Monday, May 31, 2021

Recent discovery: Mordnacht in Manhattan

Theater seats barely had a chance to get cold, between Jerry Cotton’s first and second big-screen adventures. 1965’s late November release of Mordnacht in Manhattan (Manhattan Night of Murder, in the States) arrived a mere six months after Schüsse aus dem Geigenkasten (The Violin Case Murders). All involved probably should have waited longer, and taken more time with the finished product; Jerry’s bare-bones sophomore outing is a pedestrian affair, and definitely the weakest entry in the eight-film series. It’s more police procedural than crime thriller; it also looks even more like an FBI recruitment tool than the first film, with numerous sequences devoted to stock footage of nameless agency technicians studying clues, comparing tire tracks and finger prints, peering into microscopes, profiling suspects, sorting through early-gen computer readouts, and … well, you get the idea. The story grinds to a halt every time.

That said, Peter Thomas’ score is quite ambitious, with all manner of vigorous action jazz and saucy swing cues — lots of horns, percussion and keyboard chops — suggesting levels of excitement and suspense that the film rarely delivers.


Manhattan merchants are being terrorized by “The Hundred Dollar Gang,” racketeers extorting that sum each month, as a guarantee that their, ah, clients will remain “safe.” Hold-outs are beaten, and their businesses vandalized. But the gang goes too far, as the story opens; a restaurant owner is shot and killed, an act witnessed by young Billy (Uwe Reichmeister). This murder comes as a surprise to the gang members, each of whom denies having pulled the trigger, much to the puzzlement of their leader, Alec (Slobodan Dimitrijevic). Even so, Alec realizes that Billy can’t be allowed to live; the gang tries to kill him with a bomb (!), while he’s playing stickball with friends. This heightens the FBI’s already mounting interest, which puts Jerry (George Nader) and his partner Phil (Heinz Weiss) on the job.


The title credits unfold to the martial-esque, jazz/rock/vocalese “Jerry Cotton March” that fans will recognize from the previous film. Alas, this theme subsequently is overused by director Harald Philipp — often at inopportune moments — as the film proceeds. 

After the restaurant shooting, Alec and the others report to the gang’s boss, the seductive Wilma de Loy (Silvia Solar), who is introduced against a slinky sax cue. She runs the Goldfish Club, where patrons are entertained by underwater cuties dressed as fish, in a huge tank with a glass “wall” that faces the venue’s interior. Jerry and Phil’s first big action sequence comes when they tail the gang’s car with the aid of a tracking device, leading to a lengthy foot chase and skirmish in the labyrinthine interior of a massive gas refinery; this takes place against a terrific rolling jazz cue with fiery piano filigrees, climaxing when one thug perishes in a coal hopper.


Billy, meanwhile, is moved into a safe house.


A heavily percussive swinger, with plenty of throbbing bass and hand-claps, backs Phil when he poses as the new owner of a gas station in the gang’s neighborhood; actual owner Sophie Latimore (Elke Neidhart) is happy to help the FBI stop the crooks. Phil is approached by a thug almost immediately; when he refuses their “protection” overture, the waiting gang bombs the station into smithereens. Phil barely escapes, hops into Jerry’s apple-red Jaguar, and they roar after the gang’s white Stingray Corvette, while Thomas supplies plenty of fast-paced jazz. Our FBI stalwarts follow the gang to a large deserted building where Alec, annoyed by an underling’s slightly less than perfect behavior, binds the guy and sets up a bomb that’ll explode when the door facing him is opened. (Alec must have trouble attracting new gang members, since he kills anybody who makes even a small mistake.) Jerry’s effort to reach the helpless man, without setting off the bomb, is a cleverly staged sequence.

Wilma’s Goldfish Club is introduced against a mildly insipid cha-cha cue, when Jerry and Phil later case the joint. Meanwhile, Sophie — who seems completely untroubled by the total loss of her business (!) — bumps into the solicitous Mr. Eriksen (Kurd Pieritz) while shopping at his grocery store; their friendly chat is backed by an even sillier oom-pah cue dominated by strings and woodwinds (representing German Muzak, I guess). 


Billy, totally bored in protective custody, is jolted by a television commercial for Eriksen’s store, recognizing him — the gang’s actual boss (surprise!) — as the killer of the restaurant owner. The boy foolishly bolts from the apartment, determined to prove this, and gets snatched by Alec; Jerry’s attempt to intervene backfires when he’s captured and ordered executed by Eriksen. A fast percussive cue follows Jerry and several goons to the basement, where they intend to shoot him; Jerry turns the tables against a guitar- and flute-laden action swinger, which fuels a fist-laden melee in a storage room laden with large empty boxes (a set-piece not nearly as interesting — or practical — as Philipp probably intended).

Once free, a propulsive riff on the “Jerry Cotton March” follows our hero as he races after Eriksen and Wilma, holding Billy as a hostage; the subsequent vehicular skirmish in a huge gravel pit leads to a final airfield confrontation, where Eriksen intends to get away in a small plane, and then toss Billy into space … without a parachute. (Needless to say, that doesn’t happen.) Jerry and Billy are reunited, and the end credits roll to what already has become a series signature, akin to “The James Bond Theme”: the classic arrangement of the “Jerry Cotton March.”


FBI Man Jerry stands for the law,” Thomas once explained, “and always, when the case is solved, the ‘Cotton March’ is played at the end — and, even better, whistled — which gives the whole thing a very positive note.”1


No soundtrack album or single was produced at the time. As subsequent films followed, Polydor assembled the best tracks onto a 1967 compilation LP, FBI Man Jerry Cotton. Interest in Thomas’ Jerry Cotton scores peaked again as the turn of the century approached; the Crippled Dick Hot Wax! label responded in 1997, with the digital 100% Cotton (The Complete Jerry Cotton Edition). That two-disc compilation includes music from all eight films. Germany’s All Score Media released a second compilation in 2010 — Jerry Cotton: FBI’s Top Man — which features 28 of the series’ most popular tracks; four come from this second film.

Nader’s Jerry Cotton would return again, only four months later (!), in 1966’s Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu (The Trap Snaps Shut at Midnight, aka 3-2-1 Countdown for Manhattan). About which … more to come.



1. John Bender, “Also Sprach Peter Thomas,” Film Score Monthly 4:9, November 1999, p23. 

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