Friday, November 20, 2009

An Appreciation: Fritz Lang

A few months in the making. Enjoy.

Spiders (1919) **½ - Third film from Lang and the first surviving one. While the story is pure comic book serial (something about an Indiana Jones type character getting caught up in Peruvian gold mountains and ocean sirens) the basic ideas that Lang would toy with throughout the rest of his career are present- a secret group of powerful men and women who try to bring about death and destruction, the innocent and good people caught in the middle and a strong eye for expressionistic visuals.

Destiny (1921) *** - Here Lang's attention to the striking visual image begins to take shape, especially in the stark visage of Death wandering into a small town. Melodramatic to its core, I also understand this is the prototype for so many films.... its 1921 for crying out loud! A woman pleads for the life of her lover taken by Death and he tells her three stories, tempting that if love rules, she can have her lover back. The ending reaches magical proportions and it's easy to see why so many modern filmmakers have cited this film as a major influence.

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) ** - I completely understand this film's place in history, but at four hours and ten minutes it can be a crushing bore. As usual in the Lang canon, there are two or three riveting set-pieces, but the film feels out of control and confused at times. As later proven by the subsequent sequel ("The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse") ten years later, Lang can create a Mabuse film that reaches perfection at half the running time.

Metropolis (1927) ***½ - German expressionism meets dystopia in Lang’s well-renowned science fiction classic. Imitated many years later from a wide variety of filmmakers including the Coen Brothers, Joe Dante and just about every proceeding dystopian sci-fi flick, it’s a film that’s certainly stood the test of time. Created as an allegory of its time- notice the communistic uniforms worn by everyone in the film- “Metroplis” is also still a dazzling display of storytelling and heart.

Spies (1928) **½ - If there’s one theme that Lang enthusiastically embraced in his early filmmaking career, it was the idea of a pervasive evil corrupting all walks of life. With Spies, Rudolph Klein-Roegg again takes on the Mabuse-like role of a bank owner secretly pulling the strings to an underworld of criminal activity. As the title implies, there are double and triple crosses involving the retrieval of a document signed by the Japanese. Not a completely successful film but the visual tropes (doors, alleys and spatial divisions) clearly become pivotal.

Woman In the Moon (1928) ***½ - Though it takes its time getting to the actual moon, Lang’s 3 hour epic about the collision of ideas and love in space is still a remarkably good early sci-fi affair… and one that you rarely hear mentioned. It features a wonderful closing moment as well.

M (1931) **** - An applauded outright masterpiece, “M” was Lang’s first sound film and probably a beneficial recipient of this transition. Visually, “M” is striking- the quiet pans across the faces of a mob, the long shots that take advantage of the newly created dolly shots- it all feels experimental but perfect. And while text titles were they key to relaying information in his previous silent films, Lang takes advantage of that style and creates images disassociated from sound. For example, as Detective Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) reads the possible summation of the mob’s attempts to break into an office building, Lang intersperses the destruction and devastation as he reads the letter. For 1931, this all feels like especially heady stuff. And then there’s the chilling performance of Peter Lorre as the pedophile child killer… and that final 20 minutes as he pleads for his life in front of a ‘kangaroo court’ that’s raw and electric in its sheer emotion. I really can’t imagine a more perfect film.

Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) **** - Third film in the Mabuse series, this one concentrates on the stolen identities and cribbed maniacal ideas of the Doctor as he's locked away in a mental institution. There are two or three brilliantly conceived set pieces here- one of them an assassination conducted on the street in traffic and the other an escape from a locked room that Stuart Rosenberg cribbed for his own film, "The Drowning Pool" years later. And, Mabuse's (and Lang's) deranged thoughts about chaos and an "empire of crime" are even more relevant today as they pop up in another crime blockbuster named "The Dark Knight". I think someone owes Fritz Lang lip service as the real creator of the Joker and his madcap plans for domination. A truly trend-setting film that hasn't lost its spell in over 70 years.

