Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Die Bande des Schreckens (1960)

aka The Terrible People

Before his execution, master criminal Clay Shelton has a friendly meet-up with the people he holds responsible for his arrest and his death (poor executioner of London). Shelton promises that all of them will be killed by "the Gallow's Hand".

Chief inspector Long (Joachim Fuchsberger), also known as "the Better", bets against it, which is pretty understandable, seeing how he is one of the threatened victims himself. To nobody's surprise, the promised murders begin soon after Shelton's death. What's really peculiar, though, is that people see someone looking a lot like the dead criminal in the vicinity of these murders. Is Shelton taking his vengeance from the grave into his own hands, or does somebody just want Scotland Yard to think he is?

Of course, this being an Edgar Wallace adaptation, this is not the only troubling question Inspector Long will have to answer before the criminal or criminals can be apprehended. He'll also need to escape various assaults on his own life, muddle through the usual pool of suspect victims and even more suspect suspects (among them usual professional suspect actors in the Wallace films like Dieter Eppler and Ulrich Beiger), un-kidnap the woman and - of course - heiress of his dreams (Karin Dor), and find out how his own father, the brilliantly named Lord Godley Long (Fritz Rasp), is involved in the whole affair. Who said it's easy working for Scotland Yard?

Die Bande des Schreckens is one of the more straightforward movies in Rialto Film's Wallace cycle, not in its plot construction - that part is as byzantine and improbable as usual in these movies - but in its presentation as a classical thrill-a-minute pulp movie with relatively little interest in self-irony, camp or madness. The film is not completely without humour. There's still Eddi Arent walking around doing his usual shtick, yet - also as usual - being allowed to do a few things that make him actually useful, too. However, where the humour is all-pervasive in many of the other Wallace films even this early in the cycle, it's really just a minor element Die Bande des Schreckens includes because films are supposed to have comic relief, and Edgar Wallace movies are supposed to have Eddi Arent as comic relief.

On the down side, director Harald Reinl replaces some of the comic relief with additional scenes of stiff melodrama, putting more energy into the "romantic" (as romantic as scenes between two actors with zero chemistry and horrible dialogue can get) parts than strictly necessary or recommendable.

Generally, the Wallace films tend to revel in their own silliness and divorce from reality in a way that straddles the Weird and the absurd, while still trying to keep a straight face. Reinl's movie just doesn't seem to be all that interested in its own silliness and ridiculousness, instead putting the emphasis on, in the beginning, creating a mildly spooky mood through techniques influenced either by the film noir or the films that influenced film noir (take your pick). The scene where Shelton basically curses a bunch of people just before he is going to die is one of Reinl's finest achievements in a directorial career containing quite a few of these. With the help of Dutch angles, uncomfortable close-ups and stark shadows and lights, Reinl sets Shelton's threat up as something closer to destined doom than just your normal death threat. It's as gothic as any scene of classic gothic horror.

Die Bande des Schreckens doesn't keep to the gothic mood for very long, though, only using it as the starting point for a much more conventional pulp thriller with the expected assortment of weird murder methods (shot by phone is a fine one), last minute escapes and heroine kidnappings. In combination with the romance bits that just don't work, I could have become quite disappointed with this state of affairs, but - the more Vohrer-like stiffness of the acting notwithstanding - Reinl is pretty darn great as a director of straight-up pulp thrills packaged in sometimes painterly, more often dynamic black and white pictures. The downplaying of the more outrageous elements of the Wallace cycle in this particular movie just makes all the more clear how good Reinl is at this sort of thing, how energetic a director he is when he wants to be.


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