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Fury

I’ll give them a chance that they didn’t give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They will have a legal judge and a legal defense. They will get a legal sentence and a legal death.

The 1930s arguably represent the true golden age of Hollywood. Cinema had emerged from its infancy and stood virtually unchallenged as the premier entertainment medium. The decade conjures up a host of cinematic images: the musicals of Busby Berkeley and Astaire & Rogers, the Gothic nightmares of James Whale, the screwball comedies and the sophistication of Lubitsch, the swashbucklers of Curtiz & Flynn, and so on. But there was something else there too, something that began to drift in from Europe, gaining momentum as the decade wore on and the ranks of the refugees swelled. They brought with them a darker sensibility, partly rooted in German expressionism, and partly a result of their experiences on a continent slowly sliding into political and social turmoil. The seeds of what would grow into film noir were being planted during these years and, despite only the vaguest shoots being visible at that stage, would finally come to full fruition in the 40s. There can be little doubt that the films of Fritz Lang were a major influence on the growth of this movement, and his first feature in the US, Fury (1936), points the way towards what was to come. However this is no film noir; instead it’s a powerful piece of social commentary, a pitiless probing of the darker and less savory aspects of human nature and, ultimately, a classic morality tale.

The story concerns an ordinary guy, a guy named Joe. In this case it’s Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a man struggling to get along during The Depression. Times may be tough but Joe isn’t without hopes and dreams, mainly centered on his fiancée Katherine (Sylvia Sidney). Joe and Katherine are in love and naturally want to marry, but that takes money. The film opens with their last moments together, strolling along the city sidewalks and musing about their future as they gaze at the unattainable luxuries in the store windows. Joe is sending Katherine west with a view to joining her and settling down once he has made enough money. Time passes, Katherine pines, and Joe and his brothers make enough from their gas station for him to realize his dream. There’s optimism in the air as Joe sets out on the long drive west and Katherine makes plans for his arrival. Yet all this comes to an abrupt end as Joe is flagged down by a slow-witted, shotgun-wielding deputy (Walter Brennan) from a hick town. It’s at this point that the Kafkaesque nightmare that will ultimately draw in all the characters begins to develop. It turns out there’s been a kidnapping and Joe, as a stranger unable to give a satisfactory account of his movements, is pulled in for questioning as a suspect. There’s only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence but he’s held until the DA an arrive. However, the gossipy mentality of the small town soon takes over, and the Chinese whispers that ensue have a snowball effect that sees the local citizenry gradually transformed into an unreasoning and rampaging mob. First they lay siege to the jail, then storm it, set it ablaze and finally dynamite what remains. All the while Joe, an innocent man, is trapped inside and growing increasingly panicked. With the building reduced to rubble, it looks as though Joe has perished. The effects are immediate on all concerned – Kathrine, who arrived just in time to witness the final moments, suffers an emotional breakdown, Joe’s brothers are angry and devastated, while the townsfolk begin to feel the first pangs of collective guilt. However, there’s a sting in the tail. Joe survived the conflagration but has physical and, more importantly, psychological scars that are deep rooted. Stripped of his former sense of fair play, he and his brothers set in motion a plan to achieve what he sees as poetic justice.

The fury of the title can be interpreted on two levels, that of the baying mob outside the jail and also that of the man they think they have burnt alive. In both cases, Fritz Lang captured the build-up to and subsequent manifestation of this fury perfectly. The gradual spread of tittle-tattle among the townsfolk is treated in an almost comical fashion at first – the shots of chattering ladies intercut with images of cackling hens – before taking on an ever more menacing character. It all culminates in the wonderfully realized assault on the jail by the frenzied mob. Lang uses montage and lighting to great effect here, cutting rapidly between the faces of the citizens, joyously looking on with an almost religious fervor, and the alternately despairing and stricken features of Joe and Katherine. In this way Lang provokes a combination of horror, pity and moral outrage in the viewer. What we have witnessed is a great injustice, a perversion of the ideals of civilized society. It’s natural therefore to empathize with Joe and the gut reaction is to take pleasure in seeing this victim turn persecutor. However, the film is a critique of the veneer of respectability and civilization that we adopt both as individuals and as a society. As such, Lang does not take us down a morally bankrupt route, choosing instead to focus on the opportunity for personal and collective redemption. In the end the film’s message is that conscience is the real victor, punishing the guilty more effectively than any court of law and hauling a fundamentally decent man back from the brink at the eleventh hour. Again, Lang uses visuals as much as words to make his point, showing how Joe has cut himself off from humanity and the mental anguish that such actions must inevitably arouse. He cuts a poignant figure as Lang shows him alone and bitter, haunted by the voices in his mind and the images of the condemned which float in and out of his consciousness.

Beyond this the film also has some salient points to make about of the role of the law and ultimately affirms the notion of its being one of our fundamental social pillars. However, Lang first takes its weaknesses to task. The fragility of the law is demonstrated by the way the corrupt tendencies of politicians is instrumental in allowing the situation to spiral out of control in the first place. It is also implied, in the disgruntled and disparaging way the citizens of the town speak about the machinations and trickery of lawyers, that the faith of the ordinary man in the legal system has been shaken to such an extent that respect for the law itself is threatened. As is so often the case, it takes the dispassionate eye of the outsider, the immigrant Lang, to draw attention to both the flaws and strengths inherent in the system. Indeed, the point is reinforced early on when one of the minor characters, an immigrant barber, corrects a local on his misunderstanding of the terms of the constitution – his knowledge and respect for the document arising from his being obliged to learn its contents.