Liliom (1934) *1/2- Escaping Germany and finding work in France, Lang‘s “Liliom” feels like a film borne out of chaos and uncertainty… and I don’t mean that in a good way. After a series of dynamic films, this one (following an abusive cad played by Charles Boyer) looks flat and uninspired. In addition, its hard to feel anything for the Boyer character as he wanders away from a good, loving relationship to a life of petty crime. The third act- which replays a theme from his earlier silent films such as “Destiny”- ventures wobbly into fantasy territory as Liliom pleads for his life in front of a heavenly judge. For such an abrupt genre shift, there’s little empathy built for the lead character which ultimately makes “Liliom” the director’s first real bomb.

Fury (1936) ** 1/2- Lang’s first American film, and his feet are put to the fire immediately with a cast that includes Spencer Tracey and Sylvia Sydney as a couple separated when Tracey is accused and innocently jailed in a southern town. To aggravate matters, the town decides to take justice into their own hands and lynch the supposed criminal. The ideas within “Fury” (personal justice vs. moral complicity) seem like recycled themes for Lang, and “Fury” could definitely be seen as an inverted companion piece to “M”, yet the film fails to really grab hold. One can feel Lang adjusting to the American (i.e. studio) manner of filmmaking though.

You Only Live Once (1937) *** - From its mundane title comes this solid story of a former criminal trying to go straight despite the unjust obstacles of the world. Henry Fonda injects the film with a sense of humanity that Lang’s previous American male actors couldn’t produce. As in “Fury” and many of his German works, the theme of a man stranded in judgment takes a bitter and sordid turn as Fonda and his best dame (Sylvia Sidney, again) turn their world upside down and become the criminals the world wants to make of them. A prison break-out in encroaching fog and several quiet long takes reveal that Lang was becoming more comfortable as an American filmmaker.

You and Me (1938) ** - Part Ernst Lubitsch romance comedy and part social expose with a bit of musical flourishes thrown in for good measure, “You and Me” is a slap-dash mixture that feels awkward and unsure of itself. There are two or three great scenes though- such as Sylvia Sidney turning the tables on the crew assembled to rob a department store and a highly stylized gathering of criminals that morphs into a musical number of very weird proportions. Playful at best. Not on DVD.

The Return of Frank James (1940) **1/2 - The first of two westerns Lang would make for 20th Century Fox, this is the better of the two. Henry Fonda returns for a second helping with Lang as the brother of Jesse James seeking revenge on the Ford Brothers. Lingering over-the-top performances (from his 1930’s period) mars any real dramatic tension, but “The Return of Frank James” is essentially an agreeable film made for commercial purposes. It succeeds as that, but probably deserves nothing more than a mention on the resume of Lang.

Western Union (1941) ** - Built and shot with little flair for the dramatic, Lang’s second western is agreeable, if not uneventful, serial entertainment. From an auteur, I wanted a little more than the usual cowboys and ‘injuns stuff. Not on DVD.

Manhunt (1941) *** - Evolving into a fairly benign (and quasi) British noir towards the end, the opening moments of a sniper rifle’s scope pointed at a lounging Adolf Hitler serves as very intriguing alternative history. For 1941“Manhunt” is an incredibly brave film.

Hangmen Also Die (1943) ***1/2 - Part two of Lang’s aggressive posture against the NAZI Party in his homeland of Germany, “Hangmen Also Die” is the story of a man’s successful assassination of a high ranking German official (known as the Hangman) in Prague by a member of the Resistance. Lang clearly has subterfuge anger against his home country, displaying the Nazi party leaders in the film as reptilian and oily figures, going so far as to mark one of the leaders with a noticeably large pimple. But camp aside, “Hangmen Also Die” is an adept and entertaining look at not only the prevailing force of the German SS in occupied territories- who hover at the edges of the frame with sinister glares and B movie mobster ruthlessness- but of the internal workings of the Resistance as well. For a flavor of the melodramatic Hollywood, there’s a relationship between the assassin (Brian Donlevy) and a young lady (Anna Lee). Intriguing on just about every level and with a script aided by Bertolt Brecht.

