Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Harald Reinl at 100

Dr. Harald Reinl, as he was sometimes billed, was born one hundred years ago today in Bad Ischl, Salzburg, Austria. His doctorate, belatedly awarded in 1938, was actually in physical education; he was an expert skiier in his youth and used this talent as his entré into cinema: he stunt-doubled for Leni Riefenstahl in such films as STORM OVER MONT-BLANC (1930) and WHITE ECSTASY (1931). In 1937, he made his first film short, WILDE WASSER ("Wild Waters"), which he wrote, co-directed and edited -- it might have been the start of a promising career, but the second World War intervened. He finally directed his first feature film, BERGKRISTAL ("Crystal Mountain") in 1949, and had his first international success with a nod to his earliest work in films: 1951's NIGHT TO MONT-BLANC.

Comedies, romances, war and adventure pictures followed in quick succession, preparing Dr. Reinl for his rendezvous with destiny. In 1959, he directed the first of the West German Edgar Wallace krimis, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE FROG. Many of the basic tenets of the krimi were established by Reinl in this film and his subsequent contributions, THE TERRIBLE PEOPLE (1960) and THE FORGER OF LONDON (1961) -- particularly those in the realms of casting and atmosphere. Beginning with THE TERRIBLE PEOPLE, Reinl usually cast his second wife, Karin Dor, whom he had married in 1954, as the leading lady in his thrillers; she quickly became known as "Miss Krimi" to theater goers. It would seem that Reinl's personal hero was Fritz Lang, as he was lured away from Rialto Film's Wallace series to helm the best of CCC's Dr. Mabuse sequels: THE RETURN OF DR. MABUSE (1961) and THE INVISIBLE DR. MABUSE (1962). He also made an odd non-associated German thriller, THE CARPET OF HORROR (1962) around this time, which actually had more to do with poison gas than carpeting.

While Rialto's Wallace directors generally stayed faithful to the studio and series, Reinl prefered to remain a free agent and drifted freely from CCC back to Rialto (where he inaugurated their successful Karl May Western series with 1962's wonderfully entertaining THE TREASURE OF SILVER LAKE) and back again to CCC, where he contributed to their competing Bryan Edgar Wallace series with the outstanding THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE (1963). Between 1963 and 1965, he made another oddball krimi starring Klaus Kinski (THE WHITE SPIDER), returned to the Wallace series with the violent ROOM 13 and series standout THE SINISTER MONK (which in many ways foreshadowed Argento's SUSPIRIA), and then directed the three films that collectively compose what is arguably the pinnacle of his career and the Karl May series: the WINNETOU trilogy starring Lex Barker and Pierre Brice. Reinl's sweepingly romantic, unabashedly heroic view of the Old West was a significant influence on the operatic Italian Westerns of Sergio Leone. The final film in the WINNETOU trilogy, released in this country as THE DESPERADO TRAIL, has the personal distinction of being one of only two Westerns that have ever brought me to tears -- though I can't be sure the English dubbed version would affect me the same way.

Reinl was rewarded for this success by being permitted to indulge himself in a fantasy assignment: a lavish, two-part, color and stereo sound remake of Fritz Lang's DIE NIEBELUNGEN, featuring Uwe Beyer as Siegfried and Karin Dor as Brunhilda. (Sadly, I have never seen it, but some have called it a masterpiece.) By this time, Reinl's marriage to Dor was turning rocky; they made one last film together, DIE SCHLANGENGRUBE UND DAS PENDEL ("The Snake Pit and the Pendulum") before divorcing in 1968. This horror film, heavily influenced by Bava's BLACK SUNDAY and one of the most eerily atmospheric of its period, also starred Christopher Lee, Lex Barker and krimi favorite Dieter Eppler -- and it is known here in America by many other lurid titles, including BLOOD DEMON, CASTLE OF THE WALKING DEAD and THE TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM.

The remainder of Dr. Reinl's career is an intriguing conglomeration of trivia. He made another Karl May film (1968's IN THE VALLEY OF DEATH), three of the best Jerry Cotton thrillers starring George Nader (DEATH AND DIAMONDS, CORPSE IN A RED JAGUAR and DEADLY SHOTS ON BROADWAY), a film in the "Dr. Fabian" comedy series, and in 1970, he directed the film based on Erich von Däniken's best-selling CHARIOTS OF THE GODS. In a career highlight, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Six years later, he helmed a sequel of sorts, MYSTERIES OF THE GODS, also based on a book by von Däniken. It was in the year of this last international success, 1976, that Reinl met and married his third and last wife, Daniella Maria Dana, who reportedly stabbed him to death on October 9, 1986. One last film, a documentary about Sri Lanka, was issued to theaters posthumously.

As a young viewer discovering Reinl's work on video, I always imagined -- from the doctorate he so often insisted on attaching to his name -- he must have been a humorless, Kissinger-like fellow and a tyrant on the set, rather in the mold of his hero, Fritz Lang. However, more recently, the TOBIS/UFA DVD import discs of the Edgar Wallace krimis have included archival interviews with Harald Reinl that show him to have been an outgoing, gregarious and quite humor-driven man, well-liked by his cast and crews. I'm happy to honor him today as an outstanding contributor to the fantastic cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, a chief architect of the krimi and the post-Lang Mabuse thriller, and as something he is too seldom acknowledged as being: one of the great Western directors of all time.

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