Thursday, January 14, 2010


Six decades before Indiana Jones first cracked his whip, there was Kay Hoog, the playboy protagonist of Fritz Lang's fourth feature, Die Spinnen ("The Spiders") (1919-20). The all-American sportsman/adventurer--how ironic it is that the German auteur chose a U.S., rather than Teutonic, hero--appeared in the first two installments of a projected four-part series; the remaining half of this ripping yarn, unfortunately, was never completed, and Lang moved steadily towards his future greatness with the subsequent multi-part masterworks Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924). Both chapters of The Spiders, however, are self-contained units, and stand on their own as splendid early examples of the Monocled Maestro's art--accomplishments all the more satisfying when one considers that Lang forewent directing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that same year in order to helm the Decla serial.

The first installment, Der Goldene See ("The Golden Lake," 56 minutes), memorably opens with a ragged Harvard anthropologist escaping from his Incan captors and tossing a message in a bottle into the ocean, before he is executed by one of the natives. The professor has discovered a lost city full of treasures beneath the so-called "Holy Sea," and his message is found by the yachting Hoog (Carl de Vogt), who cancels his participation in a regatta race for the Golden Trophy of San Francisco to locate the city ("the golden treasures of the ancient Incas are far more inviting"). Along the way Hoog must spar with the Spiders, a criminal organization obviously modeled on the villains of Louis Feuillade's seminal serial, Les Vampires (1914), who leave an artificial tarantula on their victims' corpses. The organization's leader, Lio Sha (Ressel Orla), proves to be a mighty match for our protagonist, even if she's no Irma Vep. Hoog journeys to the lost city, where he rescues its Sun Priestess, Naela (Lil Dagover), from a prowling anaconda. Lio Sha--whose name inspired the handle for a character in the second Indiana Jones adventure--is hot on his heels with her gang of gauchos, but gets abducted by the high priest, who commands the reluctant Naela to sacrifice the criminal mistress. Hoog saves both Lio Sha and the priestess before sparks from holy candles explode, flooding the treasure-filled cave where the cowboys have worked themselves into a gold frenzy. Hoog and Naela escape to civilization, as does Lio Sha, who subsequently murders the priestess in retaliation for Hoog's refusal to hand over a document he's earlier snatched from the Spiders in a Cuitcatlan saloon, and join the villainess in her underworld quest.

The second installment, Das Brilliantenschiff ("The Diamond Ship," 81 minutes), was released several months later. The titular vessel (referenced in the document that Hoog snatched in Part One) sets sail in search of a legendary Buddha-head stone. Our hero, seeking vengeance on the Spiders, penetrates a secret underground Chinese city in Shaky Town, and learns of Lio Sha's passage on the Storm Bird. Captured by the Spiders, Hoog improbably escapes when the water flooding his cell loosens the prison's bars. Ludicrously but amusingly, Hoog then has himself transported in a crate (replete with wine, library, and electric light!) aboard the ship, emerging from it in black hood and costume--looking remarkably like a Spider himself--to intercept an urgent transmission to the Storm Bird's telegrapher. The Spiders, you see, have employed an Indian yogi to supernaturally divine the stone's whereabouts--an Argentinian treasure map is in the unknowing possession of English diamond magnate John Terry (Rudolph Lettinger)--and the arachnid antagonists kidnap Terry's daughter, Ellen (Thea Zander), to ensure his cooperation. Hoog resolves to rescue the woman, and soon our intrepid aristocrat--now definitely resembling Dr. Jones in his spiffy explorer gear--is battling the Spiders in the Falklands as everyone stalks the fabled stone in a forgotten cavern. Lio Sha and her henchmen conveniently perish from volcanic fumes at the film's climax (one wonders how the serial would have fared without her infernal presence), and Hoog is left to romance his new Naela surrogate.

All that remains, regrettably, of the third and fourth installments are their tantalizing titles, The Secret of the Sphinx and For Asia's Imperial Crown. Although the first two chapters made considerable money, producer Erich Pommer preferred to concentrate on other projects, and Hoog docked his yacht for good, while Lang, who had become increasingly dissatisfied with Decla, switched his allegiance to Joe May's studio. Emil Schunemann lensed the first installment, but Karl Freund shot the second part, thereby commencing the greatest of all Expressionist director-cinematographer collaborations. Of course, an adventure on this epic scale is heavily dependent on its sets, and Hermann Warm's and Otto Hunte's stylized renditions do not disappoint. Lang himself was trained as an architect, and the picture consistently conveys his powerful sense of space; the Incan temple, created at Hagenbeck Zoological Garden in Hamburg, is especially elaborate, and would have done D.W. Griffith proud.

Lang's screenplay, careering from horse opera to exotica, slam-bangingly explores the web of occult supervillainy that he would so brilliantly expand in his monumental Mabuse trilogy (1922-60): in this instance, however, the machinations are of Eastern, rather than Western, origin, undoubtedly reflecting the influence of Sax Rohmer, whose Fu Manchu debuted in 1912 (though looming over all these cinematic malefactors is Marcel Allain's and Pierre Souvestre's Fantomas). The organization employing the Spiders is identified as the Asian Committee, while the long-lost Buddha diamond's powers will purportedly allow the Orient to eliminate colonial oppression when a mysterious princess returns the stone. Like their creation myth counterparts, the Spiders weave a world of their own, and foreshadow the mesmeric manipulations of Dr. Mabuse by placing Ellen under hypnotic control in their scheme for global domination. The yogi sequence, meanwhile, anticipates a similar plot contrivance in the script Lang wrote for May's 1920 diptych, The Indian Tomb.

Hoog, who starred in the director's first couple of films (Halfbreed and The Master of Love, both 1919), makes an appealing paladin, and Orla, although lacking the lithe loveliness of Les Vampires' magnificent Musidora, is a formidable foe. The great Dagover, returning from Lang's same-year Madame Butterfly adaptation, Hara-Kiri, delights as a charming, albeit patently phony, South American priestess--in point of fact, the entire cast is unmistakably Aryan, which suffuses The Spiders with an additional sense of unreality, in which the entire scenario unfolds with all the glorious illogic of a fever dream.

Image's fullscreen transfer looks as if it was recovered from the lost city. David Shepherd, working from a positive print (the negative no longer exists) unveiled his heroic restoration in 1979, and the picture looks as good today as it probably ever will, though it is in desperate need of a digital cleanup. The transfer offers the original tints, as well as a veritable wealth of grain, scratches, and splotches. Footage from this two-hour-and-seventeen-minute movie is missing at 2:04:12, when a fistfight between Hoog and one of Lio Sha's henchmen abruptly ends with Hoog lighting a cigarette. Lang's first two features have not survived (Hara-Kiri itself was feared lost until the 1980s), so we should be grateful that this fantasia has at least endured. Gaylord Carter's Wurlitzer score, originally recorded for the early home-video distributor, Blackhawk Films, provides an appropriately buoyant accompaniment. The liner notes on the back of Image's dust jacket are supposedly continued inside the snapper case, but were nowhere to be found in my Amazon-ordered copy. The 1999 disc contains twenty-three chapter stops, as well as a Lang filmography, but pointedly lacks an audio commentary. A feature-length analysis of The Spiders by the appropriate scholar would be just what the doctor (Mabuse) ordered.