With Career View, The Dissolve offers an extensive survey, and critical summary, of a career in film.
Film historian David Kalat once proposed rules for a Fritz Lang drinking game: Whenever a Lang film shows an angry mob or a woman in a nightgown, everybody takes a shot. Unlike many of the major auteurs of the first half of the 20th century, Lang didn’t bury his motifs for critics to unearth decades later. He moved the camera and used lighting expressively, and employed overt visual symbolism even after he transitioned from silent films to sound. Over and over, Lang made movies about the madness of crowds, the indelible stain of guilt, the influence of the powerful, and yes, the way people look beneath their clothes—literally and metaphorically.
Born in 1890 in Austria-Hungary, Lang moved to Germany to begin his movie career, and proceeded to become one of the few filmmakers of the 1920s who was internationally known, thanks to a series of large-scale genre films that wowed audiences with images they’d never seen before. But the rise of the Nazi party chased Lang out of Europe, in part because he was half-Jewish, and in part because he tended to sympathize with the sort of “undesirables” that the Nazis abhorred. Like a lot of Europeans who’d had success on the continent in the silent era, he landed in Hollywood, where he found ways to sneak his visual artistry and thematic preoccupations into movies meant to be disposable entertainments.
The job became more difficult the longer Lang stayed in America, but he soldiered on, making Westerns, mysteries, war movies, and melodramas that nearly all show at least some sophistication and sting. Lang’s cinematic consistency is unusual for his era. It isn’t just that he rarely made a film that wasn’t worth watching; it’s that even while working within the parameters of studio assignments, Lang was able to portray society as he saw it: governed by corrupt, hypocritical institutions that defy individual will.
1. Half Caste (LOST) (1919)
2. The Master Of Love (LOST) (1919)
3. Hara-Kiri (1919)
4. The Spiders (1919)
5. The Wandering Shadow (1920)
6. Four Around A Woman (1920)
After serving in the Austrian army in World War I, Lang tried his hand at writing screenplays, which brought him to the attention of the German studio UFA. Almost immediately upon arriving in Germany, Lang began directing as well as writing, trying out a variety of techniques in a variety of different genres, figuring out how to tell stories with pictures. Not all those early films have survived, and the ones that have are mostly interesting for how they hint at what Lang would become. Both 1919’s Hara-Kiri (a version of Madame Butterfly, about a Japanese woman who suffers social scorn when she has a baby with a European soldier) and 1920’s The Wandering Shadow (about a wanton woman seeking redemption at a mountaintop retreat) are mostly plain, stylistically, at least in the pieces that still exist. The latter film does feature stunning location footage of misty lakes, though, and both deal with the idea that human beings are so consumed with want, they will behave awfully, especially if allowed to do so anonymously.
Another case in point: 1921’s Four Around The Woman, starring Ludwig Hartau as a rich man investigating his wife’s possible infidelities. Beyond its occasional visual flourishes—including a remarkably theatrical opening shot of a rotating bar—the film presages Lang’s Mabuse series in its depiction of upper-class Germans who snoop around each other’s personal lives, like private detectives with no ethical standards. Similarly, while Lang’s incomplete adventure serial The Spiders looks like the kind of charmingly amateurish movie that geeky teenagers shoot in their back yards, its elaborate, globe-hopping story of an all-powerful criminal organization is a warm-up for how Lang would spend much of the next decade.
The epic German years (1921-1929)
1. Destiny (1921)
2. Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)
3. Die Nibelungen (1924)
4. Metropolis (1927)
5. Spies (1928)
6. Woman In The Moon (1929)
After a couple of years of experimenting and throat-clearing, Lang got down to business with 1921’s Destiny (a.k.a The Weary Death, and Behind The Wall). Complex in structure and intent, Destiny is a triptych film built around the kind of tales told in taverns on chilly nights. A woman sees her partner taken away by a shadowy figure, and when she begs the spirit to save him, the dark angel reincarnates the couple through time, giving them chances to be happy in ancient Baghdad, Renaissance Italy, and Imperial China. Destiny is far from seamless: It’s slow to get to its premise, it has an adolescent notion of romance, and the historical re-creations lack the kind of depth that Lang brought to later films. But it’s an essential piece of cinema history: Like D.W. Griffith’s contemporaneous Hollywood epics, Destiny demonstrated how the medium could be used for stories with the richness of novels and the spectacle of magic shows. It’s a work of rare vision.
