[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Should Man Revolt or Adapt? (1940-1949)

No matter its results, the revolutionary impulse seems to be condemned by Lang as foreign to nature and inspired by the desire to create a new social order, a new collective morality, while the asocial impulse—often stemming from the barriers that Society places around itself for protection—seems to him to be more congenial, as though reflecting an individual and natural morality. But these are only tendencies that we sense in the direction of actors, or which the dramatic construction hints at. Except when he’s dealing with some typical examples of the American society, ones particularly marked by it, Lang doesn’t judge and remains objective. He judges neither Joe Wilson nor Eddie Taylor, no more than he does the killer of Dusseldorf. He doesn’t show a path to follow. What counts for him are facts, their circumstances, their immediate significance. Even when there appears to be a moral significance, it is, more or less, simply the reflection of a metaphysics.

On the other hand, in this period, Lang becomes more of a moralist than a metaphysician. Not happy with simply showing reality, he now reflects on what he’s showing. His style becomes simpler, less lively, and more sober because he doesn’t have to recreate the world as he sees it anymore, i.e. through formal experiments, especially expressionism; Lang now simply shows how and why people act the way they do in a given milieu—which is the reason characters become more important than the sets—and tries to draw out a moral point of view.

America seems to be the chief reason for this evolution: in contrast to Germany, America is a country whose essential problems are moral and immediate. Now, Lang worked in three genres, the Western, the spy film, and the psychological drama. The first of these, especially, and the second, in part, are typical of America and are always conceived in moral terms. What we have here then is an adaptation of Lang’s world to existing genres, a period of trial and errors, of reflection which makes the oeuvre go around in circles, and which, though very successful, is less memorable than the previous period.


Westerns (1940)

Still a lover of exoticism and novelty, Lang often paid visits to the Indian tribes of California and Arizona. Having forged a friendship with the Navajos, and even learnt their language, he wrote a script based on his experience that took place between 1820 and 1920 around a ghost mine in the Rockies. Perhaps due to the failure of You and Me, Americana never took off. But the existence of this project encouraged Darryl Zanuck to propose to Lang a sequel to Henry King’s successful Jesse James (1938), and then a second Western, both in colour.

The Return of Frank James (1940) presents the James brothers, famous outlaws of the 1880s, after they have mended their ways. Having learnt about Jesse’s murder by the Ford brothers, Frank refuses to avenge him, believing that the law will take its own course. But when Bob Ford is acquitted, Frank goes underground, and, since he doesn’t have money to carry out his revenge, he robs a railway bank with his young friend Clem, who unwittingly causes the death of an employee. Rookie journalist Eleanor publishes a fictional account of Frank’s death that Clem feeds her. Believing to be out of danger, the Ford brothers put up their play The Death of Jesse James. Frank James is in the first row of the theatre. The Ford brothers take flight, pursued by Frank. Charlie Ford dies accidentally. Eleanor informs Frank that his servant Pinky is accused of the railway bank murder and convinces him to give up on his revenge and turn himself in to save Pinky’s life. Frank is acquitted. On the way out of the trial, scores are settled: Bob Ford and Clem are killed. Happy ending.

It’s a rather loose adaptation: Frank James’ character is more idealized than it really was, perhaps at the behest of Lang, whose major theme—vengeance—we find here. Like the hero of Fury, Frank has all the reason to avenge his brother, but his moral probity drives him to carry on with his farm work calmly, not paying heed to the contempt of his former comrades. He goes after the Ford brothers only when the law proves itself inadequate. He turns himself in to the sheriff to save his black servant. Back home after his revenge, he will finally be able to say: “Today, I can see myself in the mirror without feeling ashamed”: without doubt, Frank James becomes a moral example here. He takes a course of action which owes everything to personal reflection and nothing to external temptations of legal comfort or eternal rebellion. Moral honesty hence comes across as a kind of heroism, in which man is ceaselessly caught between a rock and a hard place, between two clans, at the mercy of which Vengeance places him.

The Return of Frank James, Henry Fonda on the left.

In Western Union (1940), the theme of vengeance makes way for that of honour, of the given word; but the problems it poses are similar.

In 1859, the outlaw Vance Shaw saves the life of Edward Creighton, who, unaware of Shaw’s past, gives him an important post two years later at the Western Union, a telegraph company whose wires Creighton must get across the Rocky Mountains. Vance, a reformed man and an excellent employee, pursues a gang of cattle thieves led by his ex-accomplice Jack Slade, who traps him but lets him go on the condition that he keeps quiet. Under the pretext of fighting the Northerners, Slade sets fire to the Western Union camp, but not before extracting Vance with a view to rescue him. Vance’s absence is considered a proof of guilt. Vance tells his rival, the dandy Blake who is also in love with Creighton’s sister, that Slade is his stepbrother and that he plans to kill him. But Slade kills him first and Blake avenges him. Happy ending.

Vance can’t betray his stepbrother and prefers lying to the company, to which he nonetheless remains faithful. Another Cornelian dilemma. Caught between a rock and a hard place, he resolves to commit fratricide once he’s freed from his word by Slade’s abuse of it. It’s unfortunate that the Hays Code tampered with the ending of both films: since no murderer should go unpunished, and there must be a murderer in the story, it won’t be Frank James, but the kind Clem who will be killed at the end as though by chance. Box-office and History demand that the hero doesn’t die. Having been an outlaw, Vance is killed by Slade…

In these Westerns, the mise en scène is simple, happy to simply serve the plot. Our impression must perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, since we only saw black-and-white copies of these Technicolor films in France. Besides, English critics have remarked on the beauty of the night scenes, of the fire scene in Western Union, the train hold-up scene in Frank James, “which have rarely been equalled in the finesse and subtlety of their lighting.” (Gavin Lambert, Fritz Lang’s America, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1955, issue no. 25/2, p. 93). In any case, the discretion and rarity of camera movements, and the sobriety of performances in the classical and American style, render these films very austere, down till their choice of excessively arid landscapes. They clash with the lively universe of the Western almost unpleasantly. To be sure, this sobriety remarkably underlines the moral dignity of the heroes, so well conveyed by the cold concentration the actors bring to their roles: this rigorous lyricism may recall Howard Hawks, minus the humour. Lang gives it a shot, all the same, through the character played by Slim Summerville, the lily-livered cook at the Western Union. But it’s a crude and facile humour, a para-Germanic humour which smacks of old age and soon becomes off-putting in its pointless insistence. There are also several episodes of no interest, serving solely to move the plot ahead, which Lang hasn’t been able to integrate into his style or his world view. Lang’s first Western experiment hence comes across as a semi-disappointment. The big machinery of Fox certainly has a great deal to do with it.

Western Union, Randolph Scott in the centre, Robert Young on the right.