Fritz Lang’s style has been called many things—pessimistic, deterministic, Expressionistic, but the great director always preferred to call his films realistic. There are few happy endings in a Lang film. But then, this prickly Vienna native lived an unsettled, often unpleasant life. Early enemies of Lang spread rumors the young auteur may have actually killed his first wife. His second wife screenwriter Thea Von Harbou divorced Lang and ended up collaborating with the Nazis, while her half-Jewish ex-husband was said to have fled Hitler and Dr. Goebbels on a night train to Paris. Later in Hollywood, Lang’s authoritarian demeanor and strident leftist politics won him few friends and for a while he was on the film industry blacklist for being a suspected Communist.
Having to spend so much time looking over his shoulder, it is little wonder Lang had such a paranoid vision. Lang found many of his stories through clipping out police crime blotter items in newspapers and transcribing them to film in a ruthless, no holds barred manner, often confounding producers and audiences alike. Lang’s clean, mean approach to filmmaking made him a critic’s darling, but his sort of minimalism had no place in the groovy 1960s, leading to an involuntary retirement. Still, Lang has to be considered one of the great artists of the 20th century for chronicling the seedy underbelly of the Weimar Republic and the Great American Dream.
As a young man, Lang left his middle-class Austrian home to make a go of it as a starving artist in Paris. He claimed to have traveled to the Far East during these years but Lang was notorious for exaggerating the truth. He returned home to fight for the Austrian-Hungarian army in WWI during which he survived a serious wound and distinguished himself in battle. Bit by the cinema bug he submitted scenarios to German production houses during the war and after armistice Lang had a new livelihood working for highly successful film producer Erich Pommer and director Joe May. The pesky and ambitious young man was soon directing his own photoplays.
Today’s taste-mongers and nostalgic Berlin-ophiles often anoint Lang’s German films as the pinnacle of his canon, a curious claim since this filmmaker was so influenced by American pulp art. If the young Lang could have been magically transported to the Post-Star Wars Hollywood, he would have given Steven Spielberg a run for his money. During his fourteen year career as a director in Berlin, Lang made serial-adventures, syndicate crime stories, science-fiction epics, legends based on mythology, a spy thriller, and one of the earliest and best films about a psycho-killer.
Lang’s first surviving film, the two-part Die Spinnen (The Spiders), is a fantastical adventure yarn (written by Lang) following the amazing exploits of Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt), a San Franciscan sportsman. The first part (The Golden Sea) opens with a Harvard archeologist stranded in Peru and on the run from a band of hostile Inca Indians. His final act is to stuff a curious message in a bottle and toss it into the Pacific Ocean. Sometime later, Hoog finds the message which includes a map indicating a rich vein of gold lying underneath the Inca settlement in Peru. Hoog decides to head to South America to stake a claim to the sunken treasure, but he soon finds he is being pursued by a secret organization led by Oriental seductress Lio Sha (Ressel Orta). In Peru, Hoog and Sha’s Spiders are besieged by the Incas and have to fight for their lives. Unable to find the gold, Hoog rescues a beautiful native girl Naela (Lil Dagover) and brings her back to San Francisco as his wife. But unknown to Hoog, he is still entangled in a web of deceit and the jealous Lio Sha will get her revenge.
Filmed a few months later, the second part of Die Spinnen (Das Brilliantenschiff shot by Karl Freund) escalates Hoog’s adventures—this time he’s in a race with the Spiders to track down a rare Buddha-shaped diamond—at the expense of plausibility. This piling of face-paced scenes would, for better or worse, turn out to be a staple of Lang’s silent films. The same year (1919) Lang was invited to direct The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by producer Erich Pommer, but he was too busy trying to complete Die Spinnen to take up the offer. While many critics have speculated on what the great Lang could have done with such nightmarish material, it’s highly possible the young Fritz may have not been ready to film such a static, psychological mood piece. Lang’s cinema would become truly elephantine before it shrunk and grew in artistic scope.
Lang kept busy the next two years directing three films, alternately, for Erich Pommer and Joe May. Recently rediscovered after having been “lost” for decades Harikiri, Das Wandernde Bild and Vier um die Frau all gave Lang the opportunity to polish his craft with increasingly complex characters and storylines. Harikiri, an adaptation of David Belasco’s Broadway warhorse Madame Butterfly, finds the young Lang giving surprisingly sensitive direction to his “Asian” heroine Lil Dagover as O-Take-San, a daughter of a Buddhist monk who falls in love and marries Olaf (Niels Prien), a European military officer. Olaf is called back home leaving O-Take-San with child and dreams of the day they can finally live together as a family. For four years the priest’s daughter diligently plays the role of a single mom completely unaware Olaf has remarried and will soon return with his European wife in tow.
Even in its surviving, fragmented form it is clear Das Wandernde Bild was meant to be a highly ambitious tale of adultery and spiritual re-birth set in the spectacular Bavarian Alps. Mia May plays Irmgard Vanderheit, a woman pursued into the snowy mountainside by an obsessed man who appears to be her husband. She is shunned then taken in by a celibate shepherd who turns out to be her former boyfriend. The husband is swept away landslide triggered by the shepherd and on her way down the slopes Irmgard rescues a child from its dying mother. In a bizarre and utterly inexplicable finale, Irmgard is reunited with her two men at a hotel restaurant where they put a head on their passion play.
Vier um die Frau found Lang back in his comfort zone of seedy and sophisticated Berlin directing a noir-ish tale of paranoia and fabricated infidelity. An honest merchant Yquem (Ludwig Hartau) presents his wife Florence (Carola Toelle) with a gem he purchased in a less than reputable neighborhood. When he runs across one of her former lovers the jealous Yquem begins to suspect Florence of two-timing him, leading to his sordid descent into the city’s rough and tumble underworld. The vivid, atmospheric Vier um die Frau proved to be a turning point for Lang in terms of a career-altering professional relationship and his own, ever-darkening vision.
Joe May introduced Lang to Thea Von Harbou and together they would collaborate on the scenario for May’s Indian adventure Der Tiger von Eschnapur. Lang was very impressed by the strong-minded woman who left her aristocratic family to work in the theater in the early 1900s. The war years saw Von Harbou become a popular novelist of nationalistic themes and when May had bought the rights to her books for the screen she went to work for the great pioneer of German film. Von Harbou hit it off with Lang, too. They shared many interests, hobbies and, most importantly, an almost apocalyptic view of mankind. While working on May’s two-part epic, Von Harbou also co-wrote the scenarios for Das Wandernde Bild and Vier um die Frau, just the sort of psychologically and philosophically-charged material that appealed to Lang.
This artistically ambitious team wouldn’t come into their own until the completion of their next collaboration Der mude Tod (This Weary Death or Destiny). InTod, Death (Bernhard Goetzke) moves into a provincial German town and much to the chagrin of the locals the mysterious fellow builds a fortress-like structure next to a graveyard. He befriends a newlywed couple and after dining with them steals off into the night with the groom whose time has come. The young wife (Lil Dagover) enters the fortress to plead with the grim reaper for the return of her beloved.
Death sits her down to spin three allegorical tales about the deaths of young lovers set in the exotic locales of old Baghdad, Renaissance Venice, and ancient China. Death next offers her a deal which would free her husband if she can convince a volunteer to take his place in eternity. The wife tries to tempt an old chemist, a beggar, and a group of ancient women but none want to die before their time. Just as her husband’s fate looks sealed, she is granted a miraculous opportunity to hand over a baby sure to perish in a fire, but since her conscience won’t let her do so, she chooses to join her mate in heaven.
