Mar 15, 2009

Movie Review: Kriminal (1966) and The Mark of Kriminal (1968)

Movie Review: Kriminal (1966) and The Mark of Kriminal (1968)

After running a tad over schedule, Costumed Adventurer Week comes to a close with a diabolical double feature!

Unlike the morally flawed but heroic Argoman, or even the lawbreaking antihero Diabolik, Kriminal is just plain bad. Diabolik loves and cares for Eva above all else; Kriminal cares only for himself. He is a completely amoral, utterly corrupt psychopath who puts on a skintight black ninja suit with a skeleton on it to appear even more horrific whilst committing his terrible crimes. And he’s the central character! He’s the one we’re supposed to root for, not his nemesis, Scotland Yard Inspector Milton. But Umberto Lenzi’s movie is just so slick and well-made that it doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t say I ever actually rooted for Kriminal, but I did have fun watching him go about his dastardly business for an hour and a half.

The opening moments are confusing. As with Fenomenal, I thought for a moment that I had accidentally put on a sequel, because Kriminal begins with Kriminal in police custody and obviously expects the audience to know who he is. I guess they were just relying on Italian audience’s familiarity with the comic books. Kriminal is set to hang for stealing the British crown. Astute readers will note that the British crown–and accompanying Crown Jewels–is a favorite target of masked criminals. Jenabelle the Queen of the World stole it in The Fantastic Argoman, and later sent it back to Scotland Yard with a note. Kriminal does the exact same thing, although I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, he’s facing capital punishment for its theft, and the gathered police (including Inspector Milton) and government officials couldn’t be happier. Even with him in custody, they still don’t know Kriminal’s true identity. Only that he’s a handsome blond man (Glenn Saxson) who wears a skeleton getup. Milton aptly comments, "no name could fit him better than this, that he himself has chosen, from others!" (What others, I have to wonder? Skeleton Man? Skullface?) But despite that assessment, Milton has contrived to let Kriminal escape, hoping he’ll lead police to the as yet un-recovered crown. Of course, Kriminal eludes his pursuers and escapes for real.

He drops in on his ex-wife, who has no desire to see him, and manages to seduce her and sleep with her. Hours later, when she goes to the police to inform on him, Kriminal feels no remorse about trying to kill her with a bomb. That’s the kind of nice guy he is. He also thinks nothing about seducing and bedding a wealthy widow, plying her for information that will lead him to a big score, and then suffocating her in her sauna! Granted, she was planning to kill him, too–and had murdered her husband, but still... It’s a pretty cruel thing to do–and Kriminal clearly enjoys it.

The information with which she provided him gets Kriminal caught up in a very complicated plot to defraud an insurance company that involves twin couriers (both played by Helga Line) transporting precious jewels and switching briefcases at the airport. Kriminal gets in the way of the hand-off (with the aid of one of those cigarettes you can blow knockout powder through) when he snatches one of the bags. But which one? It turns out both contained jewels–only the one he grabbed had fakes. Nothing angers Kriminal like accidentally being set up to steal fake jewels, so he dedicates himself to tracking down the other courier.

This leads to Istanbul (doesn’t it always?) and the movie takes time to bask in its truly beautiful locations, underscoring how wonderfully shot it is. Its title character may be morally bankrupt, but Kriminal is one good-looking movie. (Particularly on the copy I was watching–a gorgeous widescreen transfer from an Italian DVD with fan-made subtitles by Kommissar X.) Its appealing aesthetics and surprisingly high production values go a long way toward keeping the viewer (at least this one!) engaged despite such a despicable lead.

Once he’s driven by the sights, Kriminal heads straight for the casino, looking right out of a Bond moive in his sharp white dinner jacket. The story turns rather unnecessarily complicated at this point, involving plot and counter-plot to steal the diamonds that Kriminal believes should be his by rights, and get them out of the country. In addition to the aforementioned identical twins, the ridiculously convoluted scheme calls for bandaged faces, faked deaths and plenty of real ones. Finally cornered, Kriminal finds himself on the run and on a train near the end of the film, desperate to get out of the country. When forced to jump off the train, he loses his diamonds (for the time being) and he looks terribly sad about it! It’s the only emotion he demonstrates during the entire movie, and it’s actually a bit touching to learn that he does care about something.

The first movie apparently concludes with Kriminal’s capture, but that’s not acknowledged at the beginning of the sequel, 1968's Mark of Kriminal. The opening moments reveal that Kriminal’s still just as nice a guy as ever when he breaks into an old woman’s room in his skeleton suit and scares her to death. He’s clearly very pleased with himself, too. Turns out Kriminal and his girlfriend are running a retirement home and killing off old ladies, then claiming life insurance on them. Good people, they are. One day, Kriminal realizes that his girlfriend is trying to poison him, so he electrocutes her in the bath, true to form.

