Sunday, March 18, 2007

More Victims of DER RÄCHER!!!

Maria Litto is discovered unconscious in Griff Tower by Heinz Drache in the early Edgar Wallace krimi DER RÄCHER.

I hope that all readers of this blog are familiar with my article "Edgar Wallace and the Paternity of KING KONG," which appeared in VIDEO WATCHDOG #126, pages 26-37. I suspect it was the most important piece of film reportage that I wrote last year, and it was the runner-up for the Rondo Award for Best Article of 2006. A film that features quite prominently in that article, Karl Anton's early krimi THE AVENGER [DER RÄCHER, 1960] -- based on an Edgar Wallace novel known here in America as THE HAIRY ARM -- has now been released as a Region 2 German language DVD by Kinowelt. While the presentation itself leaves something (indeed, some things) to be desired, it's an exciting release nevertheless, for what it reveals of the film itself. The scene pictured above is the beginning of the reason why.

The only English-language version of DER RÄCHER to surface thus far is a miserable-looking 16mm transfer from Sinister Cinema which runs 83m 15s. The Kinowelt disc runs 95m 16s in PAL, which translates to an impressive 99m 20s in NTSC. Therefore, the R2 disc yields an additional 16m 5s of footage -- including what turns out to be the most exciting scenes in the entire picture. None of it's in English, but that's where your otherwise worthless videotape continues to earn its keep.

To briefly recap, DER RÄCHER is about a series of London-based decapitation murders credited to a killer known as the Avenger. Ruth Sanders (Ina Ducha), the only living relative of the Avenger's latest victim is discovered to be working as an extra on a film set. Detective Michael Brixan (Heinz Drache) of "the foreign office" goes to interview her, only to become imbroiled in dangerous goings-on at the filming locations, involving the unwelcome attentions paid to Ms. Sanders by lascivious nobleman/adventurer Sir Gregory Penn (Benno Sterzenbach), whose majordomo Bhag (Al Hoosman) is a hairy, domesticated, ape-like subhuman creature brought back to England from Borneo. After Brixan hears a woman's screams coming from Griff Tower, the peak of the nobleman's property, the cause is discovered in the next day's rushes, when -- in a sequence from the novel that anticipates BLOWUP and a good many giallo thrillers to come -- the film's director spots footage accidentally taken of a frightened woman at the tower's window. The English version sweeps the continuation of this thread under the rug, but after Brixan is shown a frame of the woman's face on a strip of film, the German version continues... with a 13m chunk missing from the English version!

In this footage, Brixan goes to his hotel's front desk and places a call to the "foreign office." His call is accepted by his superior, Major Staines (Siegfried Schurenberg in his first krimi), who -- in a bizarre comic moment -- hangs up only to discover his secretary dozing. He wakes her with a shout and she continues taking dictation. We then cut to the grounds below Griff Tower, where Brixan unfolds a portable ladder under cover of night and ascends to the oval window in the tower where the woman's face was seen. He finds the window unlocked and climbs inside into a darkened room. His flashlight beam finds a woman's bare foot, which tracks up her bare bruised leg to reveal the tear-stained face of an unconscious woman (Litto), the Indonesian dancer seen dancing for Sir Gregory's pleasure earlier in the film. A sound of approaching rattling chains alerts Brixan that Bhag is coming, and he ducks outside the window -- standing on a slender balcony -- to observe. Bhag enters the room, bringing food to the prisoner, and glowers at her with fascinated, lovesick eyes.

Brixan peers inside the window to see what's happening, making a noise in the process. Bhag looks to the window, but sees nothing. A cutaway to the exterior reveals that Brixon has fallen over the guardrail and is hanging on, VERTIGO-style, for dear life.

Back inside, Bhag returns his attentions to his beautiful prisoner, who revives, sees him looming over her, and screams. The sound of her cry gives Brixan the strength to surmount his problem and climb back to the window. When he sees that the woman is about to be molested by the creature, he silently opens the window and tosses his smoking pipe down the flight of stairs behind Bhag, which rise into the tower. Bhag hears the sound below and rushes off in pursuit.

