Hangmen Also Die! (The Cornfield #24)

The title itself is bracing, as the words Hangmen Also Die! tell us that no one here gets out alive, including the monsters. Fritz Lang’s film is a work of wartime (1943) propaganda: it is a fictionalization of the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “Hangman,” the Nazi Reich Protector in charge of Bohemia and Moravia. It functions very well as propaganda, as snatches of the Moldau are heard throughout, and the poetry of one imprisoned Czech is literally turned into a hymn of resistance against the occupiers.

Within that legitimate propaganda purpose, Lang finds difficult material, including the fact that the exhilarating strike against a hated criminal oppressor brings about an immediate and brutal retaliation, as the Germans arrest hundreds of Czechs and begin executing them – hardly an uncomplicated piece of rousing entertainment. And in one sequence, when the Czech woman (Anna Lee) who knows the identity of the assassin tries to go to Gestapo headquarters and reveal his name because her father is among the arrested, her journey is interrupted by locals trying to stop her – and who suddenly seem frightening and oppressive in their own way, a group gone out of control with its own animal energy. Lang was always alert to anything that could become menacing, even a heroic Czech crowd. (In Patrick McGilligan’s bio of Lang, when Lang worked on the script with Bertolt Brecht, Brecht believed that “the people” would rise up and topple Hitler; Lang was unconvinced.)

Lang’s M is a manhunt focused on finding a killer we want found, and Hangmen Also Die! is a manhunt focused on finding a killer we want free; the reversal makes Hangmen a less propulsive experience, or compelling in a different way. “Hiding” becomes a crucial impulse in this one. Both movies arrange themselves around crisp scenes of people in rooms plotting out strategies, and views of streets available for hiding and running. Hangmen has so many scenes and characters, Lang creates a warren of offices and apartments and waiting rooms; some of them are large and eerily empty, some of them crowded, all of them nervous. This design is the movie’s most effective aspect, the way Prague becomes a nightmare puzzle without an open end – the way those streets always turn into a corner, never into a long boulevard that allows an exit.

The Czechs are played by mostly American actors (Walter Brennan, Brian Donlevy, and Dennis O’Keefe most prominently; Gene Lockhart as the beerman whose story takes over the final section) and the Germans by foreign actors using their accents: Alexander Granach, Reinhold Schünzel. The style of the German actors is stylized and big, as though to demonstrate the decadence of the master race and old Europe; the comparison works, in bold strokes.

But the overall effect of Hangmen Also Die! is the sense of anxiety about being exposed, or revealed: when Donlevy’s assassin is standing right there in the room when the Nazis burst in to the apartment of Brennan’s soft-spoken professor, or when the Resistance members get together and reveal their acts of sabotage against the occupiers. In the latter, even before you know that someone in the room is betraying the Resistance and feeding information to the Gestapo, you somehow know it. Because that’s what Lang was so good at, this fear of being caught and exposed for what you are; and all those cramped rooms are closing in on that unwanted purpose.

House by the River (The Cornfield #16)

Made for Republic Pictures in 1950, House by the River has an appropriate feeling of cost-cutting and imposed thrift; the cheapness of the production fits the sleazy subject better than a bigger-budgeted version might have. Nobody (I guess) has ever mistaken it for one of Fritz Lang’s greatest achievements, but it has a smothering quality that is evoked with utter authority.

Dorothy Patrick, Louis Hayward

It is one of a small collection of films that exist in a very narrow sub-subgenre: movies about writers (or “being a writer”) that are ostensibly about something else. This subgenre includes Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which pretends to be about alcoholism, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which pretends to be about madness. These are films about men who desperately want to be writing, but are doing a horrible job of it, and, like many writers, invent elaborate methods of avoiding their work. Someday I will write a grand piece about this subgenre, but, you see, I am putting it off just now.

House by the River, the river of which is apparently Southern and the house of which is apparently Victorian – such details seem beside the point here – begins with writer Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward, perfectly cast) sitting on the back lawn of his large house, which looks out at the unnamed river. He is trying to write. He has had some sort of success before, but is receiving yet another rejection letter as we meet him. The busybody battle-ax who lives next door asks him about his writing efforts and failures, which is always the last thing a writer wants to be fucking asked about. It’s dusk, apparently, although most of the movie seems to exist in a dim-lit funk anyway; the scene looks amazing, like a visualization of depression.

