Friday, September 24, 2021

Recent discovery: Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu

Jerry Cotton’s third adventure is a corker, despite the lamentably excessive use of stock footage and rear projection (always a distraction in this series, but much worse here). 1966’s Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu — released in English-speaking territories as 3-2-1 Countdown for Manhattan or The Trap Snaps Shut at Midnight — finds Jerry and his FBI colleagues racing against time to find a load of nitroglycerin before the stuff destabilizes and explodes: a crucial detail not known by the criminal who believes he has plenty of time to ransom it for $1 million. (One wonders if writers Fred Denger and Kurt Nachmann were, ah, “inspired” by 1959’s City of Fear.)

This film also boasts one of Peter Thomas’ best jazz scores, and director Harald Philipp uses a lot of music. (Perhaps he felt it would distract viewers from all the stock footage.) By this point, recognizing that this had become a true film series, Thomas has armed Jerry with a second primary themes. The first is the cheerful “Jerry Cotton March,” with its slowly “whistled” 1-1-1-3 motif backed by unison snare drums; it’s joined by an up-tempo 6-2-2-1 swinger (“Mr. FBI”) with the melody usually carried via vocalese, sometimes accompanied by solo male scatting. The latter most frequently backs action sequences and FBI surveillance operations. Thomas also began borrowing from his earlier work; several of the cues in this film debuted in the series’ first entry, Schüsse aus dem Geigengasten (The Violin Case Murders).


The visually dynamic title sequence is fueled by a terrific double-time swinger that opens with “bomb ticking” and slides into an energetic piano theme repeated via female vocalese; the two bridges are punctuated by a male “shouter” who spells out our hero’s name (in time, of course): “J … E … R-R … Y … C … O … T-T-O-N!” The piano work is phenomenal, backed occasionally by unison horns and that ticking sound.


The story opens on an out-of-control conflagration at a mining operation, which routinely receives a weekly delivery of nitroglycerin; because of the fire, the drivers of the most recent truckload are ordered to return it to the warehouse. Meanwhile, at the Twin Drive-In & Coffee Shop — where the PA system is playing a lively Tyrolean-style orchestral tune (one of Thomas’ re-used cues) — low-rent hoodlum Lew Hutton (Gert Günther Hoffman) makes a phone call. The nitro truck pulls up outside, and both drivers (stupidly) head inside for refreshments, as Thomas supplies an even sillier oom-pah dance tune (also recycled from The Violin Case Murders). Lew and fellow crook Fat Krusky (Friedrich G. Beckhaus), apparently accustomed to such things, hop into the cab and drive off in what they assume is an empty truck. But Lew immediately notices that the vehicle is handling oddly; it’s too heavy. They stop and walk to the rear, against suspenseful horns and throbbing bass, and are horrified to find the 20 containers of nitroglycerin. Indeed, Fat is so scared that he runs away.


The next day, a saucy bass and horn cue follows the suspicious-looking Maureen (Dominique Wilms), as she peers through the window of Cartier, in downtown Manhattan. Lew, driving the truck, rams through the glass display window (which prompts a frisson of terror until we realize the nitro must’ve been removed). Lew disappears in the resulting confusion, while Maureen calmly robs the store until police sirens are heard, at which point she also vanishes.

After identifying the vehicle as the stolen nitro truck, police clear the area and summon the FBI; Jerry arrives in his signature Jaguar, against a triumphant rendition of his march theme. He and the other officials are both relieved and horrified to discover that the truck is empty … meaning the nitro is God knows where. Worse yet, as explained by scientist Dr. Smeat (Sigfrit Steiner), the packed ice that stabilizes each container — and prevents the nitro from exploding spontaneously — will melt within a few days … and an approaching New York heat wave will further shorten that margin of safety.


Elsewhere, we’re introduced to sleazy, faux-sophisticated crook Larry Link (Horst Frank), who wiles away the hours playing with a toy boat in his apartment wading pool … while sitting in an easy chair placed in the middle of the water (!). His theme is a sultry little dah-dee-dah melody hummed in breathy female vocalese, with piano and horns comping quietly in the background. It’s an ironic counterpoint that emphasizes this guy’s sordid nature and insouciant cruelty, and it’s heard every time the story returns to him.

Link catches wind of the Cartier robbery, and sends his men to investigate; they return with Fat, who — after some “persuasion” — admits that Lew plans to liaise with his girlfriend, Ruth (Monika Grimm). Link dispatches his goons to her upper-floor apartment. The FBI, meanwhile, has back-traced the truck to the Twin Drive-In & Coffee Shop; Jerry interviews a cashier against a slightly slower arrangement of the swinging title theme, the melody carried this time by vibes. He and his partner Phil (Heinz Weiss), having also learned about Ruth, arrive just after Link’s crew. A blast of action jazz, which slides into an up-tempo arrangement of Jerry’s march, backs his attempt to surprise the gang by dropping from the roof in a window-washer’s rig; the music intensifies when he’s knocked off and quickly grabs onto a rope, preventing his fall to certain death. He scrambles back up in time to help Phil chase away the bad guys.


With Ruth’s help, Jerry tracks Lew to a pinball arcade; their resulting conversation unfolds against a swinging keyboard arrangement of the same action jazz/“Cotton March,” backed by double-time percussion. Lew agrees to reveal where he has hidden the nitro, but — alas! — Link also has deduced that location; his gang ambushes Jerry and Lew, against a frantic blast of percussion and scat. Lew is killed; Link and his men remove the nitro canisters against an unsettling suspense cue, leaving Jerry alive to act as “negotiator.”


By this point, Maureen has joined Link’s crew; she serves as the go-between when informing the FBI of Link’s demand of a $1 million ransom. To make matters worse, the deranged crook promises to detonate one canister in a few hours, to demonstrate that he’s serious. A fast-paced vocalese and scat arrangement of “Mr. FBI” backs Jerry and Dr. Smeat, as they play a hunch and follow some of Link’s men to the Manhattan Bridge, where the canister has been suspended from the lower structure. Link’s toughest thug has been left to set the timer; he climbs down against a suspenseful jazz vamp, then battles Jerry as Thomas shifts to a percussive swinger fueled by hand-claps and screaming brass. With the thug dispatched, Jerry stabilizes the nitro with a portable freezing device.

Rolling jazz vamps, ominous scatting and saucy swing trade off during the next several scenes, as the FBI reluctantly agrees to pay the ransom, which Maureen collects and brings to Link’s men. Ah, but the FBI has played one final ace: The suitcase containing the money is bugged, which brings Jerry to the train yard — cue the “Cotton March” —where the remaining 19 canisters are being guarded by Link in a refrigerator car. Phil and his FBI colleagues arrest Maureen and Link’s men; suspenseful, up-tempo action jazz backs Jerry’s furious fight with their leader. Unfortunately, poor production values and the low budget sabotage most of this skirmish, along with Jerry’s last-second handling of a track switch, to prevent another train from ramming into the refrigerator car (a sequence further worsened by the obvious use of toy trains).


Thomas reprises the title theme as Jerry once again saves the day, and — as always — finds his promised vacation canceled by an urgent phone call. Cue the next adventure (Die Rechnung: eiskalt serviert, aka Tip Not Included, arriving five months later).

As was the case with its predecessor — and all subsequent films in this series — Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu failed to produce a soundtrack album. Eight cues can be found on the 1997 two-disc compilation, 100% Cotton (The Complete Jerry Cotton Edition). 2010’s Jerry Cotton: FBI’s Top Man also has eight cues from Um Null Uhr schnappt die Falle zu: four repeats and four new to this compilation. 

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