Sunday, 2 March 2014

Tangled web… The Spiders (1919-20)

Gadget girl: Lio Sha spies on a Spiders meeting using a TV screen
This blog is yet to feature Fritz Lang and I’ve no idea why it’s taken so long to discuss the director of M, Doctor Mabuses and Metropolis – one of the main films that sparked my silent interest – not to mention The Big Heat and other personal favourites like Clash by Night (featuring Barbara Stanwyck on blistering form).

The Spiders includes Lang’s fourth and sixth films, made in his late twenties when he was clearly still developing his style and whilst they’re not absolute classics, they contain plenty of invention and hints at later themes – Dr Mabuse especially in terms of over-organised crime, hi-tech, mind-power and relentless, high-detail plotlines.

The Spiders' hi-tech base
The series was clearly influenced by Louise Feuillade – with Das Spinnen resembling Les Vampires with a bigger budget and femme fatale Lio Sha just a black jumpsuit away from Irma Vep whilst the bank robbers in part two wear Judex masks and the plot is hand-to-mouth in a breathless sequence of extended jeopardies.

The action runs away with itself from time to time and, whilst this could be down to missing footage, it also reflects Lang’s occasionally rushed editing. His shots are wonderfully framed and filmed by his cinematographers (Carl Freund, Carl Hoffmann and Emil Schünemann) but sometimes they don’t always explain themselves… Hero Kay Hoog flies over the Spiders’ base and climbs out of the plane, next we see him on their roof -  without a parachute: surely not? Similarly when Hoog is trapped by the Spiders in an airtight room and they start filling it with water he somehow finds a way out and is seen swimming towards a friendly rowing boat.

Locations for grand adventure
But these are quibbles as both films are high octane adventures that crack along at pace with many a surprise along the way: the jeopardy is convincing enough.

Part One: Der Goldene See (1919) (The Golden Sea although The Golden Lake is apparently a closer translation)

Events begin with a prologue in which an older man is being pursued along a cliff by an Inca warrior. He writes a last desperate message and seals it in a bottle, throwing it into the sea just as he is felled by the warrior’s arrow.

The scene shifts to a San Franciscan hotel in which are gathered various wealthy adventurers including one Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) who has found the bottle and managed to decipher it. He tells the assembled audience that the sender had found an undiscovered Incan civilisation which jealously guards their untold riches, killing any outsiders who learn of their whereabouts. Our proto-Indiana Jones has no option but to seek out this hoard for himself…

Kay Hoog tells his tale whilst Lio Sha listens on...
Amongst his rapt audience is one Lio Sha (Ressel Orla) who camps it up wonderfully for the camera. She listens all too carefully to Hoog’s tale and is soon revealed to be one of the leaders of an organised crime gang called The Spiders. They attempt to steal the note and location of the treasure but not before Hoog has worked out the location. So begins a race to win the gold.

Hoog arrives and makes his way through the jungle to lake where he sees the beautiful Inca Princess Naela (Caligari’s Lil Dagover) bathing. Just as a massive boa constrictor is about to fall onto her Hoog rushes in and despatches the snake thereby ensuring the Princess’ gratitude and soon much more…

Hoog spies the princess swimming in the Golden Lake...
The Spiders are less careful and the Inca steal Lio Sha away intending her for human sacrifice at the hands of the unwilling Princess. Naturally Hog cannot allow this and leaps to the rescue of his criminal foe and as he is about to be overwhelmed, the Spiders arrive en mass armed with rifles... all hell breaks loose.

Sha and Hoog briefly join forces
The Europeans end up in the treasure caves but there are surprises in store that place all of their loves in peril and not everyone gets out alive...

Part Two: Das Brillantenschiff (1920) (The Diamond Ship)

The next instalment finds Hoog still in pursuit of The Spiders whose ambition and organisation looks to have grown.

Hoog had learned of the existence of a diamond shaped like the head of Buddha in the first film and now the chase is on for this mystical jewel which The Spiders believe will enable them to rule all of Asia (natch). They are robbing as many banks as possible in the hope of tracking down the diamond and Lio Sha is overseeing an operation running like a “well-oiled engine” and stretching from San Francisco across to the Orient.

The well-oiled machine at work...
Hoog manages to track down the group’s lair but the subsequent raid is not quick enough to prevent their escape and his group is almost crushed in a steel chamber as they take a hidden elevator to their freedom. Learning of a hidden city beneath Chinatown using a clue from the raid Hoog succeeds in infiltrating a Spiders meeting only to be trapped and almost drowned. He manages to escape having learned about the gang’s “Diamond Ship” on which he smuggles himself aboard hidden in a well kitted out packing crate – all mod cons!

Hoog examines the evidence
Meanwhile we learn of the Spiders’ Master (Georg John) - a man of great willpower who can hypnotise almost anyone to do his bidding. He is shown in India forcing Yogi All-hab-mah (Friedrich Kühne) into revealing who may have the diamond. We are shown an English privateer who acquired the diamond and this changes as the generations pass to that of his descendant, the Diamond King, John Terry (Rudolf Lettinger).

Yogi All-hab-mah senses the Diamond King...
Hoog leaves his crate long enough to intercept the Master’s message to his crew: the orders are to set sail for England to find Terry. Hoog makes a daring escape from the ship running up the rigging pursued by dozens of men and diving off one of the masts to swim ashore.

Yet, by the time he reaches Terry’s house, his daughter Ellen (Thea Zander) has been kidnapped by the Spiders who were unable to locate the diamond in his house and are now holding her to ransom in exchange. The problem is... Terry doesn’t know where the jewel is…

Hoog in action
But Hoog is a master of intuitive detective work and noticing the portrait of Terry’s forebear: the privateer who originally obtained the jewel, he is quickly able to piece together the clues to discover that the old pirate had buried his treasure in a cave on the Falkland Islands before he and his crew had fallen victim to an unexplained catastrophe… which left only the captain left standing and able to return home.

As Hoog and Terry discus the location they are overheard by a spy from the Spiders: Fourfinger-John (Edgar Pauly). They catch him but cannot prevent him from alerting his comrades via homing pigeon: the race is on.

Lio Sha watches as The Master hypnotizes Ellen Terry
The climax is every bit as climactic as you’d expect as Hoog and Lio Sha engage in one final conflict: who will emerge victorious and will Terry ever see his daughter again?! You’ll just have to watch the films to find out.

The Spiders is great fun and shows a more playful side to Lang than I’ve seen in his later work. It may be uneven in parts but there’s a lot packed into a relentless story that feels more like conjoined episodes of a serial than two feature films.

Hoog closes in on the treasure... but so does Lio Sha
I watched the Kino DVD which comes complete with a super score from Ben Model who keeps pace with the action with expert invention. It’s available directfrom Kino and other online retailers.

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