If one were to make a list of the greatest screen actors of all time, then Spencer Tracy would surely have to figure high up. Personally, I reckon there’s a case to be made for placing him right at the top. He was probably the greatest exponent of naturalism on screen, rarely, if ever, allowing the audience to catch him acting. As a result, Tracy brought an earnest believability to the varied roles he took on over the years. As he aged he attained something of a statesmanlike quality, becoming the very epitome of the best elements of the American character. Still, even as a younger man, he had that air of honesty and plainness about him, tempered somewhat by an underlying sense of implacability. In brief, the lead in Fury was an ideal role for Tracy, drawing on both sides of his character. He dominates the movie from beginning to end and takes the transition from down to earth guy to hate-fueled avenger smoothly in his stride. And it’s that transition that lends the film so much of its power; the progression from humble amiability through bewildered terror, and then cruel vindictiveness. His reappearance in the aftermath of the jail burning, like some kind of malignant resurrection, is a shocking moment. Not only has he become hard and driven, but there’s a different cast to his whole physical appearance – not some prosthetic alteration but a subtle shift in posture and body language.

Despite Tracy’s powerhouse performance, top billing in Fury went to Sylvia Sidney. Of course Sidney was a big star at the time, making movies for Lang, Hitchcock and Wyler before seeing her career take a downturn. While she doesn’t make the same impression as Tracy, her role is vital to the development of the story and it’s her influence that keeps her man from going over the edge. Sidney’s greatest asset was her wonderfully expressive features, especially those huge eyes. Lang made good use of this by employing frequent close-ups of her, notably as she looks on in horror at the actions of the mob and then later when a shattering realization dawns upon her. The supporting cast is full of memorable turns from a range of familiar faces. I think Bruce Cabot, Walter Brennan, Edward Ellis and Walter Abel all deserve particular attention though – they all make significant contributions as the loud-mouthed rabble-rouser, the gormless deputy, the sour but conflicted sheriff and the determined DA respectively.

Fury came out on DVD some years ago via Warner Brothers, and it’s very well presented on disc. There is a bit of age related damage on view, but the film looks remarkably fine for its vintage. Lang’s movies were always visual treats and the lighting and use of shadows and contrast were particularly important features. The Warner Brothers DVD represents this aspect very well indeed and viewing the movie is a pleasure. The extra features consist of the theatrical trailer and a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich that includes excerpts from an interview with Fritz Lang. Although Fury is now over 75 years old, the points it makes about society, the law and human nature remain relevant today. That type of timeless quality is a large part of what makes it a classic, but it’s not the whole story. Lang’s striking imagery and Tracy’s unaffected performance are major factors here too. This is one of Lang’s major works, a compelling tale that is emotionally absorbing and also engages the intellect. Definitely recommended.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2013 in 1930s, Fritz Lang, Spencer Tracy

 

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Rancho Notorious

Hate, murder and revenge…

Those three powerful words succinctly describe what Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952) is all about. It’s a curiosity – a western that seems to take pride in overturning genre conventions and defying viewer expectations. It’s also a highly stylized melodrama, bordering on parody in fact, a kind of baroque noir picture dressed up in western garb. Over the years I’ve seen the movie come in for some criticism, largely based on the atmosphere of artificiality or cheapness. Still, that’s a big part of what attracts me to it; the anti-realism of the film gives it a theatrical feel, and heightens the sense of watching a morality piece played out on an elaborate stage.

The plot is a fairly straightforward revenge yarn although, perhaps unsurprisingly with Lang occupying the director’s chair, it’s given a twist to keep it fresh. Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) is an ordinary cowboy who sees his world turned upside down when a couple of outlaws ride into town, raid the assayer’s office where his fiancée works, and rape and murder the girl in the process. Inevitably, Vern wants justice and sets out with the hastily assembled posse to track down the criminals. However, the traumatic event has caused cracks to appear in the apparently mild exterior of this man, and an obsessive streak begins to emerge when the posse refuses to continue what looks like a fruitless pursuit. Having scornfully dismissed his former friends, Vern sets out alone in search of a reckoning. The first third of the film is thus played out in typically noir fashion, as we follow Vern’s painstaking combing of the country for a clue that will lead him to those responsible for the death of his girl. His progress is charted through interviews and flashbacks, as he slowly pieces together the clues and draws ever closer to his quarry. The final piece of the puzzle, or at least the piece that will bring him within striking distance of the murderer, comes when he contrives to have himself thrown in prison with notorious outlaw Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer). Along the way, Vern has learned that the key to the mystery lies with a woman by the name of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) and a place called Chuck-A-Luck. His acquaintance with Frenchy, and his part in making good their jail break, ensures Vern’s smooth entry to the semi-mythical Chuck-A-Luck. This is a ranch, run by Altar, serving as a front for an outlaw refuge where no questions are asked so long as the proprietress is paid 10% of any and all takings. Vern is now in a position to work through a shortlist of possible candidates who may be the murderer. Yet, there is a price to be paid; his initial quest for justice has evolved into a thirst for vengeance and has transformed his character in the process. By the end, the hero has become as violent, manipulative and ruthless as the man he set out to find.

Rancho Notorious was the last of three westerns that Fritz Lang made, and it’s arguably his most interesting. The idea of the ordinary guy overtaken by events and thrown into a world of violence and deceit that’s alien to him is one that can be found throughout Lang’s work. The central theme of how a desire for revenge can twist a formerly decent man and leave him on a par with the criminals he’s pursuing would be further, and more competently, explored when the director returned to it in The Big Heat a year later. Although all of Lang’s westerns contain elements of his trademark noir sensibilities, Rancho Notorious displays them most prominently. I’ve mentioned the use of the flashback in the first half hour of the picture, but the mood and photography all the way through help to cement the fatalistic and pessimistic sense that pervades the movie. One could, I suppose, complain about the overuse of painted backdrops and the ever-present ballad that serves as a stylized voiceover narration for the unfolding plot, but I prefer to see these as tools that Lang used to create his own vision of a dark frontier. The film is less concerned with showing any accurate portrayal of the west than it is with detailing the downward spiral of an essentially good man into a world of corruption and violence.