Lang’s next film showed off that vision to fuller extent. Part one of the two-part Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is subtitled “A Picture Of Our Time,” which is no exaggeration. Based on Norbert Jacques’ novel about a master criminal who controls a network of operatives via hypnosis, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler is a thrill-packed four-hour game of cat-and-mouse between a shadowy supervillain (played with hammy gusto by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and the dogged lawman who tries to track him down. But it’s also a journey through a post-war Europe gripped by greed and paranoia, where it didn’t take much for one clever man to manipulate the masses through the power of insinuation. Here, just two years after The Spiders, Lang made a movie that was more mature in every conceivable way: in its matter-of-fact scenes of Jazz Age decadence, with men inflamed with passion by the semi-nude dancers in their favorite nightclubs; in its thoughtful art direction, where even the flower arrangements resemble giant brains, controlling the characters; and in its use of pulpy conceits to describe the world as it is.
Lang then left the cold, hard world of today for the haze of yesteryear in Die Nibelungen, a two-part, five-hour adaptation of an ancient poem about the warrior-prince Siegfried and his vengeful wife Kriemhild. Inspired in part by Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, Die Nibelungen was intentionally grandiose, with mammoth sets, state-of-the-art special effects, and armies of extras. Lang shot majestic waterfalls and bloody battlefields as though he were a time-traveler who’d brought a camera with him back to the age of dragons, dwarves, and sorcerers, but he also fit all that fantasy frippery into what would become his recognizable point of view, making Die Nibelungen ultimately about people and kingdoms threatened by all-consuming lusts.
Die Nibelungen was a massive undertaking. Lang’s next film, the heavily allegorical 1927 science-fiction romance Metropolis, was even more ambitious, even though its running time is half as long. Co-written with Thea von Harbou (Lang’s wife at the time, and his collaborator on every film from The Wandering Shadow through the remainder of their marriage, which ended when he left Germany in 1933), Metropolis builds a futuristic world out of familiar parts. Lang dwells on the mechanisms of the modern age, from the look of the skyscrapers he’d seen on his first trip to New York a few years earlier to the socialist fervor that was beginning to sweep the world in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. There’s even more of an elemental fairy-tale quality to Metropolis than there is to Die Nibelungen, as Lang and von Harbou track the potentially society-changing relationship between a privileged young man and a working-class activist. But while the story is simple, Metropolis’ look is far from it. The movie’s conception of hellish machine rooms, glamorous urban nightspots, and sexy (but tragic) robots offered a new way of visualizing the future that continues to influence writers, filmmakers, and commercial artists.
Having made the most expensive and exhausting film of his first decade in the business, Lang downshifted a little for his final two silents: 1928’s Spies and 1929’s Woman In The Moon. At the time, the expressionist era in German art was giving way to what was known in some quarters as “The New Objectivity,” and while Lang never fully signed on to the ideal of depicting real life with documentary-like clarity, he did move away from the more florid touches of Die Nibelungen and Metropolis. Spies is another film about international criminal conspiracies, like The Spiders (but much more polished) and Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (but much less complex); and it features some of Lang’s most gripping setpieces, including a classic final scene where the main villain performs a comical shooting exhibition before an audience that doesn’t understand how much danger they’re actually in. But Spies is more matter-of-fact than Mabuse, just as Woman In The Moon is less wild than Metropolis. Woman In The Moon is a space-travel saga that deals just as much with the realistic grind of rocketing to the stars as it does with adventure. The science in Woman In The Moon is laughably far-fetched at times—particularly when the traveling party lands on the dark side of the moon, and determines that the air is breathable—but it’s all treated respectfully, and the result is a movie that’s drier than Lang’s earlier science-fiction/fantasy pictures, while remaining impressively imaginative.
Into sound, away from the Nazis (1931-1934)
1. M (1931)
2. The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
3. Liliom (1934)
As one of the premier visual storytellers of the silent era, Lang didn’t embrace talking pictures right away, and when more than a year passed after Woman In The Moon with no new Lang film, some German critics wondered if he’d chosen to give up the business rather than work with a soundtrack. Actually, Lang was doing just as he’d done with Die Nibelungen and Metropolis: immersing himself in research and pre-production on his next project. That project, M, was released in 1931, and recast the crime-fighting themes of The Spiders, Spies, and Dr Mabuse: The Gambler in the spirit of “The New Objectivity.” Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a psychopathic serial killer (of children, no less) whose murders send Berlin into a panic, leading the police to conduct raids throughout the city and obstruct ordinary criminal business. M is rooted in realism, filled with up-to-the-minute details of police work and pathology, but it’s also a pointed sketch of an increasingly divided and dangerous Germany, toward the end of the Weimar Republic. (The original title of the film, Murderer Among Us, reportedly raised red flags among the rising Nazi party.)
