Emil and the Detectives is a popular novel that was filmed several times and once by Disney. The version you want to see, however, and which you very possibly can't see, is the one scripted by Billy (or "Billie") Wilder and directed by some bloke called Gerhardt Lamprecht. I don't know his other films, but he appears to be amazing.
Emil, visiting his granny in Berlin, is drugged by an evil criminal man on the train and robbed of the money he was delivering. The film has carefully set Emil up as a spirited young fellow, kind and thoughtful but also a little naughty. A prank involving a public statue has left him in fear of being pinched by the police, so when he's robbed he joins forces with a gang of kids to get his cash back.
The combination of location naturalism and studio artifice, which is at its most extreme in the train hallucination, is mediated by Allan Gray's percussive, cabaret-inflected score. (Gray would wind up in England where he scored Colonel Blimp and The African Queen.) And it's this mixture of reality and fantasy which puts the film firmly in the lineage of Louis Feuillade. Not a tradition one readily associates with Billy Wilder, but there it is.
This is certainly my favorite of the early Wilders I've seen, before his work with Charles Brackett. After the initial situation is established, the film becomes one long suspense sequence, leavened with humor, as Emil and the gang tail their mark and attempt to get close enough to him to pinch his ill-gotten gains back. Wilder would later establish himself as a pretty fine exponent of dramatic tension, and it's fun to see the gripping situations he devises here. Disguised as a bellhop, Emil enters the bad guy's hotel room to search it, but has to dive under his bed when interrupted. Realizing the villain's wallet is under the pillow, he boldly reaches for it, only to get his hand trapped when the slumbering malefactor rolls over...
And later, there's a scene where he hides behind a door that opens outward into the corridor in defiance of all architectural sense: just as Barbara Stanwyck would, some years later, in Double Indemnity.
As the villain, Fritz Rasp, recently restored to his rightful place as a major character in Lang's Metropolis (the Thin Man), is a carnivalesque mixture of comical and disturbing. Not having read the book, I don't know how much of the character's surreal patter is Wilder's, but it's terrific stuff: he attempts to entertain/bamboozle the boy with crazily exaggerated stories about Berlin, its size and speed and overall wonder. The buildings are so tall the elevators need to contain restaurants so the customers don't starve to death on the way up, that kind of thing.
Director Gerhard Lamprecht is largely an enigma to me, as I haven't seen any of his other sixty-odd films, nor do their names mean anything to me, but on the basis of this film alone—or on the basis of the scene above alone—he's clearly of considerable interest.
Of course, given when this film was made and the ages of the participants, one can't help but wonder what became of the talented young cast, and the IMDb supplies the sobering answer. Juvenile romantic interest, Inge Landgut, is best known as Peter Lorre's first victim in M, but she survived the war and was still working in the 1980s. Emil's rival died in the USSR in 1941, and we can make rough assumptions about the circumstances. Blond-haired Rolf Wenkhaus, who plays Emil, didn't hang about: as early as 1933, he played in a Nazi propaganda film, Storm Trooper Brand. He was killed in action in 1942, shot down over Ireland.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.