For 2016’s Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, I elected to write on Fritz Lang, as an example of foreign influence on classic Hollywood cinema. A vital, innovative writer and director in Germany (born in Austria) beginning with his first efforts in 1917, the Jewish man raised as a Catholic who fled Nazi Germany upon Hitler’s takeover is best known to Americans for his expressionistic Weimar masterpieces and his subsequent prolific, if necessarily less artistic, work in Hollywood. The following paragraphs will introduce (or reintroduce) some of Lang’s most innovative and important pictures with particular attention to the development of film noir.
The silent science fiction masterpiece Metropolis is for many contemporary Americans the best or only remembered Lang film. With its tale of the proletariat, inspired to rebellion by a mad scientist and his femme fatale robot and saved by the privileged class, the picture is remarkable for its mise en scene, its effects, and its cinematography.
While most famous, I find Lang’s M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1931) even more powerful. Less stylistically grand, these films both offer more fully developed characters, compelling plots, and disturbing messages.
M is the tale of a child serial murderer, played with compelling intensity by Peter Lorre. Our protagonist is caught not by the police but by the criminal class who wishes to rid itself of the extra police scrutiny they face because of the murderer’s actions. The terror faced by mothers and children and the panic in the city is paralleled by the greedy selfishness of the criminals, who come together to form a tribunal reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. They put the criminal on trial, and we learn the anguish of the murderer, who hears voices he cannot silence unless he is murdering a child. He begs for understanding, arguing himself a victim, too.
With few words until its climax, M is a powerful film, the first to take up the point of view of a serial killer.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
For those who study Lang as a film noir director, there is a final picture he made before leaving Germany that is perhaps his most powerful: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). A tale of corrupt power and psychic possession that grips the viewer and doesn’t let go, Testament is the third in a trilogy of German-made films about a brilliant criminal gambler. The 1933 production was not released in Germany, most obviously because reaches furthest in its cultural critique, a message about absolute power that the Nazis couldn’t abide. It’s a tightly written proto-noir tale with horror and police procedural elements, too, entirely creepy and totally riveting as we watch the seemingly unstoppable Mabuse as he plots to take over the world while we unravel the clues that will solve the central mystery of how a man can retain his power and influence even after death.
Lang fled Nazi Germany to stay a short time in Paris, and then came to the US, where he signed with MGM and began the effort of matching his artistic visions with Hollywood economic realities. His devotion to a combination of expressionism and realism was severely tamed by small budgets and a focus on box office success. But Lang adapted well and quickly. Paring his style down to its most essential elements, Lang made 23 features over a 20-year period, including many that would inspire and come to define the film noir style.
Lang’s first film in the states was Fury for MGM, a tale of an innocent man who is nearly lynched, and then seeks revenge, starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sydney. An engaging and popular film at the time, it nonetheless suffers from a typically Hollywood issue: Lang was forced Lang to tack on a reconciliation between Tracy’s character and his girlfriend at the end. Nonetheless, it won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story and was selected for the National Film Registry.
Man Hunt (1941)
The first of several anti-Nazi films and a thriller with noir overtones, Man Hunt stars Walter Pidgeon, George Sanders, and the woman who would come to be Lang’s main noir leading lady, Joan Bennett. Set just prior to WWII and dealing with an American accused of attempted murder of Hitler, the film’s portrayal of Germans as evil brought the ire of Joseph Breen of the Hays Office. Breen called it a “hate film,” and prefered to see some indicators of good non-Nazi Germans to balance the picture. He ultimately demanded that the film be edited to only suggest rather than show Nazi brutality, weakening the impact in typical Hollywood fashion of the era.
Hangmen Also Die! (1943)
Loosely based on the 1942 assassination of Reich Protector of German-occupied Prague, Reinhard Heydrich, aka “The Hangman of Prague,” Hangmen Also Die! is another anti-Nazi picture made after America entered the war. It stars Brian Donlevy and features elements of film noir style. Some of the dialogue is over the top, but with Lang at the helm and Bertolt Brecht writing, there’s some serious punch to this film, particularly the strong role for the female character (Anna Lee) and the unremitting willingness to show Nazi mass murders (not graphic, just evident).
