Tuesday, May 14, 2013

When Strange Dogs Meet

I've been on a Jayne Mansfield kick of late, and while checking out some of her more obscure films, I came across the 1964 crime opus Einer Frisst den anderen (One Eats the Other) aka When Strangers Meet aka Dog Eat Dog!. Having thoroughly enjoyed Mansfield's understated performance in an earlier noir from 1957 called The Burgler with Dan Duryea, I thought I might have tumbled onto another undiscovered gem. What I found instead was one of the most tonally odd crime films I'd ever seen.

"Quite a party - no dough, enough stiffs for a graveyard,
 no way out, nobody knows who's next and nobody knows who's doing it."
- Lylle Corbett (Cameron Mitchell) in When Strangers Meet

Synopsis: A small group of gangsters, who have just stolen one million dollars, attempt to hide out on what they believe is a deserted Aegean island.

From the opening, zippy, Goodfellas-like credits, this German/Italian/Liechtensteinian co-production interested me in a variety of ways. In terms of plot, it's a standard crooks-get-away-but-turn-on-each-other type of story. However, it's the odd, borderline grotesque characters, over-the-top acting, strange directing choices, Aegian resort locations and surprisingly sharp, black and white cinematography that give the film its distinctive, off-kilter tone and unexpected quality. As I watched the intercut opening scenes of Mansfield bouncing orgasmically on a bed with money cascading down on her while Cameron Mitchell is simultaneously being chased on foot by a car whose driver looks like Quenton Tarantino's less attractive, dentally challenged brother, I moved my cinematic interest mental peg one notch toward the win side. Then I saw these credits come up...

... and realized I'd just died and gone to krimi heaven as these three actors between them have co-starred in over a dozen of the Edgar Wallace-based, German produced mysteries. At this point, I couldn't have been more intrigued and baffled as to what sort of European cinematic goulash I'd gotten myself into. Veteran Italian genre composer Carlo Savina wrote a jazzy, Peter Thomas-like score for the opening of the film giving it even more of a krimi feel. However, the production was principally helmed by Croation director Gustav Gavrin who was mainly known for his Yugoslavian war films, so I had no clear indication which way this movie was going to go. The strange, near grotesqueness of the picture manifests itself almost immediately in the form of English character actor Ivor Salter who plays the head gangster Dolph Kostis aka Mr Smithopolis. Between the thin, yet jutting, lips, lack of discernible jaw, greasy receding hairline, sunken tombstone teeth, overhanging forehead and (gag) patchy body hair, this character is truly repulsive. I've seen Salter in other movies and TV shows and he's never even come close to this nausea inducing. Whether being force fed from a koi pond, dancing at gunpoint or running around half shirtless, there's something just downright gross about his character and Gavrin seems to accentuate and revel in it.

Mansfield, who plays Kostis/Smithopolis' girl, is likewise a slightly exaggerated caricature of herself (although not repellant like Salter) who wears inappropriately sexy garb, exclaims the word "crackers!" constantly and chases after dough when not rolling in it. The actress might have been just a bit too hefty to play the sex bomb (she was several months pregnant with a future SVU detective while filming) and I never got over the feeling that she was doing an over-the-top impression of herself. She does tone the character down as the film progresses, but her near female impersonator performance adds one more slightly surreal element to the proceedings.

Cameron Mitchell, whose character, Lylle Corbett, is a cohort of Kostis, seems somewhat normal in the first half of the film but goes absolutely bat-poop looney in the latter half. To make matters worse, his character suffers some facial lacerations from a fall early on and so Mitchell must spend almost the entire movie with make-up schmutz on his face which only adds to the general bizarreness.

Then there's Ines Taddio the Hotel Americano's perky lounge singer who really doesn't have anything to do with anything, she just comes in and does an entire German pop ditty for no known reason. It's weirdly enjoyable, but what it's doing in the film, I have no idea. Don't get me wrong, I love off-kilter stuff like this but it makes recommending the film tough as it is indefensibly weird. Why does a hotel that caters to Americans on the Aegean feature a German singer anyway? Beats me, but it only gets stranger as hotel manager and part-time gigolo, Livio Morelli (Pinkas Braun), tries to go after the gangsters' and Mansfield's respective booties. To this end, he nonchalantly orders his sister Sandra (Dodie Heath) to plant a bomb on the gangsters' escape boat. Sandra, who appears shocked by this, follows through anyway but gets nabbed and everyone splits for the island of Tramiros. The former home of the biggest "fun house" in the Aegean, Tramiros is now purportedly deserted. Or is it?

It turns out the former madam of the brothel on Tramiros, Lady Xenia (the fantastic Elisabeth Flickenschildt), has returned with her manservant, Jannis (Werner Peters) to spend her last days. This creates complications for the gangsters, their moll, the hotel manager and his sister as everyone vies for at least a portion of the stolen loot and, of course, trouble ensues.
The story is nothing out of the ordinary and mostly takes a backseat to the overall weirdness in tone. The odd moments of forced koi feeding, awkward fighting, vulture closeups, shirtless doll playing and bizarre lines of (dubbed) dialogue apropos of nothing like, "The dogs shall eat Jezebel", are what kept me interested. With all these oddball aspects, one would expect a very uneven tone but the film somehow sustains a consistent flavor that's only betrayed occasionally by Mansfield's goofiness. In the end, it's the unusual execution of a very conventional story that gives the picture its uniqueness and makes it worth viewing. That the movie has very crisp, clean, black and white cinematography, is a nice bonus that made it a much easier watch than most films of its era and budget. Riccardo Pallottini, who worked on a ton of Italian genre films including Fulci's Massacre Time, Baldi's Blindman and Margheriti's And God Said to Cain, photographed this one and it has to be among his best work. The shots inside of the former brothel look especially good with everything professionally lit and well defined. So sharp is the photography, it's actually detrimental to the make-up effects at times. Finally, I loved the krimi actors who seemed to understand what kind of crazy-ass movie they were in and delivered the WTF-ness like nobody's business. Flickenschildt is superb in her confused, grand dame role and Peters, who is always a welcome sight, is solid in his supporting role. Mitchell and Mansfield seem a little uncertain of themselves from scene to scene which they really can't be blamed for given the outright strangeness of the film. There are times when they are completely going for broke acting-wise and it shows. Of all the actors in the cast, they seem the most uncomfortable. Finally, the film is quite well-paced with very little time wasted on long establishing shots or drawn out action. It gets right to the point, as weird as it is.

Score 6.25/10