Phantom of Soho

Back in the day, I had a German film class in what we then referred to as “college,” or sometimes “university.” Back in this time period, I would ride to class on my pushbike beneath trees dripping with the vibrantly colored leaves of fall, my letterman cardigan sweater rakishly unbuttoned and my books slung around my shoulder in a satchel, whistling the latest hit by The Ink Spots and thinking of my sweetheart Annabeth and the grand we time we’d have that weekend when I would borrow my chum’s horseless motor carriage to drive her up to the country for a picnic, where I would serenade her with some ukulele playing. Oh, that was truly the golden fall of ’92! The film class covered the basics of German film — Metropolis, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Nosferatu, Triumph of the Will, Jew Suss, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum, American Friend, The Seventh Cross, and the dreaded The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. I also learned that I wanted a Weimar Republic era nightclub in my house. Later, of course, I became more of a grown up and dispensed with such childish fantasies. Nowadays, I want a Jess Franco nightclub in my house. Although the professor was a grand man and even though he taught me the word vergangenheits-bewaltigung, there was no mention of krimi, the fantastical crime films based (sometimes loosely) on the works of mystery writer Edgar Wallace. For that matter, there was no mention of the Jerry Cotton FBI-adventure films starring George Nader, or of Superargo, so in the end, I have to question the quality of education I received.

Wallace was born in the London slums in the latter half of the 1800s, his father an actor, his mother a dancer — two professions and a life that we can see reflected as major influences in Wallace’s work. In 1896, he found himself stationed in South Africa, serving in the Boer War and developing a nascent writing career as a reporter. His work attracted the attention of none other than Rudyard Kipling, who encouraged Wallace to continue his writing career. Wallace, himself a great admirer of Kipling, wisely took the advice, and before too long, he was making enough money as a foreign correspondent in South Africa to afford a wife and a comfortable existence for the both of them. Then, just as quickly, he lost all his money, because that’s the way us writers are. After returning to England in 1902, he published his first serialized novel in 1905, but once again he proved a better writer than financial adviser, as a crackpot promotional scheme that offered readers a reward if they could figure out the solution to the book resulted in lawsuits, bankruptcy, and the loss of his copyright for the story.

But at least he had a new career, even if he had to maintain it to stay one step ahead of poverty — something I’m sure no other writer has ever experienced. It was a relatively unspectacular career for some time, but in 1921, something suddenly caught fire. It was in this year that Wallace’s name became synonymous with mystery writing. By 1928, it is reported that nearly a quarter of the books being printed in England were Edgar Wallace mysteries. He managed to get himself a plum job as the figurehead president at British Lion Films, which meant that he would be getting cuts of all future and past films based on his work. In 1931, after an unsuccessful bid for Parliament (the gambling habit came back to haunt him), he went to the United States and attempted to scare up a screenwriting job for himself. He had a hard time finding takers for any but one of his scripts, and that one he managed to sell to RKO Pictures, though they insisted on a different title, something more exotic than The Beast. And so was born King Kong. Wallace died shortly afterward, in 1932. By that time, he had written some 250 books and plays, countless short stories, and left his family $68,000 — not a bad sum in 1932, so long as you ignore that it was countered by the $400,000 in debt he amassed as a result of gambling on the ponies and a love of throwing big parties.

One of his sons, Bryan Edgar, himself a budding writer, took on the task of selling his late father’s work for the screen and of writing new books in the style of and “inspired by the work of Edgar Wallace.” So I guess he was like a proto-Christopher Tolkien. When Bryan Edgar moved to West Germany after the war, he brought with him the infectious enthusiasm for his father’s work that had resulted in so many books and so many films based on those books. Wallace’s stories were very popular in Germany throughout the 1920s. The Germans were keen on making cinematic adaptations of Edgar Wallace novels. However, all production of these films was halted, and indeed the books themselves were banned, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. When Bryan Edgar Wallace arrived in West Germany after the war, his appearance coincided with a general revival of interest in crime films, thanks in no small part to the noirish crime films of the French New Wave. The atmosphere was right, and before too long, interest in Wallace’s works was revived. So too was the production of films based on those novels. In 1959, with the release of The Fellowship of the Frog, the krimi was born.

