Rätsel der Roten Orchidee, Das (1962)

vt Secret of the Red Orchid; vt The Puzzle of the Red Orchid
West Germany / 82 minutes / bw / Constantin, Rialto Preben Philipsen Dir: Helmuth Ashley Pr: Horst Wendlandt Scr: Trygve Larsen Story: When the Gangs Came to London (1932) by Edgar Wallace Cine: Franz Lederle Cast: Christopher Lee, Adrian Hoven, Marisa Mell, Pinkas Braun, Christiane Nielsen, Eric Pohlmann, Fritz Rasp, Wolfgang Büttner, Herbert A.E. Böhme, Günther Jerschke, Sigrid von Richthofen, Hans Paetsch, Edgar Wenzel, Benno Gellenbeck, Kurt A. Jung, Klaus Kinski, Eddi Arent.

Red Orchid - 0 opener (Minelli & Steve)

Another of the Rialto/Constantin Edgar Wallace krimis, and as entertaining as any of them, albeit relatively lacking in the series’s hallmark bonkersness: while the plot reaches levels of implausibility that English-language cinema rarely achieves in thrillers outside the James Bond movies and their imitators (but see Operation Diplomat [1953]), it doesn’t have anyone disguising himself in a froglike mask, cunningly using an air pistol to fire poison-tipped darts whose flights are not feathers but plastic models of black widow spiders or prancing around in red monkish attire while brandishing a whip. But there’s plenty of other fun to be had here, not least being a plethora of tremendous, manifestly noir-influenced cinematography, with great exploitation of the black-and-white medium, in particular the use of shadows. In addition there are two noted UK thespians in leading roles, Lee and Pohlmann.

Red Orchid - 1 O'Connor's gang try to enjoy a nice game of poker

O’Connor and his gang try to enjoy a nice game of poker.

In Chicago in 1960 the gang boss O’Connor (uncredited) is playing poker with his buddies in a basement at the Plaza Hotel when a couple of gunmen burst in and mow everyone down. Seemingly the sole member of the gang to escape is Der Schöne Gunner Steve (Kinski), who was late getting to the game but did his best to phone through a warning to his boss. As they depart, the gunmen tell the pile of corpses that they’ve brought a message from rival gang boss Kerkie Minelli (Pohlmann).

Red Orchid - 2 Gunner Steve realizes what's about to go down at the Plaza Hotel

Gunner Steve (Klaus Kinski) realizes what’s about to go down at the Plaza Hotel.

Soon we see Kerkie Minelli being put aboard a ship by Chicago cop Captain Allerman (Lee). The Chicago PD hasn’t been able to get enough evidence against Minelli for the O’Connor murders, but they have enough else on him to cheerfully deport him from the US.

A year later in London, Lord Arlington (Paetsch) receives a letter made up of words cut from the newspaper. He has his butler, Parker (Arent), read it out for him:

Nowadays, people with a lot of money are more in danger than they ever were. They need protection. The patrons of the rich, for the sum of only 10.000 pounds, are prepared to guarantee it. If you accept, just place an ad in the personal column of Wednesday’s Times. If you refuse to pay, or make a call to the police, you will be a dead man.

Despite the threat, Arlington decides to involve the cops. Silly move. The next we know, a car bearing his corpse is being dumped directly outside the gates of Scotland Yard.

Red Orchid - 3 Arlington's corpse sends a message to Scotland Yard

The corpse of Arlington (Hans Paetsch) sends a message to Scotland Yard — a stiffogram?

Inspector Weston of the Yard (Hoven) is convinced the crime is a gang one—that a US gang has hopped across the Atlantic to London. Despite the evident qualms of his colleague, Chief Inspector Tetley (Büttner), he calls in his friend Allerman, who happens to be visiting London, for expert advice. Allerman confirms that the method of sending extortion notes composed from cut-out newspaper words was a trademark of the O’Connor gang; since O’Connor’s dead, the conclusion must be that his one-time henchman Gunner Steve is perpetuating O’Connor’s legacy.

