Thursday, 16 April 2009

Fellowship of the Frog (1959)

Fellowship of the Frog (Der Frosch mit der Maske) appeared in 1959 and was the first of the long-running series of “krimis” made by Rialto Studios, based on the works of Edgar Wallace. Wallace already had a huge following in Germany which these movies were intended to exploit. Other German studios started turning out Wallace krimis as well, and by the early 70s even the Italians were getting in on the act. These films are in some ways the precursors of the Italian giallos, with outlandishly complicated and unlikely plots and a slightly surreal edge. For their time they were also surprisingly violent and sexy, and Fellowship of the Frog features a rather brutal machine-gunning which still seems quite graphic even today.

The other wonderful thing about these movies was that they were made in Germany but set in England, and the English settings are outrageously and delightfully wrong in just about every respect. The sleazy night clubs that feature in almost every one of these movies seem like they belong in Hamburg or Berlin, the British police are depicted as being armed to the teeth and continually involved in bloody Chicago-style shootouts with mobsters, and the stock footage of London landmarks interspersed with scenes that don’t look remotely English makes the settings even more unreal. The English settings are so inaccurate that on is tempted to believe it was a deliberate stylistic choice. Even if it was merely serendipity, it works. This is an alternate universe London, a world that exists only in these movies, but it’s an amazingly rich and entertaining world.

Fellowship of the Frog got the series off to a flying start, and includes all the best-loved ingredients of the krimi. There’s a comic-book style diabolical criminal mastermind wearing a frog mask. He’s the leader of a gigantic Dr Mabuse-style criminal organisation, the members of which are all marked with a frog tattoo. There’s Eddi Arendt providing comic relief as a crime-fighting butler in the service of wealthy American amateur detective Richard Gordon, played by the debonair Joachim Fuchsberger. Both Arendt and Fuchsberger would appear in many more of these films. There’s a sexy night-club singer. There’s jazz and there’s a seedy night-spot. There’s a beautiful young woman caught up in a bizarre criminal plot. There’s romance, violence and comedy. There’s a plot so convoluted that it defies analysis. And there’s non-stop action and non-stop entertainment.

Connoisseurs of this genre consider the movies directed by Alfred Vohrer for Rialto to be the cream of the crop, but Harald Reinl does a fine job in this one. The acting is never dull. The film has very much a film noir look which contrasts nicely with the outrageous pulp storyline.

The Edgar Wallace Collection, vol 1, from Retromedia include this film and a second Wallace krimi, The Mad Executioners. The transfer of Fellowship of the Frog is fullscreen and has a few blemishes but overall it’s quite satisfactory. And the set is great value.

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