Phantom of Soho is among the films sometimes attributed to Edgar Wallace but actually the work of his son Bryan, and rather than being one of the Rialo productions, was made by the studio CCC. As far as krimi go, it is not considered to be the best, but that’s no indication that it isn’t very good, and it still serves as a textbook example of the shared elements of Edgar Wallace krimi. As with all exceptionally convoluted and twisted stories, it can be distilled into one very simple idea: someone is killing people in and around a cabaret in London’s seamy Soho district, and Scotland Yard needs to catch the killer. As with most “whodunits,” we encounter a number of possible suspects, including a massage therapist employed by the owner of the club, a knife-throwing fake Arab, a beautiful dancer and photographer, a salty old fisherman, a writer, and even the chief of Scotland Yard himself. Attempting to crack the case is stolid British inspector Patten (Dieter Borsche) and his rather bizarre assistant, Hallam (Peter Vogel). Cracking the case consists of the two inspectors spending a lot of time hanging out in the nightclub that seems somehow inextricably linked to the strange murders. Soon, we are neck deep in a plot that involves insurance fraud, blackmail, lots of women in black lingerie, and lost of people skulking about dark, twisting, and excessively foggy Soho streets.

Although Phantom of Soho is not a Rialto production, and although it is based on a novel by Bryan Edgar Wallace rather than his father, it’s still quite a fun mystery with a few modern twists, primarily in the form of half-naked women parading about the place. It contains pretty much everything that defines the krimi. First and foremost, there is the outrageous villain. The titular phantom of Soho is perhaps less outlandish than some of its krimi compatriots, largely because the phantom remains unseen for the majority of the film, represented only by a point of view shot in which we see the killer’s hands, wearing sparkly silver gloves and brandishing a knife. But when the appearance of the phantom is finally revealed, it is suitably creepy and fulfills the krimi tendency to feature criminal masterminds in outfits that are at once very cool and utterly absurd. I don’t see how, even in a seedy neighborhood, you could parade around in sparkly gloves, a funerary shroud, and a skull mask without attracting at least some attention.

We also have the requisite cast of potential suspects, suspicion being removed from them one by one and each succumbs to the blade o the mysterious phantom, until finally we are left with the core possibilities: the writer, the dancer/photographer, the doctor/physical therapist, the club owner, and the chief of Scotland Yard. All are connected in some way to a plot involving the sinking of an ocean liner in order to collect on the insurance money (this is not a central mystery to the plot, and is revealed fairly early in the story). The eventual reveal isn’t entirely a surprise, but then, it rarely is these days, given how many movies have been made in this style. And besides, the fun of the krimi is rarely in being fooled by the unmasking of the killer. It’s in the ride, and Phantom of Soho is an interesting ride indeed, steeped in eerie atmosphere cribbed from Weimar era silent films and old horror films. The Soho of this movie is a fantastic, almost mythical creation, the result of someone who might never have been to Soho trying to make it up based on the things they’ve heard about it. This Soho is covered in fog at all hours of the day and night. Clandestine couplings and seedy goings-on take place in every club, in the shadows of every alley, the rooms of every hotel, every movement softened to impressionism by the ever-present mist that clings to the neighborhood like the shroud of death itself. The Phantom of Soho exists in a fantasy world composed of such images, seemingly equal parts 1920s and 1960s, resulting in a film that exists in a time and place that is familiar but not quite real. The final product is a recreation of London that is completely unreal yet totally believable, recognizable but with a hint of the alien, as if something lurking in that fog just isn’t quite right.