Another in a long line of ambitious silents that borrows freely from the multi-layered Intolerance, Der mude Tod is an artistic triumph of Berlin studio filmmaking. Employing as many as five cinematographers and several art and costume designers, Lang splices his eerie horror story with three colorful fables of spiritual love worthy of the Arabian Nights or, as German film scholar Siegmund Kracauer noted, Stendahl. Even with the inevitable fate closing in on our heroine, Lang and Von Harbou employ some folksy humor to keep her plight from becoming too ominous.
In 1921, Lang’s home studio Decla merged with the mighty UFA giving the director a broader canvas to apply his considerable wares. Based on the pulpy novel by Berlin reporter Norbert Jacques, the two-part epic of the underworld Dr. Mabuse -The Gambler and Dr. Mabuse – King of Crime follows the diabolical exploits of the master manipulator Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Through a series of expert financial maneuvers, slight-of-hand trickery and hypnosis Mabuse and his seedy organization rigs the stock market in an effort to shake down Berlin. Mabuse spreads his design of evil over the town’s shady casinos and dens of vice, mesmerizing naive and rich gamblers into signing their fortunes over to him. Trying to crack the slippery syndicate, Police Inspector von Welk (Bernhard Goetzke) enlists socialite Grafin Dusy Tod (Gertrude Welcker) to get a confession from an imprisoned Folies star (Aug Egede Nissen) who has inside knowledge of the master’s crimes.
Massive and sprawling, the first Mabuse films are not as dramatically tight as the two sound versions (in 1933 & 1960), but they remain compelling and spectacular entertainments. Compared to Murnau and that other great Germanic director Hitchcock, most of Lang’s silents are only nominally Expressionistic—he explores the realm more vividly in M and two American masterpieces, Fury and You Only Live Once. One can make a case for the Mabuse films being the birthplace of noir. One can imagine Berlin residents Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer drawing inspiration from Otto Hunte’s city street set design and Carl Hoffman’s mood-drenched photography. Berlin beat reporter Billy Wilder may well have been awed by the taut procedural narrative driven by a diabolical criminal who delights in re-inventing himself, even if it leads to his own destruction. The Mabuse films split into too many threads, but both Von Harbou and Lang manage to sew them all together, leading to the surprisingly low key finale.
Die Nibelungen (Siegfried & Kriemhild’s Revenge), based on the legendary medieval epic poem and borrowing from Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, was a monumental display of German pageantry intended to soothe a nation suffering from economic failure and the national disgrace. Siegfried follows the derring-do of the son of King Siegmund who journeys to Worms to win the hand of the Princess Kriemhild. On the way, Siegfried (Paul Richter) slays a fire-breathing dragon and bathes in its blood, an elixir which will protect him against all enemies. Siegfried arrives at Worms in triumph, but his daring exploits have not impressed Gunter, the King of Burgundy (Theodor Loos), or the proud Kriemhild (Margarete Schon). The weak Gunter asks for Siegfried’s help in subduing the warrior Brunhild, the Queen of Iceland (Hanna Ralph) in exchange for Kriemhild’s hand.
Siegfried uses magic and his physical prowess to help Gunter defeat and marry Brunhild. Suspecting her man isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, Brunhild won’t consummate her marriage to the King who asks Siegfried to step in again. Siegfried uses magic to bed Brunhild, but a jealous Kriemhild informs on her man and the Iceland Queen vows revenge. She demands Gunter kill his friend, so the weakling King assigns his favored warrior Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) to finish the task. The treacherous Hagen confides in Kriemhild and gets the oblivious Princess to betray her man.
Kriemhild’s Revenge finds the angry Princess turning her back on her family to get revenge on Siegfried’s assassins. After her brother Gunter refuses to execute Hagen Tronje, Kriemhild enters into a pact with King Attila of the Huns (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Though their’s is a loveless match, Kriemhild bears the King a male heir, but he, too, refuses to kill Hagen for he and the Nibelungen warriors are sacred guests of his castle. Furious, Kriemhild offers gold to the Huns to capture Hagen, but the maniacal desert warriors are pushed back by the Nibelungen. Hagen kills Attila’s son, but his doom is inevitable as the Huns continue to pound at the Germans and the castle. Finally, the determined Kriemhild gets her bloody revenge on Hagen, thus bringing down the King and his army.
The beautiful and majestic Die Nibelungen is Lang’s silent masterpiece. Siegfried is lyrical and enchanting, a work abound with middle-earth gremlins and fairy-tale touches not typically associated with Lang. The film heats up considerably once Hanna Ralph appears as the butchy Icelandic Queen who sets forth the tragic chain of events. Kriemhild’s Revenge, on the other hand, is ferocious stuff. Set in a bleak castle straight out of MacBeth, the steel-willed Kriemhild is clearly meant to be seen as debasing her Aryan blood by sleeping with the grotesque and dark-skinned King of the Huns. Even as she watches her brothers and her King succumb to Huns, Kriemhild admits her heart is dead and she only lives to seen Hagen slaughtered. This triumph of art direction (Otto Hunte), set design (Erich Kettelhut & Karl Volbrecht) and cinematography (Carl Hoffman, Gunther Rittau) was deemed too nihilistic the Nazis, who never revived the nationalistic film.
Despite post-production butchery performed on Die Nibelungen (especially Kriemhild’s Revenge) it is a fair guess both Sergei Eisenstein and Akira Kurosawa had been schooled in Lang’s German epic before making their own filmic assaults upon mankind (Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible, The Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, etc.). Lang’s next film would also look to myths of the past to erect a sinister view of the future.
Metropolis is Lang’s most revived film yet it’s also the one he disparaged the most. Set in a fantastic city of the future, the divisions between the upper class and the working man are greater than ever. While the idle rich lead charmed lives of sex and song, the proletariat toil long hours in broiling factories underneath the city. The city’s most powerful figure is the business mogul Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) who bankrolls the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to make a man-machine that would eliminate the need for human employees. When Joh’s pampered son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) gets wind of the factory conditions he takes the place of employee 11811 (Erwin Biswanger). At quitting time follows the other men into a catacomb to hear the lovely prophet Maria (Brigitte Helm) speak of a man who will lead the masses out of the lower depths.
Maria recognizes Freder as the chosen one, but they are unaware Joh has already picked Maria to be the face of the diabolical man-machine. Joh instructs Rotwang to program the machine to incite the workers to rise up against the company so he can use force to put them down. The inventor circumvents Joh’s evil plan and has the machine talk the men into destroying the mogul’s “heart machine” instead. A massive flood ensues and the real Maria helps Freder evacuate the city’s children from the underground. Thinking their children are doomed, the workers decide to kill the “witch” who made them revolt. Maria narrowly escapes and the workers capture the man-machine in the city’s red light district. The unruly mob burns the machine to the horror of Freder who thinks the laughing figure at the stake is Maria. She is soon spotted at the top of a cathedral where she is being chased by the mad Rotwang. Freder saves Maria from Rotwang’s clutches then mediates a truce between his father and the workers.
If one can get beyond the message-laden script, Metropolis is a great deal of fun. Its magnificent sets (designed by the team of Otto Hunte, Erich Kettle & Karl Vollbrecht) borrow equally from the Expressionist and Cubist schools. The cinematography (by Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau and Walter Ruttmann) is just as inventive, making use of more tracking shots and montage than we usually see in a Lang film. The animated effects during the film’s nightmarish intermezzo anticipate similar stylistic flights of fancy in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Vertigo. The chaotic mob rule scenes clearly appealed to Lang who would reprise similar out of control sequences in M and Fury. To give Von Harbou her due, the bizarre re-enactments of a Mayan sacrifice and a nod to The Hunchback of Notre Dame add luster to the film’s over the top appeal.
Footnote: In 2008 a complete 16mm version of Metropolis was found in a Buenos Aires film archive and scenes thought forever lost were spliced into the 2001 restoration of the film. The missing sequences follow the adventures of the nearly excised character The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), a spy sent out by Fredersen to follow the activities of his son and, more importantly, provides the reason for Rotwang’s animosity towards the great mogul. Although the new version of Metropolis plays some twenty minutes longer than its last incarnation, it makes for a more comprehensible viewing experience befitting this glorious staple of UFA Studio filmmaking.
