Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Das siebente Opfer (1964)

aka The Racetrack Murders

Former judge Lord John Mant (Walter Rilla) is sweetening his retired life breeding racehorses. His star animal has the cute and innocent name of "Satan", and is the favourite for what I assume to be the National Derby coming up soon. But curious and threatening things happen around the horse: first, evil-doers throw a snake right into Satan's way, costing a stableman his life. Then, a trumpet player on one of Mant's parties who clearly knows something about the dastardly happenings is shot. Scotland Yard sends a certain Inspector Bradley (Heinz Engelmann) to take care of the matter, but the poor man soon has his hands fuller than anyone could have expected, for the series of murders is not only continuing, but the number of shady people doing dubious things in and around Mant's castle is remarkable.

There is Mant's enemy Ed Ranova (Wolfgang Lukschy), large-style bookie, owner of a club called "The Silver Whip" (alas, with no whips in its decoration and no musical number featuring whips or not), a man who once was nearly sentenced to death by the Lord, and who is now willing to do just about anything to hinder Satan from winning the derby, like for example paying off Satan's veterinarian Howard Trent (Harry Riebauer, as wooden as always) to sabotage the poor animal. The Lord's son Gerald (Helmut Lohner) is a rather dubious character too, with betting debts with Ranova and being a bit of a jerk two of his most problematic character traits. And why does that Reverend (Hans Nielsen) seem so much more interested in a valuable painting than in saving souls? Isn't that butler (Peter Vogel in a rather funny turn) a bit too two-fisted? If that's not enough to make an Inspector's life difficult, what about Avril Mant (Ann Smyrner), a poor relation living with the rich Mants? Isn't she a bit too good to be true? And what of the sudden, eccentric houseguest Peter Brooks (Hansjörg Felmy) who appears just after the first (of many) murders? Sure, Avril has "romantic female lead" stamped onto her forehead, as Brooks has "some sort of detective working under cover", but that still leaves a bunch of suspects with various complicated relations and quite a few different evil plans to unravel.

The excellent Bryan Edgar Wallace adaptation Das Siebente Opfer (which translates to "The 7th Victim", though in this case the English title "The Racetrack Murders" seems rather more fitting to what's actually going on in the film at hand) is another - as far as I can make out the last - of the krimis director Franz Josef Gottlieb made in 1963 and 1964 before he'd only ever make bad films and disappear into the bottomless quality pit that is German TV.

Even though Das Siebente Opfer contains most of the elements I know and love from most Wallace (no matter Edgar or Bryan Edgar) adaptations, the film often mixes them up in a pleasantly different way. To just take one example, there is the usual evil mastermind, but he/she is neither wearing a snazzy, thematically appropriate costume, nor is he/she a super villain; in fact, her/his motivation is so normal I have to admit it makes as much sense as anything in a Wallace krimi ever does. This is rather typical for a film that is a bit more of an actual murder mystery than most of its genre brethren - though, to my delight, a very pulpy one - with a whiff of Dick Francis. Here, rather normal murder methods and more improbable ones go hand in hand, and the forces of the law use the most unbelievable methods to reach their goal (like the old "oh, let's wait until most of the cast has been killed off before we decide on a suspect" trick), without that aspect of the movie breaking out into complete silliness.

Usually, I prefer the outright insane krimis to the more murder mystery styled ones, but Das Siebente Opfer is so sprightly directed and written by Gottlieb I just have to make an exception to the rule. The director really has wonderful sense of pacing, jumping through the (of course slightly awkward, this is still a German production) action scenes, the snarky dialogue sequences, and the - often surprisingly funny as well as surprisingly well-placed - humorous scenes, like an excited child who just can't wait to tell his audience what happened next; breathlessness has always stood a pulpy tale in good stead. Visually, Gottlieb goes for a rather dynamic style, with more camera movement and tighter editing than German movie law actually allows, all the better to provide a sense of excitement.

No comments: