An unjustly neglected noir out of post-WWII Vienna that’s sometimes compared to The Third Man.
Austria, US / 84 minutes / bw / Schoenbrunn, Trans-Globe, Helen Ainsworth Dir: Gunther Fritsch (i.e., Gunther von Fritsch) Pr: Turhan Bey Scr: Robert Hill Story: Ich War Jack Mortimer (1933) by Alexander Lernet-Holenia Cine: Helmuth Ashley Cast: Donald Buka, Joan Camden, Francis Lederer, Adrienne Gessner, Inge Konradi, Gisela Wilke, Hermann Erhard (i.e., Hermann Erhardt), E. von Jordan, Manfred Inger, Louis Ousted.
This was the English-Language version made in parallel with ABENTEUER IN WIEN (1952; vt Adventures in Vienna) dir Emile E. Reinert, with Gustav Fröhlich and Cornell Borchers rather than the US actors Donald Buka and Joan Camden in the two leading roles, but with the rest of the cast roughly the same. In A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir I gave basic details of Stolen Identity in the Abenteuer in Wien entry, but didn’t have room to give it an entry of its own. So here’s a redressal of that lack. I was prompted to dig the movie out for a rewatch, for the first time in many years, by a fine review by MarinaSofia of the source novel on her findingtimetowrite blog.
It’s New Year’s Eve in Vienna. Karin Manelli (Camden), unhappy wife of the celebrated concert pianist Claude Manelli (Lederer), is expecting the arrival of Jack Mortimer (Ousted), who will whisk her away from the husband who seems so charming but in fact, because of his egocentricity, subjects her to endless psychological cruelty. Unfortunately, Jack’s final telegram confirming arrangements is intercepted by Claude’s officious secretary Krüger (von Jordan), who filches it from the sympathetic housekeeper, Anna Fraser (Gessner), who has been acting as Karin’s go-between at the post office.
Anna Fraser (Adrienne Gessner) arrives home with the incriminating telegram . . .
. . . and urges Karin (Joan Camden) to be careful.
US expatriate Toni Sponer (Buka) is an unlicensed cabby, driving the taxi of the habitually drunk Ferdl Heintl (Erhardt); they share rooms with a woman called Marie (Konradi)—I wasn’t able to work out if she’s Ferdl’s wife or sister, or possibly a housekeeper, but it becomes evident in due course that she carries a torch for Toni.
Toni (Donald Buka) expounds his empty philosophy of life to Marie.
Having promised Claude that she’ll abandon all plans to run away with Jack Mortimer, Karin promptly flees to await him in his hotel, the Goldenen Löwen. By unlucky chance, Krüger discovers her absence, and phones Claude—currently in final rehearsal for the night’s performance with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor—to inform him of the fact. Claude feigns a headache in order to escape briefly from the rehearsal, observes Mortimer hiring Toni’s cab, follows them and, when Toni leaves the taxi momentarily, uses the racket of nearby roadworks to drown the sound of him shooting Mortimer through the taxi’s rear window.
Claude (Francis Lederer) sneaks out of rehearsal.
On discovering the corpse, Toni tries a couple of times to report the murder to the cops, but soon realizes that, with his illegal status as a cabby and his past history of convictions for petty crimes, this might be a big mistake. Besides, going through the dead man’s pocket, he discovers Mortimer’s wallet, stuffed with cash and, more importantly, containing Mortimer’s passport and details of the flight back to the US that Mortimer and Karin have planned. This could surely be Toni’s means of escaping to the States, where the streets are paved with gold . . .
And all might have gone according to plan had Karin not been waiting for him at the Goldenen Löwen. She knows (obviously) that he’s not Jack Mortimer, and sees through his various clumsy lies. Naturally she thinks he must have murdered Mortimer and stolen his property—well, she’s half-right—and so she runs to tell the cops, in the form of a genial, music-loving (and unnamed) Inspector (Inger). Yet the Inspector isn’t convinced and, when he confronts the fake Mortimer with Claude, the latter for obvious reasons (if the cops believe Mortimer has left Vienna, the corpse that Toni has dumped by the river becomes anonymous and there’s no way it can be connected to Claude) declares that Karin is nuts and in the habit of creating foolish fantasies. So the Inspector releases Toni, with apologies for the inconvenience.
