The 1964 film Der Hexer, known in the US as The Mysterious Magician, is slightly different in structure than the usual German Kriminalfilm of the era. Often times these Edgar Wallace story adaptations include a title referencing the antagonist, usually an awesome villain who spends his time doing crime, like The Red Circle (1960) or The Fellowship of The Frog (1959). Der Hexer–translated along the lines of “the witch” or “the sorcerer”–of the film in question deserves a similar amount of awe, but is not necessarily the bad guy this time. Instead he is a kind of tertiary character, who’s visage we become familiar with as he drops in on the good guys and the bad guys throughout–or so the film makes us believe. Nothing is ever certain in a krimi, and our magical, eponymous entity is no different.
To say The Mysterious Magician has no plot is a bit of a reductive disservice, but to imply that it may perhaps have a bit too much plot is an apt suggestion. In the opening scene, a secretary, who we find out later is Gwenda Milton (Petra van der Linde), is killed by a pointy-shoed man who then throws her into a tiny submarine, which disembarks and deposits her body in the Thames River. Eventually no fewer than three inspectors are on the case. First, we have the handsome Inspector Higgins (Joachim Fuchsberger), who works quite closely with the aging cop Sir John (Siegfried Schürenberg). If they aren’t enough, enter Inspector Warren (Siegfried Lowitz) around the thirty-minute mark for good measure.
We know from the beginning that those responsible for Gwenda’s death include her employer Messer (Joachen Brockmann) and his gang of criminals, specifically including a priest named Hopkins (Carl Lange) who is always up to some kind of no good. If the three inspectors were not enough, we also have the mysterious magician of the title on their trail–apparently Messer and his cronies didn’t realize that the secretary who they decided to murder had a brother from Australia who is a casually suave magician known for feats of wonder and detection.
Perhaps the quintessential villain of the film is Reverend Hopkins, the priest. While Messer may be the puppet master, Hopkins is always lurking around to do the dirty work. In this respect, he is kind of like other strongmen who populate thrillers, like Martin Landau as the menacing Leonard in North by Northwest (1959). His presence, and by extension, the church scenes involving young women singing hymns, is reminiscent of other krimis like The Dead Eyes of London (1961). The group congregating in that film is made up of blind men, but the mood and function within the story is very similar to Hopkins and his environment. Both provide a quaint, vulnerable facade which shields the truth of criminality.
The Mysterious Magician wouldn’t be a true krimi without some attractive, supporting women gracing the screen, and here they tend to be found in subservient roles typical of the era. The secretaries and lovers are virtually interchangeable–I had thought that the raven-haired Jean Osbourne (Anneli Sauli) was Higgins’ secretary until about a third of the way through the picture, when it becomes apparent that she spends more time in Sir John’s office. Meanwhile, Higgins parades around with his blonde girlfriend Elise (Sophie Hardy). At one point she is invited along to chase after the magician, although her presence mostly just fulfills some kind of underground, damsel-in-distress, dungeon/sewer fantasy. The magician’s wife, Cora Ann (Margot Trooger), takes up the position of femme fatale, all cool as ice and full of condescension for the police, but unfortunately her character could have been used more effectively and extensively. One of the reasons this krimi-dedicated column exists is because it gives me a reason to exhaust a genre and era I am not completely familiar with–so far in my extended krimi-thon I have yet to come upon one with a female protagonist. This does not mean that none exist, but rather that if so, they are something difficult to find.
Getting back to the soul of the film, more than anything, the magician is something of an anti-hero, whose identity becomes more and more abstract as the film nears its end, as opposed to approaching more of a tangible persona. We are lead to believe that the magician is a man named Arthur Milton, although the fellow we see on screen goes by the alias James Wesby (Heinz Drache), who is one of those characters that sometimes seems to be helping our inspectors, other times possibly leading them on wild goose chases. It is worth noting that, while Milton/Wesby is good at evading whoever may be on his trail, he never actually does any kind of sorcery, magic tricks, or sleight of hand, giving the audience cause to wonder why exactly he is called the magician–or sorcerer or “hexer”–in the first place. It makes me wonder if there is more of a backstory in the original Edgar Wallace material. He could literally be called anything but a magician and the story would probably work the same way. Of course, the implication here is that this character lives a life that defies logic and, regardless of whether he uses them or not, he may have otherworldly powers that allow him to accomplish things beyond normal human boundaries.
Within the last five minutes of the movie, all is explained, while almost simultaneously the identities of our characters are brought into question. The opening-scene death of Gwenda Milton is due to her employer Messer’s involvement in a white slavery ring. It turns out the magician is also kind of a criminal, having been involved in previous crimes that are somehow vaguely related to the ones occurring in the film. In the middle of the explanation for all of this, the lights go out and a gunshot is fired. A title card fills the screen: “Wissen Sie shon jetzt wer der Hexer ist?” (“So, who knows who The Magician is?”) When the lights come back up, no one seems to have been hit by that gunshot, but Messer is impaled and dead on his own cane sword. And the answer to the big question? I will leave that conundrum alone for now.
The krimi is known as a genre of tropes, and one thing that is usually reinforced time and again is the binary notion of good and bad, black and white, hero and villain. Not so in The Mysterious Magician. The cops and villains are all there, but the very presence of our title character brings everything else into question. It may not have been director Alfred Vohrer’s intention to break the mold of the very genre he was so successful with, but looking back, he did accomplish that with this film to an extent. The magician gives the audience a chance to ponder each character’s capacity for good and evil.
A few years later with the arrival of the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder had fun with this kind of plot device in his noir-informed early films like Der amerikanishe Soldat (The American Soldier, 1970). In the opening scenes of that film it is difficult to distinguish which rowdy band of gangsters are the cops and which are the robbers. Of course, this notion goes back even earlier in German cinema, with the conflation of police and criminal in Fritz Lang’s classic M (1931), when both sides of the law go after the common goal of tracking down a child murderer. In The Mysterious Magician, it is almost as if Vohrer inadvertently stumbles upon this confusion of identity, which works so well as a cinematic framework. Sometimes the good guy wears a badge and the bad guy is dressed in black. Other times it is necessary to rip the life-like mask off of someone’s face in order to reveal their true nature, in those rare moments when life is like a Scooby-Doo cartoon.