The Fellowship of the Frog (1959) The Fellowship of the Frog / Face of the Frog / Der Frosch mit der Maske (1959) **½

     In Germany, what we think of as thrillers or murder mysteries are called Krimis— as in Kriminalroman or Kriminalfilm. Broadly speaking, anything from cops-and-robbers to a drawing-room whodunit would qualify, but the primary association conjured up by the term is that of a diabolical genius matching wits against a heroic arch-sleuth, something like the Arthur Conan Doyle model as mis-imagined by Americans who forget that Professor Moriarty appeared in only two Sherlock Holmes stories. Both in print and on celluloid, the quintessential Krimis are Sax Rohmer’s tales of Fu Manchu and Sumuru; they’re Dr. Mabuse the Gambler and its sequels; and most of all, they’re the stories of British pulp superstar Edgar Wallace and his copycat son, Bryan. It seems a bit odd to me that the Germans should go so unreservedly mad for the works of an English writer, but it was apparently a case of love at first sight. As early as the 1920’s, Wallace’s novels of baroque illegalities were huge sellers across the North Sea, so popular indeed that the Nazis (ever eager to control the public’s tastes) felt compelled to ban them after they came to power in 1933. There were also some Edgar Wallace movies made in Germany during the Weimar period, although few if any of them survive today. Naturally it was going to take more than an interdict from Hitler to get Wallace-mania out of the Germans’ systems permanently, and not too much time passed between the fall of the Third Reich and the return of Edgar Wallace to what was by then West Germany. (For that matter, there’s some indication of renewed popularity in the East, too, but that’s a subject I don’t feel qualified to take up just yet.) Wallace-derived movies took a bit longer to reestablish themselves, not least because practically the entire German film industry had been destroyed in the war. Indeed, when the first new Edgar Wallace mystery appeared in West German theaters in 1959, it wasn’t strictly a German production at all.

     Rialto-Film was a long-established and locally very successful Danish studio, with roots going back practically to the beginning of motion picture history. Originally controlled by Constantin Philipsen, the firm passed into the hands of its founder’s son, Preben, in 1950. The new boss had rather grand ambitions. Setting up a distribution subsidiary called Constantin Film in Frankfurt am Main, the younger Philipsen sought to expand his reach into West Germany and beyond, initially by exploiting his acquaintance with high-ranking figures at United Artists to secure exclusive German-language distro rights to that company’s products. Of course, what Philipsen really wanted was a German audience for his own films, and with that in mind, he entered into alliance with Horst Wendlandt, sometime partner of the Central Cinema Company’s Artur Brauner. It was Wendlandt who suggested Edgar Wallace as Rialto’s winning ticket, possibly inspired by a pair of Wallace adaptations that had lately captured promising audiences on West German TV (although Brauner would later claim that Wendlandt had stolen the idea from him). Winning ticket indeed. The Fellowship of the Frog, the Philipsen-Wendlandt team’s first foray into Wallace territory, was a monster hit, and in the aftermath, Rialto transformed itself into a veritable Krimi factory. By the time the craze petered out in the early 1970’s, Rialto had produced an astonishing total of 32 Wallace-derived and Wallace-inspired films.

     As was only to be expected, competitors sprang up left and right— none of them more determined than Brauner’s CCC. Only Kurt Ulrich Film Productions made a true Edgar Wallace adaptation, however (and only one at that), because Philipsen was smart enough to secure an exclusive deal with the Wallace estate, much like Anglo-Amalgamated did in the UK at about the same time. Brauner therefore did both of the next best things, signing a pact of his own with Bryan Edgar Wallace and coaxing Fritz Lang back home to relaunch his old Dr. Mabuse franchise. Meanwhile, Constantin Film rather puzzlingly went into the production business as a separate entity from Rialto in the 1960’s, muscling in on the parent company’s racket by collaborating with British sleazemeister Harry Alan Towers on a series of Fu Manchu movies starring Christopher Lee. And minor companies like Germania Film adapted mysteries by minor authors like Louis Weinert-Wilton, desperate for at least some small piece of the Krimi action. The Krimis’ popularity quickly spread beyond Germanic Europe, too. In Italy, for example, the Danish and West German imports influenced the emerging giallo genre, which then influenced them right back until the two styles finally merged in Seven Bloodstained Orchids and What Have You Done to Solange?. Danger! Diabolik and its imitators might also be seen as an attempt to transplant the Krimi to Italian soil, and that in turn puts Turkish archfiend movies like Kilink in Istanbul within the Krimi lineage. The French (who arguably laid the Krimis’ most basal foundation with characters like Victor Hugo’s Gwynplaine and Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera) got into the act as well, with an update of Fantomas that did well enough to spawn two sequels. There’s even a noticeable cross-fertilization between Krimis and the European competitors to James Bond, which tend to emphasize the outlandishness of their villains and to redouble the complexity of their plots. All that back-and-forth borrowing between genres naturally meant that the Krimis grew steadily stranger as the 60’s progressed. That said, even The Fellowship of the Frog is plenty weird in its way.

