Sunday, June 17, 2012

Das Phantom von Soho (1964)

aka The Phantom of Soho

A shadowy figure wearing a skull mask and what looks a lot like silver oven mitts stalks the streets of Soho to start a charming little series of murders. Curiously, the killer doesn't steal from his victims, but leaves manila envelopes with money and little gifts with them; if it were Christmas, you'd probably think him to be a Santa Claus themed serial killer. Chief Inspector Patton (Dieter Borsche) and sort of comic relief Sergeant Hallam (Peter Vogel) are investigating the case, but after the first success of realizing that the murders have something to do with a bar cum bordello named the Zanzibar, it's slow going.

There are just too many suspects - most of whom will soon enough turn into victims of the murderer - and unlike the audience, the policemen don't even know these suspects share a dark secret that may very well be the motive for the murder. Among the dubious people Patton and Hallam encounter are the wheelchair-bound and scarred owner of the Zanzibar, Joanna Filiati (Elisabeth Flickenschild), the gangster who manages the place for her (Stanislav Ledinek), a member of parliament (Hans Nielsen), a peculiar masseur (Werner Peters), a sea captain (Hans W. Hamacher), and the young club photographer (Helga Sommerfeld). Really, the policemen can thank the murderer for slowly whittling down the number of suspects.

However, there are other problems troubling Patton, too. The head of Scotland Yard, Sir Phillip (Hans Söhnker), takes a personal interest in the case, and acts increasingly like a good suspect himself, while Sir Philip's girlfriend, crime writer Clarinda Smith (Barbara Rütting) does her damndest to be part of the investigation.

Das Phantom's director Franz Josef Gottlieb is another filmmaker whose stint in the krimi genre hints at a talent neither his later nor his earlier films would suggest. By now, my working hypothesis explaining this singularly strange - for post-war German filmmaking - tendency is that the krimi was the only genre where either producers allowed the directors to do more than point and shoot, or one of the few genres that actually interested them enough to put some effort in. Looking at the horrible TV shows Gottlieb worked for at the end of his career (45 episodes of a show starring a chimpanzee as its most talented cast member will kill anyone's creativity, I suppose) I'd tend to the latter explanation.

Be that as it may, fact is that the Franz Josef Gottlieb who directed this Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptation for Artur Brauner's CCC Filmkunst, was quite a different director from the director he would all too soon turn into. There's hardly a second in The Phantom where the director isn't setting up a creative shot, letting his camera glide from a room's ceiling to a more normal position, positioning his camera in a cabinet, or letting it swirl nearly psychedelically in a knife throwing sequence. Somehow, Gottlieb still manages to keep his stylistic excesses at least so much in check the film they dominate doesn't fall apart; it's just a bit more surreal than one would expect of one the actually more sanely plotted krimis.

I was a bit surprised, even slightly shocked, by how much of an exploitation movie - for something made in Germany in 1964 - Das Phantom is: there aren't just the comparatively intense knife murders, but also more weird nightclub scenes than in a Jess Franco production (and I'm sure if the great man saw this one, he must have approved of it heartily as made by a kindred spirit), and two striptease numbers that actually show bare breasts, completely going against the spirit of a prudishness that was at its most obvious when a given film was trying to be risqué that always haunted the Wallace adaptations, be they based on Edgar or Bryan.

Gottlieb's visual oomph and the distractions of bloods and breasts and pretty people (well, pretty women - the men here are all of the sort of stiff-necked middle-age that makes girls cry and boys never want to grow old for sheer terror of what they might become) are very helpful as a distraction from the weaknesses of its script, or rather, the script's love for long, pointless dialogue scenes that always threaten to overwhelm the awesome bits with their sheer length; fortunately, unnecessary scenes of characters talking can be made quite bearable through a distracting execution Alfred Vohrer would be proud of.

So, if you want to venture into the weird, sometimes wild, sometimes hilariously conservative not-England of the krimi, you could find far worse films than Das Phantom von Soho.


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