|3.5||Hangmen Also Die!||1943|
|3.0||Ministry Of Fear||1944|
|3.0||The Woman In The Window||1944|
|3.0||Cloak And Dagger||1946|
|3.5||Secret Beyond The Door||1948|
|4.5||House By The River||1950|
|2.5||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.
|3.5||Clash By Night||1952|
|3.0||The Blue Gardenia||1953|
|4.5||The Big Heat||1953|
|3.0||While The City Sleeps||1956|
|3.5||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.