It’s no secret to those who have been following this blog for a while that I am a huge fan of the German Edgar Wallace film adaptions of the 1960s. I even wrote an article about the films, which will eventually be republished in a collection of my critical writing. However, for now you can read a PDF copy of the original article here.
I’ve seen all of the thirty-plus German Wallace movies by now, many of them multiple times. Most of them need more than one viewing, if only because you’ll need at least two viewings to untangle the plot and at least one more to appreciate the artistic aspects. Hence, I tend to rewatch my favourites every few years or so.
I was due for yet another rewatch and decided to start with what is probably the most famous film of the series, Der Hexer a.k.a. The Ringer from 1964. Here’s the original theatrical trailer. I’m not sure if it truly is the quintessential Wallace film as which it is sometimes portrayed, since some of the standard elements are missing (more on that later), but it is still a damned good one. The Ringer also was shot at the height of the Wallace craze and the identity of the titular character was guarded with the same sort of zeal that applies to Star Wars films and Harry Potter books these days. Allegedly, producer Horst Wendtland kept the last few pages of the script locked away in his safe and not even the actors themselves knew which one of them would turn out to be the Ringer in the end.
The Ringer begins with a striking pre-credits sequence of a young secretary spying on her lawyer boss by listening in on his phone calls. Seconds later, she is assaulted and strangled by an unseen assailant. We see the woman again, her dead eyes staring at us from the glass dome of a futuristic two-person mini-sub in some kind of underground cavern/pool. The sub is released by actor Carl Lange – a frequent presence in the Wallace films, usually in some kind of menacing or downright villainous role – and the credits roll, accompanied by Peter Thomas’ delightfully squeaky theme song (which may be found here – alas, no visuals). Even though the movie itself is shot in atmospheric black and white, like all of the best Wallace films, the title sequence is in colour. Black and white films with colour title sequences or vice versa were surprisingly common in mid 1960s German cinema. I’ve never quite understood the reasoning behind this, but the psychedelic trippiness of that title sequence is truly a sight to behold, as is the striking black and white photography by Karl Löb. The Ringer also contains one of director Alfred Vohrer’s trademarked strange-angle shots, a telephone conversation filmed through the holes in the dial.
Gwenda Milton, the murdered secretary, turns out to be the sister of Arthur Milton, the vigilante known only as the Ringer for his ability to impersonate others. The character’s German name “Der Hexer” means the Warlock and is IMO even more appropriate than the Ringer, because Arthur Milton not just has the uncanny ability to impersonate others, but also an almost supernatural ability to outmanoeuvre police and villains alike. At the opening of the film, Arthur Milton is living in semi-retirement with his wife in Australia, far from the reach of Scotland Yard, who would just love to arrest him for his former vigilante stunts (of which we learn almost nothing in the film, though I suspect the original novel/play will have more info). However, the murder of his sister forces him to return to London to avenge her.
It turns out that Gwenda Milton was on the trail of a human trafficking operation run by her erstwhile boss, lawyer Maurice Messer (played by Jochen Brockmann, another Wallace regular), and one Reverend Hopkins, played by the aforementioned Carl Lange. Now the human trafficking portion of the plot is something I didn’t get until fairly recently, partly because I was lacking historical and cultural knowledge. For even though the Wallace films defined the image generations of Germans had of Britain in general and London in particular, we always knew deep inside that those films – mostly shot in Berlin and Hamburg standing in for London – were not exactly realistic. Wallace Britain is a parallel world where London is permanently shrouded in fog, Scotland Yard is next to Picadilly Circus and the Thames is a convenient vanue for disposing unwanted corpses like the poor doomed Gwenda Milton. Hence I always assumed that one of the stranger tropes cropping up in many of the Wallace films – homes for unwed girls, which seem to be more like prisons, though the young women held there seemed to have committed no crime other than having sex, and where young women toil, often in basement laundries, under the oversight of usually villainous religious figures – were a complete fabrication by Wallace and/or the screenwriters. Imagine my surprise when I chanced to watch The Magdalene Sisters and realised to my shock that “girls’ laundry prisons”, as I nicknamed those places when they showed up in various Wallace movies, had really existed in Ireland well into the 1990s. The old Wallace films made a lot more sense to me afterwards.