Lang’s first film for his own production company, Spione (based on a novel by Von Harbou), retreads the familiar but enticing territory of Dr. Mabuse. Assigned to investigate a notorious spy ring, Government agent 326 (Willy Fritsch) meets and falls in love with Sonya (Gerda Marcus), a spy hired to keep him in check. Sonya’s employer is the sinister Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a corporate banker who rules the city’s underworld. Like Mabuse, Haghi is a master of disguise and when he finds his agent is in love with 326, he assumes new identities in an effort to undermine the government and grab power for himself.
Like Lang’s last foray into world of crime, Spione has a convoluted plot making any efforts to connect the dots a daunting experience. But, it is also thrilling and gorgeous-looking (thanks in a large part to Fritz Arno Wagner’s shimmering cinematography), helping us excuse much of the implausibility. The brilliant Klein-Rogge gives another colorful performance as the elusive Haghi whose suicide in a clown’s suit provides a stunning finale to Lang’s delirious film.
Lang and Von Harbou took a step into the great beyond with Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), a surprisingly sophisticated, if overlong, story about mankind’s first expedition to our closest neighbor in space. The film opens with the once-revered Professor Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl) living in poverty, a shadow of his former self. Years before, Manfeldt was laughed out of academic circles when he claimed there was gold on the moon. He is visited by engineer Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch) who is building a spaceship to fly to the moon. Intrigued by the professor’s claims of unmined treasure, Helius invites Manfeldt along with engineer Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim), his fiancée Friede (Gerda Marcus), a financer Turner (Fritz Rasp) and a stowaway boy to join him on the great adventure. Fears arise when the ship’s capsule blasts out of the earth’s orbit and the crewmembers realize they may not make it back home alive. Once on the moon, anxiety is overridden by greed and the men fight over the professor’s gold.
The pie in the sky premise of celestial treasures is silly, but otherwise Frau im Mond was rather ahead of its time. It is the rare early sci-fi film that doesn’t insult the intelligence of its audience, its textbook take on physics and astronomy puts most speculative space films from the 1950s and ‘60s to shame. It’s also the rare early Lang film which has a heart and conscience, a sign perhaps, that story was beginning to interest Lang more than spectacle.
Lang’s first sound film M, the grim tale of a child-killer stalking the streets of a big city, took advantage of all the new medium had to offer. The disturbed Hans Berkert (Peter Lorre) befriends little street urchins then drags them off to dark alleys where he does his dirty business. Paranoia sweeps over the city and innocent men are attacked for merely talking to children. Police dragnets round up the usual suspects much to the dismay of the kings of the Underworld whose illicit businesses begin to dry up. Since the police seem clueless to the killer’s whereabouts, the gangsters enlist the beggars’ association to comb the streets to track down the killer. They ultimately corner the terrified Berkert and drag him to a tribunal of criminals deep in the bowels of the dark city.
A proponent of cinematic realism, Lang had to have been delighted with the advent of sound film. The chatter of children, the honking by anxious drivers, paperboys bellowing out latest headlines and Berkert’s eerie whistling of his death song, Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King, all give M the sort of third dimension Lang’s other early crime films lack. Typical of a Lang-Von Harbou collaboration, the film’s structure is unusual, as well. M opens in the throbbing heart of a lower-middle class community where there is safety in numbers. The community is aware of the killer amongst them, but since the kids are keeping busy the parents’ concern is minimal. But the killer is aware certain children will seep through the cracks and he approaches them with promises of presents and candy.
Here, there is a shift the emphasis to the killer who doesn’t seem too far removed from being a child himself. As a police psychiatrist lays out a hypothesis about just who the criminal might be, we see the schizophrenic Berkert making faces in a mirror, the demons have took possession of his soul. Still, even with most of the city’s police officers on the case, the killer manages to elude arrest, so the town’s criminal element picks up the ball. Using peddlers and street people as their eyes and ears, they get a beat on Berkert and track him down to an abandoned flat where he is finally captured.
Here, this most unusual spin on a police procedural turns into a frightening scene of mob rule. Berkert’s “lawyer” makes a futile case for the killer needing help but such calls for leniency falls on deaf ears to the curious tribunal who aim to make an example out of him. Just as the death sentence is about to be passed, the police raid the criminals’ hideout and Berkert is arrested. In a final twist, Berkert is processed through the judicial system and found guilty of his crimes a similar grim fate awaits him. Though the chilling M is represents a clear artistic advance over Lang’s early songs of the city (the Mabuse films and Spione), it still plays big and busy. In his American films, Lang would trim the heavy sociological baggage and discard his penchant for pulp fodder to get to the essence of human persecution, real and imagined.
Lang’s final film in Germany, Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse, reprises the tale of the sinister Doctor (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) who while locked in an asylum writes pages of gibberish that turns out to be his deadly last testament. Through the use of these notes and telepathic powers Mabuse manipulates his guardian, the esteemed Professor Baum (Thomy Bourdelle), into carrying on his anarchistic crime syndicate. Police inspector Lohmann (Jim Gerald) gets the thankless task of tracking down a series of crimes from whose perpetrators have left no motives or clues. Through the co-operation of an operative looking to break out of Mabuse’s web, Lohmann finally breaks the case.
Made over ten years after the original Mabuse, Lang’s new take on the Berlin underworld is a cracking police procedural that refrains from glorifying the mad doctor and champions the savvy but all-too human Lohmann, who may be in over his head. By marginalizing the superhuman Mabuse and propping up the influencial Professor, Lang paints an even bleaker portrait of a Germany vulnerable to charismatic leaders who would spread their unthinking chaos across the continent in the coming years.
Readied for release just as Hitler was swept into power, Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse was confiscated by the Nazis who banned its release in Germany. Ironically, both Hitler and “culture director” Joseph Goebbels were big fans of Lang who was widely known as having a Jewish heritage. Though Goebbels had pulled the plug on Lang’s latest film he surprised the director by offering him the head of the Third Reich’s film division. Contrary to stories Lang would later tell, he was not horrified by the prospect, in fact, he might have been interested in total artistic autonomy. But, Lang surmised Goebbels was going to be a much stricter boss than Eric Pommer ever could be and his future work would be heavily censored. And as German Jews were already being having their businesses destroyed and being interred in camps, the writing was on the wall. After his divorce from Von Harbou was made final in the summer of 1933, Lang quietly closed up his apartment in Berlin and moved to Paris.
During his brief stay in France Lang re-teamed with producer Eric Pommer to make a lusty film version of Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom. Future matinee idol Charles Boyer starred as the brooding carnival barker who offends his jealous employer Madame Muskat (Florelle) by flirting with Julie (Madeleiene Ozeray), a pretty chambermaid. Muskat fires Liliom who goes to live with the nearly destitute Julie. Julie’s friends can’t understand why she puts up with Liliom’s beatings, but deep down she knows theirs is a love for the ages. When Julie informs Liliom she is pregnant, the delighted father to be announces he will try to find work to support his little family. Instead, he goes for the much easier option of mugging a pedestrian for some easy cash. When the hold-up goes awry, Liliom chooses to kill himself rather than face Julie.
At the gates of heaven, Liliom learns he is not such a bad guy but he will have to spend the next sixteen years in purgatory before he can descend to earth to see his wife and daughter again, for one brief day. On that hallowed afternoon, a weary and graying Liliom is escorted to Julie’s neighborhood by his dapper guardian angles. Ordered to give his little family a beautiful gift, Liliom bungles the task and ends up frightening his daughter. But, his ghostly appearance Julie’s window gives her new-found strength to carry on and subsequently redeems Liliom in the eyes of his judges.