It’d be wrong to say that Lang shows more empathy in M for a murderer than he does for law-abiding citizens, but Hans does get a powerful speech toward the end where he curses his own compulsions, while the bloodthirsty frenzies of the media, the cops, the public, and the gangs carry on, unrestricted. M is a powerful plea for personal responsibility, using a shocking comparison to urge audiences away from their habit of just going along with the crowd. But what really makes M such a consensus classic is the way Lang retains his silent-film techniques—telling much of the story without any dialogue, and using images of painful absence to represent the children Hans kills—while finding ways to integrate sound in ways that are suggestive, not merely functional. From Hans’ repeated whistling of “Hall Of The Mountain King,” to the way that a crowd of protestors chants like schoolchildren, Lang creates associations and atmosphere with the new technology.
Lang then carried both the more grounded approach of M and its tough take on German society into The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, a sequel to his 1922 hit (and also in some ways a sequel to M, in that both M and Testament feature Otto Wernicke playing a police inspector named Lohmann). Rudolf Klein-Rogge reprises his role as Norbert Jacques’ hypnotist/supervillain, but only briefly, since Mabuse dies early in the film, leaving behind a stack of writings that continue to corrupt the people who read them. It isn’t Mabuse himself who guides the choices his disciples make; it’s the idea of Mabuse. Sometimes he appears to people as a spectral vision, and seems to take possession of their bodies; at other times, he’s nothing but a disembodied voice, heard from behind a curtain, in a featureless room, in a shadowy part of the city. Again, as with M, Lang relies on clever sound design and compositions to tell the story, but The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse is more action-packed, like a refined version of Lang’s early pulp serials.
The morally compromised world depicted in the second Mabuse film could be read as a commentary on any era where men do evil in the name of ideology. But Lang always claimed it was a comment on Nazism, and how human weakness allows dictators to rule and fascism to spread. The Nazis themselves didn’t miss the connection. While Joseph Goebbels once asked Lang to make movies for the state, he ultimately banned The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse in Germany. By then, Lang had seen the writing on the wall, and left his home, taking refuge in France alongside his former UFA producer and fellow exile Erich Pommer.
Pommer had a deal with Fox Film Corporation (prior to its merger with 20th Century Pictures) to set up a production company in Paris, and he had Lang and director Max Ophüls in his stable. But Lang’s first and only film for Fox Europa was something of a bust, commercially and creatively. In later years, Lang claimed that his adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s stage play Liliom (which later inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel) was a personal favorite, echoing Destiny in its tale of a grouchy carousel barker who dies, then gets a second chance to prove himself when heaven sends him back to earth for a day. But while Molnár’s scenario let Lang re-deploy his gifts for the fantastical, the story demands a lighter touch that Lang generally lacked. The scenes between Liliom (Charles Boyer) and his lover Julie (Madeleine Ozeray) have some of the social-realist smack that Lang returned to in the 1950s, but they’re so earthy that they undercut the play’s more whimsical turns. If Lang was going to continue his journey into the grimier side of human existence, he’d have to try a different approach—and do so somewhere else.
Crooks and cowboys in Hollywood (1936-1941)
1. Fury (1936)
2. You Only Live Once (1937)
3. You And Me (1938)
4. The Return Of Frank James (1940)
5. Western Union (1941)
Because language barriers weren’t as significant in the silent era, Lang was already known to the American film industry before he moved to the States; perhaps because he was already respected by those in the know, he was given some latitude to make “Fritz Lang films” when he first arrived in Hollywood. Lang had to deal with more content restrictions, and interference from studios that demanded changes or cuts. But he also had access to new resources—actors, writers, and crew who could bring his visions to life more quickly and efficiently than any had before—and new locations in which to explore some of his same old themes. Lang’s first five Hollywood pictures run the gamut from fevered social-problem films to colorful Westerns, with one eccentric musical romance mixed in, but the same types of characters pop up in each: hard men trying to atone for bad choices, in communities inclined to judge them by their reputations.
