Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Phantom of Soho (Der Phantom von Soho) (1964)

The Phantom of Soho (Der Phantom von Soho) (1964) is an above-average Krimi film. (Krimi refers to a genre of German mystery films made primarily in the 1960s, set in London, and based upon the novels of Edgar Wallace and, to a lesser extent, his son, Bryan Edgar Wallace.)  While I have not yet seen a great Krimi film, I have seen some very good ones; and The Phantom of Soho is one of those few:  admirable detail is given to the sets and costumes, giving an appearance of a very credible-looking 60s London; the English dubbing and the jazzy score by Martin Bӧttcher are well composed; and finally, there is a panache to the direction by Franz Josef Gottlieb, especially (and unsurprisingly) in the phantom’s kill scenes.  However, and again like most krimi films, Phantom suffers from poor characterization sacrificed towards its formulaic plot.  Its story never allows for a particularly good performance; and when Phantom is not enticing the eyes, its talky bits become repetitive and dull.
The Phantom of Soho, based upon the story by Bryan Edgar Wallace, concerns the titular area in London, where a group of important men, like members of Parliament, are being killed by a knife-wielding phantom in its dark, shadowy alleys.  A cabaret located in the area is seemingly focal to the killings where many of the important gentlemen are seen shortly before their murders.  Not only are all of the murders linked to the doings at the cabaret, but the victims themselves are linked to an event in the past.  Chief Inspector Hugh Patton (Dieter Borsche) and Sergeant Hallam (Peter Vogel) are on the case.
Most of the characters in Phantom are pawns in service of the story:  nearly all are interchangeable and have no weight until the drama determines his/her function: red herring; genuine suspect; or investigator.  Two of the best characters are a mystery writer named Clarinda Smith (Barbara Rütting) and a pretty photographer at the cabaret named Corinne Smith (Helga Sommerfeld).  Phantom begins with Clarinda fireside with the head of Scotland Yard, Sir Phillip (Hans Sӧhnker), and their cozy fireside chat is interrupted by a phone call, detailing to Sir Phillip the finding of the first murder victim.  Over the course of Phantom, Clarinda appears auspiciously at key locations uncovering clues or in possession of insider information.  It is difficult to tell throughout the film whether Clarinda is playing Sir Phillip for a fool by extracting information from him to inform her new mystery novel or whether she is a genuine suspect or a budding amateur sleuth.  The screenplay of Phantom by Ladislas Fodor does not really flesh out her aspects of the story.  Helga Sommerfeld who plays the pretty photographer Corinne is as charismatic and captivating as krimi favorite, Karin Dor; yet she does not move beyond eye candy. Sommerfeld appears adept at comedy and drama in her few scenes. Unfortunately, Corinne appears early on and disappears just as quickly, not so much a character but a plot device.
The allure of Phantom is in its visuals and its atmosphere.  The smoky, dark alleys; the gliding, always moving camerawork (by Richard Angst); and the first-person camera kill scenes show this krimi is a definite distant cousin of the giallo and undeniable inheritor of noir cinema.  The cabaret sequences with their dance sequences are wonderfully risqué without being lewd.  There is an especially interesting and daring action sequence late in the film at a train yard.  Typically when I watch a krimi film, at some point I will zone out for a few minutes and miss a plot detail (which I have learned is not so much a big deal as plot holes are quite common in the cinema).  In Phantom, the plot is so mechanical it plays out with little need of focused attention.  When a little twist appears towards the motive of the killer, it results in either revenge or money.  I could have cared less.  I wished there would have been less talking and exposition and more focus on the characters and the visuals.  By no means is The Phantom of Soho a waste of time:  it can easily serve as representative of the genre; a standout; or a fine introduction to the krimi. 

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