Peter Clifton (Hellmut Lange) and Jane Leith (Karin Dor) are getting married, but the bride at least isn’t very happy about it, seeing as she only marries Peter so his money can provide for her uncle, the not very successful postcard painter John Leith (Walter Rilla). Peter for his part should be happier, for he loves Jane madly, but he’s surprisingly moody for that, as if several dark secrets were hanging over him and his affairs.
On the couple’s (such as it is) wedding reception, some of these secrets begin to come to the fore. Firstly, there’s some curious business about a forged five pound note. When Scotland Yard inspector Rouper (Ulrich Beiger) finds it in his heart to go to a frigging wedding reception to question people about a forged five pound note, family doctor and friend Donald Wells (Viktor de Kowa) says he got from Peter, who of course and quite believably says he knows nothing about it. Still at the same wedding reception, Basil Hale (Robert Graf), an admirer of Jane appears to make a very loud nuisance of himself, insinuating much and achieving little. And because fun comes in threes, next up is a certain Mrs Unterson (Sigrid von Richthofen), who races in to loudly complain that Peter doesn’t deserve all his money. By rights, it should belong to her (dead) son, his half brother. or so says wedding crasher number three.
After the best wedding reception ever is over, the newlyweds go on their honeymoon in a dark and spooky old castle that’ll sure lighten everyone’s mood. Jane – who doesn’t want to sleep with Peter because he “bought” her, by the way, even though it really looks rather more as if she sold herself to him as neither shotguns nor blackmail were present at the wedding – soon learns more awesome things about her new family life. Turns out Peter fears he has inherited a bit of violent schizophrenia from his dear dead dad. And might be the biggest forger of Britain, known as The Cunning. And might be going around murdering rude people like Hale.
Obviously, once she finds her husband in bloody clothes and with a bloody hammer by his side, Jane decides she suddenly does love her husband. That sudden love is so gigantic, Jane’s even willing to hide murder weapons and lie to the police. Speaking of the police, another Yard inspector, Bourke (Siegfried Lowitz) is just as willing as Jane to break the law to protect Peter, for both he and the woman suspect somebody has it in for the young man, and he is a poor beleaguered innocent.
This early in the Wallace movie cycle, nothing about the movies was as set in stone as it would soon become, so there was still room for a movie to be quite different from those that came before or after it. Der Fälscher is quite a bit more of a “normal” mystery than most of the other Wallace krimis, though also a film quite interested in its melodramatic elements, while the pulp elements are rather underplayed. This doesn’t mean the film is totally devoid of your typical Wallace-isms, or in any shape or form interested in being realistic, its feel is just delightfully weird in ways slightly different from other Wallace films.
Sure, the film’s comparative lack of two-fistedness, evil orphanages and odious comic relief (well, Eddi Arent pops in for a curious very minor double role, but I always rather liked him) may come as a bit of a shock to the krimi neophyte, especially since the first two of these things are elements of the krimi the film’s director Harald Reinl usually excels at, but a plot that manages to be at once obvious and ridiculously convoluted and a series of well-paced revelations, semi-revelations and reversals will soon enough distract from that particular shock.
Der Fälscher‘s major positive surprise for me is the emphasis its script puts on Jane as an actually active character. I suspect the relatively heavy influence of (gothic) melodrama to be the catalyst for this not very Wallace-ian change. The melodrama, after all, is one genre in film history absolutely dominated by its female characters. In a Wallace adaptation on the other hand, the female lead is usually there to be threatened and kidnapped, and sure as hell isn’t allowed to do anything regarding the solving of the film’s core mystery.
On a plot level, the damsel in distress here is really Peter, who may not get kidnapped but is knocked out and confused more often than not, and is utterly unable to help himself in any way. Even though Jane isn’t allowed to solve the whole mystery herself – that’s what Siegfried Lowitz in an unusually sympathetic and finely ironic performance is there for – she is the audience identification figure of the piece, not given to hysterics, and resolute when she needs to be. Even more surprising is how well Dor – all too often an actress with much beauty but little presence – sells the role. She’s still as stiff as usual, but here, her stiffness seems to be there to tell us something about her character, and not because she’s totally lacking in personality. If it weren’t for a slight subtext of helping one’s spouse during a murder investigation seen as a married woman’s duty, I’d even call the film’s gender politics progressive instead of just progressive for a German film made in 1961. But I’m not complaining.
While Reinl’s direction has been more obviously strong in other krimis, he still shows his usual fine, often clever, sense for the blocking of scenes, an eye for the slight gothic touch – especially whenever the plot concentrates at the rather fantastic looking castle and his surroundings -, a hand for pacing that works for this melodramatic pulp mystery as well as it does in the pulp adventure movies most of his other Wallace krimis are, and of course an un-Germanic love for dynamic set-ups in the movie’s few action scenes. Add to Reinl’s talents some rather beautiful, moody, photography by series mainstay Karl Löb (who I think might be as responsible for the actual look of the krimi as any of the various directors he worked with), and a fine semi-jazz soundtrack by Martin Böttcher (who somewhat unfairly always stood in the shadow of the slightly more crazy and original Peter Thomas, even though his scores are generally nearly as good), and you have yourself a Wallace krimi as fine and entertaining as they get.