Marlene Dietrich had already played the archetypical bad saloon girl over a decade before in Destry Rides Again, and her role as Altar Keane comes off as an older but only slightly wiser version of that same character; between these two films she created the template against which all such portrayals would subsequently be judged. Dietrich apparently disliked the film and the reasons for that are detailed in a fine post by Toby at 50 Westerns here. Despite all the discord on the set, she turns in a fine performance as a woman who’s gained a lot of experience but little personal fulfillment. She may well rule the roost at Chuck-A-Luck, but there’s a weary, resigned air about her that indicates happiness has passed her by. Mel Ferrer was an actor I’m generally not that fond of, but I thought the mournful passivity that he possessed was used to good effect here, a nice counterbalance to Arthur Kennedy’s twitchiness. Kennedy wasn’t really a leading man at any point in his career – his best and most memorable work was usually done when he was playing the villainous supporting role – yet that actually makes his casting here more successful. His nondescript, everyman quality is suited to the role of Vern Haskell and he really taps into the obsessive, driven nature of his character as the movie progresses. As an aside, I’ve often seen it stated that Vern falls for Altar after his arrival at Chuck-A-Luck, but I’ve never thought that was the case at all. To me, he’s become so consumed by hate at this stage that he’s incapable of loving anyone and is merely feigning attraction to get nearer to his ultimate goal.

For a long time I had the UK DVD release of Rancho Notorious from Optimum, and it was never particularly satisfying – soft and with washed out colours. The movie then came out in the US as part of the Warner Archive series, sporting an altogether stronger transfer. Since then, I picked up the French release by Films Sans Frontieres which I’m very happy with. It’s a significant improvement on my old Optimum disc and, judging from screencaps, looks very close to the quality of the Archive disc. It’s sharper and more colourful but there’s still some print damage on view. Forced subtitles on the English track are always a concern with French releases but this disc allows them to be disabled via the setup menu. Rancho Notorious isn’t one of Fritz Lang’s better regarded films and tends to be criticised quite a lot. I think this is a little unfair; while it may not be his best work it’s still very entertaining. Much of the problem may come down to a question of expectations, with the film suffering from viewers approaching it with the thought that they will be getting a standard oater. If you accept that you’re in for a piece of high melodrama in a stylized western setting then the movie is unlikely to disappoint.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2012 in 1950s, Fritz Lang, Marlene Dietrich, Westerns

 

House by the River

I know everyone won’t agree but I’ve always felt that film noir works well in a gothic setting, where the atmosphere is necessarily thick and crimes (particularly crimes of passion) are a basic ingredient. In addition, the social constraints that govern the characters’ lives and actions help to increase the feeling of pressure, while the ornately forbidding homes where many such stories are played out can be just as menacing in their own way as any rain-slicked urban sidewalk. I think the fact that noir isn’t a real genre is one of its great strengths; this lends it a flexibility allowing theme, mood and look to assume as much importance as time and place. Fritz Lang’s House by the River (1950), dripping in heavy gothic atmosphere, confined for the most part to the titular house, and exploiting the suffocating moral code of its period setting, is most definitely film noir. It’s an interesting and at times visually striking work, but not an entirely successful one. However, I’ll go into the reasons for that later.

Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) is a writer, but not an especially successful one. He is first seen seated outside his riverside home and working on a manuscript. When a neighbour comments on a foul animal carcass that the current has been carrying up and down the waterway for days, he remarks that it’s a similar story with his writing – his publisher keeps returning it. Despite the light tone of these comments, the river, and its tendency to return anything tossed into it, plays a significant (and even vaguely supernatural) part in the plot. While his professional shortcomings only serve to hint at a weakness in Stephen’s character, the sly, lustful glances he steals at his attractive housemaid make that flaw obvious. Taking advantage of his wife’s absence, he decides to try his hand at seducing the help. However, his inadequacies manifest themselves again and he botches the attempt. What’s worse is that in an effort to prevent the girl’s cries from alerting the neighbours to his philandering, he accidentally strangles her. These early scenes inside the opulent yet oppressive home, all carved furniture and flock wallpaper, are particularly well staged and shot; the extreme angles and the high contrast photography conveying a sense of claustrophobic menace and terror. Having his brother John (Lee Bowman) stumble on the killing might appear to be just one more calamity to befall this man. Nevertheless, it turns out to be something of a godsend. John, with his stiff leg and retiring manner, is the polar opposite of Stephen, a kind and considerate man whose sense of civic duty is only exceeded by his loyalty to his brother. So, when Stephen begs for his help in covering up what he claims was merely a tragic miscalculation, John agrees to bail him out. With the body of the unfortunate servant bundled into an old wood sack, the two brothers row out on the river at night and dump the evidence. But it’s from this point on that the story begins to twist and turn like the meandering river and continues to do so until the literal and metaphorical tide brings everything back home. As events unfold, the contrasting characters of the two brothers are thrown into sharp relief, John’s stoicism and honour growing as the crisis deepens while Stephen’s venal and deceitful nature gradually consumes him.

Fritz Lang’s films, by his own admission, all deal with human weakness and the criminal actions that follow. House by the River can be viewed as a meditation on moral weakness and its corrosive effects; murder, the destruction of family relationships, and the final descent into madness. The small central cast and Lang’s moody visuals ensure that the tension is never relaxed yet the film doesn’t quite satisfy. When this happens the finger of blame can often be pointed at the writing or direction. However, that’s not the case here; I can’t fault Lang’s work and the story is logical enough in context, although it has to be said the ending is both abrupt and a little too contrived for my liking. No, the problem as I see it is more of focus and characterization. It’s important for any film to have a lead who’s capable of stirring at least some sympathy or sense of identification with the audience. In House by the River the lead is Louis Hayward’s Stephen, and he is such a vile excuse for a man that it’s quite impossible to empathize in any way. In the comments on an earlier post I mentioned that Louis Hayward has never been a favourite of mine, but that’s not the issue. In all honesty, his playing of Stephen is a good piece of work – he really fleshes out the smarmy, snivelling aspect of the man. As I said, it’s a matter of focus; the story is seen primarily from Stephen’s perspective, and it’s more and more difficult as the film progresses to feel anything other than revulsion at the self-serving way he latches onto every opportunity to gain advantage at the expense of those around him. The only “hero” of the piece, although I’m not sure the word’s entirely appropriate, is Lee Bowman’s John. Even if there’s arguably too much of the martyr about him, he does present a human face, a kind of moral compass amid the depravity. However, John’s suffering at the hands of his brother is pushed for the most part to the background, and although we’re rooting for him it’s Stephen’s scheming that remains front and centre. I ought to mention Jane Wyatt’s role as Stephen’s wife as it’s the only other significant part. She does tap into a sort of soulful and vaguely bewildered vibe, but this is essentially a two-man show and she is mainly left to play the puzzled dupe before transforming into the typical damsel in distress.

