In many ways, Edgar Wallace was a jack of all trades and a master of some. Born out of wedlock to two actors in 1875 and growing up with foster parents, Wallace’s life path led him to work as an editor, a reporter, a war correspondent, a newspaper seller, a medical orderly. He was also a poet, a director, a playwright with dozens of plays under his belt. And, most notably and most importantly, “one of the most prolific thriller writers of the 20th century” (as described in The Economist), who wrote a hundred and seventy novels and almost a thousand short stories. A writer who penned a fourth of all the books printed in the United Kingdom (school textbooks and the Bible excluded), one whose works and their various editions were sold in more than fifty million copies. Ultimately, an author with the most novels adapted into feature films, the number surpassing one hundred and sixty. Yet, his contribution to cinema that he became most known for, as well as the last thing he did creatively before succumbing to double pneumonia in combination with diabetes in 1932, is the co-creation of one of the most famous film monsters of all time—King Kong.
Wallace’s works started serving as a basis for movies as early as 1916, with silent films like Floyd Martin Thornton’s The Man Who Bought London (1916) and George Ridgwell’s The Four Just Men (1921), the latter being one of the rare silent films of that time period that was not lost (the novel also served as source material for Walter Forde’s 1939 film, as well as a 1959 television series of the same name). Wallace himself was invited to act as Chairman on the board of the British Lion Film Corporation, a move that resulted in the author handing over the film rights to all of his material to said Corporation. In the last two years of the 1920s, the company turned nine of Wallace’s books into silent films, with the first being The Ringer (1928), a crime film directed by Arthur Maude and based on the eponymous novel. The Ringer would eventually be adapted under the same title several more times in the following decades. From 1916 to 1929, more than twenty silent films were inspired by the author’s works, but only a small portion of them got any critical acclaim. This led to Wallace deciding to take things into his own hands by settling himself into the director’s chair.
He took the job very seriously and, being the chain-smoker that he was, even gave up the habit while on set because of the smoke’s alleged interference with photography. Wallace’s directorial debut, also one of only two movies he ended up making, was the 1930 silent film Red Aces which he wrote and based on his eponymous novel revolving around a gambler framing a banker for murder. Seeing as how the time of talkies was nigh, Wallace’s second film was the 1930 British sound film The Squeaker starring Percy Marmont, adapted from the 1927 novel of the same name. Wallace would also go on to write screenplays for a 1930 movie called Should a Doctor Tell, as well as the 1931 adaptation of his play The Old Man. In the following few decades, a number of the author’s books were turned into British sound films.
The year 1960 saw the release of Edgar Wallace Mysteries, a British B-movie series that ran for five years, comprised of forty-seven films. British film producers Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy got the rights to all of Wallace’s works and used them to make loose, contemporary adaptations that more often than not did not share the title with their source material. At the same time, the Danish-German production company Rialto Film had its own subgenre of crime films called Krimis (short for Kriminalfilms) and produced a successful series of thirty-nine movies (from 1959 to 1972) based on Wallace’s books, kicking it off with Harald Reinl’s Der Frosch mit der Maske (the novel The Fellowship of the Frog).
Apart from Reinl, who directed five of the thirty-nine films (such as Die Bande des Schreckens and Die Fälscher von London), there was another director who contributed a great deal to The Edgar Wallace Krimis, and that was Alfred Vohrer, having directed fourteen of them. Die Toten Augen von London (The Dead Eyes of London, 1961), Vohrer’s first krimi, is deemed by many one of the best Edgar Wallace adaptations, even if it resembles the 1939 British version The Dark Eyes of London (based on the novel of the same name) starring Bela Lugosi, more than it does the book. Centering on a detective whose newest case involves getting to the bottom of a series of murders committed by blind criminals, Die Toten Augen von London is most intriguing due to its use of horror elements that paint a rather bleak and sinister picture of London and were not included in the novel.
Both Vohrer and Reinl were interesting in their own right, with the latter harboring a love for exterior shots and tracking shots, and the former having a penchant for his performers overacting. Still, the majority of the Edgar Wallace krimis share certain common denominators. Actors like Joachim Fuchsberger, Heinz Drache and Siegfried Lowitz tended to get cast as the protagonists, while minor shady characters were often played by Fritz Rasp, Pinkas Braun, Harry Wüstenhagen and, of course, the great Klaus Kinski, who appeared in no less than fifteen krimis (e.g., Der Rächer (The Avenger, 1960), Das Gasthaus an der Themse (The Inn on the River, 1962) etc.)
The plot often follows a private detective or a police investigator who needs to solve a crime rooted in greed or revenge and ranging from murders and bank robberies to drug deals and blackmails. The bad guys are theatrical and somehow disguised, with nicknames such as ‘The Shark’, ‘The Frog’ or ‘The Laughing Corpse’, and their identities are revealed as a part of the final plot twist, whereas the female character is an unfortunate damsel bound to end up with the male protagonist by the end of the film. These krimis remain a popular series of films in Germany, their particular style being so recognizable that it served as inspiration for a number of parodies, such as the 2004 movie Der WiXXer (which translates to “the wanker” and is a spoof of Der Hexer (The Ringer), meaning “the witcher”).
While working as a hired screenwriter for RKO Production Company in 1931, Wallace was given a task by producer and screenwriter Merian C. Cooper. The job in question was to write both a novel and a script based on Cooper’s idea for a film creature that would soon become known as King Kong. Cooper knew that Wallace was a commercial success and planned on capitalizing on that fact by advertising the movie as being based on an Edgar Wallace novel. The mystery author got to work on January 1, 1932, and was finished with the first draft called The Beast by February 5. Cooper deemed the script not good enough, but on February 10, just as Wallace was getting started on a rewrite, he passed away. And even though none of the drafts were used except the plot outline that the two had previously established, Cooper co-credited Wallace for the creation of Kong (“from an idea conceived by”). Today, Wallace is widely known for his role in the inception of “The Eighth Wonder of the World” (as Kong is called), but clearly deserves much more recognition than that, seeing as how he left an indisputable mark not only on the world of literature, but also on the world of cinema.