Before the Italians invented Giallo, cold war-era Germany gave us the Krimi! Though Mario Bava’s seminal, beautifully rendered murder mystery “Blood and Black Lace” took inspiration from the generic yellow covered pulp fiction of the day, and Dario Argento — building on Bava’s stylish oeuvre — kick-started the Giallo genre proper with a modish adaptation of a lurid Edgar Wallace thriller (“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”), West Germany’s Rialto Films was already building its own inimitable take on all matters murderous and criminal with a long-running series of playful crime thrillers ripped directly from the pulp work of Wallace, the British writer of mystery fiction and conceiver of the original “King Kong”. Although the two genres eventually merged in the early ‘70s, with Rialto developing a Hammer Films-like penchant for cutting costs by way of co-productions that resulted in films such as “What Have They Done to Solange” — to all intents and purposes a fully home-grown Italian Giallo, with a much nastier edge than anything in the true Krimi series but with a few Rialto regulars shoehorned into the cast list so that the company could palm it off on German audiences as a Wallace crime thriller — many of the elements that later came to define the Italians’ much more lurid take on Wallace, were already present (or bubbling under the surface) in a nascent form; black-gloved killers soon became a favourite motif, and the series’ own Bava/Argento-like auteur, Alfred Vohrer, developed a mischievous feel for outlandish point-of-view shots (one sequence in a later film plays out entirely from inside the mouth of a protagonist!).
The tone of the whole series was already set with this first 1959 effort, “Der Frosch mit der Maske“ (aka “The Fellowship of the Frog”), directed by Harold Reinl (who would soon go on to work on the funky ‘60s Dr Mabuse films), and, ironically enough, it largely echoes the light, semi-comedic tone of Bava’s noir-ish “The Girl Who Knew Too Much”: a film largely remembered today as a kind of semi-successful proto-giallo. The material that makes up Wallace’s thrillers slots right in, though, with established traditions in German crime fiction. From Norbert Jacques’ cult character Dr Mabuse onwards, there has always been a fixation with shadowy criminal organisations led by omniscient, mythical crime lords, usually leading double lives as respected establishment figures even as they seek to undermine law and society through an impenetrable spider’s web of related crime activity. Wallace had a liking for masked villains with outlandish aliases who run rings round hapless British constables as Scotland Yard battles to end their reign of anarchy. His work merges the murder mystery with the gangster thriller in a way that obviously lends itself for adaptation by the Mabuse obsessed Germans. When Fritz Lang returned to the Mabuse character in 1960, kick starting a whole new cycle of films produced by Artur Brauner, the film he presented (“The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse”), and the handful of sequels that followed it, appropriated a very similar tone and style to the Rialto Krimi series.
These films went largely unseen in the UK (although Christopher Lee and James Justice Robinson appear in English language variants of several of them), and only cropped up in the US in edited, badly dubbed TV versions. Looking at them now en mass in TOBIS/UFA Entertainment’s luxuriously produced series of German, Region 2 box sets (10 volumes in all, although English speakers should beware that not all the films in all the sets contain English subtitles or dubs!) is, as Kim Newman writes in his Video Watchdog overview of the series, like stumbling upon a complete set of the output of Hammer Films from 1958 to 1976 (from “The Curse of Frankenstein” to “To The Devil a Daughter”) for the very first time!
Like Hammer, Rialto worked with a roster of recurring actors, who appear mostly in similar roles throughout but sometimes seek to vary the formula, with its increasingly similar plot lines and shamelessly reworked material, by rotating character types. Thus, this first film in the series introduces Joachim Fuchsberger as the suave, debonair, Bond-style protagonist (although his jocular persona is more Roger Moore than Sean Connery). Usually to be cast as a variety of Scotland Yard-employed detectives, here he is essaying a more giallo-esque line in amateur sleuthing, although he’s essentially the same genial character in every single film! Fuchsberger would still be present twelve years later in Massimo Dallamano’s decidedly less wholesome “What Have They Done To Solange”, and another Krimi regular, Eddi Arent, would also continue to play the same German take on the English butler (even when he’s playing a policeman or other similar roles), providing a decidedly forced, Germanic form of slapstick comic relief with his succession of snobbish, bowler-hated sidekicks to Fuchsberger (and whoever else may occasionally replace him in the hero role).
