing of all, “the monster and the gorilla”

Female narcissism

Female to be looked at ness, as Pepper frames Susan

Not so easy to place

The notorious Gorilla Gang has returned...

The revelation that Ellis had left his wealth to the organisation Love and Peace for People shortly before his untimely demise naturally leads Perkins there. He arrives to find known blackmailer Sugar (Herbert Fux, in his only krimi role) and the organisation's head, Henry Parker, in the middle of a heated exchange; though not party to the exchange that Sugar is being paid off because of something to do with Henry's brother, Donald, the Inspector certainly knows that something is up.

Accordingly his next point of call is a nightclub with scantily clad models who pose on pedestals for the members – who, as it turns out include Sir Arthur – to photograph and sketch them. He is not there for this, however, but rather to speak with club habitue Sugar and to dig around to see what he can find out, thereby learning that one of the girls at the club, Cora, was involved with Donald Parker.

Herbert Fux, lit in the dominant red of the nightclub

Meanwhile Sugar is confronted by a gunman and almost grabbed by a digger – shades of My Dear Killer's opening decapitation murder – but escaped by diving into the river; it's supposed to be the Thames but remains as unconvincing as the rest of the non-stock footage.

Fux and a foreground gunman, in the dominant blue of the nighttime exteriors

This stock footage, meanwhile, is itself somewhat badly used in the obviously back projected driving sequences, with the same iconic red bus appearing behind the drivers no matter where they're supposed to be in London.

Next the investigators visits St Mary's, a convent-run institution for wayward girls where Dorothy Smith, a mute black girl, tries unsuccessfully to communicate something to Perkins on his way to ask the mother superior about Jack Corner, the ex-boss of the Gorilla Gang who had worked at St Mary's following his release from prison three years earlier.

Apparently Corner suffered horrible burns as a result of an accident in the boiler room – a fate with echoes of Sheila Isaac's fate in The Case of the Bloody Iris or the scalding of Amanda Righetti in Deep Red – but disappeared shortly thereafter.

On the way back Susan discovers another doll in her bag with writing on it, again in an African language: “The gorilla sometimes comes at night; the mother superior doesn't know,” revealing that one of the girls knows more that the others. Curiously, however, they don't connect the African language to Dorothy, the only non-white girl there, encouraging Susan to go undercover at the convent as a welfare officer.

Meanwhile the gang, the contours of whose activities are gradually taking shape, are plotting the murder of their next victim, Mr Stuart. At a meeting with Henry Parker and his lawyer, Dr Jekyll [sic], Stuart, another wealthy foreigner of advancing years, surprises the foundation's director with the news that they are not to be the prime beneficiaries of his will. Rather, he has just discovered that he has a daughter, Susan Ward, whom he is intend on tracking down.

That same night Stuart falls victim to the gorilla and is delivered to St Mary's. There the Sister and a reluctant Dorothy dispose of his body as they have clearly done the gang's previous victims. The girl also plants a doll on Stuart, whose body is fished out of the Thames shortly afterwards. Perkins discovers the doll, whilst the post-mortem reveals the curious fact that he been drowned in fresh rather than sea water...

At this point we're only about half-way through; safe to say that everything ultimately ties together and is resolved in a re-assuring manner with everyone getting their just desserts one way or another...

Though certainly entertaining at the camp and trash level, this is one of those awkward post-Blood and Black Lace pre-The Bird with the Crystal Plumage krimis that shows the filmmakers trying to find a more contemporary aesthetic, attitude and approach but largely failing.

Part of the sense of deja vu throughout the proceedings must also, however, be attributed to the highly formulaic nature of the material. Obviously popular genre works, both literary and cinematic, are always formalaic to an extent, but there is nevertheless the distinct impression of the filmmakers adapting a bottom of the pile krimi featuring rather many elements that had appeared earlier in the cycle and which thus now feel distinctly past their best before date.

Thus, for example, the gorilla costume wearing villain instantly recalls the likes of The Monk with the Whip and The Frog with the Mask. This in itself is not a problem but it does leave one wondering why that bit more, insofar as the film's Gorilla Gang – I suspect the novel may be different – seem to have been given their appellation for no particular reason. And, in a film like this that moment of questioning in the viewer is fatal.

It would have been better if the gang had been using a trained gorilla in their crimes. While certainly more difficult to render on screen convincing way – here it's worth remembering that 2001: A space Odyssey was released in the out the same year – this would also have kept one more in that state of wonderment and presented a nice line of descent back to Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue and thus the very origins of the detective genre and sensation literature.

As it is, despite the alternative Ape Creature title, the filmmakers don't even try to cover up that it is a man in a suit, with the on-screen presentation of making it clear from the outset that we are dealing with a man in a gorilla suit.

Again the contrast with the likes of the the monk with his whip or the archer in green is telling, insofar as the films in which they appear present us with an enigma of the sort absent here: are these supernatural figures from the past who have somehow manifested in the present, along the lines of Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, or merely something more mundane?

