Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cotton. Jerry Cotton.

Chances are that most readers of this blog who have any knowledge of American actor George Nader at all do so as a result of him being the star of Robot Monster, a 1953 film that has earned its rightful place alongside Plan 9 From Outer Space as an exemplar of the worst its medium has to offer. However, those readers might be surprised to know that Robot Monster, despite its fearsome awfulness, was still successful enough to provide something of a stepping stone for Nader, and that the actor went on to have a fairly long and varied career in film and television in its wake. Taken under contract by Universal shortly after Robot Monster's release, Nader was groomed by the studio to be one of its hunky young leading men, though, in that regard, the actor would never manage to emerge from the shadow of his more successful friend, Rock Hudson. After a period of consistent but inauspicious feature work, he moved on to television, where, throughout the late fifties and early sixties, he appeared as a guest star on a number of series, eventually landing the title role in a short-lived syndicated show called Shannon.

I haven't been able to find a clear account of what specific circumstances lead to Hollywood going sour on George Nader. But it seems pretty clear that it involved an unhappy collision between the obsessive machinations of Confidential magazine publisher Robert Harrison and the simple fact that George Nader was gay. While not "out" in the modern sense, Nader at the time shared a home with his longtime partner, Mark Miller, and, unlike other of his peers, resisted studio pressure to enter into a phony marriage -- though he was known to go on the occasional PR-mandated "date" with a female starlet. I've found a number of sources that refer to rumors that Nader was offered up as a sacrifice by Universal in order to quell a story that Confidential was planning to run on Rock Hudson. The actor Tab Hunter is known to have fallen prey to a similar deal on Hudson's behalf, which may, depending on how you look at it, either lend veracity or shed doubt upon those rumors as they apply to Nader. Whatever the case, though, it's clear that, by the mid-sixties, work was drying up for Nader on these shores. In response, he and Miller packed up their lives and relocated to West Germany.

And it is in Germany that Nader's career entered an interesting new phase, starting, in 1965, with him being cast as the lead in a new series of films to be produced by the studio Allianz Filmproduktion. These were to be based on the adventures of Jerry Cotton, a fictional, Manhattan-based FBI agent who was at the center of a popular and exhaustively voluminous series of German pulp novels (something that, judging from the equally voluminous Kommissar X and Perry Rhodan book series, the German publishing industry apparently thrives upon). The resulting low budget productions ended up being enormously popular with German audiences, and would eventually come to comprise eight films in all, all made between 1965 and 1969, and all starring Nader as their hero. As a result, Nader became one of the country's most popular actors during the period, neck-and-neck with fellow American -- and former Tarzan -- Lex Barker, who played the recurring role of Old Shatterhand in the much beloved Winnetou films.

Despite the Jerry Cotton films relying on standard cops-and-robbers elements for their plots, they are today considered to nestle cozily within the Eurospy genre. And to understand why, one need only watch them. These are movies that would not exist in the absence of James Bond; In contrast to other cinematic treatments of the FBI's exploits from the era -- many of which take on a more procedural approach, emphasizing the machine-like precision of the organization as a whole -- the Cotton films are really all about Jerry, depicting him as a kind of super agent who, despite being teamed with a partner played by German actor Heinz Weiss, could conceivably defeat any nemesis single-handedly. In addition, his red Jaguar E-Type and tailored suits testify to a taste for the finer things well beyond the reach of any real-life G-Man. Overall, you get the sense that the filmmakers didn't put a lot of thought into the jurisdictional issues and niggling points of law that delineate the actual Bureau's scope of operations, with the clear priority instead being the presentation of a Bondian fantasy world steeped in action, speed, style and violence.

At this point I've only seen two of the Cotton films: the series' second entry, Operation Hurricane: Friday Noon (aka Schusse Aus Dem Geigenkasten) and 1967's The Body in Central Park (aka Der Morderclub Von Brooklyn), which was the fifth entry in the series and the first to be filmed in color. (My Teleport City colleague David Foster has in-depth reviews of some of the other Jerry Cotton films over on his fine blog Permission To Kill.) For me, one of the things that was most striking about these films is how, despite the obviously meager resources that the filmmakers had to work with, so much effort is dedicated to establishing the New York setting. This is accomplished by way of lots of stock footage and photographic backdrops, shooting on only the most anonymous German locations possible, and scenes in which the actors are very obviously standing on a tiny soundstage in front of a rear projection of Times Square. This arsenal of primitive gimmicks contributes to there being something just a bit "off" to the overall feel of things, and -- in complete opposition to the intention behind them -- a strange, neither-here-nor-there sense of placeless-ness that I found more than a little captivating.

I also found it interesting that, unlike in the Bond films that were so clearly an influence, Jerry is not provided with the expected array of female conquests to signpost his virility and sexual magnetism. In other words, despite what the promotional materials might lead you to believe, there are no "Cotton Girls" to 007's "Bond Girls". It's tempting to see a connection between this aspect of Jerry's milieu and the private life of the actor who played him, but this de-emphasizing of sex is reportedly a feature of Cotton's print adventures as well. In any case, I found the change refreshing, as it afforded a break from the leering schoolboy humor that usually passes for sexual sophistication in Eurospy films.