In “The Fellowship of the Frog” and almost every other film in the series, Arent plays his stiff-upper-lipped underling as a kind of ridiculous comedy figure, but, like so much in these films’ surreal take on English culture, it comes across as mannered and unconvincing, while at the same time (to a knowing modern-day audience at least) strangely endearing. With their specially shot montages of Double Deckers at Piccadilly Circus, or various London landmarks (The Houses of Parliament figure prominently in this entry), these films work hard to try and capture an idea of Englishness (not withstanding misspelled road signs and such bizarre slip-ups as the sight of a fleet of helmeted bobbies wielding revolvers during a raid on the Frog’s headquarters!) and usually fail spectacularly, providing instead a curious foreigner's fantasy England with a London made up of darkly lit, fogbound cobbled streets crammed with teeming, oddly Teutonic burlesque night-clubs, or grandiose English country homes full of secret passageways and dank cobwebbed crypts!
Fellowship of the Frog
The plot line of “The Fellowship …” is the first instance of what would soon become a familiar formula: a long list of suspicious subjects are involved in a bewildering array of subplots and vie with one another to be revealed by Fuchsberger at the end as the fiendish criminal culprit — but not before he's won the heart of a glamorous heroine, who is almost always threatened with abduction by said fiend at some stage or other in the proceedings. In this case, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Elk (Siegfried Lowitz) is deeply involved into a long running investigation into the activities of a clandestine group of safe robbers led by a master-brain known only as “The Frog”, possibly because of his insistence on shrouding his identity with the aid of a frogman’s diving suit and a goggle-eyed frog-like mask! Members of the gang are initiated by visiting an abandoned cement-making factory in the dead of night, where they are painfully tattooed with the mark of the frog, forevermore committing themselves to absolute loyalty and total obedience to the dictates of their new master. When a plan to infiltrate the Frog’s gang fails, Inspector Elk and his superior, Sir Archibald (Ernst Fritz Furbringer) are at their wits end, all their carefully laid plans seemingly unravelled in an instant. Sir Archibald’s adventurer nephew Richard Gordon (Fuchsberger) and his faithful butler, James (Arent) soon become involved in the case though after Gordon’s prospective beau, Ella Bennet (Eva Anthes), is paid a midnight visit in her bedchamber by The Frog, who promises her she will eventually willingly leave the country with him! Meanwhile, Ella’s wayward brother Ray (Walter Witz) falls in with a bad crowd at the smoky backstreet Lolita Club, eventually getting himself framed for murder and lined up for execution if Gordon cannot find and unmask the Frog (the real culprit behind the murder) in time.
A whole host of suspicious characters in dubious disguises and several mysterious, sour-faced individuals in dark cloaks are lined-up along the way as prospective suspects, but, in true Agatha Christie fashion, the real culprit is the least likely and least obvious candidate. Secret identities and double crossings abound to a ridiculous degree, and the plot makes little sense in the end (a habit one must quickly get used to if one is to get anything from this series) but director Harald Reinl produces a likeable first entry which has a jazzy, insouciant vibe, set somewhere between Emma Peel era Avengers and such breezy British TV fare as “Danger Man”. Improbable villains, shadowy spy rings, handsome heroes and occasional bouts of stylised fisticuffs form the main backbone of this and most other early entries. But there is also a hint of the more extreme bloodletting to come in later films in a lurid throat-slashing that leaves its victim writhing in a pool of blood, and in a late sequence where the Frog machine guns a busty night club singer (Eva Pflug) to death after first tying her to a chair! The whole meal is presented in lustily sharp 4:3 black-and-white that looks pristine on this re-mastered and restored DVD special from TOBIS/UFA. Inviting as it is, though, it only leaves the viewer hungry for more once he/she has gulped it greedily down!