In Lang’s 1936 English-language debut Fury, Spencer Tracy plays the flip side of Peter Lorre’s character in M. Tracy’s Joe Wilson gets accused of a crime he didn’t commit, then gets almost killed by small-towners who burn down the jail to prevent him from wasting their money and time on a trial. Left for dead, Joe sneaks away, then works behind the scenes to bring his would-be killers to justice. Fury is an astonishingly expressive film—much more so than Lang’s last few German pictures—using subjective tracking shots and satirical montages of clucking chickens to mock rioters and make the righteous look phony. Fury is heartland Americana knocked askew, with petty gripes about taxes and lawyers escalating into murderous rage. Lang and screenwriter Bartlett Cormack take a contemporary scourge—lynching—and make their audience live through two different versions of it, asking whether Joe’s more methodical revenge is any less cruel than what was done to him.
Lang brought that same intensity to 1937’s You Only Live Once, which stars Henry Fonda as Eddie Taylor, an ex-con whose efforts to live a clean, blue-collar life with his girl Jo (Sylvia Sidney) are stymied by landlords who don’t trust him, bosses who keep him on a short leash, and old cohorts who use him as a patsy. Like Fury, You Only Live Once has a bifurcated structure, with a first half focusing on Eddie’s increasing disillusionment with the straight life, and a second half about his desperation after he’s charged with another major crime. Lang uses exaggerated perspectives and dreamy imagery to document Eddie’s emotional state at every juncture, from the rippling reflections in a picturesque pond when he’s wooing Jo to the long shadows of bars that stretch across him when he’s in trouble. The film is also corrosively ironic: When Eddie awaits his last meal on death row, one of the guards quips, “First they kill the chicken, Taylor eats the chicken, then they kill Taylor.”
Lang relied on screenwriters for lines like that (You Only Live Once is credited to C. Graham Baker and Gene Towne), and for most of his time in Hollywood, he was stuck with whatever assignments he was offered. Yet again and again, Lang’s films stood up for the dignity of even the most tarnished individual, while suggesting that the real evil in the world lies in the social machinery that grinds people down.You And Me, written by Norman Krasna and Virginia Van Upp, isn’t one of Lang’s best-known films—largely because it’s never been released on DVD in the U.S.—but while it isn’t on par with his masterpieces, it’s practically a thesis statement for Lang’s career, in that it makes that “Who are the real enemies?” question plain. Sylvia Sidney stars as Helen, a parolee working at a department store staffed by former hoods, including the man she ultimately marries, Joe Dennis (George Raft). As Joe considers a return to crime, You And Me honestly explores the desire for consumer goods and the appeal of the outlaw life—occasionally via songs (!) with music by Kurt Weill (!!)—until Helen stops the show with a math lesson for Joe and his gang, explaining in detail why crime only pays for big shots and politicians.
Even Lang’s two early-1940s Westerns are thematically on-point, even though they’re very different in tone from what he’d done before. Colorful and often comic, 1940’s The Return Of Frank James and 1941’s Western Union both take a breezy approach to two historical subjects—the life of Jesse James’ brother after the outlaw’s assassination, and the expansion of the telegraph through the Midwest, respectively—then turn them into studies of morally compromised but still fundamentally decent men. Henry Fonda plays Frank James as a humble, dry-witted guy trying to downplay his infamy even as he’s fully aware of himself as a historical figure in a complicated time for America. And in Western Union, Randolph Scott plays Vance Shaw, a criminal looking to reform himself by taking an honest job stringing wire. Both films make direct reference to the American Civil War—it’s a bone of contention in Frank James’ climactic trial in the former, and something Shaw’s former gang uses as an excuse to steal from Yankee travelers in the latter—and both show people of the past as governed by the same bigotry, arrogance, and desire as their descendants. In a reprise of You And Me’s opening array of luxury items, for example, Lang establishes the way of life in 1860s Omaha in Western Union via a montage of the city’s amenities: guns, booze, and lingerie.