But the impression I get above all else about the Cotton series is that they are films that work very, very hard to entertain their audience, which is more than I can say about a lot of other films in their genre. Despite the threadbare nature of what you see on screen, the pacing is always tight and brisk, with rousing action scenes cropping up at dependable intervals. Nader shows a game commitment to the physical aspects of his role and, despite many of his stunt sequences being accomplished by way of some pretty rinky-dink studio trickery, always seems to be up for crawling around on the top of a moving train, or clinging to the side of a careening truck -- both being the kind of set pieces that came to be trademarks of the series. Providing a further highlight is the musical score by Peter Thomas -- a man whose work I've already praised in my review of the German sci-fi series Raumpatrouille Orion -- which serves to coat the sometimes homely, Saturday matinee aspects of the onscreen action with a sheen of sleek sixties style.

All in all, I found the two Jerry Cotton films I watched to be very satisfying, and am looking forward to delving further into the series. Not only is their star a fascinating figure, but the films themselves are quite an interesting hybrid: combining the distinctive Eurospy style with the spirit of classic Hollywood studio programmers like the Mike Shane and Mr. Moto series, capped off with an endearing oddness that is uniquely their own. Nader would move on from the series, of course, and would later retire from acting to pursue writing, eventually penning a sci-fi novel, Chrome, that was revolutionary for its gay themes. That, however, is a subject for someone else's blog. Our beat here at 4DK, after all, is the outlands of world pop cinema. And with his onscreen personification of Jerry Cotton, the German G-Man, Mr. Nader has already provided us with plenty to consider.


Michael Barnum said...

Many a time I have been tempted to pick up the DVD set of Jerry Cotton films. I have always loved George Nader in the films he made over at Universal (particularly the creepy THE UNGUARDED MOMENT), and being a fan of the Italian spy films of Ken Clark, Brad Harris, et el...well, I guess I should just do it!

Prof. Grewbeard said...

sounds inneresting. for some reason this made me curious as to whether you had ever discussed any of the Eddie Constatine spy films and i noticed you hadn't, in the future perhaps?...

Todd said...

Michael: I didn't pick up the box set, but now I'm tempted. Not that these are the be-all-and-end-all or anything, but they have B movie charm to spare.

Prof.: To tell the truth, I've yet to see any of Eddie Constantine's spy films, unless Alphaville counts. I tend to just write about Eurospy movies when the mood strikes me. There are so many other bloggers out there who are doing a fine job of covering the genre -- David at Permission to Kill, for instance, along with his KOBRA cohorts -- that I don't feel the need to give it as much attention as I do, say, awful Thai giant monster movies and Dara Singh. I do really enjoy watching those movies, though, and writing about them provides a nice break from my usual beat (plus, hey, in English!), so who knows.

David said...

Fantastic overview of the series (and Nader) Todd. It's funny how you mention that Cotton doesn't have 'Cotton Girls' - if I recall correctly, in one movie Jerry has his mum fussing over him.

Could you imagine James Bond's mum asking him if he had 'clean underwear'?

sunil said...

BTW did you get to watch duel to the death? U an re0watching it on tv as I speak, and it is as good as I rememebered it to be. :)

Anonymous said...

I heard the same stories about Nader being gay leading to him being exiled to Europe, but I guess even without any conspiracy story Europe just might have been a far more attractive place for a gay man in the 60s given the comparatively relaxed attitudes towards sexuality over there.
The Jerry Cotton movies are entertaining enough, but were fairly low budget affairs even compared to other german productions from the same period, so I'd probably buy the Dr. Mabuse series or a couple of Krimis instead.

sunil said...

Something right up your alley.
The Toofan tv mentioned used to come some 12 years ago

Todd said...

David: Yeah, I believe the trusty Eurospy Guide refers to an entry in the series in which Jerry has to learn piano for an undercover assignment, and old Mrs. Cotton steps in to teach him. The rest of you might think that sounds like something David and I made up, but, honestly, that's what it says.

Anonymous: I wouldn't consider Nader's move to Europe an exile at all, just an example of a guy refusing to be daunted by adverse circumstances and taking the reigns of his own second act, which is what really drew me to his story in the first place.

Sunil: I did watch Duel to the Death -- and it was ninja-licious! It was slicker than I thought it would be, but I think that's just because I've been watching too many Taiwanese kung fu movies from the seventies.

Salman is lucky that Pedro isn't around anymore, because he wouldn't be able to hold the screen next to the Ape Bomb! And Toofan TV sounds awesome -- like an Indian version of the old Mondo Macabro show. I wish it was available for viewing somewhere.

Keith said...

I have a box set of some of these movies which, unfortunately, are not subtitled even though all the material included with them is in German and English. There's a second box set out that, I think, includes different movies and has subtitles, but my campaign to pay off my Discover card by year's end excludes me from purchasing pricey foreign dvd box sets.

Todd said...

Yeah, I saw a box made up mostly of the color films from the tail end of the series, with all but one of them in both German and English versions.