Over the years I’ve bought House by the River three times on DVD before finding a copy that I consider acceptable. The US edition from Kino is a weak interlaced transfer while the French disc boasts a far stronger image but has forced subtitles that can’t be switched off easily. However, last year’s release by Sinister Films in Italy is an excellent alternative, looking as though it’s been taken from the same source as the French version. The film has been transferred progressively and the image is sharp and detailed with only very minor print damage. The Italian subtitles are optional and can be turned off via the setup menu. By way of extras, the disc also features a conversation between Lang and William Friedkin focusing on the director’s time in Germany and lasts around 45 minutes – a most welcome addition. There’s also an inlay card that folds out into a miniature reproduction of the original poster art. All in all, this is a movie that I’m quite fond of – I’ve highlighted the reasons why I don’t see it as one of Lang’s best efforts, but there’s still a lot to enjoy and admire. For those who don’t yet have the film, or others dissatisfied with the editions they already own, I recommend checking out the Italian disc.

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2012 in 1950s, Film Noir, Fritz Lang

 

Secret Beyond the Door

In the past I’ve written about a few Freudian thrillers from the 40s, Spellbound and The Dark Mirror for sure. The decade has many examples though as it was such a fashionable subject and seemed to blend effortlessly into the world of film noir. Looked at now, from a modern perspective, the cod psychological mumbo jumbo of these films is fairly risible. However, films are first and foremost an entertainment medium; we don’t watch them to gain, for example, a deeper insight into psychoanalysis. So, when a movie like Secret Beyond the Door (1947) presents us with a dubious scientific explanation for the odd behaviour of its characters it’s not really fair to criticize it too heavily on that score. Fritz Lang’s film really is an exercise in style over substance – the look, feel and mood of the picture is what carries it, not the plausibility (or lack of it) of the story or the questionable motives of the main characters.

The basic premise is a familiar one, various forms having been used over the years in a variety of films. There’s a young woman on vacation who meets a mysterious yet attractive stranger, falls in love, marries and, after a time, discovers that all is not what it initially seemed. The woman in this particular movie is Celia (Joan Bennett), an heiress who’s recently found herself alone in the world and has taken off on a trip to Mexico before returning to the States and settling down to a life of bland respectability. However, Celia is not the usual, run-of-the-mill innocent abroad. Contrary to appearances, there’s a darker, almost perverse, side to her nature that soon becomes apparent. Quite by chance, she witnesses the flare-up of a knife fight between two local men. This isn’t some matter of slighted honour, more a duel of passion; the men are vying for the affections of a woman. Instead of doing the sensible thing and walking away, Celia is rooted to the spot, fascinated by the events before her. The viewer isn’t the only one struck by the hungry, predatory look in Celia’s eyes as she absorbs this primitive ritual – another bystander’s attention is drawn to her. He is Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), an architect of patrician background. To cut to the chase, Celia and Mark fall in love, marry and move back to his out-of-town home in the States. Even before they leave Mexico though, it’s apparent that all isn’t well with Mark; he has a tendency to withdraw from intimacy without explanation. As the couple embark on their new life the skeletons begin to rattle in the family cupboard and, bit by bit, secrets and hints of a dark past start to emerge. Celia’s husband is a deeply troubled man who appears to have a morbid obsession both with historical murders and the rooms in which those crimes took place, while questions linger over the death of his first wife. The true roots of the problem are not immediately obvious but, even so, the new bride slowly comes to suspect that her own life may be in danger.

 

The script calls for a good deal of irrational behaviour on the part of the main characters, enough to sink many a movie. Despite that, the film still works and is pretty successful as a piece of highly strung noir melodrama. This is largely due to the work of director Lang and cameraman Stanley Cortez, between them creating a stylish and stylized visual experience. The opening segment in Mexico has a dreamy, unreal quality that perfectly fits the mood of the lovestruck Celia. As soon as the action switches to the Lamphere estate the look and feel alters too, the uneasy romanticism of the south of the border scenes switches to something more akin to the gothic nightmare that begins to unfold in Celia’s shadowy and threatening new home. It’s this aspect of the film that leads to comparisons being drawn between it and Hitchcock’s Rebecca. On the surface, there are parallels: newlyweds haunted by the spectre of the husband’s murky past, a family home where unwelcome memories seem to lurk in every shadow, and a distinctly odd household. For all that, the two movies are really quite different in essence, chiefly as a result of Joan Bennett’s characterization of Celia. Unlike Joan Fontaine’s second Mrs DeWinter, Joan Bennett is a tougher and more worldly woman. I’ve already mentioned the dark side of Celia that’s apparent from early on, but the perverse side of her character is further developed as the story progresses. A weaker, and maybe a saner, woman would likely hightail it back to the safety of the city when her husband first begins to exhibit signs of serious psychological imbalance. But not Celia; she chooses to stand her ground, whether through raw courage or her own fascination with danger, and stick it out to the bitter end. One of Bennett’s great strengths as an actress, and very likely the reason Lang chose to work with her so often, was her ability to combine feminine allure with the grit necessary to hack it in a grim world. I found Michael Redgrave’s performance much less satisfactory though. My biggest issue was that I never felt entirely convinced by his transition from the cool aristocrat to bug-eyed loon. However, in all fairness, this kind of thing is rarely especially easy to pull off. His best moment occurs in the short fantasy scene where he imagines himself on trial for murder. With a jury of literally faceless men looking on, Redgrave plays both prosecutor and defendant in the ultimate trial of conscience.

