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Rilla, Wolf (1920-2005)

Director, Writer, Producer

Main image of Rilla, Wolf (1920-2005)

Wolf Peter Rilla was born in Berlin in 1920, the son of the actor-producer Walter Rilla. The family left Germany and settled in England in 1934. After graduating from Cambridge, Rilla joined the BBC, producing plays for radio and television. He entered the film industry in 1953, directing four features that year: the gentle domestic comedy Glad Tidings, which he adapted from R.F. Delderfield's play, and three crime thrillers, Noose for a Lady, Marilyn, and The Large Rope. Though 'B' films, at best they demonstrate an eye for dynamic composition and the creative use of space. Using bold chiaroscuro lighting, Marilyn looks like an attempt at an English The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Leslie Dwyer, Sandra Dorne and Maxwell Reed forming a satisfyingly parochial wife-husband-lover triangle. American models were also Anglicised in two subsequent thrillers, the lively newspaper story The Black Rider (1954) and Stock Car (1955), a tale of corruption and romance set in the seedy world of stock car racing.

Rilla made more socially responsible films for Group 3, though without sacrificing the pace and economy of his thrillers. The End of the Road (1954), a sensitive study in the problems of old age, is moving rather than maudlin; and the colour 'A' feature The Blue Peter (1955), which recommended outward-bound training to counter juvenile delinquency, never patronises its young subjects. But Rilla's later films of the 1950s - Pacific Destiny (1956), a sentimental tale of a novice District Officer based on Sir Arthur Grimble's A Pattern of Islands, The Scamp (1957), a gentle flirtation with social realism, and Bachelor of Hearts (1957), a lightweight romantic comedy about a German student at Cambridge - seemed to epitomise an industry gripped by timidity.

Rilla's talent flourished undiminished in Village of the Damned (1960), his adaptation of John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos. He sustains a tense ambivalence between adult paranoias and the frighteningly amoral power of the twelve 'alien' children born simultaneously in a sleepy English village. Unexpectedly evocative, convincingly acted, and resolved with a chilling climax, the film is justifiably regarded now as a sci-fi classic; at the time, however, MGM showed Rilla scant gratitude, bringing in veteran American television director Anton Leader to direct the sequel, Children of the Damned (1963).

After two crime films, Piccadilly Third Stop (1960) and Cairo (1963), both compelling studies in corruption and betrayal, Rilla wrote and directed The World Ten Times Over (1963). This tale of two nightclub hostesses (played by Sylvia Syms and June Ritchie) unfolds in a deracinated Britain where moral certainties are being eroded by affluence. Neither New Wave realist drama nor exploitation (despite its strip joints, night clubs and hints of lesbianism), the film puzzled and irritated critics. But Rilla's visual and thematic boldness is refreshing: it is the first film to portray London as a 'swinging' city, and there is no easy condemnation of the new permissive climate: instead the film ends with the two women rejecting men and determining to bring up a baby together.

Rilla's attempt to make an outspoken, modernist film seems to have scuppered his career, though he subsequently wrote scripts for television serials. He did not direct again for a decade, only returning for two sexploitation films in the 1970s: Secrets of a Door-to-Door Salesman (1973), which he took over from Jonathan Demme; and Bedtime with Rosie (1975), a better-than-average entry with likeable performances from Diana Dors and Una Stubbs. Further attempts to direct came to nothing, but Rilla continued to write crime fiction and guides to film-making (he was an occasional course director at the London Film School), and helped launch the Directors' Guild of Great Britain in 1985 before retiring to run a hotel in France. Rilla's best films - powerful, claustrophobic studies in the destructiveness of relationships and the paranoias of small communities - make him a figurer worth reassessing.

'British Feature Directors: an index to their work', Sight and Sound, Autumn 1958, pp. 289-304
Stratton, David, 'Checkout time', Variety, 6-12 June 1994, p. 8
Rilla, Wolf, The Writer and the Screen (London: WH Allen, 1973)
Rilla, Wolf, A-Z of Movie Making (New York: Viking Press, 1970)

Andrew Spicer, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Thumbnail image of Village of the Damned (1960)Village of the Damned (1960)

Chilling adaptation of John Wyndham's novel about mysterious alien children

Thumbnail image of Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1955)Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1955)

Marius Goring plays the mysterious saviour of French aristocrats

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