The criminal plot is this: Reverend Hopkins runs a Magdalene laundry like home for unwed and wayward young women. Maurice Messer, boss of the late Gwenda Milton, is a lawyer who funnels troubled young women into the prison/home run by Reverend Hopkins. Together with two other villains, they operate a human trafficking ring and kidnap promising young women from Reverend Hopkins’ home, probably disguising their disappearance by claiming they ran away, and smuggle them via the mini-submarine built by the engineer Shelby, another member of the conspiracy, onto ships waiting outside the 3-mile (now 12-mile, but it was three back them) zone to sell the girls to brothels in the Middle East and South America. Gwenda Milton, who apparently inherited her older brother’s zeal for justice, stumbled onto this scheme, which is why she had to die. Mind you, very little of how this human trafficking scheme actually worked (which is chilling if you think about it) is spelled out in the movie, which makes me wonder whether 1960s audiences were automatically expected to have the cultural knowledge to pierce all of this together. For while Germany did not have Magdalene laundries, our own homes of wayward youths, often run by the churches, have recently been revealed to have been bastions of abuse and exploitation as well. This also brings home the multiple cultural disconnect of the Wallace films, for here we have a 1960s take on texts written in the 1920s in another country, which were first watched by myself in the 1980s. Of couse, I never got the bit about the girls’ laundry prisons or why the girls were there, when they didn’t seem to have done anything wrong, because cultural and temporal disconnect made it nigh impossible for me to understand that bit without a lot of explanation.
Unlike some other Edgar Wallace adaptions such as 1966’s Der Bucklige von Soho (The Hunchback of Soho) or 1968’s The Gorilla of Soho, the girls’ laundry prison and human trafficking plot is merely a background detail in The Ringer, existing solely to give the villains some kind of dastardly deed to do. Come to think of it, it is striking how often the schemes of the villains in Wallace films involved human trafficking. And often, the women in question are sold to South America, which is not exactly a hub of human trafficking nowadays, but was one in the early years of the 20th century, when Wallace was writing his thrillers. So we are dealing with “ripped from the headlines” plots here, only that the headlines are those of 1925.
The main focus of the film, however, is on Scotland Yard trying to apprehend the Ringer – a feat made even more difficult since no one knows what he really looks like – while the human traffickers headed by Maurice Messer and Reverend Hopkins try to evade and/or kill the Ringer. Meanwhile, the Ringer plays all sides against each other. All this culminates in a series of action scenes such as a chase across the rooftops of London, another chase through the random catacombs connecting Maurice Messer’s house and Reverend Hopkins’ home for wayward girls, a narrow escape from an exploding building, an underwater fight, a murder attempt via placing poisonous snakes in the pockets of coats and a successful murder committed by asking the victim to dial a particular number from a particular public phone at a particular time and then running over the phonebooth with a truck. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and like many Wallace villains, Maurice Messer’s human trafficking gang had a thing for needlessly complicated schemes. I mean, they surely could have smuggled the girls aboard vessels without building a mini-.submarine. As for committing murders via poisonous snakes and bombs and trucks running down phonebooths, really? You couldn’t just shoot them instead? But then the inofficial motto of the Wallace films seems to be, “Why keep it simple, if you make it complicated?” Besides, all the mini-subs and poisonous snakes and trucks crashing into phonebooths sure are cool. And indeed, there is so much happening in the film and it’s all so thrilling that you don’t really notice that the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until the film is over. You don’t even notice that occasionally, the plot progresses merely because someone (usually, the Ringer or an associate) quite literally hands a clue (on a silver platter in one case) to either Scotland Yard or the villains.
In The Ringer, the forces of Scotland Yard are represented by no less than three inspectors, played by the three actors most commonly seen playing inspectors in Edgar Wallace films, name Joachim Fuchsberger, Heinz Drache and Siegfried Lowitz. The Ringer is the only film in the Wallace series, which unites Fuchsberger, Drache and Lowitz, which probably contributes to its reputation as the ultimate Wallace film. For the Wallace films had the tendency to frequently cast the same actors in similar roles, only to occasionally go completely against the grain and have the guy who always plays the dashing hero or the actor who always plays the comic relief role or the actress who always plays the damsel in distress turn out to be the murderer. Indeed, the recurring actors and character types are part of the charm of those films.
Joachim Fuchsberger and Heinz Drache were mostly cast as the dashing and heroic investigator (and usually got the girl in the end), whereas Siegfried Lowitz usually plays the gruff older inspector, a role he continued to play some twenty years later in the long-running crime drama Der Alte (The Old One) on TV. Seeing Lowitz in those old Wallace films I am always struck by how he barely seems to have aged in the twenty years between The Ringer and Der Alte at all – he always looks the same age. And having been subjected to more infernally boring episodes of Der Alte as a child than I can count, I’m always stunned that once upon a time Siegfried Lowitz could be funny. In The Ringer, all three of them trip over each other’s feet while trying to apprehend the Ringer.
