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

Crime Dramas (1944-49)

The war about to end, Lang turned to more intimate, less general subjects set within the scope of contemporary America. The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) and Secret Beyond the Door (1946) form a new trilogy, to which we can add House by the River (1949) and which can be called psychological, even psychoanalytical, crime dramas. After the struggle against Nazism, here’s a struggle with oneself.

Featuring the same actors, three of whom are present in the first two, photographed by the same cinematographer, and the last two produced by the company Lang founded, Diana, these films are hinged on repetitions. An evolutionary repetition with corrective variations from one film, one scene to the next. Like certain great filmmakers, Hawks for example, Lang is a specialist of remakes, the first form of repetition. Remake of films by others: Scarlet Street is a remake of La Chienne (Renoir), Human Desire that of La Bête humaine (Renoir), Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das Indische Grabmal those of Das Indische Grabmal (Joe May), only written by Lang. We must also count the four Mabuse pictures (1922, 1932, 1960), the multiplication of films through two versions or two very different episodes, whose fans know that one is always superior to the other: one must be “for” Das Brillantenschiff, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler, Kriemhilds Rache, Das Testament von Dr. Mabuse, Der Tiger von Eschnapur, and “against” Der goldene See, lnferno, Siegfried, Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse, Das Indische Grabmal, films of a more demagogic beauty. Not to mention constant reworkings from one film to the next, reworkings that are more often of themes than of forms. For the same theme, Lang would conceive of different forms, the second of which improved on the first; similar forms, however, appeared across different genres and subject matters. That’s why it’s impossible to distinguish between a still from Scarlet Street and one from The Woman in the Window, while the films seem very different when watching them.

Repetition from one scene to the next, because Lang, who seeks to deepen reality, realizes the complexity involved, corrects the first attempt with a second, contrary attempt. Hence the principle of double endings, partially considered in Fury. At times, Lang credits himself for it (cf. his statements on The Woman in the Window), and at times, he rejects it, attributing it to an interference by the production company afraid of the Censor Code (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt). It’s possible to believe that this denial served as Lang’s excuse against criticisms of implausibility that were made over the extraordinary twists towards the end of the film, or that it shows an influence of his detractors or his friends following the completion of the film. Perhaps the Hays Code did occasion these twists, but Lang was always able to integrate the corrective ending into his own world view. The consistence and sameness of this principle, at times admitted to by Lang and foreign to American cinema, has to do in fact with his metaphysics and moral codes: man constantly oscillates, as we have seen, between revolt and submission to law or to his own individual reasoning. His reasoning rests on trifles, and it isn’t unusual that there are multiple endings, because if chance plays an essential role in human life, the direction it takes is purely accidental. Reality always has two faces and undercuts the importance that tidy endings enjoy among the audience, which is used to neat dramatic structures in line with an artistic order reflecting a Social Order. Only the action counts.

One minor infraction of his life’s rules, and man compromises his entire existence. It’s the subject of The Woman in the Window (1944). Wanley, a middle-aged professor of criminology, discusses this theme with his friends at the club, a prosecutor and a doctor; he then gets busy with a Bible. Outside, on a window, he notices the portrait of a beautiful woman and meets its model, Alice. He chats with her and accompanies her to her house, where her lover shows up, wrongly believing that Alice is cheating on him. He tries to strangle Wanley, who grabs a pair of scissors Alice offers and kills him. Terrified of a scandal, Wanley gets rid of the corpse. Thanks to his friend the prosecutor, he participates in the investigation of the murder during which he commits certain serious gaffes. The bodyguard of the victim blackmails Wanley and Alice, forcing them to pay once; but the second time, they have no money. Wanley commits suicide just when the police kill the blackmailer, whom them take to be the murderer. At the moment of death, however, he wakes up with a Bible in his hands.