Though monstrous in its attitudes towards women, Lang’s Liliom manages to be sensitive while avoiding sentimentality and works surprisingly well. It’s a shock to see Boyer looking so unpolished, but he is marvelous as the cad who can’t shake the faith of his faithful Julie. Lang benefits greatly from working with a simple scenario (co-written by Lang and Robert Liebmann), thus avoiding the cosmic, doomsday pretentions of his German canon. Perhaps, it was due to the fact he was learning a new language which convinced him to strip away artery-clogging details and subplots to get to the meat of the story. It was a method Lang would have to apply ten-fold when working with tightfisted producers at his next place of destination; Hollywood.
Recruited to MGM by producer David O. Selznick, Lang made his way across the Atlantic to Culver City where he languished for over a year, soaking up western culture and trying to develop a project. With the help of producer, and Lang fan, Joseph Mankiewicz, he settled on Fury, a story of a would-be lynching based on a recent event in California. Here, upstanding Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy) lives in a small Chicago flat with two younger brothers Charlie and Tom (Frank Albertson & George Walcott). His girlfriend Katherine (Sylvia Sidney) accepts a teaching job out of town, but the couple has an understanding they will marry when Joe’s ship comes in. In an effort to keep his brothers from running with the mob, Joe culls enough money together to buy a filling station.
Since business is good, Joe decides to drive to Capital City where he will propose to Katherine. On the road, Joe gets pulled over a gun-toting deputy (Walter Brennan) and hauled into the sheriff’s office where he is questioned about the recent kidnapping of a young girl. Not satisfied by Joe’s answers, the sheriff (Edward Ellis) locks him up in the Strand jailhouse for further questioning. Word about the arrest gets out around town and annoyed by the sheriff’s reticence a local mob of vigilantes rush the jail to deliver their own brand of justice. The ravenous mob overtakes the lawmen but when they find they can’t penetrate the jail cells where Joe is kept they decide to “smoke him out”. Katherine gets news of Joe’s grim plight and rushes to the jailhouse but only catches a glimpse of her fiancé in a window before the building crumbles into ashes.
The next day, back in Chicago we find Joe’s brothers angered by news of his murder, so it comes with a great shock when the lynched man appears in their doorway. Hardened by his experience, Joe decides to stay underground and devise a plan to bring his murderers to justice. He enlists his brothers to force the issue with the district attorney (Walter Abel) and to the shock of the citizens of Strand twenty-two of their brethren are brought to trial.
At the courthouse, the D.A. catches the defense witnesses in a web of lies and exposes the defendants in a documentary film which seals their doom. Meanwhile, Katherine remains unaware of Joe’s resurrection. She becomes suspicious when she notices one of Joe’s brothers wearing his trench coat then sees Joe’s imprint on a letter sent to the judge with a damning piece of evidence. She follows the brothers back to Joe’s hideout and tries to talk the angry man out of going through with his sadistic revenge. Just as the prisoners are learning their fates, Joe appears in the courtroom to clear his conscience.
Lang’s American debut was a taut and relentless critique of a society which failed to live up to the high principles of its founding fathers. It’s a bleak vision that couldn’t have gone over well in the conservative circles of MGM. As in M, Lang exhibits a wariness and downright fear of crowds as they are likely to disintegrate into unruly mobs if not kept in check. When the law can’t protect Joe against the citizen-turned-hooligans, his regular guy spirit breaks and he vows to look out for himself. He takes the law into his own hands and in a Mabuse-like manner he sets the wheels in motion to bring his “killers” to justice.
Joe’s bitterness infects his brothers and even the virtuous Katherine who admits on the stand, she cares more about the fate of her Joe than the twenty-two defendants who could be executed for his murder. Joe’s final redemptive act isn’t done so much to save the lives of defendants as it is to find a way to move on with his life. As we shall see in many of Lang’s American films, his heroes would rarely place trust in communities. They prefer to rely on themselves.
After burning all his bridges at MGM, Lang was summoned by Sylvia Sydney to direct her next film You Only Live Once for the independent producer Walter Wanger. Originally intended to be a spin-off of the Bonnie & Clyde legend this project gave Lang another opportunity to rail against prejudiced American society and make one of his most visually striking, and thrilling films. Sidney plays the winsome Joan Graham, secretary to Public Defender Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane) and fiancée of jailbird Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda). Three times convicted, Taylor is being released from stir with the knowledge his next arrest could lead to a life sentence.
Joan and Eddie are married, but get tossed out of their idyllic Honeymoon retreat when the proprietors find out their lodger is a former con. Joan manages to keep Eddie’s chin up by showing him their new home. Whitney, who carries a torch for Joan, has wrangled Taylor a job as a trucker, but Eddie gets fired after reporting in late. After his ex-employer refuses to give him a letter of recommendation, the frustrated Eddie punches him out then hooks up with members of his old bank robbing gang. The next day the gang pulls off a spectacular armored truck robbery, killing several guards and bystanders during the getaway. Eddie’s hat is found on the premises and the police chase him to the newlyweds’ home where he gives himself up.
Though Eddie pleads his innocence he is convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair. When Joan visits him in the jailhouse Eddie pleads for her to slip him a gun the night before the execution. When Joan returns she tries to slip the weapon past prison security but is caught by Eddie’s priest Father Dolan (William Gargan). Meanwhile, Eddie’s convict friends have sewn a gun into the mattress in the isolation ward. Eddie slashes his wrists in order to be taken to the infirmary where he turns violent so he can be transferred to the room with the gun. Now armed, Eddie kidnaps a doctor and walks him out to the prison gate where he is told he has been pardoned. Eddie refuses to believe his good luck and shoots Father Dolan. Seeing no alternative, the guards let Eddie escape into the night.
On the outside Eddie learns the armory truck had been found in a river with the killers inside, so he actually was a free man when he killed the priest. He calls Joan who rushes to meet him in an empty freight train car. Thus begins a long, back road odyssey taking the two fugitives up to the Canadian border. There, Joan hands off her newborn child to Whitney and her sister before rejoining Eddie to meet their fate.
An aura of doom sets in over You Only Live Once from the get-go. Hard-boiled Eddie never really believes he will get a fair shake in the outside world, but he tries to make good to please the ever-optimistic Joan. Eddie’s suspicions are confirmed when he is let go from the trucking firm and his chances of having a comfortable life with Joan are shattered. Bad luck follows Eddie at every turn. His meeting with his old gang begins a dark momentum which culminates in the spectacularly-staged armored truck heist.
Even though Eddie is innocent of the crime, Lang and cinematographer Leon Shamroy make fantastic use of an Expressionistic one-shot in his jail cell to show the young man cannot escape his past. On Death Row Eddie, like Joe Wilson, decides to take matters into his own hands. But since the law never did anything for him in the first place, Eddie has no interest in overturning his conviction. He tries to break free and take Joan to a place where suspicious eyes won’t follow their every step. But as Father Dolan’s words at the fade out suggest, the lovers will only find happiness in a world beyond this one.
Fury scenarist Norman Krasna approached Lang about directing his next project You and Me, a sort-of romantic comedy about two parolees trying to find romance and peace of mind while working in a department store. Once again, the charming Sylvia Sidney would play the female lead and George Raft is the dapper ex-con who woos and wins her.
Helen (Sidney) keeps her past a secret from Joe Dennis (Raft) and avoids telling her parole officer (Willard Robertson) about her marriage to Joe because it would violate her parole. Joe’s old inmate friends decide to hold up the department store and when he is reticent to join them they give up Helen’s secret. Bitter, Joe breaks his gang into the store on Christmas Eve only to be met by a band of armed security guards and the owner Mr. Morris (Harry Carey), who was tipped off by Helen. Helen then gives the thugs a schoolroom demonstration on how crime doesn’t pay.