For a long time Secret Beyond the Door was one of Lang’s most elusive titles on DVD, at least in an acceptable form. As the rights in the US now appear to reside with LionsGate it’s probably not a good idea to hold your breath waiting for anything to appear from that source. There’s been a French disc available for a while but it suffers from the old problem of forced subtitles. However, last year saw two releases that fit the bill: a budget disc from Italy and a nicely packaged edition from Exposure in the UK. Both seem to use the same transfer for the movie, but the UK release sees more effort put into overall presentation. The movie gets a nice remastered transfer with very good contrast (vital for a film like this) and only the odd speckle here and there. For extras we get an extensive gallery and filmographies. There’s also a 12 page booklet that reproduces the original poster art on the cover and contains three separate articles by David Hughes, James Oliver and Claudette Pyne. In this era of cost-cutting MOD programmes, it’s a credit to a small outfit like Exposure that they have both the will and ability to produce a thoughtful edition like this. Anyone interested in collecting classic movies really ought to consider putting a bit of business their way and support such efforts. This film tends to be glossed over somewhat when Lang’s work is discussed, probably due to the absurdity of certain aspects of the plot, but it’s actually very enjoyable. Joan Bennett gives a good performance in the lead and Lang directs with great skill and style. Anyone who is interested in film noir, Fritz Lang, or just classy 40s movies should have a copy of this in their collection.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2012 in 1940s, Film Noir, Fritz Lang

 

While the City Sleeps

Poster

Crime, betrayal, duplicity and grasping, ruthless ambition. All these are ideal ingredients for any film noir, and when you throw in the hard-bitten and cynical milieu of the newspaperman it serves merely to add a little extra kick to an already potent cocktail. While the City Sleeps (1956) contains all of the above and boasts a cast that’s packed to the rafters with heavy hitters. As if that weren’t enough, it’s directed by a genre specialist whose pre-Hollywood influence on the look and mood of film noir is immense.

The plot involves two parallel stories that slowly converge – the first being an investigation of a serial killer on the loose in New York, and the second a cold appraisal of the backstabbing world of the media. What draws both strands together is the contest engineered by Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) to find a new administrator for his recently inherited media empire. Kyne is a spoiled and idle incompetent who hasn’t a clue how to run the business his father left him. But he’s no fool, and he hits on the idea of playing his top men off against each other with the prize of a newly created executive post up for grabs. Whoever can run down and nail the so-called “Lipstick Killer” will take the honours and the top job. Three men are desperate for this promotion: Mark Loving (George Sanders) – head of the wire service, John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) – editor of the newspaper, and Harry Kritzer (James Craig)  – picture editor. The company’s star TV newscaster, Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), also finds himself roped into this race to find a murderer and thus capture the spoils. The actual investigation of the crime takes a back seat – the audience knows who it is from the pre-credits sequence – and the main thrust is how these media types are prepared to tear each other, the ones they love, and their already slightly tarnished morals apart for the sake of professional advancement. To further complicate matters, the personal relationships of Mobley, Kyne, Loving and Kritzer all become hopelessly entangled as the pressure mounts and the killer remains at large and active. The hunt for the murderer draws to an exciting close in the subway tunnels below the city, but the question of who will walk away with the promotion remains unclear until the very last scene. Along the way, the audience is treated to a marvellous dissection of not only the flexible ethics of journalism, but also the mercenary nature of humanity.

Moralising in the back of a cab - Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews in While the City Sleeps.

After spending twenty years making movies in Hollywood, Fritz Lang was nearing the end of his American career. In terms of look and style While the City Sleeps may seem like a watered down version of his previous noir pictures. However, what it lacks in visuals and budget is made up for in cynicism and sourness. None of the main characters behave in an honourable way either in their private lives or their professional ones. Many newspaper dramas down through the years have used the device of the story being everything, but this time not even that old chestnut holds sway. Everybody marches to the tune of ambition and they’re all ready to go to whatever lengths are necessary to achieve it. Dana Andrews, in between drinks, even sinks so low as to use his own fiancee as bait to smoke the killer out. He is the character the audience is supposed to identify most closely with, being persuaded to take part in the grotesque contest (at least initially) as a favour to a friend. However, he’s a shabby kind of hero who really only redeems himself at the end by finally speaking the truth regardless of the consequences. George Sanders very much conforms to type as the smooth and vaguely caddish wire service boss who knows all the right people but struggles to get to grips with the seedier characters likely to hold the key to this case. Ida Lupino does great work as the gossip columnist and occasional girlfriend of Sanders, who agrees to do his spade work for him. She has some nice scenes with Andrews where they both let their wandering eyes off the leash while simultaneously trying to pump each other for information. In truth, there was far better chemistry between Andrews and Lupino than was the case with Sally Forrest, who played his fairly insipid girl. Vincent Price’s role is all effete indolence without any of the menace that he was capable of conveying. Right up to the end he’s blissfully unaware that his faithless trophy wife, Rhonda Fleming, is carrying on an affair with James Craig’s slippery picture editor. Out of this large ensemble cast, the most sympathetic performance came from Thomas Mitchell – the old school editor/reporter who chomps away on cigars and lacks only the press pass jammed into his hat band. Sure he’s every bit as consumed as the others, but back of those slightly wild eyes there remains a flicker of decency – and it’s him you find yourself really rooting for. The only seriously weak link is provided by John Barrymore Jr as the mother’s boy killer with some major issues. One of the best scenes in the movie – him watching the telecast where Andrews profiles the then unknown murderer in disparaging and insulting terms – is very nearly scuppered by Barrymore’s appalling mugging and overacting.