In the river, a dead cow, or water buffalo or something, floats by. The battle-ax reminds us that the location’s proximity to the mouth of the river makes tidal effects pronounced, and this carcass, like other garbage the river has taken on, will pass back and forth for a period of days. What a marvelous image for Fritz Lang’s cinema, which is so often marked with guilty consciences (often with good reason) or other stains that can’t be forgotten. (1950: Jean Renoir was making The River, a beautiful film with the river as central image of the never-ending, non-judgmental flow of life; Lang’s river pushes filth back and forth.)

Yes, it might be a little obvious, but this is a stark film. Stephen and the battle-ax note the comeliness of his housemaid (Dorothy Patrick – Lang had wanted to cast a black actress), who announces she is taking a bath in an upstairs room; a few minutes later, as he approaches the house, he hears the bath water running down the drainpipe outside. Lang gives the pipe its own shot, as it gurgles. Stephen smiles, the pervert. There follows a murder, and Stephen’s lame (I mean literally, he has a bad leg) brother (Lee Bowman) getting implicated in the coverup, and Stephen’s wife (Jane Wyatt) becoming disillusioned by her husband’s oddly jubilant response to the disappearance of their maid.

Of course he’s jubilant: the case has brought him some public attention, and he gets to do a book signing. Plus, he can write again, as he prepares a new manuscript that will be based on the murder. This horrible person is a great match for Louis Hayward, whose face has the same crumbling seediness of the house, and whose voice is surely the secret of his ability to snow people. (He really looks like Orson Welles, and is just as shrewd as Welles about the voice-seduction.)

Lang’s visualization of the river is shivery, and there’s one horrifying scene where Stephen is whacking at the canvas sack in the water, trying to gaff it with a pole; he finally makes contact with it and tears the sack, whereupon the corpse’s long blond hair comes floating out, waving there in the river. Elsewhere, Lang relentlessly returns to a shot down a hallway or path, creating a funnel through which the characters are channelled. No escape, but then you knew that.

1931 Ten Best Movies

Movie restorations are good and admirable and the people who do them are to be commended. On the other hand, setting things right with a movie can mess with your relationship with that film. Which is my way of saying that in restored versions of Fritz Lang’s M, I greatly miss the little swatch of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that played under the opening credits, a credit sequence that I guess must have been cobbled together for some later stage of the film’s distribution (the version one saw on PBS or in 16 mm. prints for years and years), and which has been replaced in restored prints with silent, stark, and very impressive graphic images.

Well, Peter Lorre still whistles the Grieg in the movie, of course, so there’s that. And that whistling, and the thousand other details in this movie, make it a gateway film: see it at age 13, and you will have to find out more about foreign films, these movies from different places and have subtitles at the bottom of the picture. And you’ll never go back. The title alone – how cool is that? – and then the arresting story and the overwhelming atmosphere, and then just when you think you might have it sized up right, Lorre’s child murderer begins speaking at the end, and then you get this feeling maybe this is about more than a murder case, but about something larger, something dark that spills over the strict edges of the movie’s authoritative frames and seems to reach all around the world.

In short, M became one of my favorite movies in adolescence and has never lost its place. The #2 movie for the 1931 list is an all-galaxy masterpiece, too, but this had to be M. The #3 film is by Lang’s fellow German genius, F. W. Murnau (who completed the project he’d begun as a collaboration with documentarian Robert Flaherty), the last movie Murnau made before his early death.