Ministry of Fear (1944) - Odd, but highly effective. The first half of this film plays like a 40’s David Lynch movie- including a suburban carnival that takes place at midnight, an eerie entrance for a blind man on a train and a séance sequence that ends in murder. Once the plot (concerning Ray Milland being mistaken for a spy and hunted by a shadow NAZI organization) is defined, “Ministry of Fear” becomes a little more commercial in its second half. Still, “Ministry of Fear” is enthralling, and by providing its main character with a back story as lurid as being released from an insane asylum in the first three minutes, the whole film could be seen as a crazy (and unreliable) adventure. Not on DVD.

Woman In the Window (1944) ***1/2 - One of the early noirs, Lang again sets a blazing trail with this thriller about a scholarly innocent (James Cagney) whose life jettisons out of control after he meets a beautiful lady (Joan Bennett) and falls prey to murder, deceit and blackmail. The scenes involving the clean-up and disposal of a body are magnificently paced. Watching this film today garners even more enjoyment in the way Lang toys with our expectations and then goes in a completely different direction. And, if in the end, “Woman In the Window” feels like a feverish morality dream, there’s good reason.

Scarlet Street (1945) *** - Straight forward gangster tale with a bit of psychological compulsion as Cagney and Bennett re-team. Interesting thing about this film- the scene in “Goodfellas” where Jimmy (DeNiro) violently chides his heist mates for appearing to flash their money around was taken directly from a scene in “Scarlet Street”. Not on DVD.

Cloak and Dagger (1946) ** - More “Masterpiece Theater” than James Bond, “Cloak and Dagger” suffers from several dead patches as a scientist (Gary Cooper) is asked to go gallivanting around Europe to figure out just how close an old colleague is to creating the atom bomb. Still, there’s one great silent fight sequence as two men battle to the death in the hallway of an apartment house alongside a busy street- shades of the kitchen fight scene in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain” and the outstanding brutality of Matt Damon’s fight with an assassin in a sunlight tinged apartment in “The Bourne Identity” abound. If anything, “Cloak and Dagger” shows that even in the late 40’s Lang was conducting magnificent set pieces that still resonate with artists today. The rest of the film, on the other hand, is relatively lifeless.

Secret Beyond the Door (1948) **- Long out of print on any home video format, Lang's perverse love sory is probably one of the odder films of his career. A woman meets a man on vacation and they get married, only for her to find out that her new husband's hobby is collecting identical recreations of rooms in which great murders occured. The shadows and portentious camera moves are present, but "Secret Beyond the Door" really failed to make a connection with me.

House By the River (1950)*** - A (sort of) return to his silent expressionism days, “House By the River” follows a writer who accidentally commits murder and then spends the rest of the film walking around in a glorious self important daze as if he’s one of the impenetrable characters in one of his novels. Lit with stark shadows, staged with a lot of silent screen frontal views and featuring a delirious paranoia, “House By the River” feels like Lang is having fun. And the opening image of a dead animal floating by in the river reverses into a morbid psychological reminder later in the film. Fun to watch.

Rancho Notorious (1952) **** - There’s so much going on in this seemingly benign western, that it’s a crying shame it’s one of the few Lang films not on DVD. Beginning as a tale about a lone man (Arthur Kennedy) with an overbearing desire for justice (insert Donald Westlake influence here) on the outlaw who killed his girlfriend, “Rancho Notorious” soon evolves into a bawdy tale that continually re-invents the mythologies and legends of the west. Marlene Dietrich (oddly, the first time she worked with Lang even though both were huge stars in Germany after World War 1) is Aldar Keane, ex showgirl who now runs a hideout for outlaws. Once Kennedy becomes embroiled with the outlaws at their cozy hideaway, Lang transposes a lot of the noir genre onto the western as the man essentially goes undercover to find and execute swift revenge. Among all these fabulous undercurrents is Lang’s slowly tightening camera that conjures up some iconic images including a bloody, curled hand and a fist fight that most certainly employs one of the first semi-handheld camera approaches for a sense of anger and immediacy. A true under appreciated Lang masterpiece. And, “Blazing Saddles” fans will surely see a bit of Madeline Kahn channeling Dietrich here.

