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