Monday, June 3, 2013

Der Rote Kreis (Denmark/Germany, 1960)

Aka Den blodrøde cirkel and The Red Circle, Der Rote Kreis was director Jürgen Roland's feature-film début after doing about a dozen episodes of the then-popular German crime series, Stahlnetz (1958-2002). It is also the second film of the famed German Edgar Wallace series, made almost simultaneously to the first one, Harold Reinl's much better known and respected initial entry, Der Frosch mit der Maske (1959 / trailer). Like that film and most of the Rialto Wallace films that followed, Der Rote Kreis, which was filmed in Copenhagen, was rather a hit in its day, but for a long time it was seemingly  and  unjustly relegated to semi-obscurity and very hard to find. Now easily available on DVD, Der Rote Kreis reveals itself not only as even a tad better than Reinl's more popular flick that preceded it, but also as miles better than director Roland's only other (official) entry in the Rialto Wallace series, the extremely popular but somewhat flawed Der Grüne Bogenshutze (1961 / German trailer).
As an early entry in the Railto Wallace series, Der Rote Kreis features an oddly obvious lack of truly familiar faces (as in "Wallace Regulars") in the cast: though Eddi Arent is at hand as Sgt. Haggett to supply his at that time still wry humor, none of the main roles feature any of familiar and loved faces that came to be associated with the series. (True, Fritz Rasp, present as a dislikeable victim, was in five Rialto and two super-early non-Rialto Wallace films [The Squeeker (1931 / trailer) and The Sorcerer (1932)] and Ernst Fritz Fürbringer in five, but neither names/faces are of those that quickly come to mind when one thinks of a Rialto Wallace film.) While hardly a flaw in the film, it is noticeable to fans of the series, as is the pedestrian nature of the movie's soundtrack by Willy Mattes, who also did the music to the infamous trash classics The Head [1959 / full film] and Body in the Web [1960 / full film], as well as to Der Frosch mit der Maske); whether or not he was a good composer might be arguable, but what is without a doubt is that Mattes was not a purveyor of mondo musical weirdness along the lines of Peter Thomas (example) or Martin Böttcher (example) or Gerd Wilden (example), the last of whom regrettably never scored a Wallace film.
 Based on Wallace's novel The Crimson Circle, Roland's film is the fifth film version of the story (if one counts the 1929 German and English language versions as separate films, despite the occasional shared stars and director/co-director). Featuring a quick and convoluted story, this version here is an entertaining thriller about the mysterious Rote Kreis ("Red Circle"), a ruthless killer terrorizing London who forces rich people to pay him money in exchange for their very own lives. Anyone who refuses to pay up or who goes to the police is quickly killed. His only identifying mark is the red circle with which he signs his letters or leaves somewhere at the scenes of his crimes....
Inspector Parr (Karl-Georg Saebisch) is feeling the heat of public opinion, as he has no clues as to who the murderer is and seems powerless to stop the killings, which already number at eighteen. Forced by Sir Archibald (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer), the head of Scotland Yard, to work with the popular private detective Derrick Yale (Klausjürgen Wussow), their combined forces seem no match for the Rote Kreis who continues killing all that cross him, sometimes right under the very noses of Scotland Yard (as is the case with Matrose Selby [Panos Papadopulos of For a Few Dollars More (1965 / trailer)], who is killed in jail between interrogation sessions).
Simultaneously to the murders, the attractive Thalia Drummond (Renate Ewert of Hotel der toten Gäste [1965]) keeps popping up at the most odd places, including as the secretary for the rich miser and potential victim Froyant (Fritz Rasp of Metropolis [1927 / full film], Diary of a Lost Girl [1929 / full film] and many another old German film of note), as a bank teller at a bank washing marked bills, hidden in the clothes cabinet at Yale's office, and taking archery lessons from Jack Beardmore (Thomas Alder), whose father soon is killed by the Rote Kreis with bow and arrow.
Who could the Rote Kreis be? Thalia? Jack? The banker? The mysterious Frenchman Marles (Richard Lauffen) who suddenly shows up to buy the deceased Mr. Beardmore's waterside warehouse? Or one of any of the unfriendly and suspicious people who have offices at Beardmore's office building downtown? Numerous suspects die violent deaths while others remain an option until the end, but in the tradition of a true Wallace tale full of unexpected twists and turns, the final revelation(s) is/are all surprising.
Of course, like many if not all Wallace films, Der Rote Kreis has way too many minor characters and sub-plots and is thus occasionally confusing, but thanks to excess of characters there are also more violent deaths. The B&W cinematography is eye-candy for the eye, and the composition and camerawork is almost never boring. All in all, Der Rote Kreis truly deserves a lot more respect and attention than that which passing time has shown it. We recommend heartily!
A tragic aside to the film itself exists in the form of the eventual fates of the two playing the movie's lovebirds, the actress Renate Ewert (Thalia) and the actor Thomas Alder (Jack). Alder's short career consisted mostly of small parts in "Heimat films" and an occasional B film such as 13 Ways to Die aka Der Fluch der schwarzen Rubens [1965 / title track by Gerd Wilden]. For reasons seemingly unknown, he took his life in 1968 by sticking his head in a stove.
Renate Ewert's death was probably also a suicide, though no note was left behind. As a child, her family had been forced by WWII to immigrate from Konnigsberg in Prussia (now Poland), eventually settling in Hamburg. A beautiful and driven woman, she always dreamt of becoming an actress and, after much hard work and some real hard knocks, eventually succeeded in breaking into films through her work in voiceovers. (Considering how horrible her voice sounds to modern ears, it is almost unbelievable that she found work in that field in the first place.) Her career was mostly one of secondary roles as the jealous girlfriend or seductively mysterious female, and the scandal of her numerous and publicized affairs with various actors and directors probably did more harm than help back in those hypocritical and easily scandalized years. By 1966 her career was over and she was addicted to pills and booze and, in hindsight, probably anorexic as well. Fellow actress Susanne Cramer came to visit her on December 10th, 1966, and found Ewert's three-week-old dead body; her death is attributed to either suicide or starvation, depending on the source used. Whether it be due to social embarrassment or familiar love is open to question (and never documented), but for whatever reason within 18 months both her parents killed themselves as well (though not at the same time).
Director Jürgen Roland, by the way, also made 4 Schlüssel [1966], a German crime film we reviewed many a year ago.

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