Although the premise of a struggling young couple trying to get ahead covers familiar ground for Lang, the Teutonic director never sets a proper tone for light, romantic comedy. The awkward film is further burdened by the presence of some arty songs by Kurt Weill, a composer who had already tread underworld streets to a much better effect in his musical masterpiece The Threepenny Opera. In these early American films, Lang finds a curious niche as a social crusader, which fell in with the progressive New Deal thinking of the time. But Depression-era audiences weren’t buying Lang’s high-minded product, so the immigrant director would have to re-invent himself.
In 1940 Lang signed on at 20th Century Fox, a studio run by a former writer (Darryl Zanuck) who prided himself on working with A-list directors (John Ford, Otto Preminger, Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, etc.). Zanuck proved to be meddlesome, but he did give Lang an opportunity to make a Western, a genre he had loved since a child. At first glance, Lang’s first project The Return of Frank James was just a B-picture made to cash in on its colorful, populist predecessor Jesse James (Henry King) starring Tyrone Power. Henry Fonda is fine as the honorable outlaw brother who tries to track down the men who shot Jesse in the back, the Ford brothers. His sidekick is the teenage farmhand Clem (the annoying Jackie Cooper), who mischievousness keeps Frank from wreaking his deadly revenge. The pretty cub newspaper reporter Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) plays on Frank’s conscience to give up his quest and return to Kansas City to save his elderly black field hand Pinky (Ernest Whitman) from a date with the noose.
It’s all historical hogwash, but pretty entertaining nonetheless. Filmed in lovely, muted Technicolor by George Barnes, Lang relished shooting several extended sequences in the great outdoors—very unusual for a director who preferred to keep screen accidents to a minimum. Frank’s murderous trek through the mountainous ridges anticipates a style perfected a decade later by that great western director of verticality, Anthony Mann.
Lang’s follow-up western, Western Union, was a brawny sort of saga usually best told by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille or Henry Hathaway. Dean Jagger plays Edward Creighton, an engineer for the fledgling telegraph company who hires gunslinger Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) to help him against a band of renegade Indians led by some unscrupulous whites. After the Indian raids begin to deplete the company of much needed cattle, Shaw is finally forced to confront the brains behind the treachery, his brother Jack Slade (Barton MacLane). Outside of a carefully crafted and quite brutal showdown, there’s very little in Western Union to distinguish it as a Fritz Lang film. Yet, the film is good fun and like The Return of Frank James it made considerable money establishing Lang as a bankable Hollywood director. For his next project at Fox Zanuck would give Lang a property more in line with his talent.
Based on a serial novel (Rogue Male) by Geoffrey Household, Man Hunt is a Buchan-esque adventure thriller following the exploits of Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pigeon), a British sportsman who dares to take aim at the biggest prize of all, Adolph Hitler. While vacationing in Bavaria, Thorndike crawls into a secluded spot near the Fuhrer’s chateau and sets the madman in his sights. He hits the bulls-eye on Hitler, but, alas, his rifle is not loaded. On a whim, he puts a bullet in the gun and takes aim, once again. Suddenly, he is rushed then subdued by a German soldier. Thorndike is interrogated by the Nazi Quive-Smith (George Sanders), who wants him to sign a document saying he was sent by the British government to assassinate Hitler. When Thorndike refuses he is tortured then pushed off a cliff, seemingly left for dead.
The hunter escapes on a Danish ship to London where he is still pursued by the Nazis. With the help of streetwalker Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett) he escapes to his brother the Lord Gerald Risborough’s house. Thorndike tries to pay Jerry off, but he finds the smitten young woman extremely useful in eluding an ominous hit man (John Carradine) sent to follow him through the foggy streets of London. The sportsman is finally cornered in a cave where he devises a makeshift bow and arrow for his final confrontation with the armed and dangerous Quive-Smith.
For Manhunt Lang is clearly on top of his game from the thrillingly staged opening sequence to the light and rather affectionate scenes between Pigeon and the fetching Joan Bennett. The performers bring a sort of Hitchcockian buoyancy to the narrative. All this foreign intrigue is a bit of sport, as Thorndike suggests early on to the admiring Quive-Smith. But, this aristocratic mindset is a façade to the Langian darkness lurking in the torture chamber of the Nazis, around the dark alleyways of London, and even the claustrophobic cave where Thorndike’s intentions towards Quive-Smith are very bloody, indeed.
The independently financed Hangmen Also Die turned out to be the only true collaboration between Lang and the legendary playwright Berthold Brecht. Struggling to make ends meet in the German community in Los Angeles, Brecht gladly took Lang up on his offer to pen the very contemporary story of the people of Prague who refuse to give up the assassins of Czech Reichsprotector, the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich. After Heydrich is killed, the Nazis enforce martial law over Prague and round up political prisoners whom they intend to execute systematically until the assassin is handed over.
That night, the Novotny family takes in a mysterious stranger Karl Vanek (Brian Donleavy) who they secretly suspect could be the killer. When the head of the house, Professor Steven Novotny (Walter Brennan) is arrested his daughter Nasha (Anna Lee) is ready to go to the Gestapo to turn in Varek, who in reality is a respected pillor of the community, Dr. Svoboda. The executions commence and while the locals clam-up about the identity of the assassin, Svoboda is ready to turn himself in to save the city further carnage. Anna is finally forced to see the light when she visits her condemned father who urges her to keep quiet. The finger of blame is finally turned toward the rich merchant Czaka (Gene Lockhart) and his subsequent murder closes the books on the terrible saga.
Very much unlike Lang’s early American efforts the public (or mob) in Hangmen Also Die is seen as decent, honorable and only intolerant towards those who look out for themselves. How much of this idealistic input can be credited to Brecht is hard to discern since owing to mutual antipathy he and Lang parted ways early in the production. Though overlong and threaded with too many subplots and characters Hangmen Also Die unreels with a grit and honesty rarely seen in Hollywood films made about the war.
Lang would remain consumed with the European war theater for the next few years. Based on a novel by Graham Greene, Ministry of Fear is a top-rate spy thriller about a man who knows too much yet, in realty, he knows very little. Having spent the last two years in an asylum for assisting in the suicide of his terminally ill wife, Stephen Neale re-enters a world at war and stumbles onto an international intrigue. After having won a cake at a benefit for the Ladies of the Free Nations, Neale is assaulted by an agent posing as a blind man on a train. The agent steals the cake but is blown to bits during a fire bombing by the Germans.
When Neale learns he is still being pursued he enlists a drunken P.I. (Erskine Sanford) who leads him to the jolly heads of the charitable institution. Austrian refugees Carla and Wille Hilfe (Marjorie Reynolds) and (Carl Esmond) try to help Neale find a fortune teller who set him up with the cake at the fair, but at an ensuing séance at the woman’s apartment he only recognizes the man (Dan Duryea) who was intended to get the cake in the first place. When the man is shot to death, Neale is accused of the murder. Wille helps Neale escape then the smitten Carla teams up with the would-be fugitive to catch her double agent brother and crack a Nazi ring of spies.
As was the case with Manhunt, Lang managed to inject humor into his leading man’s harrowing adventures in Ministry of Fear, giving the inevitable confrontations and violence all the more impact. Even the good-natured Carla gets her whacks in by shooting brother Wille in an exceptionally chilly (and visually stunning) scene. A purported hater of all things Hitchcock, Greene reportedly loathed Lang’s entertaining film which is not surprising considering it resembles any number of thrillers made by the portly master of suspense.
Lang’s final film in his war quartet Cloak and Dagger opens with Midwestern college professor and nuclear physicist Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper!) being hired by the OSS to track down an important scientist hiding in Switzerland from the Nazis. As the Germans are close to having means to develop their own A-bomb, Jesper’s plight is a desperate one. But, the scientist dies without spilling the goods, so Jesper turns to guerrillas in the Italian Underground for help in delivering a second physicist to safety.
