“Everyone has a chance. Mine came today and I won’t let go of it”
It is a shadowy, harrowing tale passionately told by Austrian author Alexander Lernet-Holenia in his best-selling novel, Ich war Jack Mortimer (1933).
Ferdinand ‘Fred’ Sponer, a Budapest taxi-driver, picks up a wealthy American passenger, Jack Mortimer, at the train station on New Year’s Eve. When he goes inside to retrieve his fare’s bags, Mortimer is shot. Fred is about to start a new job as a chauffeur and doesn’t want to get involved with the police. He pulls away and dumps the body in the woods. But he worries that he still could be connected with the disappearance and decides to fake the man's arrival by checking into the man's hotel wearing his clothes and assuming his identity.
Waiting for Mortimer is Winifred Montemayor, who’s about to leave her husband, renowned orchestra conductor Pedro Montemayor, and run away with the American. When she goes to Mortimer’s room and finds Fred there with her lover’s bags, she threatens to expose him and he flees. However, he soon learns that his is not the only deception and he has far more to fear than just the police.
In 1935, the book became a film, Ich war Jack Mortimer, directed by Carl Froelich from an elegant script by Thea von Harbou (recently profiled in the Fall 2015 edition of Noir City magazine). Anton Walbrook stars as the ill-tempered Fred, a prole who’s increasingly bitter about the hand he’s been dealt as he toils away with little hope of bettering himself. He takes out his frustration on Marie, his fiancée, whose affection he does not deserve.
Though Fred is not a very likeable character, he's also not without charm. Walbrook was an engaging actor, an Austrian who in 1936 settled in England after changing his name from Adolph to Anton (Walbrook was gay and also classified under the Nuremberg Laws as half-Jewish). In Britain, he continued to work as a film actor, making a specialty of playing imperious continentals including the tyrannical impresario Lermontov in The Red Shoes, 1948 (a highlight of San Francisco’s Noir City festival in January 2016).
Ich war Jack Morimer shares some of the saturnine expressiveness of the great silent melodramas. It’s formal, Teutonic, and gloomy, a compelling proto-noir.
A second movie version of the tale, Abentueur in Wein aka Adventures in Vienna was released in 1952, starring Gustav Fröhlich (Metropolis, 1927) as ‘Toni’ Sponer and Francis Lederer as the husband, now Claude Manelli. A year later Lederer was able to reprise his part in an Austrian/ US co-production, Stolen Identity, 1953, a near shot-for-shot remake of Abentueur in Wein featuring an English-speaking cast in the main roles.
Produced by Turhan Bey (The Mysterious Mr. X, 1948; Parole Inc., 1948) and directed by Gunther Von Fritsch (The Curse of the Cat People, 1944), Stolen Identity remains set in Vienna amid the destruction of WWII. Like The Third Man, 1950, the movie is a deeply atmospheric suspense thriller that plays like a post-war spy/ espionage drama without actually being one.
American actor Donald Buka plays Toni Sponer, this time an undocumented refugee from Eastern Europe who had fled to Austria. But no papers means no work permit and no permit means no passport. Toni is desperate to leave Vienna and to get to the US where he once lived as a child. Meantime, he survives by driving a taxi illegally. When Jack Mortimer is murdered in his cab, Toni recovers his passport and cash and jumps on them as a way out.
As before, problems arise when Toni goes to the hotel impersonating Mortimer and is met by Karen Manelli (Joan Camden), Claude Manelli's beleaguered wife. But this time Karen reports Toni to the police and they pick him up on suspicion of identity theft. However, Manelli, for his own reasons, identifies Toni as Jack Mortimer, telling the police that his wife has a history of mental illness and is always making up stories. Karen is released to her husband but escapes, realizing Toni has been set up.
Though based on the same story, Ich War Jack Mortimer and Stolen Identity are very different movies – as might be expected having been made nearly twenty years apart, one prior to WWII, the other following. Diverging dramatically in tone and style, Ich War Jack Mortimer is a contained crime drama while Stolen Identity is an expansive thriller that provides its characters with backstories as well as giving attention to their development. Toni, as played by Buka, a handsome and forceful actor (The Street with No Name, 1948; Between Midnight and Dawn, 1950) is a more sympathetic protagonist than his morose, self-absorbed predecessor, Fred. While there are actors who would have turned Stolen Identity into a florid melodrama, Buka gives a restrained and believable performance.
Likewise, Joan Camden (The Captive City, 1952), a more responsive actress than Jack Mortimer's enigmatic Sybille Schmitz who committed suicide by barbiturate overdose while under the ‘care’ of her doctor. Camden was a fragile beauty, never a show-off, who made an impact in a gentle way, often portraying wholesome, devoted wives and girlfriends. She shared that quality with the likes of Margaret Sullavan, June Allyson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Teresa Wright, though without ever managing to share their star power.
But it’s really Francis Lederer (Confessions of Nazi Spy, 1939; The Madonna’s Secret, 1946) who claims center stage (as he actually does several times in concert performance). Lederer was a Czech-born actor whose dark good looks and silken air won him movie roles as a suave continental type in films from the silent era into the 1950’s, after which he switched mostly to television.
Lederer began on stage and with a half-dozen films made in Europe – including the silent classic Pandora’s Box (1929) starring Louis Brooks - before being brought to America by RKO as a romantic European lead. However, Lederer, in his many appearances as assorted rogues, charmers, horror villains and Nazi spies never really fulfilled his potential in Hollywood. Though Ginger Rogers wrote of him, “The studios didn’t know how to handle Francis or buy stories for him”, Lederer believed that it was his inherent shyness and reluctance to do publicity that worked against his becoming a big romantic star like Charles Boyer. Nevertheless, he was a fine actor and even in unsympathetic roles like that of Claude Manelli, was able to imbue his characters with humanity. He was impressive in the classic noir The Madonna’s Secret, 1946 as a troubled artist who might be trusted one second but never the next.
Lederer is equally good in Stolen Identity, a B production that, as suggested, can be compared favorably on its own more modest terms to director Carol Reed’s The Third Man. Among its merits are Gunter von Fritisch’s polished direction and stunningly restless noir cinematography by Helmut Ashley who worked later on German director Frank Wisbar’s gripping drama, Wet Asphalt (1958), starring Horst Buchholz and Gerte Frobe. Stolen Identity’s intelligent script also captures the despair, pain, and bone-weariness of post-war Europe.
And though there’s no real mystery to Stolen Identity, there is still tremendous suspense, built upon small incidents and many surprises including a memorable finale. The stolen/ mistaken identity trope is common in film noir but Stolen Identity’s reckoning is not. This unpretentious B production fulfils its promise and does so uncommonly well.