Faced with the impossibility of giving the audience two different versions of reality, Lang establishes an equivalence between a real version, with a fictional facet, and a fictional version, of a real appearance. The most honest, the least violent of men is a virtual criminal—a double postulation of human conscience which makes Wanley a cousin to the hunted men of You Only Live Once and Fury, and which corresponds to the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that Lang could never make. Having let down his guard just once—Once Off Guard is the title of the source novel—the professor is caught up in a chain of events that pushes him to lie to the law, to behave like a criminal, then to try to kill, and finally to commit suicide: he creates his own fate, whose noose tightens little by little. During the investigation, he walks towards the scene of crime by himself, he utters details that he shouldn’t be aware of, he exposes the wound on his hand that the murderer is supposed to have etc.

The Woman in the Window, Edward G. Robinson at the back.

The film proceeds through one little touch after another, by an accumulation of small realistic details in dialogue and performance, which give the film its rhythm and unity. These details are surrounded by a sort of aura that highlights them, like in Hangmen Also Die!, and which could manifest as an unsettling silence following an interesting line, a shot with incongruous detail, a tight shot following a series of master shots, or an association of ideas by an editing pattern that catches the viewer’s eye. The film’s power resides in the naturalist, trivial and realistic quality of the details shown. Apart from a sudden storm and a play of night time lights on the streets of New York, everything remains very simple. The fantastic and oppressive character of the film stems from an extreme clarity of lighting, an extreme nudity of the sets, and an extremely slow tempo. Horror movie conventions are replaced by their opposites: it’s the absence of any unsettling element that unsettles the viewer, who is unsettled only by the nature of the action. This absence invites the viewer into a cool, pleasant universe, where the master shots, especially of Alice’s apartment, produce a lingering mystery proper to inexpressiveness. This modern fantasy, which applies Lang’s conception of the world to our everyday life, marks the point of arrival of his art: we could remain unconcerned by Die Nibelungen, M, or Ministry of Fear, whose exoticism, strangeness and otherworldliness seemed, to those who go by first impressions, much removed from us. Whereas here, through this homely old professor, it’s each of us who is targeted. The realism only accentuates our identification with the hero and explains the film’s success among critics, the only one that Lang could boast of during this third period, along with the more modest success of Hangmen Also Die!.

Then fifty-five years old, Lang tackles problem facing men of his age: the young woman who seduces an old gentleman and precipitates him to ruin will also be, following his films from 1918-20 and The Woman in the Window, the central theme of Scarlet Street (1945).

An old conscientious cashier and a timid husband to a shrew, Christopher Cross meets an easy girl, Kitty “Lazy Legs”, who latches on to him and sells his amateur paintings under her name, with the help of her lover Johnny. After meeting his wife’s ex-husband, now back from the dead, and throwing him into the shrew’s arms, Christopher catches Johnny and Kitty together and kills the girl. Johnny is executed in place of Christopher, who, haunted by guilt, loses his home and ends up a tramp.

Perhaps to avoid the similarity to La Chienne (Renoir, 1931), as with The Woman in the Window, Lang refuses to submit to realism here. Everything is hinged on the poetry of gestures and attitudes of actors, on experiments in lighting and setting. Old expressionism makes a comeback, notably in the hero’s unpleasant hallucinations at the end. A very heavy, very German atmosphere reigns supreme, contrary to the American modernism of The Woman in the Window. In fact, Scarlet Street wears out outdated devices in a new way. Lang is aiming not for a precise effect, like in Siegfried or Der müde Tod, but for a poetic emphasis on banal gestures. This aesthetic renders the themes of the film secondary: the inevitability of ruin for the man who becomes a woman’s slave in a romance that’s unstable and almost against nature, the reversal (the ex-husband of Cross’s wife coming out of the dead), the fallibility of law, which convicts an innocent man (but the Hays Code condemns Cross to perpetual anguish), the splitting of personality (the little cashier turned gigolo, famous painter and murderer), and painting. Once a painter himself, Lang turns Cross into a timid amateur who will make way for the violent professional of The Blue Gardenia, passing through the murderous writer of House by the River: the motif of cinema meets the motif of the creator who, too, seeks to dominate the world.

Secret Beyond the Door, with Michael Redgrave.

In Secret Beyond the Door (1947), the aesthetic is the only master, resulting in its commercial and critical failure but also its relative artistic failure. To be sure, like its predecessors, the work has psychological and psychoanalytical ambitions—it was all the rage in 1946; like the other two crime dramas, it too deals with the opposition between a very different man and woman; but the implausibility wipes away thematic intentions here.