While the City Sleeps has finally made an appearance on DVD courtesy of Exposure Cinema in the UK. The film is presented in 1.33:1 ratio, and according to the distributors this decision was taken due to the condition of the elements – i.e. the image would have been too soft to matte and blow up for widescreen. It’s an open-matte presentation, the film should have been presented flat 1.85:1 in the US (and probably 2:1 Superscope in Europe), and was clearly protected for possible academy ratio showings. There is plenty of extraneous space top and bottom, which should be apparent from the screencap above, but it’s not seriously distracting. Apart from that, the image is quite clean and pleasing to look at and doesn’t display any major faults. The original trailer is included along with a selection of galleries. All told, the package is a worthy one, and it should be mentioned that while the title is rumoured to be in the pipeline from Warners in the US the chances are it will find it’s home in the Archive. This movie has long been one of my favourite Lang pictures and I’m pleased to have it at last in a worthwhile edition. I’ve heard it said that the film suffers from too much focus on the so-called soapy elements of the story, but I disagree. The real strengths of the film are to be found in those newsroom and bar scenes – the character interaction is what drives everything forward and it would be a poorer piece of cinema without them. I have no problem recommending this one.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1950s, Dana Andrews, Film Noir, Fritz Lang

 

Man Hunt

 

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Popular wisdom holds that when a film is adapted from a novel the original source material is inevitably superior. I’m not sure how true that really is though. I suspect that this maxim has come to be as a result of the disappointment felt by a loyal readership when filmmakers have had to alter the material to make it work on the screen. We all naturally form a mental picture of characters and places when we read about them, but when others place their interpretation in front of us it can be an underwhelming and perplexing experience. Man Hunt (1941) is Fritz Lang’s interpretation of Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male. Since I saw the movie first, many moons ago, and only later read the novel, my own preference is for the film version. In truth, I found the book to be a bit of a letdown – not that it’s actually bad or anything, but just because it lacks Lang’s little stylistic touches and the character interaction that helps the film pack a greater emotional punch.

The movie is basically a chase story which utilises that old chestnut of the hunter becoming the hunted. Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) is a big game hunter of some renown who has grown weary of the traditional prey. In Germany, on the eve of WWII, he finds himself closing in on the “most dangerous game” – man. And not just any man at that. Perched high on a hilltop, he focuses the cross-hairs of his hunting rifle on one Adolf Hitler. With a live round in the chamber, he has only to touch the trigger to forever alter the course of world history. However, for Thorndike this is merely a sporting stalk - an attempt to get close enough to the prey to make the kill itself a purely technical issue, for he has lost his taste for the taking of lives. But fate has other plans for Thorndike; such a simple and unexpected thing as a leaf falling across his telescopic sight causes him to twitch at the wrong moment and thus be discovered by a passing sentry. He is hauled away to be interrogated, tortured and presented with an ultimatum – his life in exchange for a signed confession that he was acting under orders from the British government to effect the assassination of Hitler. Realising the consequences of any such confession, Thorndike refuses and finds himself sentenced to death. Chance, and the natural world, once again comes into play when the faked accident that is supposed to claim his life doesn’t quite come off. From here on Thorndike must run for his life, first to a freighter and then to an England that is positively hiving with Nazi agents and fifth columnists all directed by the suave and sinister Quive-Smith (George Sanders).

Gone to ground - Walter Pidgeon finds his world has become a very small place indeed in Man Hunt

Fritz Lang brought a very noirish atmosphere to what is a fairly standard adventure thriller. The sets that represent London are bathed in deep, dark shadows that promise danger and death for the unwary. He has his hero ruthlessly driven further and further underground, his world shrinking by the minute, until he finally finds himself walled up within the very bowels of the earth. Walter Pidgeon performs well as Thorndike and effortlessly handles the character shift from a man who has achieved a degree of mastery over nature itself to one who becomes desperate, friendless and riddled with guilt. George Sanders made a career out of playing sophisticated and detached villains so the part of Quive-Smith was one he could manage with his eyes closed, but that’s not to take anything away from his performance. Joan Bennett would eventually make three films with Lang, of which Man Hunt was the first. Her role as the prostitute (never explicitly stated but clear enough all the same) who helps Thorndike and falls for him is a large part of what makes the film work, adding much needed humanity and a genuinely touching quality to a very dark tale. John Carradine also deserves a mention for his turn as the cadaverous assassin hounding Thorndike and leading to an excellently filmed confrontation within the London Underground system.

Man Hunt was long absent on DVD until Fox finally released it in R1 last month. The disc is up to the usual high standard from that company, sporting a sharp, clear image with wonderful contrast. There’s a commentary included by Patrick McGilligan along with a short featurette and advertising galleries. The only bad thing to say is that this title looks like it may well be the last classic release we’re going to see from Fox for some time, and that’s all the more galling given the high quality of their product. All told, Man Hunt is a fine film, first rate Lang, and a title that I’m just glad was able to make it out before Fox decided to shut up shop.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1940s, Fritz Lang, Mystery/Thriller

 

The Blue Gardenia

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There are lots of sub-categories within film noir, and one of my favourites is what is sometimes termed nightmare noir. Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953) fits this description by presenting a protagonist whose world gets turned upside down after making one ill-judged decision. This kind of story offers all sorts of opportunities for some of the staple ingredients of noir – paranoia, suspicion, the idea that bad luck is waiting just around the corner, and the fact that the course of one’s life can hinge on something as simple and inocuous as a mix up over a phone call.

Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) is a switchboard operator who leads a fairly humdrum life, sharing an apartment with two other single women and biding her time till her lover comes back from Korea. However, it doesn’t take long for things to start to unravel and for life to hand her the first in a series of unexpected kicks in the teeth. She’s just bought herself a new dress, cooked a special meal, and plans to sit down and share it with her absent G.I. boyfriend. So, with his photo propped in front of her, she opens his latest telegram and starts to read. It’s a brush off, he’s met a nurse, fallen in love and plans to marry her. Norah is naturally distraught and more than a little bitter, so when she takes a call meant for one of her flatmates she makes that one bad decision. On the rebound, she agrees to a date with the slightly sleazy ladies man Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). During the course of dinner Prebble ensures that Norah gets well and truly tanked on cocktails before taking her back to his apartment. When he starts to get a little too friendly, Norah struggles with him but quickly blacks out. On awakening, she finds Prebble dead on the floor, his head smashed in with a poker. Panicking, and with only the haziest of memories of what went before, she flees the scene of the crime but leaves a few clues behind. The rest of the movie involves Norah’s attempts to evade the law, while playing a cat and mouse game with smooth newspaperman Casey Mayo (Richard Conte). The only real problem I had with the film was the fact that the element of doubt doesn’t really work for the viewer. While Norah and the characters around her cannot be sure of her guilt or innocence, it’s fairly clear to us. For this kind of story to work properly it’s preferable if the viewer experiences the same level of uncertainty the lead feels. 

Fear and paranoia - Anne Baxter in The Blue Gardenia.

Anne Baxter takes centre stage as the haunted and hunted Norah, and does a pretty good job of conveying her mounting sense of paranoia and isolation without resorting to histrionics. Richard Conte is reliable as usual in the role of the reporter who has his doubts. Raymond Burr was still at that stage of his career where he seemed to play nothing but heavies, but he did it well and his Harry Prebble has a nice touch of the sinister about him. However, while those three turned in fine performances, the picture really belongs to Ann Sothern. Her sassy turn as Norah’s seen-it-all-before flatmate is the highlight, and she walks away with just about every scene she appears in. Lang’s direction is as classy as one would expect, and the themes involved are right up his street. He seemed to have a thing for artists and reporters, and both play a prominent part here – although his most biting critique of the media, the ascerbic While the City Sleeps was still a few years down the road. There are strong noir credentials throughout the movie with Vera Caspary (Laura) providing the source material and Nicholas Musuraca working his magic behind the camera – the shadowy shots of the deserted newsroom at night being especially atmospheric.

The R1 DVD from Image is generally quite good, although there are a few damage marks here and there. It’s a totally barebones disc but should be available fairly cheap. The Blue Gardenia was originally distributed by Warner Brothers but is thankfully no longer controlled by them – I couldn’t imagine writing that just a few months ago, but this is the kind of film that might well be consigned to the appalling Archive programme now. All in all, it’s a fine noir that I’m happy to recommend.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, Film Noir, Fritz Lang, Richard Conte

 

The Woman in the Window

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In many ways Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) plays like a dress rehearsal for his production of Scarlet Street the following year. Both films feature the same three stars – Edward G Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea – and tell the story of a married, middle-aged man whose chance meeting with a young woman leads him into a vortex of murder, blackmail and ruin. However, where Scarlet Street is relentlessly grim, The Woman in the Window is a paler shade of noir – and not just because of its ending.

Richard Wanley (Robinson) is an assistant professor at a New York college whose wife and family have gone off on a trip, leaving him to his own devices. After an evening spent at his club with a couple of friends, including the District Attorney (Raymond Massey), he pauses on his way home to admire a portrait of a woman in the window of an adjacent art gallery. As he’s gazing through the window, the subject of the portrait, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), appears by his side and, one thing leading to another, he ends back at her apartment. Up to this point everything seems innocent enough, but the abrupt and violent arrival of Reed’s lover sends the situation spiralling out of control. Although Wanley is left with no alternative but to kill his assailant out of self defence, he is also aware that his story is unlikely to be accepted and, even if it is, his life will be ruined. The solution – dump the body, destroy all the evidence and make like it never happened. Naturally, all of Wanley’s well laid plans start to unravel before his eyes as the police investigation starts to build up a body of forensic evidence that may soon cast suspicion on the hapless professor. The greatest danger, however, is posed by a shady ex-cop (Dan Duryea) with blackmail on his mind. The plot builds inexorably towards a suitably downbeat climax, yet this film has one last sting in its tail. I won’t spoil things for anyone who hasn’t seen this, but suffice to say that this ending has led some to question the noir credentials of the movie. Personally, I don’t share this view but I can see why it remains a bone of contention with some.

Joan Bennett & Edward G. Robinson behind bars and imprisoned by fate.

As I said above, The Woman in the Window comes off as a lighter form of noir than Scarlet Street, and a good deal of this, aside from the ending, comes down to the portrayal of the characters. It is much easier to sympathise with Robinson’s character here, somehow his decisions, while questionable, seem more understandable. Bennett, too, is much less repugnant than would be the case in Scarlet Street. She is clearly a kept woman and a femme fatale, in the sense that she leads the protagonist into a dangerous, doomed situation, yet her motives are neither malicious nor wholly selfish. It’s only Dan Duryea, in another trademark role as a smirking villain, who fails to endear himself to the audience. There was something about the man – I think it relates to the casually mocking note in his voice – that led to his being typecast in such parts. There’s lots of noir imagery on show with a good deal of the action taking place at night and on rainy city streets. One recurring motif throughout the film is the number of shots which follow events through a series of open doors, symbolising (I suppose) the characters’ deepening crisis. The more I watch and re-watch Lang’s American films, the higher he grows in my estimation – I’d definitely rank him up among my top five directors.

The film was released on DVD last summer, along with a few other noir titles, by MGM in R1. The disc is totally barebones but the transfer is very good, maybe a little soft. There is a R2 available from Spain (I’m not sure about other countries) which, despite an English soundtrack and removable subs, is nowhere near this in terms of picture quality – fortunately, I managed to offload my copy on a friend who remains stubbornly locked into region two. If you’re a fan of noir or Lang then the R1 is the way to go, and I have no hesitation in recommending the movie.

 

Ministry of Fear

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The ‘entertainments’ of Graham Greene have provided a rich source of material for makers of Film Noir. The Third Man, This Gun for Hire and Brighton Rock have all been derived from his works and, if you want to stretch the point, a case could also be made for the inclusion of The Fallen Idol and Confidential Agent. This all goes to prove that there is enough darkness and pessimism in Greene’s writings for them to lend themselves to the shadowy world of noir. And so we come to Fritz Lang’s 1944 adaptation of Ministry of Fear, where a frightened Ray Milland blunders through the bombed out streets of wartime London in pursuit of fifth columnists.