War and noir (1941-1950)
1. Man Hunt (1941)
2. Hangmen Also Die! (1943)
3. Ministry Of Fear (1944)
4. The Woman In The Window (1944)
5. Scarlet Street (1945)
6. Cloak And Dagger (1946)
7. Secret Beyond The Door (1948)
8. House By The River (1950)
9. American Guerrilla In The Philippines (1950)
Over his first two decades as a movie director, Lang was responsible for some of the most memorable images in cinema’s early history, but he’d never filmed anything as shocking as one shot at the start of his 1941 thriller Man Hunt. As renowned hunter Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) settles into a shooting position on a brushy hill, he looks through his telescopic sight at his target: Adolf Hitler. Given that the United States wasn’t yet involved in World War II when Man Hunt was made (or even when it was released), even the implication that a movie hero might assassinate Hitler was a major provocation, which put Lang in a bit of hot water with the U.S. government and the gatekeepers of the industry’s production code. But Lang held firm, and Man Hunt set the tone for all the war movies he’d make in the 1940s. Even after America entered the war—and even after the war was over—Lang made action movies where the enemy wasn’t some vague antagonist in a different-colored uniform. In Lang’s war films, the villains frequently looked and talked a lot like the heroes, and posed a real, specific threat to ordinary citizens, not just soldiers.
Thorndike doesn’t kill Hitler in Man Hunt, but just by targeting Der Führer, he becomes a target himself, tailed by the Nazis even after he returns to London, where he strikes up a relationship with a working-class woman (Joan Bennett) that inadvertently puts her life in danger. In 1943’s Hangmen Also Die (based on a true story, and co-written by Bertolt Brecht), the Nazis occupying Czechoslovakia turn the citizenry against each other while searching for a leader of the resistance. In 1944’s Ministry Of Fear (based on a Graham Greene novel), Ray Milland plays Stephen Neale, who leaves an asylum to enter a beleaguered England where no one will believe his claim that he’s uncovered a network of Nazi spies. In 1946’s Cloak And Dagger, Gary Cooper is Professor Alvah Jesper, a civilian scientist venturing behind enemy lines to uncover evidence of the Nazis’ atomic-weapons program, and dragging other civilians into harm’s way. And in 1950’s American Guerrilla In The Philippines, Tyrone Power plays Ensign Chuck Palmer, who works undercover to keep the U.S. informed on what the Japanese are up to until such time as General MacArthur can fulfill his promise to “return” to the Philippines, though frequently, the Japanese awareness of the lurking American presence makes life harder for the Filipinos.
Lang’s war films aren’t his best work, by and large. They tend to be choppy, staggering great setpieces with long stretches of exposition. Either due to the genre demands or Lang’s bosses’ demands, they sometimes slip too easily into the kind of jingoism that his movies usually eschewed. But Lang and his screenwriters snuck in a few moments of clear-eyed observation on what war does to people, whether it’s the Czechs in Hangmen Also Die feeling like traitors for living their own lives in their own country, or Neale in Ministry Of Fear telling a fortune-teller to skip reading his past and just tell him his future, because a world at war has no time for historical context. Cloak And Dagger is the most poignant in this regard, with Professor Jesper lamenting at the start that the government will spend a million bucks for his secret mission, but not to cure cancer, and then later enjoying a few days of domestic bliss with one of his contacts (played by Lilli Palmer) while knowing that the larger plot they’re caught up in is going to keep them from living happily after. Even the flattest of Lang’s war pictures—American Guerrilla In The Philippines—has its sour side, given that its hero seems more deeply committed to the bottle of Coca-Cola he gets to drink at the end of the movie than to any of the people he’s supposed to be safeguarding.
After Man Hunt, Lang worked on two films that were ultimately taken out of his hands and given to director Archie Mayo: 1941’s Confirm Or Deny (another war film), and the brooding 1942 underclass melodrama Moontide. The latter represented a mode that Lang stuck with for most of the rest of his time in Hollywood, with frequently fruitful results. As the film-noir style he’d helped codify in the 1930s became more commonplace, Lang himself directed a string of unconventional noirs, populated not by gangsters and detectives, but by psychologically damaged middle-class dopes. The ridiculously similar The Woman In The Window (released in 1944) and Scarlet Street (released in 1945) established the template. In the former, Edward G. Robinson plays a criminology professor who’s lured into the apartment of a sexy model played by Joan Bennett, where he accidentally kills a man and then is blackmailed by an unscrupulous mug played by Dan Duryea. In the latter, Robinson plays a henpecked corporate drone who saves a streetwalker (Bennett again) from being beaten by a pimp (Duryea again), then becomes a patsy to both of them, forced to dabble in embezzlement and art-forgery. The Woman In The Window is hampered a bit by Nunnaly Johnson’s talky, slow-paced script and weak ending, but Lang knows just when to point the camera at Robinson: right when the character is moved to exercise his frustrations with his life via violence. Lang pulls the same trick in the superior Scarlet Street, showing the pleasure the hero takes in killing. The difference is that Scarlet Street is more of a thoroughgoing nightmare, in which a man turns the wrong corner, then sees his already-pathetic life fall apart.