The Inspector (Manfred Inger) and Krüger (E. von Jordan, behind) watch Claude’s Schumann rehearsal.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there—it’s not even at the midway mark. A good deal of the movie’s second half sees Toni and Karin in a pellmell, very exciting flight from the cops and from Claude and Krüger through a Vienna filled with New Year’s revellers, a fact that hinders both pursued and pursuers. Finally Toni is given the choice of doing the decent or the expedient thing, and at the very last moment chooses, despite all past form, to do the former.
Karin (Joan Camden), Marie (Inge Konradi) and Toni (Donald Buka) realize the cops are raiding the apartment building where the two fugitives are hiding.
Karin (Joan Camden) and Toni (Donald Buka) flee through Vienna’s backways.
It’s a great pity that this movie (like Blues in the Night ) seems largely to have been neglected by the film noir community, because it’s first-rate—or, at least, thereabouts. Thanks to the setting, there have been occasional attempts to liken it to The THIRD MAN (1949); that’s rather too ambitious a claim, but the movie could quite honorably hold its head up as part of a double bill with Reed’s masterpiece. Shot on location in Vienna, Stolen Identity focuses for the most part on the city as one that’s both magnificent in its tradition, as expressed through its heroic architecture, and at the same time vibrant with the promise of the future; only in the later stages do we discover the bomb damage and the burnt-out shells of destroyed buildings. There’s a sense of optimism, then, that contrasts strongly with The Third Man’s despair. Another comparison that might sensibly be made is with CASABLANCA (1942); again, this isn’t as good a movie, but it has a similar ethos and it’s at least within touching distance.
Ashley’s cinematography is wonderfully, almost self-consciously noirish—or, to put it another way, is well educated in the ambience of German Expressionism. The score is by Richard Hageman and, so the credits tell us, played by the Vienna Symphonic (sic) Orchestra. We see part of a rehearsal and part of a performance of the Schumann concerto, with Lederer (presumably) miming the piano part while the rest is done by the actual Vienna Symphony Orchestra. This was the period during which Herbert von Karajan was the orchestra’s chief conductor, and it’d obviously be a delight if the conductor we see here (uncredited), who also has a few acting moments, were von Karajan. Although I’m open to correction. I have a vague and possibly quite erroneous recollection that the first time I saw the movie, perhaps half a century ago, the conductor was supposedly the great man himself. Looking at the actor now, I’m not so sure.
At the airport.
Buka is an actor who’s quite likely flown beneath most people’s radar, but, after a slightly shaky start, he contributes far more here than minor US stars generally did during this era when accepting leading roles in European movies; he’s certainly not just phoning in the role. Camden does a lovely balancing act as the beautiful wife who, despite her frank gaze, might just be, you know, nuts like Claude claims she is. In a very effective later twist in the movie we discover that the gaze is far more honest than we’d believed: Claude has (and to great extent so have we) been reading her wrong in more senses than one.
Among the supporting roles, Konradi is quite splendid as the (not so) plain Marie, whose love for Toni is sufficient that she’ll facilitate his escape with Karin.
Lederer, however, steals the show with a turn of marvelous integrity in which he portrays to perfection a man who’s both an aesthetically sensitive musician and a superficially charming yet fundamentally sadistic sleazebag. He’s so good in the part that I found I had to concentrate to convince myself that it probably wasn’t Lederer himself playing piano with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.
I’m not sure if this is an actual frame-by-frame rendition of ABENTEUER IN WIEN, which I viewed far more recently than last I did Stolen Identity, but still a few years ago. I kept recognizing shots, though, and so I suspect it was. One day, when I get the time, I’ll sit down and watch the two one after the other to find out for sure.
Lernet-Holenia’s novel Ich War Jack Mortimer has been filmed elsewhere as Ich War Jack Mortimer (1935) dir Carl Froelich, with Anton Walbrook, Sybille Schmitz and Eugen Klöpfer; and Jack Mortimer (1961 TVM) dir Michael Kehlmann, with Gunther Malzacher and Ingrid van Bergen. There may be other adaptations; as always, I’m open to information.