Meanwhile, he’s found himself a better score than ripping off old ladies: one of the grannies’ Buddha statue contains a quarter of a treasure map! It’s not an ancient treasure map, but one made by a notorious art thief and murderer (who sounds every bit as charming as Kriminal) just a few years ago before his execution. Supposedly it will reveal the location of his loot. Kriminal sets out looking for three identical Buddhas, each one said to contain another quarter of the map. He finds one at auction but doesn’t win it; in the sort of ironic twist only found in Eurospy capers and soap operas, Inspector Milton’s finace does! Kriminal drops in on their wedding, leaves gift for Milton and steals the Buddha off of the table of gifts. In the spirit of the occasion, the gift he left for Milton is a box with a gun inside rigged to fire. Luckily, it misses. Milton realizes only Kriminal would play that kind of prank, and he dashes off to the old folks’ home, leaving his poor bride at the altar. She follows him to voice her frustration, but of course they’ve all missed Kriminal, who’s already on his way to Madrid.

While Milton shoots off to Istanbul to check in on the prison supposedly containing Kriminal (but somehow actually containing a madman in his stead), the trail has led Kriminal to Spain to see a flamenco dancer who has one of the other Buddhas. Or, more accurately, to break into her apartment. She catches him, though, and is undeterred by his scary skeleton suit. "You know me?" he asks, flabbergasted when she addresses him as Kriminal.

"Who would not recognize you," she points out, "when you go around suited up in that uniform?" She has a very good point.

"The advantages and disadvantages of the press," Kriminal concedes, before laying on his trademark charm: "You are beautiful. How do you use your brain?" Luckily, it works on her and she wants to be his partner. He agrees to meet on a cruise ship bound for Lebanon.
Despite wanting her portion of the map, Kriminal, of course, wants nothing to do with such a partnership. He shows up on the ship with a false beard, and leads her to believe that another passenger is the man she slept with, but never saw clearly. Thanks to that subterfuge, the authorities believe they’ve caught Kriminal when she betrays the wrong man.

The real Kriminal, meanwhile, follows her and her partner (a character we’ve already met) in her sporty red convertible around some stunning Lebanese locations. We know this is the real Kriminal because he’s his usual courteous self. He needs a car to follow his rivals, so he preys on two American lady tourists. "Do you have a car?" he asks politely. They present their keys and he assures them he’s an excellent driver and he’ll show them the sights. Then we cut to them tied up and gagged by some rubble with him explaining that they have an excellent view! Off he goes in their car.

Inspector Milton, meanwhile, finally catches up, and has no trouble convincing the local authorities to aid him because Kriminal has trafficked in hashish, currency and antiquities through Lebanon before. The police show up too late to prevent a showdown in some old ruins (in which Kriminal blows up the entrance to a tomb, sealing his enemies inside forever, leaving them with the hopeful thought that some future archaeologists might discover their remains), but in time to give chase as he zooms away in a Jeep, paintings in hand.

While both look great, Cerchio’s film is more stylish than Lenzi’s. One very interesting technique pioneered in the original is put to better use in the sequel: inserting comic book panels as still frames. The first movie used this device to establish locations, but the second goes much further, freezing on characters and then transitioning to cartoon art of them with thought bubbles externalizing their inner monologues. It’s a really terrific device, and while it turned up in a few fumetti films in the Sixties, I’m really surprised it’s never been developed further by anyone else.

Style, of course, is the main thing that both movies have going for them. They’re great looking films, with cool sets and costumes. But at the same time they suffer for their style to modern viewers, through no fault of their own: they’re simply not Diabolik. It may not have come first, but Mario Bava’s film defined the genre so much that the Kriminal movies just seem a bit too subdued in comparison. Furthermore, Bava and his team figured out how to present a masked supercriminal as a likable character, which also gives that film the edge. It’s possible that Danger: Diabolik’s release between the first and second Kriminal movies influenced Cerchio on The Mark of Kriminal, and he gets points for trying. While neither Kriminal movie is essential viewing, Mark’s finale is so great it makes watching them both worthwhile. Kriminal does indeed get a comeuppance at the end that serves him right. After hating the character through two movies, it’s rewarding to see what happens to him. And since I’m talking about the end of the movie, that of course requires a SPOILER warning before I go any farther. But since so few people have ready access to these rare films, I do feel the need to reveal what happens. So if you do plan to actually watch this one and have the wherewithal to do so, you might not want to read the next paragraph. If you don’t and you’re dying to find out–of if you’re on the fence–then read on!

In the course of the final chase, Kriminal drives his Jeep over a cliff as people tend to do at the end of these kinds of movies. It even blows up at the bottom, but still we’re sure that he’ll turn out to be okay. Sure enough, the camera zooms in on the explosion. We’re going to find out that Kriminal’s still alive, right? The frame freezes and goes to the comic book panel still shot. Okay, that’s how they’re going to show us Kriminal’s skull mask persevering within the wreckage, with a thought bubble announcing his imminent return. Pretty neat, but still predictable. But no! That’s not what happens at all! Instead, as the flames turn into cartoon flames, the shot reveals two cartoon devils waiting inside the hellfire. "At last!" says one of them. "We’ve been waiting for you, Kriminal," adds the other, brandishing a pitchfork. So he did get what he deserved! It’s a surprising and rewarding conclusion–the very fate that I can’t help but wish on a lot of the jerkier Eurospy heroes.


Nick Frame said...

Matt, glad you liked these movies too! I reviewed both DVD's a while ago! Very happy others are enjoying them thanks to Kommissar X!!


Il Marchio di Kriminal:

Snipes said...

Can you recommend where I might find these two films on DVD with English subtitles? I'm a big Helga Line fan and would like to check these out.