Red Orchid - 4 Lillian reads out the latter sent to Tanner

Lillian (Marisa Mell) reads out the letter sent to Tanner.

The next person to receive one of the threatening messages is elderly investor Elias Zacharias Tanner (Rasp), whom Weston actually knows—Weston’s keen on Tanner’s secretary Lillian Ranger (Mell), and has been using any excuse to pop round to investigate any problems Tanner might have. Lillian tells him about the extortion note . . . and so Tanner gets machine-gunned to pieces in front of her.

Red Orchid - 6 Gunmen murder Tanner, to Lillian's horror

Gunmen murder Tanner, to the horror of Lillian (Marisa Mell).

And in front of Eddi Arent’s character Parker, who, after Arlington’s death, next got a butlering job with Tanner. Curious, that.

Red Orchid - 5 Barker with fake beard unmasked while spying on Lillian and Weston

Parker (Eddi Arent) is unmasked, despite his fake beard, while spying on Lillian and Weston.

Tanner’s will is read, and it’s discovered he’s left everything to Lillian—while cutting out his nephew Edwin (Braun), an orchid-hunter who’s spent his life gadding around in jungles rather than helping his dear old nunx. Edwin, who has something of the air of a depraved vicar about him—a vicar as played by Rowan Atkinson—takes this stoically but does begin to pay court to Lillian, perhaps in hopes of marrying the money he didn’t inherit.

Red Orchid - 8 Allerman delivers a polite warning to Minelli

Allerman (Christopher Lee, right) delivers a polite warning to Minelli (Eric Pohlmann).

Rich Mr. Shelby (Jerschke) gets a similar letter of extortion, but this time it takes the form of a printed communique with the particulars filled in by hand. Allerman advises that the printed form letter is a trademark of Kerkie Minelli’s gang—so, yes, there are two US extortion gangs now operating in London. Shelby, whose butler Parker has recently become, decides to pay up the money rather than risk his life, but he gets gunned down anyway at the handover.

Red Orchid - 9 Edwin Tanner -- would you buy a used orchid from this man

Edwin Tanner (Pinkas Braun) — would you buy a used orchid from this man?

Lillian, as Tanner’s heir, gets a Minelli-style form letter but just laughs. When the bank investigated Tanner’s estate it discovered he died near-penniless—Lillian has no money for anyone to extort.

Red Orchid - 10 Lillian gets a letter

Lillian (Marisa Mell) gets a letter.

Edwin, hearing of this, announces that he has no time for Scotland Yard’s pussyfooting; he’ll take matters into his own hands. He gives Cora Minelli (Nielsen), Kerkie’s glamorous, airheaded shopaholic trophy wife, a lift from outside the Minellis’ luxury apartment block, hands her a rare orchid and then, still calmly smiling, issues his warning:

Edwin: “But you tell him, if Miss Ranger is hurt, something will then happen to someone else. You, for example, Mrs. Minelli.”
Cora: “Me?”
Edwin: “In South America poisonous flowers exist, you know. A little scratch would be enough to cause a horrible . . .”
Cora: [gasp of consternation]
Edwin: “No, that flower is harmless. As of now nothing has happened. But in the event . . . With the touch of a poison flower, the head swells up just like a balloon. Huge!”
Cora: “Yes, I’ve heard about them.”
Edwin: “I saw women with heads like elephants.”
Cora: “Please, you’ve said enough.”
Edwin: “Other poisons are more harmless. All they do is shrink heads, so they’re tiny. Tourists buy the things.”
Cora: “Oh, please. They’re terrible.”
Edwin: “Your head would make a pretty souvenir. It was a pleasure chatting, Mrs. Minelli.”

Them orchid hunters are grittier than you might think. Sure enough, Minelli swiftly retracts the threat to Lillian.

