Thursday, October 08, 2009

Der gestreifte Domino

[The Striped Domino] DE 1915. PC: Stuart Webbs-Film Company Reicher und Reicher (Berlin). Series: Stuart Webbs-Detektivserie, Nr. 5. P: Ernst Reicher; D: Adolf Gärtner; SC: ?; DP: Max Fassbender; CAST: Ernst Reicher (Stuart Webbs), Emmerich Hanus (Bennett, Ganady’s son), Ludwig Trautmann (Paul, Ganady’s stepson), Beatrice Altenhofer (Ganady’s niece, Bennett’s fiancée); filmed: Stuart Webbs-Atelier, Berlin-Weissensee; orig: 1302 m; 1250 m /18 fps/ 60 min; from: Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin. E-subtitles in English + Italian, grand piano: Antonio Coppola. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 8 Oct 2009.

From the GCM Catalogue: "The influx of cheap pulp mysteries from abroad (especially the Nick Carter stories) was a cause for dire warnings from Germany’s arbiters of moral uplift The public’s demand for such sensationalism, with its concomitant hand-wringing, was equally great for detective films of the foreign and domestic varieties, the latter tending either towards gratuitous thrill-seeking with no psychological complexity or sleuthing movies in a comic vein. The problem wasn’t that the genre itself was inherently downmarket, but rather that the authors chosen for adaptation (when originating from a published source) were outside the canon of respectable literature. Considering the cross-class popularity of Sherlock Holmes, it’s not surprising that members of the film industry looked to Conan Doyle as a model for a new type of cinema detective who could appease the critics and censors while attracting a more upscale audience, always with an eye towards a larger pool of ticket buyers. To meet this challenge, the actor and scriptwriter Ernst Reicher, together with Joe May, created the character of Stuart Webbs, a private detective whose adventures would be logical (a relative term), striking a balance between Holmes-like deduction and requisite thrills.
The formula was an enormous success, leading to approximately 50 Stuart Webbs films between 1914 and 1926. Sebastian Hesse, in his essay on the series, quotes a reviewer from Licht-Bild-Bühne in 1915 comparing the new model with what came before: “The Stuart Webbs Film Company has managed to bring about reforms and improvements in this field; all of its films to date constitute a document of the fact that the detective film no longer has to be viewed with the usual suspicion.” Reicher and May produced their first Webbs film, Die geheimnisvolle Villa, through Continental-Kunstfilm, premiering in March 1914, three months before the Rudolf Meinert/Richard Oswald Der Hund von Baskerville. Their choice of an Anglo-Saxon protagonist was dictated not merely by Holmes but an exploding field of German-born, English-sounding sleuths in both fiction and film, including Harry Dickson, Detective Frank, Percy Stuart, and Miss Nobody. When war broke out many of the new detectives, such as Tom Shark, were deliberately coded as American, but by then Stuart Webbs, and his cinema rival Joe Deebs (created by May when he and Reicher ended their partnership in 1915), were generally thought of as English, and their popularity was such, like Holmes, that they largely escaped the strict censorship suffered by other British characters.
Der gestreifte Domino was the fifth film in the series, directed by Adolf Gärtner and made after Reicher broke with Continental and formed the Stuart Webbs-Film Company. At the start Webbs takes a break from the sleuthing business but gets pulled back in when he becomes involved with the unjustly disinherited son of Ganady, an American millionaire (before the War this figure would probably have been English).
As was increasingly common at the time, the detective is placed in an environment that fairly screams studious middle-class masculinity, complete with heavy, solid furniture and the imagined trappings of an English gentleman that continued to be a vital part of the detective persona (think too of the Inscrutable Drew’s office, though Webbs certainly is more active than Drew, and has more of a sense of humour). Here the plot gives Webbs plenty of opportunities to indulge in a Holmes-like love of disguise, but unlike Conan Doyle’s hero, Webbs exhibits a marked deference for authority figures that has led some later commentators to theorize about the specifically German nature of the character. A crucial scene in an opium den fits nicely into our Yellow Peril sub-theme, while the villain’s black henchmen add a further twist to the demonization of the “other”.
Ernst Reicher (1885-1936) wrote many of the Webbs stories, though it’s not certain if he was involved in that capacity here (Fritz Lang is said to have written one film of the series, Die Peitsche, 1916, before moving on to Joe Deebs). A child of the stage, Reicher continued with the Webbs character until 1926, but by the beginning of sound he appeared further down the credit listings, and soon after the Nazis came to power he fled to Prague, where he died. Director Adolf Gärtner (1870-1958) also came from the theatre, entering films in 1910 thanks to Oskar Messter, for whom he directed Henny Porten in at least two dozen films. – Jay Weissberg". - The detective series were extremely popular in Germany, and I have hardly seen them at all. This was probably the first Stuart Webbs film that I have seen. - I remember from Kracauer's book that he finds it very interesting that detectives in German films were almost always English private detectives, as in Germany there was such a respect and fear for authority that solving crimes was official business and private investigation was somewhat un-German. - This film is a piece of professional entertainment from the assembly line. The solution of the crime and the exposure of the criminal take place cleverly during a masked ball. Stuart Webbs manages to switch the glass with poisoned drink. He gives the exposed villain a loaded gun, and in the final scene of this silent film the protagonists hear the off-screen shot.

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