Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The White Spider / Die Weisse Spinne (Germany, 1963)

In the U.S., the prolific English writer Edgar Wallace is relatively unknown (despite being one of the creators of King Kong), but in Europe his work has a definite cult status. But while his written works are still available as cheap paperbacks and as reprints in regularly published pulp magazines, what most Europeans think of when they hear his name are the numerous English/ German/Italian/Danish co-productions filmed over a twenty-odd year span beginning in 1959 with the movie Der Frosch mit der Maske / The Fellowship of the Frog, directed by Harold Reinl.
The films still rerun regularly on afternoon and late night television to relative good ratings in Germany. Always enjoyable to watch, Edgar Wallace films, especially those filmed in black and white, generally play like campy, over-the-top film noir peppered regularly with violent deaths and featuring convoluted plots full of inconsistencies and holes. Most take place in London (though usually filmed in Hamburg, Berlin and Copenhagen) and feature many of the same actors and actresses, especially Eddi Arent and Klaus Kinski, have some of the wildest soundtracks ever heard (thanks to, usually, Peter Thomas, Gerd Wilden and Martin Böttcher). Some of the best B&W Wallaces are from director Harold Reinl, who also helmed The White Spider. Reinl, who had a properly Wallace-like ending in 1986 when his second wife stabbed him to death in Spain, usually also featured his then wife, actress Karin Dor, as the lead female in the films he directed. This is true too in The White Spider, but contrary to popular misconception, this film is not an actual Edgar Wallace film, despite the familiar cast, director and music style. Not only is this film not a Railto Production – Rialto being the company that made all the "real" Wallace films – but this film isn't even based on a Wallace story. Rather, the plot is taken from Louis Wilton-Weinert’s (long forgotten) pulp Die Weisse Spinne, but as filmed by Reinl, the movie qualifies as the real thing in every way but for fact. True, Klaus Kinski and Eddi Arent might not be there, but everyone and everything else is.
Opening with a suicide that might not actually be one, Karin Dor plays Muriel, the film’s damsel in distress, the surviving wife of the said suicide. Joachim Fuchsberger turns up as an ex-con that decides to help her, only to be revealed at the end (as happens in many a real Wallace film) as the mysterious detective in charge of the case. Just who is who, who did what, and why something is done is never clear most of the time, even as the body count mounts, but after 3 or 4 garrottings and knifings, it is revealed that the White Spider is not a huge underground syndicate as believed. Rather, it is but one man, a master of disguise who wants nothing more in the world than to disappear and live happily ever after with Muriel. (Sounds like a good reason to kill so many people to me.)
Similarly to a real Wallace film, logic has no place in this film, but in comparison to a normal Wallace production of the time, The White Spider is exceptionally over the top, verging almost on surrealism at times. An acquired taste for non-Europeans, a brave soul might want to sit back, light up a roach and giggle his way through this illogical, delightfully camp homage. In truth, however, one doesn’t really have to be stoned to find this film entertaining.
Amongst the numerous features shared by The White Spider and the actual Rialto productions is the excellent soundtrack, supplied by Peter Thomas, Germany’s answer to Henry Mancini. Unlike Mancini, however, most of Thomas’ musical compositions lean toward the noticeably weird. At his worst, Thomas creates cheesy cocktail music for overage gigolos. At his best, as in the Wallace films or in Raumschiff Orion, the obscure German cult sci-fi TV series from the early 1960s, Thomas composed Incredibly Strange Music at its beat-driven best. His soundtracks are always worth taking a chance on, the older being the better.
As for Harold Reinl, his name is far from a household name but in Germany he is fondly remembered as the man behind most of the Winnetou films. Required viewing for German children, those films are based on the novels of Karol May, Germany’s prolific western author, and feature the muscular, good looking and child molesting Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, a good white man who always helps or is helped by the films’ lead Indian, Winnetou. Fans of obscure horror, however, might know Reinl for the seldom seen but often praised film The Blood Demon (1967) and The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967) – or, perhaps, his entries in the German Jerry Cotton and Dr. Mabuse films of the 60s – but most Americans over 30 have probably only seen one film of his, the classic disinformation documentary Chariots of the Gods (1970), based on Erich von Däniken’s equally cheesy book of the same name that, now forgotten, lines the bookshelves of Salivation Armies across the US.

For those interested in the films of Edgar Wallace and other crime films from Germany’s underrated b-film heydays (namely, the 60s to 70s), Holger Haase has a nice blog called “Halo, hier spricht…”.

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