Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Room 13' (1964)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 

Improbably, Room 13 is actually the second German movie dubbed into English (after 13 Days to Die) that I've watched for this project, and it's certainly the superior one, not that that's saying much. Like 13 Lead Soldiers, which introduced me to the world of Bulldog Drummond, Room 13 is another movie that's part of a thriving franchise I was previously unaware of. In this case, it's the peculiarly specific world of German adaptations of crime novels by British writer Edgar Wallace; German company Rialto Film produced 32 features based on Wallace novels between 1959 and 1972, and they were apparently a big influence on the development of the Italian giallo genre. You can see a bit of that influence in Room 13, which, like giallos, has far more accomplished style than substance.

Although Wallace wrote his novels mainly in the '20s and '30s, Room 13 has a contemporary 1960s setting (complete with a jazzy '60s-era musical score), and Wikipedia notes that many of the Rialto movies took only the barest plot details from Wallace's novels, updating everything else. Not having read Room 13, I can't say what's been changed for the movie, but the plot combines two fairly basic storylines, one a whodunit about a mysterious murderer killing women with a straight razor, and the other about a master criminal plotting a train heist. They come together thanks to Sir Robert Marney (Walter Rilla), an English aristocrat and member of parliament, whose daughter Denise (Karin Dor) is a potential target of both the unknown murderer and the crime boss, Joe Legge (Richard Haussler), who's blackmailing Marney over an unnamed incident in their past.

None of these people is the actual main character, though
-- that's private detective Johnny Gray (Joachim Fuchsberger, who starred in many of Rialto's Edgar Wallace movies), whom Marney hires to protect his daughter. Gray is a typical dashing, brilliant and fairly inconsiderate movie P.I., who bulldozes over the other characters (including the actual cops) to solve the case, regardless of how it endangers anyone else. This is a German movie set in London and filmed with German actors, and the version I saw on Amazon Instant was distractingly dubbed into English. That doesn't do any favors to the cheesy, stilted dialogue, which is delivered with maximum disinterest by the anonymous voiceover actors. Dor's performance as the clearly haunted daughter of wealth is actually quite evocative at times, but the dubbing removes most of its potential power.

The comic relief is much less successful; I was completely baffled by a bumbling police-scientist character who is apparently in love with a mannequin. At one point an undercover female police officer (posing as a dancer at Legge's shady nightclub, site of the titular room) is murdered, and the police identify her as one of their own because she's wearing "the official underwear of Scotland Yard." It's hard to know how to take moments like that. At the same time, I was impressed by director Harald Reinl's elegant tracking shots and long pans, which take in multiple layers of action in single, smooth takes. He also makes the straight-razor murders creepy with use of splashes of blood and quick motions, which are the movie's most obvious connection to giallos. In the end, the heist is a bit of a bust, but the resolution of the murder mystery hinges on some over-the-top histrionics and psycho-babble that would fit perfectly in a Dario Argento movie. I guess this is an early look at where some of that came from.

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