Out of love, Celia marries Marc who, encountering a locked door, leaves on the lame pretext that his business is in a bad shape. He starts the drama once more because of a branch of lilac. Celia discovers that Marc has a child and was once married. His wife had died under mysterious circumstances. In his house, he collects rooms in which a crime has been committed. Celia is terrified but realizes, following the discovery of a secret room behind a door, that Marc didn’t kill his wife. A locked door makes him want to kill Celia, who is able to psychoanalyze him and free him of his obsession, during a fire at the house.

The storyline is a cross between Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945) and Rebecca (1939), with the exact ending of Rebecca. But Lang never analyses the ambiguity of the hero, at once innocent and guilty. He only plays on the fascination that such a haunting subject brings and which the incoherence of his acts increases, the brilliant and ultramodern beauty of the bare sets and the abstraction of performances. It’s a film of pure mise en scène, an entirely gratuitous work, a Marienbad-like series of mirrors, keys, corridors, lamps, and doors within the space of a strange country manor. The branch of extremist aesthetes among young French critics consider this a perfect masterpiece, a diamond of mise en scène; this admiration explains the limitations of the film.

 

Lang didn’t make films for three years following this failure. A small company, Republic Pictures, had him make a melodrama, House by the River (1950), which, like most of this tiny firm’s productions, hasn’t released in France.

We have only one serious commentary on the film, by Bertrand Tavernier (Cahiers du Cinéma, 132, June 1962): “A failed writer commits a murder, seemingly inadvertently, and turns the suspicions of the police, little by little, towards his brother, who had helped him hide the body. However, he can’t help but recount this story in a novel, possibly his first success, and his wife learns the truth. He perishes, killed by the ghost of his victim, which happens to be a large white curtain that wraps around his neck and dispatches him down the stairs.

Tavernier notes the proximity of the hero to that of the to-be-made Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Lang strives to dissect the connection between his characters’ guilt and the world, to demonstrate its rigged quality. He speaks of a wrecked romanticism, admirable shots of nature tense and vibrant at once, the dream-like atmosphere, the surprising quiet that permeates the first shots of the film, a summer evening close to the river. The anxiety stems more from tenderness than from cruelty… notes Tavernier who admires this splendid portrait of the “doomed” woman, whose face comes off little by little on a fogged-up mirror and who, surprised by death, floats along the river, with her hair all undone (…) Everything in this film is a sign of death (…)

House by the River, “Everything in this film is a sign of death”.

Let’s place American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950), a decent Fox Technicolor, at the appendix of this period. In 1942, an American motorboat is sunk by the Japanese. Ensign Palmer manages to reach land with some other men. A French woman, Jeanne, receives and introduces them to her husband, Juan Martinez, one of the leaders of the rebellion in the Philippines who sends Palmer to General Philips, who asks him to organize a resistance with the help of the local population instead of going back to the American base. After Martinez is killed, Jeanne and Palmer find themselves in a chapel surrounded by Japs, prepare to die, and confess their love for each other. But the American airplanes arrive… happy ending.

To my knowledge, it’s the only film that Lang has to be embarrassed about. It’s true that the situation of Hollywood in 1950 was highly compromised. This important production made within the System allowed Lang to get back on track and allowed him to make new masterpieces. Nothing else to say about it, except that it’s a serviceably made picture that no one would suspect Lang of having made. Everything is bland, colourless. A few dramatic moments come up: a soldier who lets himself be eaten by ants instead of screaming and betraying the presence of Americans, the final confession of love. Per François Truffaut (in Arts), when the liberated locals wave the same little U.S. flag with the same hand and drink a Coca Cola in the last shot, it’s an ironic critique of invasive American civilization… True though it may be, it doesn’t make the film any better.

This third period consists of many good films, none of them exceptional. It is also, however, rendered retrograde by the fault of a high-level aestheticism that compromises the rich possibilities of the subjects, handled by Lang far too often to really interest him, and by the fault of Hollywood, which constrained our filmmaker to silence and commerce.