Clash By Night (1952) ** - Essentially a dry run for the much better “Human Desire” a year later, this film finds Barbara Stanwyck playing a destructive whirlwind force in the lives of a coastal man (Paul Douglas), his father and friends (including Marilyn Monroe). Eschewing the real noir elements, “Clash By Night” stays straight on the melodrama path with a script by Clifford Odets as Stanwyck oscillates between Douglas and his best friend Earl (Robery Ryan). Tormented emotion ensues. It’s not a bad film by any stretch of the means… just a predictable and safe one.

The Blue Gardenia (1953) **1/2 - Solid but ultimately trifling tale of a recently dumped woman who may be suspected of murder after a few too many cocktails. Lang’s use of noir tropes- a shattered mirror and long shadows- only emphasize the baroque mode he seems to be operating with in the early 50’s.

The Big Heat (1953) ***1/2 - I place this right up there alongside Sam Fuller’s “The Naked Kiss” as a sort of turning point for the crime film. Both are violent and angry examinations of crime and punishment that seem to slowly step out of the mannered style of 50’s thrillers and present some harsh realities. In “The Big Heat”, as soon as middle level henchman Lee Marvin tosses hot coffee in the face of dame Gloria Graham, effectively deforming her, all quaintness is left in the dust. The rest of the film, starring Glenn Ford as a suspended cop trying to find the murderer of his wife, is just as ruthless. This film deserves to be seen and appreciated.

Human Desire (1954) *** - Gloria Graham oozes sexiness and danger in this odd three-way love triangle. As the black widow who hates her husband (Broderick Crawford) and lures young train conductor (Glenn Ford) into her clutches, “Human Desire” looks incredible and Lang weaves sweaty innuendo throughout the film. Even though all the characteristics are there, it’s a bit off the pace from the usual noir which works in its favor. Not on DVD.

Moonfleet (1955) ** - In the first 30 minutes, “Moonfleet” lingers on some mysterious and unsettling images- hanging bodies, a demonic looking statue, a hand clutching outward from an open grave. This proves Lang would’ve made one helluva great Hammer horror film. The rest is pretty standard adventure yarn stuff filmed in vibrant color Cinemascope as a young boy (Stewart Granger) hunts for a lost gem. Not on DVD.

Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956) *1/2 - One of the worst of Lang’s “late period” works, this seemingly deconstructive courtroom drama plays out like a lazy episode of Matlock. A writer (Dana Andrews), goaded on by his liberal minded editor, decides to fake the circumstantial evidence around the murder of a burlesque girl in order to be convicted of the crime and prove the death penalty is wrong. Lang’s direction is static. Gone are the mesmerizing set pieces and probing camera when the tension gets high. Instead, everything is medium shot and serious as if there’s no energy behind the camera. A disappointment.

While the City Sleeps (1956) *** - Alternating between the serial killing rampage of a confused mama’s boy and the structural downsizing of a local newspaper, “While the City Sleeps” shows little difference in the savagery of either one. Competently structured, but with a few off-center ideas (especially the casting of Vincent Price as the paper magnate whose attention the four main characters are vying for), this again feels like a less spirited venture by Lang. Not on DVD.

Indian Tale (1959)*** - A career full circle, with Lang returning to Germany to film this 4 hour tale from an idea by scriptwriter Thea von Harbour who wreot emany of his 1920's silent films. The story of a British engineer fighting carnivorous tigers and stealing beautiful Indian women is straight out of a B novel, but the lavish production design and bright CineScope colors make this an entertaining crown on am illustrious career.

Unable to view: Hari-kari, The Moving Image, Four Around A Woman, Siegfried’s Death, Kriemhild’s Revenge, 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse

1 comment:

weepingsam said...

You've outdone me. I swore, back in the spring, I was going to go through all his films, but I have failed - bogged down on the Mabuses, and then other stuff got in the way... still gonna make the bid, maybe in January...

And - I have to say that the new region 2 edition of the three Mabuse films is the impetus that finally gets me to buy a multi-region player... I wouldn't write off number one so quickly - it's work in one shot, but rewards returning to it... it seems to be posed a bit uneasily between a serial (like Spiders) and a self-contained film - it might go down easier a chapter at a time...