Co-written on the fly by Ring Lardner Jr. and Albert Maltz (two future members of the infamous “Hollywood Ten”) Cloak and Dagger has a piecemeal quality that can be maddening. But, side the pairing of the boyish Cooper with lovely guerrilla girl Lili Palmer creates some very real sexual tension (especially in the scene where they masquerade as husband and wife to fool collaborating locals) and the quirky supporting cast helps override its very implausible situations. Lang never had much affection for Cloak and Dagger, this director is comfortable with this sort of bewildering, multi-threaded material and was very capable of crafting such pulpy stuff into breathtaking nail-biters.
The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, Lang’s psychological noirs starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, represent the pinnacle of the director’s work in the 1940s. In the screen persona of Robinson Lang found his alter ego; a middle-aged man comfortable in his career, hobbies and intellectual pursuits, yet still able to be tempted by a sultry damsel in distress. It is believed Lang may well have had an affair with Bennett at this time which could well have inspired her saucy performances in both of these films.
Based on a novel by J.H. Wallis and a screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, The Woman in the Window finds Robinson playing “assistant” college Professor Richard Wanley left to spend the summer in steamy Manhattan while his wife and children flee to Maine. Richard spends his evenings at a local men’s club where he smokes cigars and has intellectual discussions with his friends Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon) and District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey). The men comment on a painting of a beautiful woman in the art gallery next door and come to the conclusion it would be pure folly for any of them to enter into a relationship with a younger woman.
Richard nods off then heads home early for he has a lecture the next morning. Outside the art gallery he meets Alice Reed (Bennett), the subject of the painting and the pair strikes up a friendship over coffee. She invites him back to her flat where they are soon surprised by Alice’s lover Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft) who pummels at Richard in a life and death struggle. Alice slips Richard a pair of scissors and the professor stabs the burly man in the back. Richard and Alice make a pact to hide the body and never see each other again. Richard manages to dump the corpse off upstate but he leaves a string of damning clues behind. Through his friend Frank Lolor’s investigation Richard learns Mazard was a shady promoter who made enemies easily.
Meanwhile, Alice is being blackmailed by Mazard’s bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea) who is sure she did away with his boss. Desperate, she contacts Richard who decides they must kill Heidt or else spend the rest of their lives paying off the blackmailer. When Alice meets Heidt she tries to seduce him with a poisonous drink but he sees through her ruse and demands more money. When Alice informs Richard of her failure, the despairing professor takes the poison. As fate would have it, Heidt dies in a shootout and the cops find Mazard’s missing watch on him. Richard would seem to be exonerated just as his life is slipping away.
Fearing audiences and the censors would reject such a morally challenged story, producer Nunnally Johnson had Lang tack on a controversial happy ending which, in retrospect, contained enough dark irony to not completely insult the viewer. Lang and his favorite American cinematographer Milton Krasner recreate a dark and rainy Gotham where even cozy indoor environments could be potential hotbeds of vice. Initially, Richard Wanley seems in over his head as a criminal but the meek intellectual warms to his strange predicament and soon the hardened professor seems to almost relish outwitting and outplaying both Lolor and Heidt. Only when Richard’s luck runs out does he resort to a shameful suicide.
Lang, Bennett and her husband Walter Wanger formed Diana Productions the next year and their first effort Scarlet Street turned out to be a masterpiece. Based on the novel La Chienne (The Bitch) by Georges de La Fouchardiere and previously made into a film by Jean Renoir in 1931, screenwriter Dudley Nichols transformed the Parisian setting to Greenwich Village but kept the tawdry storyline intact. Here, Robinson plays Christopher Cross a henpecked cashier who stops a man from beating a woman in a downtown street. Chris and the woman, Kitty March (Bennett), reconvene at a bar where he tries to impress her by mentioning he is a painter. Kitty waits impatiently for her assailer, Johnny (Dan Duryea), to return and when he does she lets it slip her savior is a successful artist. Johnny decides Kitty should shake Chris down, so she applies her feminine wiles on the smitten cashier to get set up in an expensive apartment which he finances by embezzling from his employer.
Meanwhile, Chris’ shrewish wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan) demands he get rid of all the paintings cluttering their Brooklyn apartment, so Kitty’s new abode will serve as his art studio as well. When Johnny looks to make some quick cash he tries to sell some of Chris’ work to local street vendors, but when they don’t recognize the hand of the esteemed artist, the hood becomes suspicious. As fate would have it, a major art dealer ends up buying Chris’ paintings from a street vendor and the two men track Johnny down to Kitty’s apartment. Johnny claims Kitty is the actual artist and she becomes an overnight success.
Meanwhile, Adele’s former husband appears and tries to blackmail Chris, but the clever cashier lures the drunk to his wife’s bedchamber where they will have an ugly reconciliation. Freed from Adele, Chris rushes to Kitty’s apartment only to find her in Johnny’s arms. She mocks Chris and in a blaze of fury he stabs her to death. Chris keeps quiet when Johnny is arrested for the crime and sentenced to death. After Kitty’s lover is electrocuted, the tormented Chris tries and fails to hang himself. His life takes a pathetic turn and he spends his nights sleeping on park benches and his days stumbling into police precincts confessing, unsuccessfully, to his crime.
Fate plays a huge role in Lang’s grim fable. Chris and his castrated co-workers watch in envy as their rich boss runs around with a beautiful young woman half his age. Chris’ only friend is so defeated by life he says he doesn’t know what to do with himself on his day off. Chris is trapped in a loveless marriage, living in the shadow of Adele’s former husband who died a hero. Chris thinks he finds true love with Kitty, but she can’t stand the sight of him. He is denied reaping the critical praise and financial dividends from his paintings, Adele even goes so far to accuse him of ripping off that great artist Kitty March. Finally, Chris isn’t even allowed to alleviate his guilt by confessing his crimes. The cops turn the unsightly bum out of public parks and move him along the dark side streets of Manhattan where Chris seems destined to die, alone, in the gutter.
Lang’s second Diana production Secret Beyond the Door found Bennett playing the victim to a mysterious architect with a murderous hobby. After marrying a handsome stranger while on vacation on Mexico Celia Lamphere (Bennett) gets a chilly reception when she moves into her new husband’s home. While Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave) remains charming and ingratiating his son from a previous marriage is high-strung and difficult and the boy’s servant Miss Robey (Barbara O’Neill) is just plain weird in a Mrs. Danvers sort of way. Celia then learns Mark is nearly broke and supports the family by giving tours of rooms in their mansion where historical murders were committed.
Clearly patterned after Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Secret Beyond the Door suffers from both the lack of clear criminal motivation on Mark Lamphere’s part (Redgrave looks lost for the most part) and a short-lived fad for psychoanalytical cinema. Bennett’s endless voiceover sounds like a confession from the couch that tries to thread together the confused plot. The film’s dismal performance at the box office put ends to both Diana and Lang’s collaboration with his favorite feminine muse (Bennett). Due to Lang’s leftist politics he would be hounded by HUAC during the late 1940s and early 1950s and had a difficult time finding work. When he did get a chance to direct it was usually B-pictures or similarly budgeted films for Poverty Row studios.
The gothic noir The House By the River was such a film and it is to Lang’s great credit it turned out to be a memorable work of art. When charming wastrel Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) attempts to rape then murders a pretty servant girl he begs his loyal brother John (Lee Bowman) to help him cover up the crime. Though John already suffers from a handicap he manages to dump the body in the nearby river. A longtime failure in the literary world, Stephen uses the notoriety of the missing girl to promote his latest book much to the horror of his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) and John. When the body is discovered floating in the river, one of John’s servants jealously pins the crime on her employer. Happy to rid himself of John’s sanctimonious bleating, Stephen is content to let his brother go to jail for his crime. In the end Stephen is tripped up by his enormous id, leaving John free to marry his evil brother’s long-suffering wife.