     If evil masterminds are the defining feature of these movies, then it only stands to reason that we’d begin with the present one in action. That would be the Frog, of course, ringleader of an army of thieves and killers who have terrorized London and its environs for months. The Frog seems to take special delight in forcing his way into stout safes, be they in banks, private residences, or corporate payroll departments, and as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, the only clues he leaves behind are planted deliberately to taunt the authorities. Specifically, he likes to stamp the ruined shell of each safe he violates with the image of his namesake animal. As we’ll see later on, it is not merely through police incompetence that the Frog manages to stay always a step or two ahead of the law. Internal secrecy is the guiding principle behind the organization of his mob; none of his subordinates know the true names of anyone higher up in the organization than themselves, and the Frog invariably wears a disguise in the company of even his most trusted minions. Mind you, that getup defies in every other way the dictates of good sense, good taste, and practicality, suggesting as it does the costume that might be worn by the Dark Overlord of the Universe in a Star Wars rip-off directed by Larry Buchanan. Our introduction to the Frog gang comes while they’re pillaging the safe at the home of Lord Charles Farnsworth (Olaf Ussing) and his wife (Charlotte Scheier-Herold). The criminals make off with all of Lady Farnsworth’s most valuable jewels, and although she blunders into the scene of the crime while it’s actually in progress, she has nothing very useful to offer Inspector Hedge of Scotland Yard (Siegfried Lowitz, from The Sinister Monk and The Brain) by way of testimony the next day. (Hedge, incidentally, is called “Inspector Elk” in the German version.)

     The Farnsworths’ status among the nobility naturally means that they feel… well, entitled to lodge an official complaint with Hedge’s boss, Sir Archibald (Ernst Fürbringer, from The Red Circle and The Secret of the Red Orchid), about Scotland Yard’s poor performance in the Frog affair to date. Hedge has another heckler, too, in the form of Sir Archibald’s American nephew, Richard Gordon (Joachim Fuchsberger, of The Black Abbot and What Have You Done to Solange?), who is currently in London for some unexplained reason. Gordon’s meddling might actually do the authorities some good, however, for he fancies himself— apparently with some justification— an amateur crime-solver. But despite all the grousing from outside observers, Hedge has some good news to offer his superior. One of his men, Detective Constable Higgins (Werner Hedman, from The Terrible People and In the Sign of the Lion), has finally succeeded in infiltrating the Frog mob. He’s due to meet the arch-criminal for his formal induction this very night.

     Inevitably, Higgins’s mission doesn’t go exactly according to plan. A member of the Frog’s inner circle (Ulrich Beiger, from Teenage Sex Report and The Forger of London)— his name is Everett, but good luck figuring that out from the English dub— does indeed escort the undercover cop to a one-on-one meeting with his boss at the defunct cement factory that serves as the gang’s base of operations, and Higgins even gets as far as receiving an assignment from the Frog that hints at upcoming capers more devious than any mere safe-cracking. Higgins is to keep tabs on Ella (Elsie von Kalkreuth) and Ray (Carmen, Baby’s Walter Wilz) Bennet, the daughter and son of reclusive country squire John Bennet (Carl Lange, from Mistress of the World and The Carpet of Horror), and to kill any man he sees consorting with the girl. The detective overplays his hand, however, when he reveals his true identity and places the Frog under arrest. The room where the evil mastermind gives his troops their marching orders is booby-trapped in a manner that must have given every Eurospy villain in the business ideas, and the next morning, Higgins is no more than yet another puzzle for Hedge to solve, his body dumped alongside the sandy shoulder of the road between London and Landsmoore.

