***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** William (Wilhelm) Dieterle was a brilliant director whose career is long overdue for appraisal. He was also a talented actor in German silent films: fortunately, he switched over to directing before the sound revolution. (As a director among the Europhile producers who ran Hollywood's studios, Dieterle's thick German accent was an asset ... if he had been an actor in Hollywood during this same period, his accent would have been a serious drawback.) Among his many excellent films, Dieterle directed the Charles Laughton remake of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'. Simon Callow, in his splendid biography of Laughton, makes the bizarre statement that Dieterle did not have any personal eccentricities: if this were true, Callow would not have needed to say it. But for all his talent, Dieterle was a very eccentric man. Among his other penchants, he was a profound believer in numerology, and he allowed his wife to cast the horoscope for each of his films ... often changing the shooting schedule so as to begin filming on a more astrologically favourable date. (Jack L. Warner hated this, but Warner tolerated Dieterle's foibles because of Dieterle's unquestioned talent.) When Dieterle was assigned to direct Paul Muni and Bette Davis in 'Juarez', numerologist Dieterle refused to begin filming scenes with the traditional shout of 'Action!' ... because 'Juarez' and 'Action!' both have six letters. I shan't discuss Dieterle's habit of always wearing white gloves.
'Das Geheimnis des Abbe X' ('The Mystery of Monk X') is co-directed by Dieterle, and he also plays the leading male role of a young Catholic monk who is also an amateur detective. None of the characters in this movie have names, which makes it difficult for me to synopsise the tangled plot. The monk has a brother (i.e. a male sibling, not a priest) whom he hasn't seen in many years, but they correspond regularly. When the brother's letters stop coming, the monk makes inquiries and learns that his brother has disappeared mysteriously ... and the clues point to murder. When the monk investigates the disappearance, he meets his brother's beautiful young wife (the darkly exotic Italian actress Marcella Albani) and he immediately falls in love with her. I said that she was the brother's wife ... but could she possibly be his widow?
SPOILERS COMING. The wife of course promptly falls in love with her monk brother-in-law; apparently she never loved her husband to begin with. But she respects his priestly vows of chastity, so she doesn't let on that she loves him. Instead, the wife (now accepted as a widow) marries her late husband's neighbour, solely as a chance to get access to his land so she can look for clues to her husband's murder. Sure enough, she discovers that the neighbour murdered her husband. Meanwhile, the neighbour decides to abduct his wife's son, who is the neighbour's stepson and the monk's nephew. (Are you getting all this?) When the monk tries to rescue the nephew, the neighbour drowns. Happy endings all round.
This movie features some spectacularly beautiful exterior scenes (in what looks to me like Bavaria) and some impressive footage of St Peter's and the Vatican in Rome. But this movie is less than the sum of its parts. I'll rate this Teutonic twaddle 3 points out of 10. If there's any justice in the world, William Dieterle's career is due for a major reappraisal ... but not based on this movie.
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