Not everything is the filmmakers' fault, however, with the plot being very obviously a retread of The Dead Eyes of London, beginning with the paradigmatic substitution of reform school girls for blind beggars as the subjects for dubiously motivated philanthropy and continuing through the foundling who is unwitting heir to a fortune; the man-beast cat's paw figure; the woman helping the police because of her special linguistic abilities and soon falling into peril thereby, and the pushing of one blackmailer down a lift shaft.

If all this is partially masked by the shift to colour and to another set of stock performers – Horst Tappert assuming the Joachim Fuchsberger role; Uschi Glas the Karin Baal one; Uwe Friedrichsen the Eddi Arent one etc. – the behind-the-scenes team are essentially the same, featuring such ubiquitous krimi film names as director Alfred Vohrer, production manager Horst Wendland, editor Jutta Hering, cinematographer Karl Lob and composer Peter Thomas.

While Thomas and Hering's contributions are solid, with the former exhibiting the ability to adapt to the new musical idioms of the time whilst still producing something distinctively his, Lob fails to push the expressive use of colour far enough in the set-pieces and lights the expository scenes in somewhat flatly. Putting it another way if Lob's work on Dead Eyes of London was almost comparable to that of Bava on Black Sunday – as two films released in the same year and independently of one another showcasing traditional black and white Expressionism circa 1960 – his work his work here falls far short of his Italian counterpart on Blood and Black Lace – as one of the key models for the new colour Expressionism / expressivism.

Another almost there but not quite murder set piece begins

Vohrer's direction is, in itself, nothing to be ashamed of. It's brisk and efficient and contains enough self-conscious stylish moments and images without becoming self-indulgent. But there's also little he hasn't done before. Maybe it's a case of seeking to demonstrate a consistency of authorial voice – the opening credits, after all, proclaim “an Alfred Vohrer film” before anything else – but if so, it's also one without that vital element of development that Peter Wollen identified as the distinction between the John Ford and Howard Hawks.

A key moment here is one of the film's most striking images, in which another character is reflected in the mirror of a Kinski-esque blackmailing ex-con's sunglasses. For, in fact, Vohrer had used the exact same shot with Kinski himself in Dead Eyes, where he had played this selfsame role.

The Kinksi-alike – or in a giallo the Luciano Rossi-alike

Likewise, while the choreographing of one of the murder set pieces to the smooth jazz record playing on the dansette is a nice touch – the victims legs cease kicking just as the music stops – this is offset somewhat by the re-introduction of non-diegetic mood music moments later as their body is discovered. (I'm also fairly certain that another krimi had featured a similar device, in a manner more directly prefiguring Tenebre. Please let me know if you know which film it is. )

This said, the period between Dead Eyes of London and The Gorilla of Soho can hardly be compared to the 40+ years of Ford and Hawks' careers, nor the ever-desperate production context of the German popular cinema in the 60s with the solidity of Studio era Hollywood.

Indeed, another element that emerges from the film is precisely that of the rapidly changing social and moral climate of the 1960s basically outstripping (at times literally) the ability of the filmmakers to adapt their material. Thus, for example, whereas 1964's The Phantom of Soho had featured a brief blink-and-you'll miss it flash of exposed breast from of its nightclub performers, here the nightclub is wall-to-wall breasts and buttocks; bush was still a no-no though the obscuring literal and metaphorical fig leafs here would soon come off for the later giallo-krimi crossovers, the St Pauli thrillers and the Schulmadchen report cycle alike.

If this is again just a syntygmatic shift, other elements attest to more profound changes. While the name of the Peace and Love Foundation clearly resonates with post-Summer of Love idealism, the reference to it as a Salvation Army type organisation and its actual philanthropic work in finding work for ex-convicts along with their distinct recidivist tendencies are grounded in an early 20th century weltangschauung that was becoming increasingly shaky in the Age of Aquarius. (Consider here also the case of Jack Henry Abbott, and the question of how far his inability to cope with his release from prison was the result of inherent psychopathy or long institutionalisation or the relative weight commentators might afford these alternatives depending on their politics.)

Likewise, it's the question of whether the Sergeant Pepper character, with his less dedicated attitude towards his work and chasing after every figure in a skirt, is a Wallace name that has been given a non-Wallace characterisation or is entirely the invention of the filmmakers as a younger, hipper alternative to the hitherto traditional but ostensibly outmoded Eddi Arent upper class twit type.

After all, the “you've never had it so good” ideology of the period was one in which the old politics of social class supposedly no longer mattered, though the cynic in me would suggest that it was more the case that new post-war model of mass production requiring more mass consumption than anything else, with the gap between the haves and have nots certainly returning with a vengeance less than ten years later and the persistence of the lumpenproletariat or underclass – old wine, new labels? – emerging as a challenge to left and right alike.

Elsewhere we get a couple of girls at St Mary's engaging in a catfight, apparently because one made vaguely lesbian advances towards the other; the head of Scotland Yard showing a distinct interest in one of girls at the club, and, at the end, a decidedly phallic “ende” that seems to belong more to the world of Bond and the Beatles than bowler hats. Yes, the times they were a changing...

To sum up, not a good krimi but one which is certainly entertaining and which proves to offer a lot to talk about – I haven't even mentioned the underwater gorilla sequences, which have to be seen to be believed – even if itself it doesn't really have much to say.

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