Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Manhattan Night of Murder, aka Mordnacht in Manhattan (W. Germany/France, 1965)

Back in the halcyon days of 2009, I wrote a primer on the career of Robot Monster star George Nader and his role in the Jerry Cotton films. In brief, Nader left the U.S. for Germany as work became scarce for him stateside -- perhaps as a result of him being outed by Confidential magazine publisher Robert Harris -- leading to him landing the plum role of FBI agent Jerry Cotton, subject of a series of German pulp novels that were then being brought to the screen by Allianz Filmproduktion. The rest is invisible film history.

Manhattan Night of Murder is the first of the Jerry Cotton films and as such provides a fine showcase for that series' peculiarities. Chief among those is an insistence on making the Manhattan milieu an integral element of the films while at the same time shooting them on a tight budget in Hamburg. Hence the abundant stock footage and photo backdrops of Times Square tell one story, while the hilly, cobbled streets on which much of the action takes place tell another. For me, the resulting blurring of urban geography is more of an asset than a flaw, as it places the films in a suspended sort of movie reality that makes immersion in them even more of a decisive break from regular old reality. In fact, so much of the movie takes place in front of rear projected backdrops that it's easy to imagine the actors themselves losing track of their whereabouts.

As the Jerry Cotton series went on, it would increasingly show the influence of the James Bond films, positioning Cotton as an unflappable and invincible super agent at the expense of his colleagues and organization. In Manhattan Night of Murder, however, the influence of noir procedurals like Naked City and He Walked by Night is every bit as pronounced. In keeping with that, we open with a stentorian narrator marveling at the Big Apple's overwhelming scale and pace while at the same time singling it out as a hotbed of crime and depravity. Then it's on to stock footage of technicians in lab coats looking through microscopes as that narrator lauds the FBI as "the most efficient police force in the world". And then we're introduced to Jerry, the only FBI grunt whose salary affords him a Jaguar E-Type.

Manhattan Night of Murder starts Jerry off small, pitting him and his partner Phil Dekker (Heinz Weiss) against a protection racket known as the Hundred Dollar Gang. True to their name, this outfit strong arms small shopkeepers and business owners into paying a monthly fee of a hundred bucks in exchange for leaving them unmolested. In this, the movie suggests, the hoods benefit more from complacence than intimidation, for, as far as their marks are concerned, hey, it's only a hundred bucks. Hardly the "world for ransom" type of plot we're used to seeing our suave super agents up against, but in keeping with the gritty street's eye view of New York's underbelly that the movie seems to aspire to. In any case, things soon escalate when an Italian restaurant owner named Giussepe (Dirk Dautzenberg) is gunned down and killed during one of the gang's shakedowns.

Of course, the film can't resist introducing some elements of Euro-genre wackiness for long, and that starts with femme fatale Wilma de Loy (Danger!! Death Ray's Sylvia Solar), who parades around in a sparkly cat suit with a camel toe unignorable to even the most determined gentleman. Wilma owns a nightspot called the Goldfish Club which serves as a hideout to the gang when they aren't just all piled into one car together, which is most of the time. The centerpiece of the club is a massive aquarium in which comely female dancers in scuba gear do a mermaid act. Though the film is directed by Harald Philipp, it's a touch that would make Jess Franco proud.

As for Nader's performance, he portrays his hero with a lot of charm and self effacing playfulness, which is in keeping with the low stakes nature of much of the film's action. There's never much doubt as to whether Jerry will best these small time hoods, and it's a testament to Nader's likeability that his resultant confidence and swagger don't make him unbearable. Meanwhile, most of the action set pieces are resolutely old school, involving swinging from ropes, dangling from ledges, climbing along scaffolds and the like, all of which appear to have involved Nader himself to one extent or  another (and not surprisingly, judging from the low budget that was obviously being worked with). Finally, to raise the stakes for the climax, a child is imperiled, and Jerry and his Jag mush race to save a young boy taken hostage by the gang's fat cat leader.

As with all the Jerry Cotton films, one of Manhattan Night of Murder's inarguable high points is it's musical score by Peter Thomas. Combining swinging beat group guitars with brassy, spy movie horn riffs and effusive, wordless vocals, Thomas's compositions propel us through a nocturnal 1960s world filled with excitements both deadly and decadent. In contrast to this is the jaunty, whistled theme that heralds Jerry himself, one that suggests him as an especially relaxed breed of secret agent hero. He may not, like other movie spies, bare down on his prey with gritted teeth and revel in their violent demise, but he will, through a sort of affable doggedness, get them in the end -- and all within 90 brisk minutes.


Gialloman and DontIgnoreMe said...

Got to check this movie out. What where the other jerry cotton films?and is this movie on dvd or vcd?

Gialloman and DontIgnoreMe said...

ok sorry for asking. Was just trying to find the right release

Todd said...

It's hard to know if there's a definitive release for any of these. I got this one from Sinister Cinema via Amazon. You'll also want to check out, but be mindful of whether the discs include the dubbed English version, because a couple don't. And be forewarned that is a slippery slope, because once you buy from them they'll spam mail you ads for all kinds of tantalizing looking Krimi and Eurospy releases that you absolutely MUST HAVE.