Red Orchid - 7 We get a glimpse of Cora Minelli's favored reading matter

We get a glimpse of the reading matter Cora Minelli (Christiane Nielsen) favors.

Elderly Mrs. Moore (von Richthofen), whose butler Parker has become, takes his advice to drive to Scotland tout de suite while he battles the extortionists on her behalf. She has a fatal accident on the dark night road because someone has rigged up a mirror by the roadside to trick her into thinking there’s another car on a collision course with hers.

Red Orchid - 11 Curtains for Mrs. Moore

Curtains for Mrs. Moore (Sigrid von Richthofen).

Safari adventurer Colonel Drood (Böhme) gets two threatening letters, one from each gang, but determines he’ll not take this lying down; he fortifies his home and enlists what looks like a small army . . . as well as Parker, who is by now quite open about the fact that he’s being called the Todesbutler or “Death’s Butler,” because of his connection to all the crimes.

Red Orchid - 12 Parker is frisked on arrival at Drood's 'castle'

Parker (Eddi Arent) is frisked on arrival at Drood’s “castle”.

Red Orchid - 14 Drood is prepared even to shoot down the gangs' airplanes

Drood (Herbert A.E. Böhme) is prepared even to shoot down the gang’s airplanes.

Less courageous is Mr. Dorries (Jung), of the bank that used to act for Tanner and for whom Lillian is now working. Yet he provides the vital clue when he tells Weston whose name was on the check handed over by the mysterious Chicago consortium that has just bought his bank.

Red Orchid - 13 Allerman reveals himself to one of Minelli's murderous hoods

Allerman (Christopher Lee) reveals himself to one of Minelli’s murderous hoods.

By now there’s a war raging across London between Minelli’s gang and Gunner Steve’s. We see scenes of murder and mayhem; my special favorite was the exploding bunch of flowers sent to Cora Minelli—killer daffs, sort of thing.

Red Orchid - 15 Lillian studies some bank records

Lillian (Marisa Mell) studies some bank records.

I’m accustomed to watching the Edgar Wallace krimis with a sort of fascinated amazement—they’re rather like Ed Wood movies might be had the latter had higher production standards, competent (often very good) actors and cinematographers, and dialogue writers who knew what they were doing. This one, while it delivers plenty of the loopy, doesn’t achieve those surreal heights—in fact, it functions moderately well as a thriller, which is the last thing you expect from an Edgar Wallace krimi.

Red Orchid - 16 Lovely use of shadows as Lillian explores a bank vault

14 thoughts on “Rätsel der Roten Orchidee, Das (1962)

  1. While reading your post, I made a quick detour to my old pal Wikipedia to look up these Rialto krimis and was astonished to see how many of these influential films there were.

    Also, this my new fave of your inventive phrases: “hallmark bonkersness”.

    • I apologize for the inventive phraseology — my bad habit.

      Yes, it’s a long series of movies — not just in terms of numbers but in terms of the length of time over which they continued to be released. There have also been a couple of parodies released that I’m told are very good fun; when they come out in this country (i.e., with subtitles!) I must give them a spin. Hm: I’ve just realized it’s a while since last I checked on their status . . .

  2. I rather like the sound of this one, John – and the presence of Christopher Lee is always a bonus. I don’t suppose it’s available to view online?

    PS I love your use of the term “hallmark bonkersness” too. I might have to borrow that at some point. 😉

  3. Definitely my kind of movie as per your marvelous qualification, but you’ve elevated it further with this fascinating account. Another film you have rescued from comparative obscurity John! 🙂

  4. from comparative obscurity

    It’s my understanding that the entire EW krimi series is still pretty well known in continental Europe, even though largely ignored in the anglophone world. In my (all too limited) experience of them, they’re very well worth a look — often bad but often bizarrely entertaining.

  5. I’m a sucker for Wallace films (even if the link is so often utterly tangential) and have four of these Rialto films in English-friendly editions – is this one available with either a dub or English subtitles do you know? Looks like great silly fun to me!

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