In addition to the same actors playing similar characters over and over again, the Wallace films also have recurring characters, namely the head of Scotland Yard and his secretary. Across the thirtysomething Wallace films, there are three heads of Scotland Yard. The first of those is Sir Archibald, a serious and rather bland character. The second and most memorable is Sir John, played by actor Siegfried Schürenberg, who also appears in The Ringer. Unlike his predecessor Sir Archibald, there is nothing serious about Sir John. Instead, he is strictly a comic relief character. Sir John is completely incompetent, cannot even apprehend a suspect when that suspect is right in front of him, is even further from unravelling the case than either his inspectors or the audience, he shows an inappropriate interest in attractive young women and he inevitably refuses to believe that whatever pillar of society is under suspicion this time around might be guilty, because “He is a member of my club”. Indeed, we suspect that the other members of Sir John’s unnamed club only keep him around to keep a tab on Scotland Yard’s doings, because every member of Sir John’s club we ever see is inevitably a villain. In The Ringer, Sir John’s catchphrase is “Das hätten sie doch berücksichtigen müssen” (You should have taken that into consideration), uttered to Joachim Fuchsberger’s hapless Inspector Higgings after every new surprising twist of the plot.
However, one cannot discuss Sir John (who acquires a surname, Woolford, in The Ringer) without mentioning the other recurring character in the Wallace films, his secretary. In fact, there are two secretaries. The first is Jean Holcomb, played by Finnish actress Ann Savo, a husky-voiced curvacuous bombshell reminiscent of Joan Harris in Mad Men. At one point, Ann Savo even wears a sweater dress that looks uncannily like the ones Christina Hendricks regularly wears in Mad Men, only that Ann Savo’s neckline is much lower. Whether real 1960s offices were graced by ladies with the built and personality of Mad Men‘s Joan Harris remains open to question, but the Joan Harris character certainly has predecessors in the entertainment of the mid 1960s. Even the sexism to which Ann Savo’s character is exposed at the office and the way she deals with it by embracing it and using it to get what she can from her male coworkers is eerily reminiscent of Mad Men to the point that Ann Savo’s character attempts to romance Joachim Fuchsberger’s Inspector Higgins with the same desperation and the same lack of permanent success as Joan tries to romance Roger Sterling. We never see what happened to Ann Savo’s character in the end, though I hope that she had a happier fate than Mad Men‘s Joan.
As the 1960s wore on, Sir John got a new secretary, Mabel, played by Ilse Paget. If Ann Savo represents the feminine ideal of the early 1960s, Mabel represents the feminine ideal of the later 1960s, slim and boyish, with short hair and even shorter skirts. When Siegfried Schürenberg had enough of playing Sir John, Mabel stayed on as the secretary of his successor, Sir Arthur, played by Hubert von Meyenrinck.
In general, gender roles in the Edgar Wallace films are largely conservative. Apart from Sir John’s secretaries, there are three types of women in these films. There is the older woman, who comes in two flavours, harmlessly fluffy-headed and sinister. There is the bad girl, who often works in a nightclub or similar establishment (the Wallace films are full of sinister nightclubs), is usually in league with the bad guys and – oh shock and horror – likes sex. Her younger counterpart is often found as an inmate in a girl’s school or home for wayward girls, the sexy one who torments the heroine and runs away in the middle of the night. The bad girl never ends well – she usually falls prey to the killer at some point. Finally, there is the wide-eyed ingenue, usually an orphan, who finds herself embroiled in a sinister plot beyond her understanding. She inevitably survives and marries the dashing inspector after he has rescued her from the villain’s fiendish plot at the very last minute. Unless the film is Room 13, where – in a brillaint bit of against-type casting – Karin Dor, the best known of all the Wallace ingenues, is revealed to be the serial killer who has slaughtered the various bad girls of the plot.
The Ringer somewhat breaks the typical madonna/whore dichotomy found in so many Wallace films. For starters, the ingenue, Sophie Hardy as Alice, girlfriend of Inspector Higgins, is not quite so innocent. Indeed, there are strong hints that Alice and Inspector Higgins are living together in a very modern flat and that they are having sex. Living together before marriage – and that in 1964. The character of Alice would be a breath of fresh air compared to the usual Wallace ingenue, if not for the fact that she is clingy, whiny and annoying as hell. After about five minutes of watching Alice sniping with Jean the secretary of Sir John, I wished that Joachim Fuchsberger would dump Alice in favour of Jean, because Jean was so much more likable.