Bennett re-teamed with Lang one more time (in fact, she had her husband/producer Walter Wagner hire Lang) for 1948’s Secret Beyond The Door, in which she plays Celia, a woman of means who marries cash-strapped architect Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), then questions his unusual hobby of recreating the rooms where famous murders took place. Secret Beyond The Door turns into a riff on Bluebeard when Celia becomes curious about the one room she isn’t allowed to see, and then it ends disappointingly, with a bit of explanatory mumbo-jumbo that rivals Psycho’s epilogue for its dime-store Freudianism. But it’s one of the most striking-looking and sounding films of Lang’s career, with dreamy art direction and an at-times-dissonant Miklós Rózsa score. And whether the rationale for Mark’s bizarre behavior makes sense or not, all the shots of his wife and sister snipping the ends off of candles and flowers makes its own point about Mark’s relationship to the women in his life.
Lang wrapped up this era of seedy, psychology-heavy tales of bourgeois murder with the strange, brilliant House By The River, starring Louis Hayward as Stephen Byrne, a successful novelist who begins the movie by strangling his maid when she refuses to have sex with him, then frames his overly helpful brother John (Lee Bowman) for the crime, while using the whole scandal to sell more books. Lang made some great films after House By The River, but it’s the last film he made in Hollywood where the storytelling’s visual components are so front-and-center. The movie is ominous from the start, when Stephen first watches a dead deer float past his opulent home, then gets turned on by the sound of his maid’s bathwater draining through the house’s pipes. For the rest of the film, Lang often frames the action through tall, narrow windows that constrict and define the characters, while he and screenwriter Mel Dinelli (adapting an A.P. Herbert novel) offer some unforgiving analysis of the upper class’ ability to excuse their own crimes.
Hired gun, still fully loaded (1952-1956)
1. Rancho Notorious (1952)
2. Clash By Night (1952)
3. The Blue Gardenia (1953)
4. The Big Heat (1953)
5. Human Desire (1954)
6. Moonfleet (1955)
7. While The City Sleeps (1956)
8. Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956)
Lang ended up in a precarious position in Hollywood in the 1950s. While his stylistic influence was more apparent than ever (especially in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who often claimed Lang as a personal favorite), Lang didn’t have enough of a track record of financial success to get his pick of A-list projects. After a run of aesthetically exciting films in the 1940s, Lang mostly settled into making mid-budget genre fare, with few dynamic visual touches—at least not to the degree Lang had used them before. But perhaps because the string of crime pictures Lang made in the 1950s weren’t as high-profile, Lang and his screenwriters were freer to subvert expectations. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Lang frequently had to soften his heroes and his endings, unable to do what he’d done with M and indict mob rule while still having a loathsome protagonist. Lang’s 1950s noirs are even-toned and more conventionally procedural, in the mode of cheap paperback mystery novels, but they still throw curveballs, in the form of surprise endings and main characters who keep dark secrets.
Many of these films also bring to the surface the sexuality that earlier Langs only hinted at. In 1938’s You And Me, Joe Dennis walks into his new wife’s one-room apartment for the first time and sheepishly asks, “Where’s the, uh…?,” unable to say “bed.” But in 1953’s The Blue Gardenia, newly jilted Norah Larkin (played by Anne Baxter) throws herself at wolfish artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), and the two of them drunkenly discuss the merits of a Polynesian cocktail called “The Mermaid’s Downfall.” In 1956’s While The City Sleeps, a newspaper editor orders an underling to rouse a reporter out of bed, adding, “Anybody’s bed.” In that same year’s Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, writer Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) is out with a newspaper publisher’s daughter, Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), when she mentions that she’s never seen his apartment, and he cracks, “That’s supposed to be my line.” The Blue Gardenia, While The City Sleeps, and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt are sometimes referred to as Lang’s “newspaper trilogy,” since all three are about crusading reporters and columnists who push sensationalism in the name of justice, and usually end up making a bad situation worse. But they’re also about men and women on the make, and they’re relatively frank about what consenting, unmarried adults do at night.
