vt The Terrible People; vt Hand of the Gallows
West Germany / 91 minutes / bw / Rialto, Constantin Dir: Harald Reinl Pr: Helmut Beck Scr: J. Joachim Bartsch, Wolfgang Schnitzler Story: The Terrible People (1926; vt The Gallows’ Hand) by Edgar Wallace Cine: Albert Benitz Cast: Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Dor, Fritz Rasp, Dieter Eppler, Ulrich Beiger, Karin Kernke, Ernst Fritz Fürbringer, Eddi Arent, Karlgeorg Saebisch, Alf Marholm, Elisabeth Flickenschildt, Otto Collin, Günter Hauer, Josef Dahmen, Werner Hedman.
One of the earliest in the long series of Rialto/Constantin krimi movies based (increasingly loosely) on the works of Edgar Wallace—it’s #3 on the list if I’ve counted right—this isn’t as bonkers as some of the later entries . . . No, no, no, I take that back. It’s not as flamboyantly bonkers as some of the later entries, but it’s major-league bonkers all the same.
For a long time Inspector Blacky Long (Fuchsberger) of the Yard and his boss Sir Archibald (Fürbringer) have been on the tail of the notorious master-criminal Clay Shelton (Collin), and finally Long nails him in a bank in the act of cashing a fraudulent check. Shelton tries to bluff it out, claiming really to be the check’s token signatory, Colonel Proudley, but no go. He makes a break for it, and before he can be subdued he’s put a fatal bullet into a uniformed copper.
Shelton (Otto Collin) judges his judgers.
On the morning of his 8am hanging, Shelton persuades the prison authorities to summon a collection of individuals to his cell, and to each of them he promises a nasty death even after he himself has departed this mortal bourne. They are:
- the prosecutor who demanded he receive the death penalty (unnamed and uncredited)
- Judge Bennett, who condemned him (uncredited)
- Monkford (Saebisch), the bank manager who enabled his arrest by shooting the gun out of his hand
- Jackson Crayley (Eppler), the bystander who obstructed his escape
- Inspector Long, his nemesis
- the hangman (Dahmen)
The only person missing from the gathering is bank customer Mrs. Revelstoke (Flickenschildt), who spoiled his shot; she declined his invitation, but Shelton assures his audience that she too will be murdered.
Long doesn’t stick around for the execution. However, even while the clocks are striking 8am, he almost runs his car off the road thanks to a nailed plank having been placed in his path. As he stands looking at it, someone takes a potshot at him. By the time he has made his way to the shooter, the shooter too is dead, having been in turn shot.
Confused? We’re only getting started.
The prosecutor dies horribly in a bizarre traffic accident—bizarre because the truck that hit his car did so twice. Judge Bennett dies right in front of Long’s eyes, falling through a rigged piece of stairway in his own home and breaking his neck.
At the scene of both deaths, observers see what they believe to be the distant specter of Shelton, waving to them in triumph. Accordingly, Long orders the exhumation of the executed man . . . except that apparently he wasn’t executed, because someone slipped him poison in the execution chamber. When the coffin’s dug up it’s discovered that—no surprises here!—it contains nothing but bricks and a list of those whom Shelton condemned to death. Long assumes the sexton must have been complicit in the substitution, but before the man can answer any questions a throwing knife swoops out of the night and silences him forever.
The coffin is exhumed and . . . lawks-a-mercy, guess what.
What next, what next? Long, now promoted to Chief Inspector, goes home to his stately ancestral pile, where his formidable father, Lord Godley Long (Rasp, in rather stodgy mode), admits that, back in the day, Shelton extorted money from him, although he declines to explain why. He keeps Shelton’s receipt rolled up in a very distinctive finger ring.
The Long family butler Braun (left, uncredited) bears a glancing resemblance to Shelton, and this is subtly used as a piece of brief misdirection by director Reinl. Here he’s with the Inspector’s sidekick, Rouch (Günter Hauer).
Later the hangman turns up at Lord Long’s manor, drunk as a, well, drunk as a lord. Earlier in the evening, he claims, he was mugged by a pair of hoodlums who talked about their being the “hand of the gallows”; although Chief Inspector Long has the fellow put into a locked guest room and sets his sidekick, Sergeant Rouch (Hauer), on the door, someone cuts open the window and garottes the hangman with one of his own nooses—poetic justice, if you like.
The hangman (Josef Dahmen) boozily awaits his nemesis.
That leaves just four on Shelton’s list still alive: Mrs. Revelstoke, Crayley, Monkford and of course Long himself. Long visits each of the other three in turn to tell them that he’s putting them under police guard in case they’re the killer’s next target. At Mrs. Revelstoke’s home he meets her secretary, orphan Nora Sanders (Dor). She’s sent by her employer along with Long on his trip up the Thames on his speedboat to visit the other two, on the basis that Mrs. Revelstoke wants to give an antique New Zealand clock to Monkford and it’s cheaper to have Nora deliver it than send it through the mails.
Nora (Karin Dor) is startled to come across Inspector Long.
Inspector Long (Joachim Fuchsberger) interrogates Mrs. Revelstoke (Elisabeth Flickenschildt).