Brixan then re-enters the tower room and ascertains the woman's safety before leaving to alert the authorities. Once back on terra firma, Brixan is startled as Bhag emerges from the shadows -- looking twice his height -- and stalks him into an inescapable corner.

Just as it appears that Brixan's luck has run out, he is saved by the sudden arrival of an Asian swordsman, who brandishes his sword and causes Bhag to retreat.

In a later police station scene included in the English version, Brixan is reunited with the rescued dancer and the swordsman, who is revealed to be her brother. Brixan takes the opportunity to thank him for saving his life. (The same scene pokes fun at the original by having the dancer speak to Brixan in German, which Major Staines professes not to understand.)

The next morning, Brixan awakens in his bed to find Major Staines in his room. He's pleased to see the Major but, after the events of the previous night, he's pleased to see anybody. Major Staines announces more soberly that the local constabulary have received another parcel from the Avenger (called "Der Kopfsjager" or "The Headhunter" in the German dialogue).

They proceed to the police station and nod their permission for the box to be opened. As the folds of the box lid are pulled back, a startling zoom shot reveals its contents:

It's the head of the screenwriter!


Now we know why the film's biggest star suddenly disappears from the picture! These three consecutive scenes aren't the only footage missing from THE AVENGER, but they are the most conspicuous omissions. Siegfried Schurenberg has more scenes in the German version, meeting and discussing the case with Heinz Drache, and a brief altercation between Drache and the gentleman revealed to be Der Kopfsjager is somewhat more violent, with an additional shot of the unconscious Drache's blood-streaked face. The two versions also open differently, the German one starting with the precredit sequence of the first head's discovery, while the English version moves this scene into the main body of the picture, following the main titles. Best of all, the character of Bhag -- described as an authentic domesticated gorilla in the novel rather than the hirsute half-human seen in the movie -- has more screen time, adding a great deal to the picture's suspense, to its value as a horror film, and to our appreciation of the late Al Hoosman and the pathos he gave to this Kong kin.

Kinowelt's presentation is windowboxed to an odd proportion of 1.54:1 and looks overly harsh and dark. Plaid sportcoats and brick walls seen from a distance shimmer with moirés. The edge of the picture closest to the top matte can often be seen jittering. There is also a slight, metallic shrillness to the voice recording, while the accompanying soundtrack -- which, as with the English version, never lets up -- is more richly recorded. Compared to the Sinister tape, the only other copy of the film available till now, the disc is no great shakes but acceptable (though an English track would have cemented the sale for a bigger audience); however, it's a different matter when one compares it to the theatrical trailer also included. The trailer (2m 44s) is presented in a doubtless intended 1.66:1 ratio and looks cleaner, brighter and infinitely more detailed -- watch the trailer after the movie and you'll feel disappointed; watch it before the movie and you'll feel worse. There are also biographies of a few cast members and a stills gallery consisting of 28 images, only 10 of which are actual stills, the others being frame grabs.

DER RÄCHER is an important film in the history of the Edgar Wallace krimis for many reasons. It was the second of the West German Wallaces and the only attempt made by a competitor of Rialto Film, as the company discouraged further such attempts. Nevertheless, it introduced three of the most beloved krimi actors -- Drache, Schurenberg, Kinski -- and Al Hoosman's Bhag proposed a blueprint of sorts for Blind Jack, the sightless ogre played by the unforgettable Ady Berber in the following year's THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON [DIE TOTEN AUGEN VON LONDON, 1961], much as his literary forebear was the predecessor of King Kong.

When I wrote about THE AVENGER for my Wallace article, I noted that it was one of the most faithful of all Edgar Wallace adaptations. Now that I've finally seen the full version, I'm pleased to discover that it's better than just faithful.

POSTSCRIPT (3-18-06). Gary Banks has written with the following important information: "I have the Sinister Cinema VHS and it indeed has all of the scenes that you mention and has a running time of close to 100 minutes. Greg Luce upgraded this title back in the mid 90's (not exactly sure of the date). The print is still rather on the poor side, but it is intact." Evidently my copy pre-dates that upgrade, so I'll leave this blog posted for those who may not be aware of the availability of these longer versions.

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