News And Commentary – Fritz Lang 125!
A milestone birthday celebration for Fritz Lang, who was born on December 5, 1890. Lang, a child of Vienna, would become one of the great directors of the thriving Weimar cinema that flowered in Germany during those tumultuous years between the end of the First World War and the Nazi seizure of power. Best known for the Sci-Fi dystopia Metropolis (1927), Lang also directed the silent classic Dr Mabuse: The Gambler (1922) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), two films that smartly bookend the decade of upheaval that culminated in the rise of Hitler. Gambler, with its counterfeiting schemes and cultural decadence, showcases the unraveled social fabric of a battered and beaten Germany after the Great War; Testament stands as an astonishing allegory for the rise of fascism—the cult of personality and mass hysteria, thinly veiled as a crime story. (This did not go unnoticed at the time; Testament was immediately banned and was not shown in Germany until 1951.)
Lang’s films from this period also included the early sound classic M (1931), which can also be read as an-anti-Nazi film if you want it to—but is best remembered for introducing Peter Lorre, indelibly, as a child-killer, and for setting down many of the visual and thematic markers that would characterize American films noir of the 1940s. But his German career came to an abrupt end with the Nazi consolidation of power. To subsequent interviewers the director ever-embellished his tale of desperately catching a train within hours of an alleged recruitment effort by Propaganda Minister Goebbels (that job eventually went to Triumph of the Will director Leni Riefenstahl)—but Lang did flee, in 1933. Not everybody did. His wife (and partner) Thea von Harbou stayed behind and served the new regime as a loyal Nazi (and you thought your thanksgiving dinners were awkward).
Shortly after arriving in the U.S. Lang embarked on a remarkable twenty-year run of filmmaking, cementing his place among the greats. (And, double bonus points, he was also an enormous influence on Mid Century Cinema favorite Claude Chabrol). His first American film, Fury (1936), an anti-lynching tale starring Spencer Tracy, was followed by the Bonnie and Clyde precursor You Only Live Once (1937), featuring a young Henry Fonda. But Lang made his Hollywood reputation, and his best movies, with the wartime and postwar suspense films that enmeshed the noir sensibilities he brought from Germany within the confines and opportunities Studio system. Hangmen Also Die (1943) written by Bertolt Brecht and shot by the legendary James Wong Howe, is a much darker and more mature piece of wartime propaganda than that which typically appeared on American screens; Ministry of Fear (1944), more traditional but still quite suspenseful, is an enormous pleasure. Ministry might be my favorite Lang, but close competition comes from The Woman in the Window (1944), featuring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. I much prefer Woman to the highly acclaimed Scarlet Street, which reunited the same players one year later. (Though Scarlet does enjoy the honor of being briefly banned in both New York and Boston for the sins of its allusions to prostitution and failure to adequately punish the guilty.)
Gems from the 1950s include The Blue Gardenia (1953), The Big Heat (1953), and While the City Sleeps (1956). The celebrated Heat, which pushes perennial good-guy Glenn Ford past the breaking point and also features riveting performances from Gloria Graham and Lee Marvin, is highly regarded and justly famous for its innovative use of a scalding pot of coffee. But I have a soft spot for the more obscure Sleeps, really a snappily-written newspaper drama with a party of favorites (Dana Andrews, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price and George Sanders), though earns its noir stripes along the way, in particular with a great chase scene through the (LA) subway. Not too shabby.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
Ministry of Fear
The Woman in the Window