Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Recent discovery: The Strange Countess

Composer Peter Thomas’ second Edgar Wallace KrimiDie seltsame Gräfin, is one of the genre’s flamboyantly lurid entries. (Read this post for a brief description of Germany’s Krimi.) The 1961 film was released in English-speaking territories as The Strange Countess, the title Wallace gave his 1925 novel. Director Josef von Báky — with an uncredited assist from Jürgen Roland and Ottokar Runze — tolerated (encouraged?) outrageous overacting, most notably by star Brigitte Grothum, as the aggressively stalked Margaret Reddle; and Klaus Kinski, as the wide-eyed, gleefully murderous lunatic who pursues her.


Margaret has a comfortable job as secretary to defense attorney Rechtsanwalt Shaddle (Fritz Rasp), and shares an apartment with Lizzy Smith (Edith Hancke). Margaret suddenly begins to receive threatening phone calls from Bresset (Kinski), who hysterically insists that killing her is his only path to salvation. Hoping to elude him, she accepts a job as a live-in assistant to Lady Leonora Moron (Lil Dagover), matriarch of the mildly sinister Carter Field Castle (and the “Strange Countess” of the title). Lady Moron’s primary companions are her rather dotty son, Selwyn (Eddi Arent), a would-be actor fond of floridly quoting Shakespeare; and an extremely ominous butler. (Is there any other kind?) By this point, Margaret also has met — and twice been rescued by — Scotland Yard Inspector Mike Dorn (Joachim Fuchsberger), who believes there’s some connection between her peril, and the recent release of Mary Pindar (Marianne Hoppe), who spent 20 years in prison as a convicted poisoner.


Bresset somehow tracks Margaret down, after repeatedly escaping from the asylum run by Dr. Tappatt (Rudolf Fernau). Thanks to manipulative skullduggery, the increasingly terrified young woman soon winds up in a cell in that same asylum. Can Mike find her, before she’s killed … or suffers a fate worse than death?

Thomas still was relatively new to feature film scoring when he approached Die seltsame Gräfin. He takes a classic big band jazz approach to this Edgar Wallace thriller, with a hard-charging title theme that opens with a 1-1-2/1-2 motif, suspenseful cymbal brushes and a wall of unison horns; throbbing bass adds counterpoint during the bridge. Thomas’ next contribution is a source cue: a tasty bit of cocktail music provided by a jazz big band, heard on the radio as Margaret and Lizzy enjoy a peaceful breakfast, after having received — and dismissed — the first call from the deranged Bresset. A throbbing sax and bass cue tracks Margaret a bit later, when she’s followed by a furtive individual: Could this be another stalker? But no, it’s just Mike; Thomas shifts to a sweetly romantic piano/sax theme when he walks her home.


Sinister bass and horns back Lizzy, when she bravely (foolishly!) receives one of Bresset’s phone calls, and agrees to meet him at the sundial in a nearby park. She survives this encounter; meanwhile, Margaret almost gets run down by a car, which roars toward her against a fast-paced action jazz cue.


Margaret then settles into life at Carter Field Castle, and — at first blush — the eccentric Lady Moron seems an otherwise reasonable employer. Her butler’s threatening demeanor is basic nature; the Countess makes a point of giving “second chances” to ex-convicts. (By way of “thanks,” and as a red herring, the butler intends to steal from her.) Margaret receives permission to invite Lizzy for a short visit; Selwyn leaps at this opportunity to discuss family history, as the three of them slowly walk past paintings of forbearers in an upstairs hallway. 


Which brings us to the sort of tidbit that fascinates film scholars. In the original German print, this stroll along the ancestral gallery is accompanied by an orchestral string and harpsichord waltz; the slight oom-pah tone perfectly suits the smiles exchanged by the two women, as they patiently endure Selwyn’s mildly pompous lecture. But the dubbed English-language version, released digitally by Sinister Cinema, re-scored this brief sequence with an entirely different Peter Thomas cue: “Theme for Lucy,” taken from 1964’s Das Verrätertor(aka Traitor’s Gate). It’s a droll little swinger that works equally well during the scene; the primary 6-2-3-2-1 motif is carried by a lone muted trumpet backed by saucy percussion, after which a touch of jazz organ takes over the melody during the bridge. But why go to such trouble for just one scene? 


That aside, this bit of levity is dashed shortly thereafter. Margaret nearly loses her life when her bedroom balcony crumbles beneath her, as she steps outside to take in the view.


Elsewhere, Thomas inserts a fleeting bass swinger when Mike receives a note that leads to a startling deduction. He races to Carter Field Castle and slips inside; his clandestine meeting with Margaret is backed by a brief reprise of the title theme. From this point onward, the poor woman succumbs to a near-perpetual state of hysteria; Grothum shrieks, screams, sniffles, wails, wrings her hands and occasionally dissolves into wide-eyed crying jags. She abruptly abandons her job with Lady Moron, and takes solace by visiting Lizzy at the café where she works. Some tasty bossa nova emanates from a radio (juke box?) as a source cue, with a frantic piano bridge timed to the “discovery moment” when Bresset, who chances to be at the next table, recognizes his quarry.


Alas, Margaret soon winds up in the hands of Dr. Tappatt. She initially meets him willingly, little realizing that he’s just as evil as some of his “guests.” To her horror, the “waiting room” into which she’s placed, turns out to be a locked cell.

Big band action jazz follows Mike, as he leaves Carter Field Castle and races to the asylum; the music shifts to a suspenseful bass and brass vamp, when he subsequently breaks in. But Dr. Tappatt has been warned, and has hustled Margaret and all the other “patients” into actual barred cells — one of which contains Bresset — concealed in a hidden basement. Dr. Tappatt encourages Mike to look around, and of course he finds nothing; he also naïvely accepts a drink, which renders him unconscious. He wakens in the ground floor room that Margaret had occupied earlier, alone and trapped in a straitjacket. Another bass and brass vamp supplies tension while Mike cleverly works his way out of the jacket, thanks to the contents of the purse that Margaret left behind.


A terrific slice of action jazz propels us into the climax, highlighted by Mike’s brawl with the maniacal Bresset. Cinematographer Richard Angst has fun with this sequence, rotating the camera in a circle while editor Hermann Ludwig inserts tight close-ups of both men, while they ferociously batter each other.


With Bresset and Dr. Tappatt dispatched, everybody else — including Mary Pindar — returns to Carter Field Castle. By this point, Margaret has learned that Mary is her birth mother; the supplementary revelation is that she was unjustly imprisoned for those two decades, for a crime that Lady Moron actually committed. Unwilling to face arrest and certain incarceration, the Countess commits suicide with her own poison-spiked ring. Rather oddly, this outcome is “celebrated” by cheerful orchestral strings: an ill-advised cue that feels totally wrong.

No soundtrack LP appeared, as was the case with all of the Edgar Wallace Krimi. Five cues can be found on Peter Thomas: Kriminal Filmmusik, a 1998 compilation album on Germany’s Prudence label: the title theme; the radio source music following Bresset’s first phone call; the orchestral waltz backing the ancestral gallery tour; the brief piano/sax cue when Mike walks Margaret home; and one of the cacophonous, shrieking horn cues (“Madman’s Terror”) that signal Bresset’s deranged behavior. “Theme for Lucy,” in turn, is included on The Best of Edgar Wallace, a 2000 anthology CD released by Germany’s All Score Media. 

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