Meanwhile, the bad girl part is taken over by Margot Trooger as Cora Ann Milton, the glamorous wife of the Ringer. Like most Wallace bad girls, Cora Ann is beautiful and wears stunning gowns (Wallace bad girls are almost always more interesting than good girls). However, unlike the other bad girls, she is not treacherous, but utterly loyal to her husband. She’s also smart and charmingly outmanoeuvres Inspector Higgins and Sir John who is quite besotted with her (“A lady. A true lady.”). Sticking with the Mad Men parallels for a moment, Cora Ann is like those intelligent, elegant and not quite so young women whom Don Draper regularly has affairs with (Rachel, Bobbie Barrett, Faye Miller, who even looks a bit like Margot Trooger) before marrying yet another bland Barbie doll. Arthur Milton a.k.a. the Ringer was obviously not as stupid as Don and so, unlike the other Wallace bad girls, Cora Ann gets her happy ending with the man she loves, her husband. Rewatching the film, I can’t help but detect a bit of Cora Ann in Constance Allen, the brave and beautiful fiancee of the Silencer.
Which brings us to the character who is at the centre of the movie, even though he is only seen (sans disguise) for a very few minutes at the end of the movie, namely the Ringer. Many of the classic Wallace films, e.g. Face of the Frog, The Squeaker, The Green Archer, The Red Circle, The Black Abbot, etc… center on characters who are enigmas and whose identity is unknown. However, the Ringer is even more of a phantom than e.g. the Masked Frog, the Black Abbot or the Green Archer, because while we do see them in all their hooded and masked glory, the Ringer remains unseen until the very end, hidden behind the face and identity of someone else. Indeed, upon first viewing, much of the fun lies in trying to figure out which of the characters might be the Ringer in disguise.
Upon repeated viewing, it becomes clear that the narrative is heavily pushing the viewer towards two possible suspects, the mysterious Australian James Westby, played by Heinz Drache, and Finch, played by Eddi Arent, the not-quite-reformed pickpocket turned butler who is now in the employ of Maurice Messer. To anybody who’s ever seen a Wallace film, both suspects are equally unlikely, because Heinz Drache usually plays the dashing hero (though the film already has one dashing inspector in Joachim Fuchsberger, so do we really need two?), while Eddi Arent usually plays bumbling comic relief characters. Interestingly, Eddi Arent would get his turn as the villainous mastermind barely a year later as the bullwhip wielding monk in Der unheimliche Mönch (The sinister monk). And even in The Ringer, Eddi Arent’s character Finch is not nearly as harmless as he seems, for while he is not the Ringer, he does turn out to be an associate of the Ringer’s, who has insinuated himself into Maurice Messer’s service precisely to spy on Messer and put him and his associates off balance by well dropped hints.
On the other hand, no one ever suspects the character who eventually turns out to be the Ringer, even though they have no real reason to believe or trust him. It’s a testament to the cleverness of the story that we don’t even notice this until the final unmasking. When the Ringer is finally unmasked, the face behind the latex mask is that of Luxemburgian actor René Deltgen, which is something of a letdown, not because Deltgen isn’t a fine actor, but because he was 54 years old at this point and not exactly attractive. Even more disconcertingly is that anyone who was a child in Germany in the 1970s will remember Deltgen as Heidi’s grandfather is the 1978 TV adaption of Johanna Spyri’s classic novel. One wonders what Cora Ann saw in him, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And even though they are somewhat mismatched, there is no doubt in the few minutes they actually are on screen together that Cora Ann and Arthur Milton a.k.a. the Ringer love each other very much.
Another thing I like about the Ringer is that in spite of his reputation as a ruthless vigilante (and it is telling that we never see his vigilantism exploits in the film, only what happens after he comes out of retirement) Arthur Milton is not all that violent and operates more via brains than brawn. The only villain he actually kills is Maurice Messer, whom the Ringer stabs with his own swordcane, while he manoeuvres the remaining member’s of Messer’s gang into killing each other via seeding doubts and distrust among them. Okay, so he does sic Messer’s gang on James Westby who almost gets blown up in the process. The Ringer’s master of disguise trick via latex masks as well as his communicating with his wife via a flower code have been seen a thousand times since then, but in 1964 they were brand-new to the audience. Mission Impossible, which popularised the latex mask master-of-disguise trick, didn’t even debut until two years later. Meanwhile, a version of the Ringer’s flower code popped up in Bones recently.
Is this the ultimate Wallace film? No, it’s not. And in fact, it is one of the more unusual examples of the series. Nonetheless, it is damned entertaining and anybody who wants to get a taste of the German Edgar Wallace films of the 1960s could do worse than start with The Ringer.