Taking time out from starring in a series of light swashbucklers Hayward turns in a remarkable performance as the monstrous Byrne whose selfishness knows no ends. Resenting John’s goodness, Stephen makes him a co-conspirator in crime thus dragging him down from his ivory tower. Stephen also has little use for the clear as driven snow personality of Marjorie and clearly prefers the earthy sexuality of the blonde maid he aims to seduce. By showing just how close the rotten Stephen comes to getting away with his schemes, Lang once again hammers home the vindictiveness of human nature.
After mailing in his direction for the impersonal Tyrone Power WWII flick American Guerrilla In The Philippines, Lang finally got a chance to make the western of his dreams in the revenge saga Rancho Notorious. Based on a story by his ex-girlfriend Silvia Richards and a stellar screenplay by Daniel Taradash, the story follows the odyssey of Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy), a law-abiding cowboy driven to deliver justice to the bandits who raped and murdered his fiancée. His trail leads him to Chuck-A-Luck, a hidden casino-ranch run by Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), a former good time girl and saloon singer. Vern learns the ranch is also a sanctuary to many wanted criminals and he surmises the men he is looking for reside within its walls. Vern strikes up an uneasy friendship with Altar’s lover Frenchy Fairmount (Mel Ferrer) then determines the killer of his fiancée is a gunslinger named Kinch (Lloyd Gough), who he captures and turns over to the sheriff. Kinch’s gang rustles him out of jail leading to a shoot-out in which Altar takes a fatal bullet.
Vern Haskell is another Langian anti-hero who takes the law into his own hands to get the sort of satisfaction the law can’t provide. Even as he becomes consumed by hatred, Vern can’t help but be seduced by the amoral and fascinating Altar, who uses her charm and sensuality to run her crime empire. The hardboiled Rancho Notorious—a moniker courtesy of RKO studio head Howard Hughes—was instrumental in kicking off a series of psychological westerns including Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma, which helped turn the genre on its ear.
Loosely based on a minor play by Clifford Odets, Clash By Night would turn out to be a bit of a disappointment considering the talent involved. After spending difficult ten years out east, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home to Monterrey, California to find a chilly reception awaiting her from younger brother Joe (Keith Andes). She manages to impress local fisherman Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas) who enters into a courtship with Mae. He introduces her to his crude but handsome friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan) who recognizes Mae as a kindred spirit and sets out to steal her from Jerry. Looking to settle down with a good guy, Mae marries Jerry, but even the arrival of a baby can’t still her restlessness. She begins to see Earl on the side and the two plan to run away together until Jerry makes an appeal to his wife’s motherly conscience.
Devoid of a storytelling structure Clash by Night ends up being something of an unpleasant character study, but the gritty film remains memorable for the striking location cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca, strong performances from both Stanwyck and Ryan and a breakthrough star turn by Marilyn Monroe as Joe Doyle’s working class girlfriend Peggy. By 1952 Lang’s career as a Hollywood filmmaker seemed on the descent, but he would make a miraculous recovery in the coming years to close out this period with a bang.
Lang returned to Warner Brothers to make The Blue Gardenia, a murder mystery with a twist starring Anne Baxter, an actress the director admired. Based on a story by Vera Caspary (Laura) Baxter plays Norah Larkin, a telephone operator spurned by her soldier boyfriend. On the rebound, the vulnerable Norah accepts a dinner date with the horny fashion artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). Harry gets Norah drunk and takes her back to his bachelor pad where he attempts to seduce her. The inebriated Norah makes a grab at a fireplace poker and Harry ends up knocked out on the floor.
The next day Norah learns Harry is dead and fears she is the murderess. But, with the police investigation going nowhere newspaper reporter Casey Mayo (Richard Conte) uses his influential column to try and contact the mysterious blonde killer. Norah meets with Casey to give herself up, but she is not so sure she can trust this opportunistic member of the media. Though watching Norah struggle with her conscience gets old fast The Blue Gardenia is an agreeable entertainment with flashes of dark wit, especially in Burr’s shamelessly sleazy performance. The shocking finale (where the true murderer comes out the woodwork) seems out of place, but it ends up being the most “Langian” sequence in the film.
Lang continued his tour of the studios, next landing at Columbia to direct The Big Heat for Harry Cohn. Based on a Saturday Evening Post serial by Wiliam P. McGivern, this brutal story of a revenge-minded policeman was right up Lang’s alley. After the suicide of a cop rocks the department, Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called upon to lead the investigation. When he finds the deceased man’s wife Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan) is unwilling to co-operate, Bannion decides to look into her husband’s sordid past. But soon, he and his wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) receive threatening phone calls the cop thinks are linked Bertha and the mob. Bannion confronts local godfather Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) and makes the unwise move of humiliating him in front of his family and bodyguards. When Katie is killed by a bomb intended for him, Bannion assails the Police Commissioner (Howard Wendall) for not cracking down on Lagana’s mob sooner.
Bannion resigns from the force to conduct his own investigation. He befriends Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame), a moll for Lagana’s hitman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). Shortly after Vince scalds her in a jealous rage, Debby flees to Bannion’s hotel ready to help take down Lagana’s mob. Bannion continues to be frustrated by Bertha Duncan who is blackmailing Lagana. Since his actions are being monitored by sympathetic friends in the department there is little likelihood he’ll get a chance to get his revenge. Since her fortune was tied to her good looks, the disfigured Debby sacrifices herself by shooting Mrs. Duncan, giving the police access to the blackmailer’s file on Lagana. Debby then returns to Vince’s apartment where she scalds him with boiling water before he kills her.
Given his best source material in years, Lang found a surprisingly capable muse in Glenn Ford, whose chilling performance as the embittered cop drives the The Big Heat to its grim conclusion. While Bannion and his wife struggle to make ends meet on a cop’s salary, he can’t help but be bothered by the crime lord living the high life in the respectable part of town. Bannion is also frustrated by his superiors and the police commissioner who seem to be in bed with Lagana. After Katie’s murder, Bannion boils over into a white-hot rage and like other Lang anti-heroes Joe Wilson and Eddie Taylor he loses his sense of humanity in the process. Shot in stark black and white by cinematographer Charles Lang, The Big Heat packs a real wallop.
The same cannot be said about Lang’s next Columbia project Human Desire. The source, La Bete Humaine, Emile Zola’s novel about a railroad engineer who falls in love with an unhappily married woman, had previously been filmed by Jean Renoir in a riveting adaptation starring Jean Gabin and Simone Simon in 1938. In Lang’s film, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame are very good as the ill-fated lovers, but Broderick Crawford turns out to be miscast as Grahame’s brooding cuckold of a husband. And for all of the film’s heavy breathing and pungent violence, the open-ended finale is a disappointing fizzle. Still, this bleak film (shot on location in Alberta) is striking to look at and the sequences where engineer Ford drives his train into dividing and blending tracks are mesmerizingly Expressionistic.
Lang returned to MGM to direct Moonfleet a Technicolor yarn set on the southwest coast of England in the 18th century. Lang relished the opportunity to film this adaptation of J. Meade Faulker’s novel
as is clear from the attention he lavished on the set design inspired by the moody paintings by British artist William Hogarth. The Stevenson-esque story follows the plight of a parentless young boy (Jon Whitely) sent to live with buccaneer Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger). The former lover of the boy’s mother, Fox is none-too-thrilled about this new responsibility so with reservations he indoctrinates young John into his motley crew. Commoner Fox makes a critical error in judgment by entering into a partnership with crooked nobleman Lord Ashwood (George Sanders) who wishes to have his cake and eat it too. Lauded, by French critics as a masterpiece of mis-en-scene, Moonfleet remains a gorgeous, if aloof, adventure story as seen through the eyes of a hardened young boy.
