aka The Red Circle
The rich people of London and surroundings are plagued by a particularly violent blackmailer calling himself the Red Circle. If his targets don't pay or contact the police, the Red Circle murders them without remorse, leaving behind his symbol. By the beginning of the movie, the criminal mastermind has already killed nineteen times. Even the patience of Scotland Yard boss Sir Archibald (Ernst Fritz Fürbringer) with the responsible detective, veteran Inspector Parr (Karl-Georg Saebisch), has worn rather thin, not to speak of the displeased public who can't help but use words like "incompetent" to describe the Inspector.
Sir Archibald thinks it best to improve the situation by consulting private detective Derrick Yale (Klausjürgen Wussow), a man whose smugness will turn out to be by far larger than the results he produces. Working in tandem, Parr and Yale still don't manage to protect anyone targeted by the Red Circle, but their investigations do at least lead them towards various suspects, which seems to be further than Parr managed on his own or with the help of subordinates like the rather peculiar Sergeant Haggett (the inevitable - not that I'm complaining - Eddi Arent).
Among these suspects are female thief and part-time secretary Thalia Drummond (Renate Ewert), young, Thalia-loving Jack Beardmore (Thomas Alder), shady investment lawyer Osborne (Ulrich Beiger), and so on, and so forth. This being an Edgar Wallace adaptation, it's surely just a question of time until enough members of the herd of suspects have been pruned for the police to catch the Red Circle.
Der Rote Kreis is only the second film in Rialto's cycle of Edgar Wallace adaptations, and much of the house style (if not quite the complete house cast) is already established, even though Jürgen Roland is quite a different type of director from Harald Reinl. For me as a German, Roland is usually quite an archetypal example of the peculiarity of German crime TV shows, a combination of blandness and conservatism that neither knows how to use realism inventively (they can't all be The Wire, but…), nor how to be stylish, nor how to entertain without wagging one's finger at one's audience.
Looking at Der Rote Kreis, it turns out Roland could have done much better under different circumstances (for example in a country whose TV landscape isn't quite as crap as the German one was and still is), for the film shows the director as someone who was visually inventive (though not quite as much as main Wallace krimi directors Reinl or Vohrer were), as well as perfectly able to throw as much pulp nonsense at his audience as possible without feeling the need to apologize for it.
Roland and his director of photography Heinz Pehlke do particularly fine work whenever scenes take place by night, with many a throwback to German Expressionism via the rain-wet streets of the urban gothic of US noir. At times, one could actually imagine Der Rote Kreis to have been made during the 40s (though certainly not in Germany - there's little here anyone would read as fascist), as part of some secret history of German pulp movies that never existed.
Of course, you have hardly imagined that particular mythical genre when you crash hard into Roland's weak spots, namely an inability to stage the film's more melodramatic scenes other than painfully stiffly and just horribly unconvincingly acted by thespians who really could do better (or at least less painfully bad), and the curiously inept humour. Not that Roland's efforts on the humour front are objectively worse than those of any of his international peers desperate to destroy their movies' tension through unfunny humour, but I do find Eddi Arent usually funny enough in these films, yet still could hardly bear his scenes here.
Plotwise, Der Rote Kreis manages to feel particularly convoluted (that's a compliment for Krimis, as it is for giallos, mind you), the sort of movie where one ill-timed loo visit will doom a viewer to never-ending, yet pleasant, confusion. The rest is Edgar Wallace by numbers, with all the character types you'd find in the later Rialto movies, with one exception: Renate Ewert's Thalia Drummond is quite different from the usual Wallace-heiresses typically played by Karin Dor. She is actually capable, clearly not prone to hysterics even in difficult situations, and possesses something close to an actual personality. I wish this kind of female role were more common in the Rialto movies, but then the written pulps weren't exactly full of Nita Van Sloans, either.
Be that as it may, Der Rote Kreis manages to be nearly as entertaining as Der Frosch mit der Maske, and did help to ring in the long and curious reign of Rialto's Wallace krimi cycle.