Weekend Viewing: Fritz Lang in Hollywood
Eight films by the German auteur that you can view at home
The Film Forum in New York begins the two-week retrospective "Fritz Lang in Hollywood" which, as the title explains, surveys the German legend's work during his American exile: all 22 films he made in the United States between 1934 to 1956, in 35mm. It's the film event of the moment in New York (see Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, J. Hoberman in The Village Voice, Cullen Gallagher at Moving Image Source, Dan Callahan in The L, and so on).
Those of us outside of the Big Apple may not be able to join the crowds for the glory of such classics (both major and minor) projected on the big screen, but Fritz Lang is a filmmaker well represented on DVD so here's my suggestion for your own festival: the best of Fritz Lang's American films, designed for maximum small screen pleasure.
Fritz Lang’s American debut is an indictment of lynch mob justice starring Spencer Tracy as an honest man wrongly arrested and left to burn to death in a prison blaze started by a vicious mob of normal American citizens whipped into a frenzy of vengeance while his bride-to-be (Sylvia Sidney) watches, terrified and helpless. He escapes, though he’s believed to have perished in the fire, and from hiding he plots his revenge on the mob by indicting them for murder. It was the first of his loose trilogy of social justice starring Sidney (she returns in the equally searing "You Only Live Once" and the lighter "You and Me") and it grabbed audiences by the lapels with its frank dramatic confrontations. The Warner features commentary by film historian Peter Bogdanovich, with excerpts of his archival audio interview with Fritz Lang. (Warner)
You Only Live Once (1937)
Where "Fury" burned with righteous fury, "You Only Live Once" is a romantic tragedy shot in the shadows of night, and with it Lang created the outlaw lovers on the lam genre. Henry Fonda is the ex-con whose efforts to go straight are sunk when he’s sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit, kills a man escaping from prison, and hits the road in an endless flight with his pregnant wife (Sylvia Sidney). One of Lang’s films of social protest, it’s both strikingly American and quintessentially Lang, with two innocents plunged by fate (and a corrupt society steeped in hypocrisy) into a life of poverty and flight, and directed in the same pre-film noir grace as France’s 1930s poetic realist crime dramas. (Image)
Man Hunt (1941)
Lang, whose mother was Jewish, fled Nazi Germany in the early thirties. The true story is rather mired in legend, but his wife Thea von Harbou stayed behind and joined the Nazi propaganda machine. Lang, meanwhile, made the first of many anti-Nazi dramas in 1941, before the rest of Hollywood had geared up for movies about the war. This thriller, based on a novel by Geoffrey Household, is a twist on "The Most Dangerous Game," only this time the game is Hitler and the apolitical big game hunter (Walter Pidgeon) is captured, tortured and turned into a patriot as he flees the Gestapo (embodied by George Sanders at his most arrogant) for England. Lang is more interested in the personal journey than the political message yet the twine nicely here as Lang twists the stakes of Pidgeon's ordeal. (Fox)
One of Lang's greatest films, "Scarlet Street" is a beautifully tawdry noir melodrama about a hen-pecked middle-class bank cashier (Edward G. Robinson) who becomes so obsessed with a scheming, shallow streetwalker (Joan Bennett) it twists him into acts he couldn’t imagine in his suffocating old life. It’s as bleak a vision as has come out of Hollywood’s classic years, a film noir of sour lives and curdled fantasies played out in a claustrophobic studio backlot all the more effective for its unreality. Dan Duryea is at is lizardly best as a vicious pimp who puts the screws plots to take the unhappily married Robinson for everything he’s got. There are a lot of poor editions of this film so make sure you get the Kino edition, which has been mastered from a vault negative. It makes a great double feature with the earlier, glossier MGM film "The Woman in the Window" as a warped mirror reflection of the same essential dynamic with all three leads in similar roles in the predatory triangle: an older man, a beautiful young woman, a blackmailer, a murder. (Kino) / (MGM)
Rancho Notorious (1952)
This is the story of Chuck-a-luck, or so explains the theme song of this truly bizarre revenge western starring Marlene Dietrich as an exotic saloon girl turned mercenary entrepreneur. By this time in his career, Lang was working in the shallow end of the studio budget pool but even with the cheap backdrops in place of location shooting, Lang directs with the same intensity as ever. Arthur Kennedy (always an underrated as a leading man) is the cowboy tracking the outlaws who killed his woman to a desert hide-away run by Dietrich, and his growing love for this coldly professional beauty gets tangled with his blind fury. This is one of the oddest westerns around, with a twisted folk tale of a theme song, a colorful rogues gallery and a savage undercurrent of "hate, murder and revenge!" (Warner Archive)
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
Good girl Anne Baxter (at her virginal blond best) enters a nightmare of paranoia when her impulsive date with sleazy masher Raymond Burr ends in her blackout and his murder. Fritz Lang turns a lurid little tale of L.A. intrigue (the title itself is a play on the notorious Black Dahlia murder) into an innocent’s oppressive ordeal of guilt and fear only intensified by our heroine’s foggy recollections. Richard Conte’s smarmy newsman is an opportunist whose conniving promises boomerang back and knock him into perhaps his first ethical dilemma. Lang’s low budget shows through in cheap sets and limited locations, but he achieves the seediness the tawdry tale deserves. Nat "King" Cole appears in the nightclub scene to croon the film's theme song. (Kino)
And the perfect end to this small scale festival…
The Big Heat (1953)
Family man and mild-mannered cop Glenn Ford is driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a car bomb meant for him. The scene is a shocker—the brutal violence of American crime exploding into the suburban family home—and it defines the character, for better and worse. Meanwhile Lang, directing with a stripped down style and a lean narrative drive, spins a shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals on a low budget and creates in an almost abstracted urban world. Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality (all the more effective in that it takes place offscreen, sketched with suggestions and gestures and searing, vivid sound) and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak. A masterpiece of film noir and one of the great American films of all time.