The Mystery of the Red Orchid (1962)

The Mystery of the Red Orchid a.k.a. Das R‰tsel der roten Orchidee (1962)

No DVD company has yet laid claim to the West German ‘krimi’ movies of the’60s, but nevertheless they continue to trickle out. Public domain cheapie firm Alpha Video has a couple of them available, including The Phantom of Soho, with presentations about what you’d expect discs running three or four bucks. On the other end of the spectrum, the up and coming cult imprint Dark Skies has released a very nice and colorful edition of The College Girl Murders.

Somewhere in the middle is Fred Olen Ray’s company, Retromedia. Last year they released a non-spectacular yet serviceable double bill of the ‘60s remake of Dead Eyes of London and the non-krimi Barbara Steele flick The Ghost. Now they have followed up with a ‘Scream Theater’ twin feature of The Monster of London City and The Mystery of the Red Orchid.

Loosely adapted, as always, from the novels of Edgar Wallace, The Mystery of the Red Orchid is at best an average example of the breed, although it is entertaining enough. Standard krimi elements, such as a healthy serving of goofy plot twists hilariously bizarre dialogue are readily on display. Said comic dialogue, presumably, is the result of the English redubbing of German language films adapted from an Englishman’s books.

This one looks especially promising from the get-go, as it features krimi fixture Klaus Kinski, as well as a vacationing Christopher Lee. However, as buffs are aware, continental European film companies of the ‘60s typically shot the movies in German, and then whipped up an English language track for export prints after the shoot. Actors such as Lee generally considered this arrangement untenable, as in a way two separate performances were required—one on film, and a subsequent vocal one—for one acting fee.

Because of this, those actors prominent enough to get away with it refused to provide the English language vocal tracks, and this picture proves no exception. Sadly, therefore, the distinctive voices of both Kinski and Lee are noticeably absent from the English language dub, thus robbing us of much of the satisfaction their presence would normally provide. In a perfect world—and this is perhaps the lament of one spoiled by the better DVD companies—we’d get the German language tracks with English subtitling. This would allow us to enjoy hearing the actual voices of both Kinski and Lee. (The latter performed his lines in German during the shoot—I’d like to hear him speaking German with an American accent, actually.)

One of the sublime joys of these films, for me at least, is the laughably inauthentic ‘Britain’ in which the films are set. Here such matters are even more exaggerated, as the film actually begins in *ahem* “Chicago 1960.” We open with a group of obvious gangsters—I mean, c’mon, it’s Chicago—having a card game in a hotel room. (This is all accompanied by one of the genre’s better trademarks, a jazzy score.) I have to say, I live in the suburbs of Chicago, and I found the architecture of the “Plaza Hotel” weirdly un-American.

The gangsters, members of “the O’Connor gang,” are dressed and converse in a matter appropriate to a cheesy ‘30s Hollywood crime movie, all have gruff, cartoonish voices. Because, you know, they’re from Chicago. Following a mention of rival gangster Minelli, one fellow rasps, “Why isn’t ‘Gunner Steve’ here?” Another fellow, dubbed by an actor who sounds like he’s very vaguely doing John Wayne, quips, “He must have picked up a babe!” Wow, this American street argot is right on the nose!

Downstairs, we see the nattily dressed Gunner Steve (Kinski) approaching the hotel. However, he spots an arriving car, from which issues a party of Minelli’s men. Steve attempts to phone his comrades a warning, but it’s too late. Minelli’s men kick open the door and massacre them. (One of the killers is armed with a Schmeiser, that well known favorite submachine of the Chicago gangster set. What, they couldn’t dig up a prop Tommy Gun?)

We cut to a dockside cruise ship. Minelli is being deported, and is sent off by Captain Allerman of the FBI. Allerman is played by Lee, because of course when your primarily British-set film is being shot in West Germany, it only makes sense to import a prominent English actor to play an American. As noted, Lee’s voice is dubbed by an actor who doesn’t sound like him in the slightest. Noting that Italy is too small for him, Minelli vows to resettle elsewhere.

“London, one year later” a narrator informs us. A postman is delivering a letter to the house of Lord Arlington. He is met at the door by Parker, a woefully realized attempt at a P. G. Wodehouse sort of prissily comic sarcastic butler. Arlington asks Parker to read him the letter. This proves a blackmail note made up of (what else?) words clipped from an apparently wide array of newspapers and magazines, given the variety of fonts on exhibit. Parker’s recitation of the letter is supposedly humorous, although I only knew that because of the blaring ‘comedy’ music—waaaa-wha!—that accompanied his reading.

The note basically demands a huge sum, and threatens Arlington’s life should he not pay and/or contact the police. Arlington vows not to pay the money, and Parker concurs that there is no real danger. “In America, among the savages,” he sniffs, “such a thing could happen. But among us in London, hmph.” Following Parker’s advice, Arlington makes for Scotland Yard. Soon, however, he is found in his car outside the building, shot in the head and clutching the blackmail note.

We then cut to the home of the elderly Mr. Tanner, who is in his office with his incredibly hot secretary, Lillian. Soon Tanner’s friend Inspector Weston arrives. As is true of the heroes in all of these things, Weston is a bit of a skirthound, and obviously has an on-going flirtation thing going with Lillian. (Lucky him.) Weston’s arrival is followed by further painful hijinx involving Tanner’s absentmindedness. Weston also announces that he’s been transferred to the Yard’s Blackmail division.

