German actress Karin Dor died Monday aged 79. Most international obituaries, such as they are, mainly focus on her turn as a Bond villainess in the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice and on her appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s spy thriller Topaz in 1969. Depressingly, she dies in both movies, by piranha tank in You Only Live Twice and by falling from a great height in a beautiful billowing dress in Topaz. Now Karin Dor was threatened with grotesque death in plenty of films. She was nearly drowned, strangled, guillotined, shot, thrown into a snake pit, etc… But it’s telling that she dies in her two best known international parts, but was rescued in most of the others.
Now I have to admit that Karin Dor’s turn as a Bond girl is probably my least favourite of her many roles, not counting some late career appearances in very bad German TV melodramas. For starters, she looks awful with her hair bleached and dyed red, since Karin Dor was really a brunette. The Karin Dor I remember doesn’t look like the bad dye job from You Only Live Twice, she looks like she does in this still from the 1961 Edgar Wallace movie The Green Archer.
Worse, at least the German advertising materials for You Only Live Twice billed Karin Dor as the female star opposite Sean Connery’s Bond, but once you watch the actual movie, it turns out that Karin Dor plays a villainess and henchwoman of Blofeld, whereas the actual heroine is Akiko Wakabayashi, who is then replaced with Mie Hama halfway through the movie. To add insult to injury, Karin Dor’s character is then thrown into a fish pond and fed to Blofeld’s pet piranhas. Yes, You Only Live Twice is the movie that not just wasted Karin Dor, but also fed her to piranhas. Okay, Blofeld’s vulcano lair cum spaceport is still the most fabulous set Ken Adam ever built for the Bond movies, so fabulous that my reaction upon first seeing it was “I want to live there. With the rocket, but without the piranhas.” Pity the movie is one of Sean Connery’s weakest.
German obituaries of Karin Dor like this one and this one paint a slightly different image, even though they cannot resist focussing on that Bond movie either. But here in Germany, Karin Dor was one of the most iconic stars of the 1960s. She specialised in damsel in distress roles, quite often directed by her then-husband Harald Reinl, one of the best German directors of the postwar era.
Karin Dor appeared in several Edgar_Wallace movies, most notably in Der Grüne Bogenschütze (The Green Archer) in 1961 (trailer here and a neat clip of Karin Dor being chased by Gert Fröbe here – interestingly, the director this time around was Jürgen Roland and not Dor’s husband Harald Reinl) and Der Unheimliche Mönch (The Sinister Monk) in 1965 (full film available on YouTube here). Interestingly, Karin Dor plays the daughter of a man framed for murder and wrongfully sent to prison in both movies. And in both movies, a masked avenger sets out to avenge the injustice done to Karin Dor and her family. Okay, so many of the Edgar Wallace movies are kind of similar and tend to follow a certain formula (which they then rejoice in breaking), but the parallels is still notable. Part of the Edgar Wallace formula of the 1960s was that all films had certain stock characters, often played by the same actors. The main female stock characters were the good girl damsel-in-distress, the bad girl femme fatale, the sinister old lady and the eccentric, but harmless old lady. Plenty of actresses played the “good girl” role in the Edgar Wallace movies, but Karin Dor was the most iconic and memorable of them all to the point that you think she appeared even in those Edgar Wallace movies she wasn’t in. And just because the Edgar Wallace movies really liked subverting their formula on occasion, in the 1964 movie Zimmer 13 (Room 13 – trailer here) Karin Dor still plays the doe-eyed damsel-in-distress, who eventually turns out to be a psychopathic serial killer who has been murdering a succession of Wallace bad girls all along.
Karin Dor also played damsels-in-distress in other German thrillers of the 1960s, such as Die unsichtbaren Krallen des Dr. Mabuse (The Invisible Doctor Mabuse) in 1962 (full film here), where she is almost guillotined by Germany’s most resilient supervillain, the body-jumping Dr_Mabuse. In 1967, she dealt with snake pits and razor-sharp pendulums as well as with Christopher Lee and Lex Barker in a (loose) German adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum (trailer here). In 1965, Karin Dor was kidnapped and menaced by Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in Ich, Dr. Fu Manchu (The Face of Fu Manchu – trailer here, trigger warning for yellow face). Coincidentally, Fu Manchu’s equally villainous daughter who threatens to whip Karin Dor at one point was played by actress Tsai Chin, who also had a small part in You Only Live Twice and more recently appeared as Melinda May’s mother in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. So does this make Melinda May Fu Manchu’s granddaughter? Cause that’s my headcanon now.
Karin Dor also was a frequent presence in the Winnetou movies of the 1960s, also directed by Harald Reinl. In 1962 she played Ellen Patterson in Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure of the Silver Lake – full movie here, trigger warning for red face), where she wound up in the arms of a very young Götz George. Then in 1964 she played the Karl May role for which she is best remembered, when she played Winnetou’s great love, the Native American maiden Ribanna, in Winnetou II (full movie here – trigger warning for red face). As Ribanna, she wound up marrying someone else as well, Terrence Hill in this case (Karin Dor’s Winnetou heroines sure had a good taste in men). But then we know that there was only one true love in the lives of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, namely each other.
But though Karin Dor is best remembered for her roles in thrillers, westerns, adventure and horror movies, she also appeared in more wholesome fare such as the 1960 adaptation of Ralph Benatzky’s operetta Im Weißen Rößl (The White Horse Inn – trailer here), where she was involved in one of the many romantic entanglements in the story and finally winds up with Adrian Hoven.
Though the peak of her career was in the 1960s, Karin Dor continued to appear in movies, TV and theatre roles almost up to her death. Most of her later roles were in bad German TV shows, but occasionally she appeared in good stuff as well such as Margaretha von Trotta’s 2006 drama Ich bin die Andere (The Other Woman – trailer here). And because the Edgar Wallace movies, the Winnetou movies, the Dr. Mabuse movies, the Fu Manchu movies and the rest of the marvelously entertaining German thrillers of the 1960s were a staple on TV in the 1980s and 1990s and even show up on TV occasionally today, Karin Dor is still the iconic face of 1960s German cinema to a generation born long after these movies first appeared. She was definitely an important part of my childhood. Looking up these movies for this post, I’m shocked to realise that almost the entire casts of these movies is dead by now – Karin Dor was the last survivor in many cases. Tsai Chin and Wolfgang Völz who appears in The Green Archer are the only ones who are still alive.
I knew Karin Dor was ill, because I saw a headline to that effect in one of the celebrity gossip mags my Mom reads (only for the crosswords, of course). However, everybody knows that the headlines of those mags are largely made up and over the years they have reported a lot of celebrities near death (the current issue places Patrick Duffy of Dallas and Man from Atlantis fame near death’s door) who are still alive years later. So I took that headline as seriously as I always take the headlines in these mags, namely not at all. However, in this case, the mag was sadly right.
So let us remember Karin Dor, who was much more than just a Bond girl with a bad dye job. She was also Valerie Howard and Gwendoline and Maria Müller and Lilian von Brabant and Ellen Patterson and Ribanna and Liane Martin and Brigitte Giesecke and Denise, the psychopathic murderess, and above all, one of the last great stars from the glory days of West German postwar cinema.