Sunday, September 25, 2011

Das Wirtshaus von Dartmoor (1964)

aka The Inn On Dartmoor

Scotland Yard is confused by a series of twelve well-organized break-outs from Dartmoor Prison. It's not as if the prison has been completely without incidents like these in the past, but these earlier escapees have always been found quickly, often even before they could find their way out of the moors surrounding the place. The only trace the last twelve escapees have left is a single postcard with the text "Arrived safely" for one family member by each and every single one of them.

Inspector Cromwell (Paul Klinger) has its own theory what this strange business means. The policeman thinks that the twelve men are all dead by now, killed by an organization supposedly out to rescue them. Cromwell even has an idea which organization that might be - "Butterfly", openly a kind of legal costs insurance for members of the underworld. Butterfly's boss, the lawyer Gray (Dieter Eppler), does at least seem to have more than just one secret.

Cromwell isn't the only one looking for the escaped men. Australian Tony Nash (Heinz Drache) has a very personal interest in the last of the twelve escapees, in that he wants to either kiss or kill him for past sins. Both men's investigations independently point at Gray and at the Inn of former Dartmoor super-guard Mr. Simmons (Friedrich Joloff), who just might have secrets of his own.

After some time of working at odds with each other, Cromwell and Nash decide to put their heads together. Still, this isn't an easy case to crack, for someone working through the inn's waitress, local femme fatale Evelyn (Ingmar Zeisberg), uses Gray's former chauffeur to kill anyone who could point the police at him, leaving Nash with the desperate idea of letting himself be thrown into Dartmoor and try to escape the prison with the help of "Butterfly".

Das Wirtshaus von Dartmoor is one of five Krimis director Rudolf Zehetgruber made in 1963 and 1964, at the height of the Edgar Wallace mania in German cinema. So it will hardly come as a surprise that these five films are part of the wave of films by various German production houses out to catch some of that sweet Wallace adaptation money without actually having the rights to adapt any Wallace novels, nor useful property like the rights to Doctor Mabuse.

Fortunately, the UK did provide these German filmmakers with a slew of other mystery writers like Francis Durbridge, or, in the case of Das Wirtshaus, Victor Gunn, whose novels one could adapt as loosely as possible - after all, the point was to have the name of a British sounding writer in the credits, and nothing else. Once you had taken care of that part of business, you only needed to put a few Wallace movie mainstays (like Heinz Drache and Dieter Eppler in this case) in front of the camera, and make good use of other Wallace movie mainstays (like writer Egon Eis and composer Peter Thomas in this case) behind the camera - not a problem given how small the German film industry of the time was - and you had your own Krimi to bring to market. It's something to bring a tear into the eye of every fan of greedy exploitation movie hucksterism.

Zehetgruber's films are certainly some of the better of non-Wallace Wallace movies. They generally aren't as good as the best films Rialto's Harald Reinl and Alfred Vohrer directed, but they do fit snugly into the solid middle ground of these films. While Zehetgruber's Krimis don't climb the pulpy heights of something like Der Frosch mit der Maske, nor develop the sheer lunacy of efforts like Die Blaue Hand, they can still be an all-around pleasant time for friends of the genre, among whom I have found myself again these last few months.

As a director, Zehetgruber seems to reach for the intersection of the styles of Reinl and Vohrer in a mad science-like attempt to fuse Reinl's snap and Vohrer's eccentricity, only on a budget that must have been much lower than what the Rialto directors had to work with. The vagaries of working with little money mostly show in an overuse of library footage to demonstrate that the film's really taking place in the UK and somewhat hopeless yet charming attempts to present archetypically German countryside as a part of Britain. It would be churlish not to admit that Zehetgruber gets some very moody shots out of foggy, autumnal German country roads, though. In fact, all scenes not taking place on obvious sets are shot especially well, composed with an eye for atmosphere and even, from time to time, a certain sense of beauty.

The rest of the film is exactly like one would expect: the script is needlessly byzantine, the characters pulp novel clichés, the action fake but enthusiastic, the music groovy, Heinz Drache about as cool as German actors in this sort of role get, the film's idea of the UK is overexcited and a bit weird - you probably know the deal by now. It's the Krimi as the movie equivalent of a comfy chair, and I for one, always liked to sit comfortably.


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