Lang’s final two American projects (made on the cheap for independent producer Bert E. Friedlob) are nasty and fascinating takes on the hard-boiled world of print journalism. While The City Sleeps takes place in the offices of a major New York newspaper. The recent death of the paper’s editor leads its writers to believe there will be a major change in policy where coverage is concerned. Reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) is caught in the middle having to use diplomacy to keep the manipulative son of the editor Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) from seizing control of The Sentinel while covering a serial murder case that’s terrorizing the city. With a supporting cast featuring such boozy and cynical stalwarts as Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders and Ida Lupino tossing off snappy bon mots courtesy of screenwriter Casey Robinson While the City Sleeps couldn’t help but be one of Lang’s more urbane efforts.
Beyond A Reasonable Doubt is noticeably darker, harking back to the bleak days of Fury and You Only Live Once. In an effort to quell the pro-death penalty policy of the local district attorney, newspaper editor Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) convinces crack reporter Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) to take the rap for the unsolved murder of a burlesque dancer. The men set up a circumstantial case against Garrett and record their efforts on photographs to be revealed if Tom gets sentenced to die in the electric chair.
As part of the guise Garrett begins to date dancer Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols) to the shock of Spencer’s daughter and Tom’s fiancée Susan (Joan Fontaine), who isn’t in on the secret. When the fixed evidence tips cops off to Garrett, he is arrested and goes on trial for murder. Tom is convicted but on the day of his sentencing Spencer is killed in an automobile accident and the “evidence” goes up in flames. Susan uses the newspaper’s influence to help overturn Garrett’s conviction, but he makes a fatal slip-up to his former girlfriend proving he actually was the murderer.
Where the witty While the City Sleeps tends to take the high road in its depiction of the media, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt unfolds like a trashy tabloid and it’s difficult not to get wrapped up in its lurid web of deceit. Andrews brings his history of weary noir baggage to the show and while the shock ending concerning his guilt is something of a stretch, it’s not a leap. While there is a certain, regrettable lack of care in the filmmaking (the budget was tiny and Lang was said to be bored by the project), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt still packs a devastating punch.
Now approaching seventy Lang was receiving fewer offers to direct in Hollywood. He had always longed to make a film in India and his wish was partially granted when German producer Arthur Brauner offered Lang a chance to return to Berlin to remake Joe May’s 1921 classic The Tiger of Eschnapur. Based loosely on the original script by Von Harbou and Lang, the project would be split into a two film saga The Tiger from Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb. While some of the footage shot on Berlin soundstages looks tacky and primitive, Lang meticulously scouted locations in India and took advantage of the Technicolor process to film the exotic country in all its magnificent glory.
The pulpy storyline follows the adventures of uber-macho architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubscmid) who wins the affections of a half-caste palace dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) much to the dismay of the jealous Maharishi Chandra (Walter Reyer). After escaping near certain death from the jaws of Chandra’s tiger, Berger flees with the voluptuous Seetha to the unforgiving desert. Their fate seems sealed in sand when an unlikely rescue and an erotic snake-taming dance by Seetha gives them a chance to return to the Maharishi’s palace to witness Chandra’s last stand. Criticized as dated, condescending and kitschy at the time of its release, Lang’s vivid spectacle actually holds up quite well these days, bearing a keen resemblance to future comic book-influenced blockbusters like Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series and Brendan Fraser’s charming Mummy Trilogy.
Lang resurrected his most reliable villain for his final film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. This time Mabuse (Wolfgang Preiss) masquerades as the seemingly benevolent Dr. Jordan and sets up shop behind the scenes at the Hotel Luxor where he schemes to embezzle a fortune from a rich American to fund his crime empire. He also disguises himself as a blind clairvoyant, spinning a web of mystery over his clients, the hotel’s guests, and the police. Ultimately, Mabuse gets tripped up by his own lust for power and an enterprising cop.
Initial notices of the final Mabuse were very bad, mostly due to modest production values and the influence the critically-scorned genre of sci-fi had upon the film. Less ambitious and haunting than the German Mabuse films, the pared-down plot of 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is easy to follow. Lang is very much at ease here, making use of some wry wit to exposes the stupidity of the American and unveiling the madness of the Doctor. This curious film does anticipate the upcoming James Bond series (though it’s likely few on the Broccoli production team ever saw Lang’s sparsely released swan song) and it had a major fan in Jean-Luc Godard who may have modeled his own bleak, futuristic vision (Alphaville) after 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.
Lang received many critical accolades during his long retirement, but to his disappointment his intelligent American thrillers would never be as wholeheartedly embraced by the public as Hitchcock’s were. Both directors were obsessed by outcasts, fetishists, maniacs and the sinister secrets of the criminal mind. But while Hitchcock’s glossy romanticism, reliable box office returns, and pleasant professional demeanor helped him remain an A-list director—Lang’s grim fatalism and Teutonic temperament on the set relegated him to second rate projects at Poverty Row studios. It was a very Langian fate.
Books on Lang:
Fritz Lang- The Nature of the Beast – Patrick McGilligan ****1/2 McGilligan, perhaps our finest film biographer, fleshes out some truly sordid rumors and carefully guarded secrets that tend to vilify old Fritz. Nevertheless, the author’s perceptive insights on Lang’s behavior and craft make for a fascinating portrait of a tortured individual and gifted artist.
Fritz Lang in America – Peter Bogdanovich ****1/2 Once again, Bogdanovich exhibits his golden touch with gruff old director in this seminal book of interviews. The master and novice bounce off each other well providing plenty key filmmaking insights. Reprinted in near entirety in Bogdanovich’s currently unavailable Who the Devil Made It. Out of print.
Fritz Lang: Interviews – Barry Keith Grant (ed.) **** Another fascinating collection of interviews from the University Press of Mississippi reveals the director to be in step with the swinging 1960s. Although a bit repetitive, Lang is elegantly patronizing throughout.
Fritz Lang – Lotte Eisner ***1/2 This earnest, authoritative analysis of Lang’s films, from an author who knew Lang from the 1920s, isn’t as illuminating as her book on Murnau, but it’s packed with plenty of behind the camera revelations. Out of print.
The Films of Fritz Lang – Frederick W. Ott *** This long out of print coffee table book heavily emphasizes Lang’s German career. Chalk full of excellent still photos and the text is mildly informative.
Films by Lang:
1919-20 Die Spinnen ****
1919 Hara-kiri ***1/2
1920 Das Wandernde Bild ***1/2
1921 Vier um die Frau ***1/2
1921 Der Mude Tod ****
1922 Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler ****
1924 Die Niebelungen ****
1926 Metropolis ****
1928 Spione ****
1929 Frau Im Mond ***1/2
1931 M ****1/2
1932 Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse ****
1933 Lilliom ****
1936 Fury ****1/2
1937 You Only Live Once ****1/2
1938 You and Me ***1/2
1940 The Return of Frank James ***1/2
1941 Western Union ***1/2
1941 Manhunt ****1/2
1943 Hangmen Also Die ***1/2
1944 Ministry of Fear ****
1944 Woman in the Window ****1/2
1945 Scarlet Street *****
1946 Cloak and Dagger ****
1948 The Secret Beyond the Door ***1/2
1950 The House By the River ****
1950 An American Guerilla in the Philippines ***1/2
1952 Rancho Notorious ****1/2
1952 Clash by Night ****
1953 Blue Gardenia ****
1953 The Big Heat *****
1954 Human Desire ***1/2
1955 Moonfleet ***1/2
1956 While the City Sleeps ****
1956 Beyond a Reasonable Doubt ****
1959 The Tiger From Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb ****
1960 The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse ****