Thursday, July 27, 2017

Der Fluch Des Schwarzen Ruben, aka Thirteen Days To Die (Germany/France/Spain, 1965)

To my knowledge, Thirteen Days to Die is the only cinematic attempt to modernize Rolf Torring, the adventuring hero of a series of German pulp novels that rose to popularity during the years leading up to World War II. It seems the idea was to present Torring as a sort of James Bond figure, and that’s not an improbable fit. Both Bond and Torring put a dashing face on the privileges of empire, each treating the exotic lands of the developing world as mere theaters for their ever more destructive antics (and, in Bond’s case, procuring grounds for his harem.) Of course, each man was the face of a different empire in a different time, which might account for why one of them had a lot more holding power than the other.

One need only look at the cover illustration of one of the Torring novels from the 30s to see why the character has aged badly: In each, he is presented as the great white hunter, charged with taming a savage land with the assistance of his loyal companion, a muscle bound and perpetually shirtless black brute who is often depicted wrestling an alligator or tossing opponents overhead like ragdolls. This is Pongo (you heard me) and he looks as if he could have been one of the “noble savages” so notoriously fetishized by Leni Riefenstahl in her later years. He is also likely to be one of the reasons that the Rolf Torring novels are less well remembered (and have less cross-cultural appeal) today than other, less potentially controversial German pulp series, like, say, Perry Rodan or Jerry Cotton.

Fans who are well versed in the Eurospy genre will find much that is familiar within Thirteen Days to Die, and for good reason. The film’s director, Manfred R. Kohler, had his hand in a number of Eurospy efforts, including the Kommissar X entry Three Golden Serpents, which he wrote. 13 Days bears a lot of similarities to the Kommissar X films, from its snappy, lighthearted tone to its shrewd use of an exotic Asian location (Thailand, in this case.) Like them, it plays out as a series of well-staged and mildly farcical fight scenes punctuated by well-shot tourist footage of local landmarks and customs.

What Thirteen Days to Die lacks that the Kommissar X movies had is a magnetic central presence of the caliber of Tony Kendall, or even Brad Harris. As Torring, who is rechristened “Ralph Tracy” for the English dub, Bavarian actor Thomas Alder doesn’t leave much of a footprint. This may be because he delegates so much of the action to one of his two associates, who, thankfully, are a lot more entertaining to watch. One of these if a hulking Swede by the name of Warren (“Hans” in the original, “Hank” in the English dub) who is played by Euro-genre stalwart Peter Carsten (Dark of the Sun, And God Said to Cain) with a lot of good natured bravado.

And then, of course, there is Pongo, who is played by French body builder Serge Nubret. In this incarnation, Pongo is at least allowed to keep his shirt on for the most part—that is, until the final act, for the entirety of which Nubret wears nothing more than an abbreviated pair of cut-offs (which, to be fair, he looks amazing in.) While outshining his co-stars in terms of charisma, Nubret’s character is treated like a houseboy by his companions—making their drinks, fetching their mail—far too often for his performance to be enjoyed without a fair amount of cringing. That’s a shame, really, because Pongo is clearly the muscle of the group, the heavy lifter, and the energy and physical mastery Nubret brings to his action scenes make them the highlights of the picture.

The film’s action begins when Torring and his team arrive in Bangkok to investigate the theft of a necklace belonging to the Thai royal family. The perpetrator of the theft is a gang led by Perkins, whose portrayal by Euro villain extraordinaire Horst Frank is a master class in effete menace. Perkins answers to a mysterious number one who is none to pleased when it is found that the necklace is missing a section, the absence of which makes it impossible to decipher the code contained within its pattern of jewels. Thus begins a campaign of extortion against Thai Prince Gulah in an effort to get him to divulge the location of the missing piece.

Meanwhile, Torring and his crew are assisted by Barrington (Carlo Tamberlani, also seen in the Kommissar X films The Green Hounds/Death Trip and Kiss Kiss, Kill Kill), the director of the museum that the necklace was stolen from. Also lending a hand is his assistant, Chitra, who is played by Metta Rungrat. Rungrat is a Thai actress whose meager credits included a bit part in the ill-fated Jim Kelly vehicle Hot Potato. She also co-starred with Thai superstar Sombat Methanee in a Thai Krasue film called Krasue Sao. Her part here is fairly substantial, as her character turns out to have more to do with the affair of the necklace than even she imagined at the outset.

Of course, this being a Eurospy film, Rolf, Hans and Pongo are assailed by myriad assassins from the moment they set foot in Thailand. To the filmmakers credit, each of these attempts in pretty nutso, one involving a little girl throwing a pot full of acid into Hans’ face and another a poison-coated butterfly. Pongo, of course, gets to wrestle and alligator, and Rolf, a tiger. Unfortunately for Perkins, none of this manages to prevent Team Torring from getting closer to finding the missing piece of the necklace—and with it the solution to the code that will lead them into the stunt and explosion filled climax.

Oh, and there’s also a monkey. He’s named Kango.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that, despite my deep reservations about its racial attitudes, I enjoyed Thirteen Days to Die. It’s resemblance to a missing Kommissar X movie pretty much guarantees that. It’s got everything that makes any competently made Eurospy movie cozily diverting. The score, by German sexploitation veteran Gert Wilden, is a jazzy spy movie delight, complete with a chugging, Peter Gunn-style theme tune. And then there are familiar faces like Horst Frank and Carlo Tamberlani, whose very presence lulls you into a sense of security, false or otherwise. Nonetheless, it’s hard to enjoy any of these old spy movies without acknowledging the extent to which their heroes are simply defending the status quo, rather than working from any innate sense of justice. I guess in the 60s, people thought that was cool—until they didn’t anymore.

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