And with that, the man in black will soon be here. The ten best movies of 1931:

1. M (Fritz Lang)

2. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin)

3. Tabu (F.W. Murnau/Robert Flaherty)

4. La Chienne (Jean Renoir)

5. Frankenstein (James Whale)

6. Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg)

7. Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra)

8. À nous la liberté (René Clair)

9. Dracula (Tod Browning)

10. The Public Enemy (William Wellman)

Should find room on there for Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange, an early effort but amazingly assured. Same description applies to La Chienne. Capra and Wellman apply their very American energies to the romantic comedy and the gangster picture; the Capra movie is really ahead of its time, while The Public Enemy is perfectly of it. Dracula gets a rap for being sort of stagey and static, but the opening reels are fluid and unforgettable, and there’s something mysterious and quiet about the whole movie that becomes more mesmerizing the more you see it.

Also-rans include Clair’s Le Million, Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform, Hawks’s The Criminal Code, and Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar. Some directors on the list had strong second movies, including Clair, Capra (The Miracle Woman, with a blazing Barbara Stanwyck performance), and Wellman (Other Men’s Women).  John Ford had Arrowsmith, and G.W. Pabst had two flavorful titles, Kameradschaft and The Threepenny Opera.

Frank Borzage’s Bad Girl and King Vidor’s Street Scene are lesser offerings from major directors, and then you’ve got Monkey Business, which is not the best Marx Brothers movie but has a few absolutely indelible sequences, many involving Groucho in a lady’s stateroom.

1928 Ten Best Movies

spione3A banner year for the big guns of silent cinema, and a duke-out for the #1 slot. It’s a close call between Carl Theodore Dreyer’s intense depiction of the spaces and faces involved in a martyr’s death, and Fritz Lang’s awesome cataloging of a master criminal’s incredible reach. While The Passion of Joan of Arc deserves its secure place as a classic, Spies is even more alive on screen, boasting the prototype for many James Bondian adventures to come and one of the great endings in movies. (Joan will be one of the main topics in an upcoming lecture of mine; see details here.)

One caveat to the list: I ran out of time to watch Josef von Sternberg’s Docks of New York, even though it’s been sitting in my stack for months. So I may have to amend the ten. But for the moment, here are the best of 1928:

1. Spies (Fritz Lang)

2. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodore Dreyer)

3. The Circus (Charlie Chaplin)

4. The Wind (Victor Sjostrom)

5. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner)

6. The Crowd (King Vidor)

7. The Wedding March (Erich von Stroheim)

8. Oktober (Sergei Eisenstein)

9. Speedy (Ted Wilde)

10. Street Angel (Frank Borzage)

Directing credits don’t always tell the whole story, and just because Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd didn’t take credit on Steamboat Bill and Speedy doesn’t mean they weren’t the actual guiding forces behind those wonderful films. Chaplin was never shy about taking credit, and The Circus, while not attempting the emotional heft of The Gold Rush or City Lights, contains a series of blissful sight gags. You know it’s a strong year for movies when a masterpiece such as The Crowd falls to #6; this movie is at least as influential as any other on the list. And while Falconetti is rightly famous for her concentrated performance in Joan, she’s matched by Lillian Gish giving her all in The Wind, a stunning work that has been growing in reputation for the last 20 years or so.

Some terrific movies barely missed the tally: White Shadows of the South Seas, a gorgeous shot-on-location picture; The Cameraman, another Keaton film, not always mentioned in his best work but hilarious nevertheless (and featuring one of the great movie monkeys of all time); nice early efforts by future Hollywood giants, Submarine (Capra) and A Girl in Every Port (Hawks); Vidor’s Show People and Sternberg’s Last Command; Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs; and a fascinating Martin and Osa Johnson travelogue, Simba.

Next week: 1966.

Movie Diary 11/10/2008

spione33Spies (Fritz Lang, 1928). In January I begin a multi-part history of early German cinema, so re-visiting some classics is on the agenda now. Lang’s ability to collapse screen space (and time) is fully in bloom, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s performance helped spawn a dozen Bond villains to come (although he’s more fun than any of them).

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962). Prepping for a talk about Lawrence this coming Sunday. Seeing the movie on the small screen, with the overwhelming spectacle reduced to a manageable size (i.e., not on the vast screen of Seattle’s Cinerama theater), I was struck at how the political material sticks out. Appropriately enough, one sees a different angle on this film depending on how it’s watched, and in this case the chess match of a Middle East entanglement was much to the fore.