Ministry of Fear (1944)
Ministry of Fear begins Lang’s noir focus on the innocent everyman whose life is muddled by fate…and the evil-doings of others. Ray Milland stars as a man just released from a mental asylum who finds himself caught up in an international spy ring and pursued by foreign agents. The protagonist of the Graham Greene novel on which the film is based is the cold-blooded murderer of his wife; by contrast, in the Lang film, the death is a mercy killing, a loving assisted suicide, and our hero has no guilt whatsoever. The film also omits all scenes in the private mental institution, although we eventually learn of its role in the Nazi ring. And there is a happy ending, of course. Again, the heart of Hollywood compromise is evident throughout the picture.
Woman in the Window (1944)
Often discussed as the most marred of Lang’s noirs, Woman in the Window, features the teaming of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, a trio that would also appear together in Scarlet Street the following year. Both films focus on a dull, middle-aged man who falls prey to criminal predators through attraction to a beautiful young woman. Woman in the Window shows a mid-life crisis in full bloom, featuring an educated man who should arguably know better, yet it isn’t entirely his fault when things go awry as he comes to her rescue. Still, the Hays Office couldn’t keep its nose out, and insisted on a happy ending. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but the forced denouement elicits a loud groan from most viewers.
Scarlet Street (1945)
Much stronger, in my opinion, is Scarlet Street, in which Robinson’s middle-class protagonist is so stifled in his creativity, so “henpecked” by his wife, and so incredibly naive about women generally, that we can see his doom from the moment he meets Bennett’s Kitty, freshly thrown to the ground by her abusive boyfriend Johnny (Duryea) and sporting her symbolic clear plastic raincoat. At Johnny’s encouragement, Kitty is to take Robinson — whom the two assume is wealthy — for everything he’s got. Even after he puts her up in an apartment, however, she won’t give out more than a peck on the cheek — although she does allow him to paint her toenails in an infamously gorgeous moment. But once he knows he’s been misused and his pretty Kitty laughs at him as raucously as his abusive wife, he avenges himself. This leads to a delicious ending I won’t spoil for the uninitiated.
(I have to confess I was saddened to learn that Robinson didn’t enjoy performing in either film. Guess he prefered playing tough guys.)
House by the River (1950)
I only saw this film recently, and was surprised I’d never heard nor read about it. A wicked little gothic Victorian-era noir, the film stars Louis Hayward as the slimiest character I’ve seen in many a film. An accidental murder by our unscrupulous novelist protagonist leads him to deceit and manipulation that fuels both his writing career and his downfall. The heavy-handedness of the plot put critics off at its release, but I enjoyed it — although I wasn’t much thrilled with the casting of a rather flat Jane Wyatt as Hayward’s wife or Lee Bowman as his brother.
Clash by Night (1952)
Clash by Night brought Lang together with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan, as well as Paul Douglas and Marilyn Monroe. The film is a minor thriller based on a play by Clifford Odets that originally starred Tallulah Bankhead. Somewhat stagey, the film nonetheless features fiery performances by its leads. A bit torrid and not as memorable as other Lang films, it nonetheless continued his penchant for noir.
The Big Heat (1953)
Lauded as Lang’s best noir, The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame in a tale of a cop who takes on the crime syndicate that controls his city. For me, it’s most impressive and unique in featuring a femme fatale (Grahame) who earns viewer sympathy after she is scarred by her criminal boyfriend (Lee Marvin) and finds redemption. As one critic has noted, it is Ford who indirectly brings pain and death to the film’s women, not the women themselves. I also love that “Put the Blame on Mame” is played in a bar scene, alluding to Gilda, in which Ford also starred as a man who does a woman wrong and blamed her.
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
While the City Sleeps (1956)
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
Lang’s final trilogy of “newspaper” noirs leave me somewhat cold, I confess, though this is typical of noirs of the era. The films emphasize typical noir themes of power and violence while emphasizing the specific role of the media. They feature some fabulous stars despite arguably lukewarm results: Anne Baxter, Richard Conte, Ann Sothern, Raymond Burr (Blue Gardenia); Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Vincent Price (While the City Sleeps); and Dana Andrews again with Joan Fontaine (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). Much had already been said and done in Hollywood noir by this time, and Lang simply continued the trend rather than truly breaking new ground in these pictures. Still, all are enjoyable despite their faults, and they illustrate well the link between Lang and the production of the original noir cycle in 40s and 50s Hollywood. We see the quick rise of the style and its massive appeal followed a decade later by a slow, sputtering decline.
Ultimately, Lang is a man who sought above all to make movies, like many a native and emigre director of the Hollywood studio system, and he did so — with a number of compelling hits as well as fan and cult favorites. While he had to compromise artistically and politically once he came to America, he escaped Nazi Germany to become in many ways the father of film noir. Now go watch some Lang!