     Richard Gordon and his comic relief battle butler, James (Eddi Arent, from The Green Archer and The Door with Seven Locks), try their hands at that puzzle, too, and Gordon takes it upon himself to follow the trail of fresh and distinctive footprints leading past the scene of the corpse-dumping. Doing so brings Richard into contact with the Bennet family, for the man leaving those tracks is none other than John Bennet himself. That would tend to cast suspicion on him as a possible Frog or Frog hanger-on even without taking into consideration his overly protective attitude toward the heavy valise he’s carrying when Gordon catches up to him and offers him a ride. Further suspicion accrues to Bennet from his visibly great dissatisfaction with Ray, who turns out to be an undisciplined layabout unable to hang onto even the most undemanding job. And of course it wouldn’t be exactly unprecedented for a father to take such a dim view of his daughter’s suitors as to issue standing orders for their extermination. The Frog’s orders to Higgins clearly are standing, too, since no sooner has Richard contrived an excuse to get Ella alone with him than he comes under attack from Everett. Gordon proves more than a match for the assassin, however— you may recall from other B-movies (Bloodlust!, for example) that the late 1950’s were right about when Western pop culture was discovering judo. Everett soon finds himself handed over to Inspector Hedge, although he gloats that “Number 7” will free him long before Hedge or his men will be able to extract from him any intelligence about the Frog or his operation.

     More Frog suspects come to light when we unexpectedly follow Ray Bennet to his latest doomed attempt at gainful employment. To all appearances, Ray got the job through a friend of the family named Philo Johnson (Jochen Brockmann, of The Wizard and The Indian Tomb), but that jowly nonentity doesn’t stand out as likely to be up to no good. (Of course, the experienced mystery-watcher will begin scrutinizing Johnson all the more closely for that very reason.) No, if there’s a card-carrying villain at Ray’s office, it’s Ezra Maitland, the company president; really, the fact that Maitland is played by Fritz Rasp, from Metropolis and The Strange Countess, is enough all by itself. Also of note is the blind beggar (Dieter Eppler, of The Head and The Slaughter of the Vampires) who stands outside the building selling an assortment of cheap crap. It’s plain enough that he’s casing the joint even before he starts tailing Maitland— although that could equally well make him the Frog, a Frog agent, or a pursuer of same, depending on what the dour and apparently much-loathed businessman’s deal really is. In any case, the filmmakers wouldn’t bother revealing that the “beggar” maintains his vigil in a fairly elaborate disguise unless they had big plans for him.

     That night, John Bennet is demoted a bit on the suspect hierarchy when the Frog throws a scare into Ella right in her own bedroom. It isn’t completely impossible that Bennet could change out of costume in the time it takes Ella to run to him in the aftermath, but it would stretch the limits of plausibility even for a movie like this one. More importantly, what the Frog says to her— something about going away with him of her own free will— doesn’t sound like a line that even the most jealous father would take. On the other hand, The Fellowship of the Frog makes a big production out of not letting Richard Gordon find John’s closely guarded valise when he breaks into the Bennet house to search for it soon thereafter, so obviously the man has to be hiding something. And speaking of secrets, Gordon soon has a run-in with the phony blind beggar (out of disguise, mind you) at some duchess’s party, and the two of them get into a verbal chess match of a conversation about somebody called Harry Lime. Lime was evidently one of the slipperiest criminals Gordon ever tangled with, and similarities in modus operandi lead Richard to suspect that this old enemy of his may in fact be the Frog. The only trouble with that hypothesis is that Harry Lime is dead, his mutilated body fished out of the Thames years ago. But as Gordon points out, the mutilations were so severe that the only basis for believing the corpse to be Lime’s was the intact set of identity papers in its pockets. What are the odds, right? Furthermore, Lime wasn’t the only person who was never seen again after that body washed up; his closest accomplice disappeared right along with him. What if the accomplice was really the one who died? Or what if the accomplice is the Frog instead of Lime? For that matter, what if the corpse in the river was just some luckless schmuck, and Lime and his sidekick had a falling-out after going into hiding, leaving one to get back to business as the Frog and the other to… oh, I don’t know… dress up like a beggar and stalk his former ally for some nefarious purpose?

     Believe it or not, there are still two major aspects of the mystery to set up, even after all that. They fall into place when Ray Bennet unexpectedly receives an invitation to a cabaret called the Lolita Bar, issued by the namesake floor-show headliner herself (Eva Pflug). The doorman at the club is Lew Brady (Reinhard Kolldehoff, from Liane, Jungle Goddess and The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse), a sometime career criminal whom Hedge knows very well; he claims to have gone straight, but that’s almost certainly bullshit. Lolita says she has a job offer for Ray, which is rather convenient right now, seeing as Maitland just fired him. Lolita’s unlooked-for generosity is even odder than it sounds, too, since Maitland happens to own the Lolita Bar. She also seems to be offering Ray a position as her boyfriend, which if you ask me is even shadier. Meanwhile, a team of Frog flunkies is knocking over a bank on the other side of town, and there’s just no way it’s a coincidence that the one who gets picked up by the cops during the getaway (Come to My Bedside’s Michel Hildesheim) is officially employed as one of Lolita’s spotlight operators. With the bar’s Frog connection thereby confirmed, there can be no question but that Ray is being set up for some manner of con or frame-job— perhaps to give the Frog leverage for coercing Ella? Gordon gets to work investigating that angle, finagling his way into the captured gangster’s old job at the cabaret. As for that Frog goon, his arrest never does Scotland Yard much good, because the prisoner is killed in a rather deliberate-looking traffic accident on the way to jail. And as if that weren’t bad enough, Everett soon escapes from custody and returns to active duty with the mob. Sir Archibald blames the two defeats on the ineptitude of Sergeant Barclay (The Invisible Terror’s Erwin Stahl), the officer in charge on both occasions, but Hedge fears something even worse. Remember what Everett said about “Number 7?” Makes it sound like the Frog has a man on the inside, doesn’t it? That’s about when the corpses start piling up in earnest…

     I can see why The Fellowship of the Frog was such a hit, and why it inspired both its creators and their rivals to keep mining this ground for more than a decade. Although overly complex and frequently confusing, it exhibits those qualities in ways that seem to appeal to most mystery-lovers. As would so often be the case in subsequent Krimis, all of the characters toward whom director Harald Reinl and writers Egon Eis and J. J. Bartsch attempt to direct audience suspicion turn out in the end to have been up to something, whether or not their activities have anything directly to do with the Frog’s crime spree. That tendency to give even the reddest of red herrings an actual function in the story is something I much appreciate, having come to the Krimis after years of watching their always loose-jointed and often nonsensical Italian cousins. The pace is blisteringly fast, and action set-pieces of one sort or another crop up far more frequently than I was expecting on the basis of more conventional mystery films. I’m insufficiently conversant with Edgar Wallace to judge The Fellowship of the Frog’s faithfulness to its source specifically, but the film’s sensibility certainly is authentically pulpy in more general terms. Inevitably that means logic is rarely very high on its list of priorities (Just why is John Bennet walking all those miles home to Landsmoore in his introductory scene, anyway? And what the hell did poor Lolita ever do to earn that fate?), but it’s got energy to spare and an adolescent sense of fun that sets it starkly apart from the film noir that had dominated the cinema of crime melodrama throughout the preceding decade. I particularly got a kick out of the relationship between Richard Gordon and James, which comes across as a blend of Holmes/Watson and Jeeves/Wooster as interpreted by the writers of “Danger Mouse.” Watching them discuss the mystery of the Frog while judo sparring in clothes appropriate to dinner at the chateau of some third-string Romanov is a lunatic delight, and Eddi Arent, remarkably enough, is actually funny more often than not. Frankly, the two men make a much more engaging couple than do Gordon and the insipid Ella Bennet.

     But most of all, what makes The Fellowship of the Frog work is simply that it is so very different from the mystery films that preceded it— even the ones based on something by Edgar Wallace. The black-and-white cinematography has a greasy, cruddy look to it (rather like that in Eyes Without a Face), which clashes in an interesting way with the loopiness of the story overall. Much the same dissonance is apparent as well in Reinl’s handling of the violence as the contest between the Frog and the authorities (broadly construed here to include Gordon and James) escalates. The carnage inflicted on the bad guys during a third-act breakout from captivity by the amateur sleuth and his deadly valet especially has some bite to it, and comes as quite a shock in the context of a movie about a master safe-cracker who dresses like Darth Kermit when he’s on the job. Other bits of paradigm-shifting weirdness include Lolita’s introduction (which seems to foreshadow twenty years’ worth of Jesus Franco nightclub scenes), the nearly comical darkness of the manner in which John Bennet’s secret finally comes to light, and the insistently skronky jazz score by Willy Mattes and Peter Thomas (who subsequently scored Horrors of Spider Island and The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism respectively). There’s an experimental quality to The Fellowship of the Frog, and by no means does everything that it tries work. Even its failures are interesting, though, and this movie leaves me with a powerful urge to seek out more like it.

 

 

This review is part of a B-Masters Cabal’s look at the multifariously weird world of movies derived from the writings of Edgar and Bryan Edgar Wallace. Click the banner below to read my colleagues’ contributions:

 

 

 

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