Along with sex, Lang’s 1950s films took a cue from House By The River and were frequently attentive to class. The plot of Beyond A Reasonable Doubt has Susan’s dad employing Tom to implicate himself in a murder, in order to prove that juries are too quick to hang the death penalty on defendants based on circumstantial evidence. But then the plan goes awry, and Susan has to fight for Tom, wielding the kind of political influence that a non-socialite wouldn’t have. In 1953’s The Big Heat—the toughest and the best of Lang’s 1950s noirs—Glenn Ford plays a cop who quits his job so he can break the law to bring down a mob boss, and throughout the film, the hero makes a nuisance of himself just by bulling his way into the crime-lord’s fancy house and “tracking dirt into it.” The Big Heat is relentlessly, uncompromisingly brutal, and one major way the movie signals that it means business is how its violence makes its way into placid suburban homes and upscale mansions. The most famous scene in the film has a thug played by Lee Marvin disfiguring moll Gloria Grahame with a pot of hot coffee, which is something of a symbol for how criminal ruthlessness sullies what should be beautiful.
Grahame and Ford also appear in Lang’s squalid 1954 melodrama Human Desire (based on an Émile Zola novel), with Grahame playing a battered wife and Ford playing a train engineer. The two have an affair and plot a murder, in what in some ways is a darker version of Lang’s 1952 film Clash By Night (based on a Clifford Odets play), in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a fisherman’s wife who embarks on an affair with a raging misogynist (Robert Ryan) mostly of out of boredom and bad habit. There’s no killing in Clash, but like Human Desire (and Liliom, decades earlier), it’s about the romantic woes of hard-bitten folks who think of themselves as “no good.” When Stanwyck’s character in Clash By Night lifts her glass and says, “That’s why I drink that shellac, to get unborn,” she’s speaking for every “fallen” woman and man who’s just muddling through.
Lang also made two historical genre pieces in this era: the 18th-century underworld adventure Moonfleet, and the flashback-heavy Western Rancho Notorious. The former is entertaining but fairly nondescript, and Lang-like primarily in the way its roguish hero (played by Stewart Granger) dallies with multiple women and resists playing a paternal role toward a young boy he becomes guardian to. Rancho Notorious is a much more rewarding film, and even more like a noir than Lang’s brighter 1940s Westerns. As cowboy Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) tracks the men who killed his fiancée, he hears stories about a mysterious ranch named Chuck-A-Luck, run by a former saloon-dweller named Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich). The time-jumping narrative and the way Rancho Notorious handles exposition—via a recurring folksong—make the film unusual and memorable. The characters with shady pasts and the scene of showgirls riding on the backs of cowboys make it a Lang.
Epilogue, abroad (1959-1960)
1. “The Indian Epic” (1959)
2. The Thousand Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse (1960)
Early in his career, Lang tried to make Thea von Harbou’s novel The Indian Tomb into a movie, only to see the project taken from him and given to another director. In the late 1950s, while on the outs in Hollywood, Lang was offered a second chance at The Indian Tomb by a German producer who owned the rights, so he returned to the director’s chair in his old stomping grounds, and made another two-part, nearly four-hour movie. The two films that came out in 1959—titled The Tiger Of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, and sometimes lumped together as “The Indian Epic”—are a strange crossbreed of cheapie Steve Reeves Hercules movies and David Lean, with some near-nude dancing by Debra Paget sprinkled in for spice. There’s a logyness about “The Indian Epic” that’s distressing to anyone who fondly remembers Fury, but some of the old Lang themes are there, as the films deal with forbidden love and character-testing jealousy.
After crossing one long-overdue project off his list, Lang ended his directorial career by taking another pass at Mabuse. Like George Romero re-imagining Night Of The Living Dead for different eras, Lang’s The Thousand Eyes Of Dr. Mabuse revives the idea of a master persuader for the Cold War surveillance age, with the bulk of its action taking place in a hotel that’s been furnished with one-way mirrors, cameras, and microphones. As a murder investigation reveals that some new criminal kingpin may be operating under the name “Dr. Mabuse,” the authorities are drawn to this voyeur’s paradise, where they can watch undressing women and quarreling lovers. Though less epic than the earlier Mabuse films, Thousand Eyes has its share of classic suspense sequences. More importantly, it’s a fitting and chilling farewell for Lang, suggesting the persistence of some kinds of evil from age to age, fostered by societies that on some level must need them to exist.