Stephen Neale (Milland) has just been released from an asylum after having been confined for the mercy killing of his wife and, naturally, is anxious to avoid any further entanglements with the law. As he waits to catch a train to London, he wanders into a charity fete where a palmist helps him to guess the weight of a cake and win it. With this seemingly innocuous incident Neale finds himself drawn into a nightmare world of murder and espionage. It turns out that the fake spiritualist had mistaken Neale for a Nazi agent (Dan Duryea) and that the cake contained something worth killing for. Neale’s curiosity leads him to follow up the matter in London where he attends a seance in the company of, among others, the aforementioned agent. When the spy is murdered Neale is falsely accused.  He believes that due to his past conviction no one will believe him innocent of the murder and so he goes on the run. His only assistance comes from an Austrian refugee (Marjorie Reynolds), and while the pair try to seek out the truth they are all the time dogged by a shadowy figure in a bowler hat.

The nightmare begins for Ray Milland

Ray Milland’s star was in the ascendancy at this point and he would win an Oscar for his performance in The Lost Weekend the following year. His role here allows him to get in a bit of practice in psychological anguish and the natural affability of the man means that it’s easy to sympathize with the plight of his character. Marjorie Reynolds is fine as his Girl Friday but the forced Austrian accent does begin to grate a little at times. Dan Duryea is always good value as a villain and the only complaint that could be made is that his character is not given nearly enough screen time. Indeed the same could be said for much of the support cast who seem to breeze in and out of the picture, but all leave lasting impressions. A notable feature of so many films of this period is the marvellous gallery of eccentrics that cropped up time and again. These people, whose faces are immediately recognizable yet whose names escape us, were character specialists who usually played similar parts in every movie and their presence added enormously to the enjoyment.

Anyone up for a bit of kirigami?

Fritz Lang’s background in expressionist film-making serves him well here and is most notable in the early scenes of the picture. The charity fete provides that slightly surreal quality that continues throughout the film. The parts with the fake blind man on the train and the ensuing chase over the fogbound moor are also beautifully photographed. Everything seems to have been shot on studio sets but this is no criticism as it helps heighten the unreal, otherworldly feel of the movie.

Optimum released Ministry of Fear on DVD in R2 last year. The transfer is not bad but it could use a clean up. All in all, this is a highly enjoyable mix of noir and espionage and it’s always good to see more of Fritz Lang’s movies making it out onto the market.

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2008 in 1940s, Dan Duryea, Film Noir, Fritz Lang, Ray Milland

 

The Return of Frank James

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It is, and always has been, common for a highly successful film to spawn a sequel. In 1939 Fox produced Jesse James and, riding on the wave of the reinvigorated western genre, found themselves with a hit on their hands. Of course, it’s a little difficult to continue a story when you have just killed off your main character. However, Hollywood rarely finds itself at a loss for long and the solution was to pick up the story where the first film left off and concentrate on the surviving brother, Frank James (Henry Fonda). The only problem was that, after Jesse’s death, Frank’s life wasn’t the stuff of dramatic, action-packed blockbusters. Therefore, the truth needed to be manipulated to present audiences with a story of revenge and redemption.

In the aftermath of the ill-fated raid on the Northfield bank Frank James had gone to ground. We find him living under an assumed name and it would seem that he has renounced his outlaw ways. On receiving news of the death of his brother he is content to let the law run its course, believing that Bob and Charlie Ford will be tried and duly hanged for the murder. It is only when he learns that, despite their conviction, the Fords have been granted a full pardon that he decides to take matters into his own hands and straps on his guns again. There follows a pursuit across the country to Colorado as Frank attempts to track down the Fords and mete out the justice he feels the courts have denied him. By the end of the film all the loose ends have been tied up and we get a traditionally happy ending. The problem with this is that the production code of the time dictated that a killer should not be presented as the hero – or at the very least that he should be punished for his deeds. The way around that issue was to present Frank James as an essentially honorable man hounded into infamy by circumstances and big business. So while the Fords get their comeuppance it is not Frank who is shown to kill them (which is historically true at least). In fact, the film is at pains to point out the innocence and decency of our hero throughout – even having one of the characters declare indignantly that Frank James never killed anyone. All of this is vaguely unsatisfactory since a man setting out on a mission of vengeance should, to my mind, be allowed to achieve some measure of it directly.

A grim Frank James (Henry Fonda) watches Bob Ford re-enact the murder of his brother.

As I said, Henry Fonda plays the lead very much in the style of the classic romantic hero. Throughout his long career Fonda was most frequently cast as the everyman who was the very epitome of human virtue. Almost thirty years later Sergio Leone would give Fonda the opportunity to finally play a character (also named Frank, as it happens) of pure evil in Once Upon A Time In The West. Gene Tierney (in her debut role) provides some eye-candy and romantic interest as a newspaper reporter, but not much else. Much of the rest of the cast is filled out with actors from the previous film, with John Carradine reprising his part as Bob Ford. Once again, Donald Meek is the conniving railroad boss and Henry Hull chews up every piece of scenery in sight as the editor of the local paper and friend of the family. Hull’s best scenes come towards the end of the film in a flamboyant courtroom defence of Frank on a charge of murder. This scene mirrors reality, where Frank James stood trial for robbery and murder and whose character was attested to by an old Confederate officer. In truth, the film spends a good deal of time on the lingering animosity between north and south in the years following the Civil War. All in all, director Fritz Lang’s first foray into the western genre is a pleasant and entertaining one.

Fox’s DVD release of The Return of Frank James is an improvement on the transfer of Jesse James, but not by much. The image is a good deal more consistent here but darker scenes are still quite murky and washed out. Generally, the outdoor scenes fare the best with stronger colour and sharpness. 

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2008 in 1940s, Fritz Lang, Henry Fonda, Westerns

 
 
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