Arriving at Crayley’s estate, they just miss him showing off his skill at knife-throwing to his girlfriend Alice Cravel (Kernke); she in turn has been showing off her fine swimsuit-clad figure while cavorting with Crayley’s pet leopard. They conceal their activities—and the presence of Alice and the leopard—just in time before Long’s appearance thanks to a coded warning transmitted by mirror flashes from a supposed Thames angler, in fact one of the gang who’re exacting revenge for Shelton’s death. Long calls the gang the Band of Terror. (The movie’s title translates literally as Gang of Secrets, which is close enough.)
Alice (Karin Kernke) and a pal.
The person who has observed more of what’s really been going on on the estate is police photographer Anthony Edwards (Arent), who came here to photograph the wildlife; he does his forensic work for the money, having a bad habit of keeling over when he sees the consequences of violent death, but his real passion is animal portraiture. His expedition to the Crayley estate will have profound plot implications later.
Moving on to Monkford’s Marlow estate, the pair meet the banker’s twin brother, a Glasgow schoolteacher (Saebisch again). On the night of the following day the brother dies when thrown off the Glasgow express. It’s the Shelton gang’s first big mistake: they’ve killed the wrong brother.
Lawyer Henry (Ulrich Beiger) is getting mad that Nora prefers Blacky Long . . .
. . . and eventually his psychotherapy will enter a more aggressive stage.
All three of the threatened people have told Long that they plan to spend next week in a new sporting hotel near the village of Little Heartsease, taking part in a golf week the hotel is mounting. The hotel—so new that it has an elevator shaft but as yet no elevator—is owned and run by Richard Cravel (Marholm), helped by his sister Alice, whom we met earlier when she was wearing a lot less and romping on the grass with a leopard. Long goes to the golf week himself along with a troupe of Scotland Yard detectives, who’re to infiltrate the staff as waiters. Mrs. Revelstoke, who has something of a way with words, greets one of the detectives thus:
“Did you do your training at the sporting hotel or at Scotland Yard? . . . Well, then, look after me well, my friend. Don’t forget, though: if I leave the hotel in a coffin you’ll certainly lose your tip.”
After Monkford has explained to his lawyer Henry (Beiger)—who’s also Mrs. Revelstoke’s lawyer—that he plans to leave £250,000 to Nora, because he’s admired her for years and ideally would like to adopt her, Henry starts seriously wooing Nora, to the fury of Long. The plot thickens when Henry (we assume) anonymously gives Nora a note of proposal and a ring just like the family heirloom Long discovered his dad was using to hold documents. Then Monkford is shot in his guarded room, drilled through the cranium by what we later discover is a specially rigged telephone.
Monkford (Karlgeorg Saebisch) moments before . . .
By this stage, about halfway through the movie, we’re more or less gasping on the floor, begging for the flood of fresh twists and plot developments to stop.
If anything the rate increases. Among other things (skip past the bulleted list if you’re sensitive about spoilers):
- There’s some genuinely clever misdirection as to the motives of the bad guys, as opposed to some clumsy and dishonest misdirection elsewhere.
- That vacant elevator shaft is used several times as, as it were, an oubliette. But you’d already guessed that, hadn’t you?
- Nora is drugged and abducted by the bad guys not just once but twice. She manages to look very fetching throughout. You’d guessed that part as well.
- The bad guys are Shelton’s three sons and his sophisticatedly face-masked widow, who happens also to be the long-ago divorcee of Blacky Long’s pop. In the final moments, rather than be gunned down by the cops, the widow pulls from her hair a pin that she has previously thought to lace with poison, and commits suicide.
- Alice isn’t after all the sister of Richard Cravel; she’s Ruth Lester, Jackson Crayley’s girlfriend. Since we kind of knew this already—albeit maybe not the “Ruth Lester” bit—this particular revelation falls a tad flat.
- Photographer Anthony Edwards and stuffy old Lord Godley Long, against all expectations, more or less save the day.
Anthony Edwards (Eddi Arent) in typical position.
Anthony’s photo that cracks the case.
Actors like Fuchsberger, Eppler and Arent were to become stalwarts of this series, as indeed was Dor; the Wallace krimi I’ve covered here so far of hers was Das Geheimnis der Schwarzen Witwe (1963). She’s best known as the first German actress to be a “Bond Girl”—playing Helga Brandt in You Only Live Twice (1967)—but I don’t think I’ve ever seen here be such a knockout as she is here. At the time she was some six years into her marriage to director Harald Reinl; the marriage ended in divorce just a few years later.
Blacky (Joachim Fuchsberger) and Nora (Karin Dor) talk things through.
If judged by any standards other than those of the Wallace krimis, Die Bande des Schreckens might be thought of as a disaster, yet it’s fast-moving, tremendously entertaining and the lucky beneficiary of some very committed, charismatic performances. As you’ll have guessed, I loved it. The plot’s not so very much more senseless than some episodes of Midsomer Murders or some of the old Hammer noirs. Actors like Flickenschildt, Collin, Fuchsberger and especially Dor sock most of those old Hammer items into a cocked hat. Albert Benitz’s cinematography is understated but beautifully crisp and well judged; it’s a mark of it that you hardly even think of the cinematography until after the movie is over—as if Benitz wanted to put his photographic work at the service of the movie as a whole rather than seeking to make you gasp at the beauty of individual frames.
Wallace’s novel had earlier been filmed as The Terrible People (1928) dir Spencer Gordon Bennet, with Allene Ray, Walter Miller, Larry Steers, Allen Craven, Alyce McCormick, Wilfrid North and Fred Vroom; no copies are known to survive.
On Amazon.com: The Terrible People