At the Yard, Weston meets with Sir John (the head of Scotland Yard in all these movies) about the killing of Lord Arlington. “I can’t remember ever seeing such a vicious crime,” another detective tuts. “No wonder,” Weston replies, “they’re using American methods.” Yeah, yeah. Continuing to theorize that the criminals are transported Americans, Weston suggests calling in his old friend Captain Allerman, who is coincidentally currently in London. Being all brash and stuff (to the annoyance of his stuffy colleague in the Blackmail squad), Weston has in fact already invited Allerman to the Yard, and now brings him inside.

Allerman looks at the note and pronounces it similar to the methods employed by the O’Connor crew, although he notes how O’Connor was killed, “blasted beyond all recognition.” However, Gunner Steve is currently in London, as he has opened a tobacconist shop (!) there. Allerman soon drops by the store, where he and Gunner Steve warily dance around each other.

Meanwhile, they establish that Steve owns a talking Myna bird, which presumably will utter an important clue sometime later in the movie. [Future Ken: Nope. So why the bird?] Allerman produces a search warrant, intending to look for the scissors used to cut out the words from the newspapers (?!). Steve reacts by smirking, so Allerman doesn’t bother executing it. (So, an American was issued a warrant to search a British shop—and then doesn’t even bother to use it?) Again, it’s a real shame that the actors didn’t dub their performances for this, as it ruins a potentially very cool scene between Kinski and Lee.

We cut to Tanner’s house, where in a weird bit, the old man proposes to Lillian (who wouldn’t?) that they get married, and immediately. Tanner notes that he could die at any time, and wants to ensure her future, although he’s already made her his primary heir. Still, he has a nephew, and by getting married her claim to his estate would be unassailable. “What others may think…I don’t give a hoot!” he explains. Tanner has little regard for his nephew, telling Lillian, “While you’ve been taking care of me so well, he’s been chasing all over the world, looking for orchids.” Ah, there you go. I foresee a particularly lethal orchid in our immediate future.

Then, proving that these films are expert at causing nearly unbearable audience unease, we find that Tanner’s new butler is none other than Odious Comic Relief Parker. I guess hoping we’d seen the back of him was too much. He comes bearing Tanner’s mail on a tray, and his crotchety employer ‘comically’ notes, “I don’t want my mail served to me on a plate, you fool!” In any case, Tanner’s sense of imminent death is confirmed when he, too, finds he has gotten a blackmail note. Like Arlington, he also refuses to pay.

Lillian alerts Weston at a cafÈ, hoping to avoid the killers finding out. They then discover they are being watched by a bearded man at another table. Rather than a member of the gang, however, this fellow proves, *sigh,* to be butler Parker in disguise. Waa-waa-waa! The comic butlers in these things often fancy themselves as amateur sleuths. (The actor playing Parker, Eddi Arent, appeared in a zillion of these Wallace adaptations, although in different roles. In 2002, a German TV network broadcast some new Edgar Wallace films, and Arent appeared in these as Sir John.)

Weston tells Lillian to keep Tanner inside, and that he’ll send over some men. Sure enough, two men show up and identify themselves as the cops, and although they sport suspicious accents, they are allowed inside. Out comes the Schmeiser (yeah, that would be inconspicuous under a coat) and Tanner is shot down before Lillian’s eyes. Being dastardly villains, moreover, they brutally leave Parker alive when they leave. Well, it was brutal for me, anyway.

That pretty much sets the stage, as myriad further deaths and horrible comic relief—aside from Parker, Minelli has a screechy wife with who he constantly bickers, etc.—and such follow.

The format of this film is different from most krimis, but in a clunky sense. Rather than there being a mysterious serial killer to uncover, this one basically functions (for most of the proceedings, anyway) as a gangster flick, as we eventually learn that both Minelli and O’Connor’s old crew are running parallel blackmailing networks. This leads to a gang war. More humorously, despite mention being made of how lucrative all this is, we never actually see anyone paying the blackmailers, but instead watch as a long line of blackmailees are bumped off, one after the other.

In the end, the ‘mystery’ is as to who is now running the O’Connor gang. A plethora of suspects are provided, including the orchid hunting nephew, Gunner Steve, and Allerman. I haven’t watched the rest of the movie yet (as I write this), but the latter is the most obvious suspect, in that he’s the least ‘obvious.’

Of course, the title of the movie suggests that it’s the suave nephew (as he’s the only one involved with orchids, which really have nothing to do with anything), so it would be pretty funny if it was. The fact that he represents a romantic rival for Weston implies that he’ll either become another victim or prove the murderer in any case.

Meanwhile, one prospective victim after another hires Parker to be their butler. You’d think after a while he’d get a reputation as a jinx. And that’s aside from his dubious skills at comedy. [Future Ken: In fact, he does gain such a reputation, as we eventually hear Parker whine that he’s now known as the “Death Butler.” Even so, he still ends up getting hired again and again.]

After all the set-up, you just wait for the particularly funny moments, such as during the reading of the will when Lillian is announced to be Tanner’s sole heir and she gasps, “I don’t believe it!” I mean, other than having had Tanner tell her himself that this was the case, how would she have known?!

Somewhere in the middle, the film takes an unfortunate turn towards intentional comedy (which means, of course, that this section of the film is significantly less funny than the serious parts), before returning to a more suspenseful tone towards the end. Meanwhile, there are a few baroque deaths, of the sort that define the krimi genre, but in the end the gangster stuff just doesn’t mesh well with the genre’s normal concerns.

Mystery of the Red Orchids is ultimately a middling krimi—especially with neither Lee nor Kinski being used to full effect—and those new to such things should probably dip their toe in elsewhere, perhaps with The Phantom of Soho or The College Girl Murders. Still, it’s an entertaining enough lark to justify a rental.