Swinging jazz scores a car chase through the streets of New York City as F.B.I. agent Jerry Cotton (George Nader) pursues a machinegun-toting criminal in his sleek red jaguar. Run off the road, the bad guy hides in a theatre holding a room full of scantily-clad chorus girls hostage. Whereupon Jerry crashes through a window to punch him out. "Excuse the bad manners, girls" he quips. What a guy! Meanwhile across town, a woman and her little daughter are shot dead by twitchy, bald, bespectacled assassin Kit Davis (Gert Haucke). Outraged by this injustice, Jerry investigates. He quizzes the victim's wealthy husband Francis Gordon (Giuliano Raffaelli) who admits he hated his wife but denies murder. Shortly thereafter Davis kills a man due to testify against his corrupt boss, Peter Carp (Kurt Jaggbert). Carp also denies any involvement in the murder but when Jerry visits his estate, Carp's wife Linda (Grit Boettcher) begs him for help. She insists Carp is going to murder her too. Jerry enlists the aid of his friends, private eye Sam Parker (Herbert Stass) and resourceful secretary Ria Payne (Daniela Surina), to help keep Linda safe only to learn Davis is part of an entire organization of murderers for hire.
George Nader holds a special place in Hollywood infamy. Outed as gay by Confidential magazine in the Fifties he was the sacrificial lamb served up so Universal Studios could protect the reputation of the more high-profile Rock Hudson. Although the revelation of Nader's homosexuality curtailed his career in Hollywood, happily he found salvation in West Germany where the hugely popular Jerry Cotton film series made him one of that nation's biggest box office stars. First published in 1954 the G-Man Jerry Cotton pulp novels were written by a multitude of pseudonymous authors with new titles published to this day. Beginning with Manhattan Night of Murder (1965), Nader portrayed Jerry Cotton in eight films, the first four in black and white, the last four in colour. In Germany, long after Nader's death, the character remains a pop culture icon to the point where the recent comedy reboot, Jerry Cotton (2010) with Christian Tramitz in the title role, was a huge success.
Death in a Red Jaguar was the seventh entry in the series. Gripping, outlandish yet suspenseful from start to finish, this is Euro-pop cinema at its most stylish and beguiling. Versatile commercial director Harald Reinl really shows off his talent here crafting a fun, pacy thriller with sleek scope photography, memorable twists and turns, inventive action sequences and a semi-surreal part-comic book atmosphere. Tonally the Jerry Cotton films carve a niche in German popular cinema midway between the Edgar Wallace 'krimis' and the Eurospy genre. Different from the legions of James Bond wannabes that populated the Eurospy films, Jerry Cotton is more a no-nonsense detective piecing a mystery together one clue at a time. As played by Nader he is a civic minded hero in the square-jawed Fifties mould, albeit with a layer of charm. Indeed the film as a whole seems like a throwback to an earlier, simpler time with male characters uniformly bedecked in suits, serial-like thrills (one sequence has Jerry gagged and bound in front of an oncoming train), and little trace of the Swinging Sixties.
Nonetheless, scripter Herbert Reinecker pens an intricate story laced with shock twists and turns. The villains prove genuinely cunning and resourceful which makes the plot that more compelling as Jerry must use all his ingenuity and athletic prowess to escape each new death trap. Gert Haucke's meek, bespectacled killer is a memorably creepy figure slightly foreshadowing Richard Attenborough's portrayal of John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971). It is a shame he makes an early exit though the plot takes a fascinating turn that involves a sinister psychologist (Carl Lange) who goads his more unstable patients into committing murder then bumps them off when no longer useful. In a neat twist Jerry cajoles Sam into hiring the murder agents to bump him off ("What are friends for?") in a bid to expose the real mastermind. Pleasingly the film exhibits a progressive attitude by Ria a resourceful heroine in her own right including a terrific karate fight in an elevator. Reinl knows how to stage a dynamic chase scene, either on foot or involving Jerry's snazzy red E-type Jag. The action still packs a punch despite the odd campy moment. Peter Thomas' score is infernally catchy especially that whistle-led Jerry Cotton theme tune.