Thursday, November 20, 2014

Die Tote aus der Themse (1971)

aka Angels of Terror

Royal Opera Ballet ballerina Myrna Ferguson (Lyvia Bauer) has – like some of her colleagues – worked as a drug mule for a not very mysterious trio of drug lords, but she’s now helping Scotland Yard in form of the intrepid Inspector Craig (Hansjörg Felmy) keeping London heroin free by betraying her former friends.

Not surprisingly, particularly since Scotland Yard doesn’t seem to know about the concept of protective custody, Myrna is soon shot dead in a hotel room. In a curious development Myrna’s body disappears before Craig and co. can take a look at it. The very next morning, Myrna’s sister Danny (Uschi Glas) arrives in London from her Australian home – the place where all Edgar Wallace characters who aren’t from London seem to arrive from – for a vacation with her sister.

On learning about her sister’s death, Danny quickly develops ambitions on doing some amateur detective work. However, she really doesn’t seem to be cut out for the job, seeing how prone to being kidnapped and threatened, and in need of Inspector Craig’s assistance she is. Well, she and Craig have a lot in common, really, particularly their lack of talent in the realm of detection. So it is rather nice of a mysterious black gloved figure to shoot various witnesses as well as the heads of the heroin ring quite dead, otherwise, this case would never progress.

At the beginning of the 70s, the Rialto Wallace adaptations were in a bit of an identity crisis: on one hand, Alfred Vohrer’s contributions had become increasingly self-referential and ironic, an approach that works perfectly looked at from today, but must have felt highly unusual for the contemporary German audience, and if there’s one thing that’s archetypically German, it’s to treat the unusual as suspect. On the other hand, the other series directors were attempting to update or change the formula in other ways.

Routine German genre film director (and soon to be TV specialist, the poor man) Harald Philipp’s Die Tote aus der Themse for example tries to unify traditional Wallace film values with visual and stylistic elements taken from the Italian giallos that had artistically and commercially overtaken the krimi by miles at this point, as well as a very German approach to luridness – which is to say a quaint, harmless and a bit lamely conservative approach that I can’t imagine shocking anyone in 1971. At least in the last regard, the film reminds me a bit of 70s Hammer attempts of pretending to be hip.

The traditional Wallace values are represented by series mainstays Siegfried “Sir John” Schürenberg, Werner “I’m a bad guy” Peters and Harry “no idea why he was in so many of these things” Riebauer, and Uschi “hey, at least I’m allowed to do more than Karin Dor” Glas, some mild mysterious villain aspects to the set-up of the heroin dealers, and some utterly bizarre business about the drug smuggling ways of ballerinas. These rub against the film’s more modernist tendencies in curious ways, as if your grandfather suddenly started popping the drug of the week. It’s a very strange mixture of the old-fashioned (by 1971) with approximations of the modern (of 1971) that can only result in an uneven film.

Fortunately, it also results in quite an interesting film, or at least in one where you never really know which of its conflicting instincts it is going to follow in the next scene. To me, this sort of weird and slightly broken thing is endlessly fascinating.

It becomes even more so because Philipp and Rialto Wallace main director of photography Karl Löb are doing some rather good giallo imitations throughout the film, giving it a visual unity the script never reaches. So watch out for people dwarfed by bottles of alcohol (though not J&B, unfortunately), mildly meaningful use of colour that pops out in a way that’ll frighten the blue and teal blues away (Shaw Brothers coloured blood!) and a camera that’s generally mobile and moves in interesting ways. In this context, I at least have to give a friendly nod to Peter Thomas’s score that sees the great man of German weirdo soundtracks going full-on Morricone.

Last but not least, I couldn’t help but enjoy the film’s utterly hideous interior decorations, things so much of their time I’m a bit surprised I’m actually allowed to look at them in this sainted year of perfect taste.

All this doesn’t really add up to anything I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t already seen a dozen or so other Wallace movies, but once you’re through the best part of the canon, a peculiar little number like this is rather nice. And if you enjoy the juxtaposition of things that just don’t belong together you just might like it, too.


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