Just as the movie strives to create a mythical London, so too does it strive to create fiction-perfect ideals of Scotland Yard inspectors in the persons of Patten and Hallam. Patten is the stock stoic cop in a trenchcoat, navigating the seedy underbelly of London without ever seeming to be uncomfortable or distracted by the women in their underwear that populate the movie. His opposite number is Hallam, one of the few funny comic relief characters, primarily because the comedy of his character comes from the fact that the presentation of the character is just so weird. It’s a Germanic interpretation of the famous dry wit of the Brits (“At last, I can realize the dream of arresting my own boss.”). In a modern production of this film, Hallam would be played by Cripsen Glover. As it is, Peter Vogel looks like a Peter Sellers character and really makes the whole film worth watching — well, him and Helga Sommerfeld as Corrine, the dancer/photographer who spends most of the movie in fetching black lingerie and little else. Vogel was a tragic case, obviously talented but prone to depression. He attempted to kill himself on one occasion, by jumping out of a window during a film premier, and succeeded in another attempt at suicide, this time by poisoning himself.

But if there is a real star of the film it’s the overall design. Director Franz Josef Gottlieb spent the 60s directing similar murder mysteries and pulp-inspired adventures, bringing an avant garde touch to his films that was most likely informed by French interpretations of American noir and the old German horror film’s fascination with expressionism and strange shot set-ups. The Phantom of Soho is full of off-kilter composition and awkward angles, but far from feeling gratuitous, these decisions seem perfectly in line with the bizarre feel of the film and the desire to create a sense of familiar reality that is, at the same time, disturbingly unreal. This is probably thanks largely to Swiss cinematographer Richard Angst, whose career stretched as far back as the Weimar era. Very early in his career, Angst found himself working alongside Leni Riefenstahl on Arnold Fanck’s demanding cycle of mountaineering adventure films: The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Storm Over Mount Blanc, White Frenzy, and S.O.S. Iceberg. Cutting his teeth in the silent era of German film undoubtedly informed the cinematographer’s sense of the surreal, and his experience on those challenging films helped him become one of the great cinematographers of early adventure cinema. In 1959, when legendary German director Fritz Lang returned to Germany for the first time since World War II (Lang not being especially friendly with the Nazis, nor they with him), he hired Angst for the color remake of the silent India-themed epics, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, Lang had co-written with his eventual wife (and eventual ex-wife, she being less antagonistic toward the Nazis than he) Thea von Harbou. Angst’s approach to Phantom of Soho works wonderfully, infusing the film with a unique feel and tying it through imagery to the horror films of the silent era, just as the plot of the film would later tie into a new type of thriller: the Italian giallo.

There is much that is similar between the krimi and the giallo, and especially The Phantom of Soho, which is one of the more lurid krimis, and the work of Dario Argento. The krimi films grew from the pulp stories, with a dash of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes thrown in, and integrated the whodunit mystery with elements of horror and the fantastic. Giallo would take the same hybrid approach, one foot in horror and the other in the murder mystery, though the Italians did not carry over the reliance on a pulpy, outrageous villain in a crazy costume. But much of what we can see in the giallo cycle of the 1970s is present already in The Phantom of Soho: the mysterious killer, the list of suspects, the preoccupation with seedy locations, the inclusion of art and artists (specifically, writers, models/dancers, and photographers), and the protagonists working his way doggedly through a progressively more tangled web are all elements that became de rigueur for giallo. Central to the plot of The Phantom of Soho is both photography and, even more so, writing. Among the many potential suspects in the film is a woman with a successful career as a writer and an intimate relationship with the head of Scotland Yard. She challenges the inspectors to solve the case before she does, confident that as a writer with a fresh and sometimes outlandish imagination, she is better suited for working such an unusual case. In this sense, the movie becomes a story that is writing itself as it goes. Argento would use this same concept in his 1982 thriller, Tenebrae.

Release Year: 1964 | Country: Germany | Starring: Dieter Borsche, Barbara Rutting, Hans Sohnker, Peter Vogel, Helga Sommerfeld, Werner Peters, Hans Nielsen, Stanislav Ledinek, Otto Waldis, Hans Hamacher, Elisabeth Flickenschildt | Writer: Ladislas Fodor | Director: Franz Josef Gottlieb | Cinematographer: Richard Angst | Music: Martin Bottcher | Producer: Artur Brauner | Original Title: Das Phantom von Soho

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