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

II. MATURITY (1951-1960)


Critique (1951-1955)


Having attained complete maturity, as much in expression, progressively simpler if we discount the recent tendency for aestheticism (1945-49), as in content, which glorifies man’s adaption to the world and rejects revolt, Fritz Lang now assumed a higher perspective, posing a judgmental eye on the world surrounding him, contemptuous and sarcastic, whose finesse went completely over critics’ heads. This severity was that of a wise, old man who was now more than sixty, but also that of an isolated and bitter man and especially that of a foreign observer who reacted violently to the social order imposed by the American way of life. This scepticism produced by the vision of contemporary reality found an echo in the evocation of times gone by. There was now, on one hand, a critical vision of this romanticism, of this spatial and temporal exoticism once so dear to Lang, in two “historical films”, the western Rancho Notorious (1951) and the adventure film Moonfleet (1954). On the other hand, there was a critique of contemporary mores in Clash by Night (1951), The Blue Gardenia (1952), While the City Sleeps (1955) and The Big Heat (1953).

Critique of Romanticism

Made for the producer of House by the River, the Technicolor film Rancho Notorious (1951) follows Frank Haskell, who shoots the accomplice of his fiancée’s murderer and hears the man’s final words on his friend’s whereabouts: Chuck-a-Luck. Wandering the West seeking his vengeance, he learns that Chuck-a-Luck is a ranch in the wilderness offering a hideout for thieves in exchange for 10% of their loot. Frank gets deliberately imprisoned with Frenchy, the lover and the second-in-command of Altar, the lady boss and owner of the ranch. He manages to get to Chuck-a-Luck, suspects Frenchy, but discovers the real culprit and has him arrested. Suspecting Frenchy of a betrayal, the bandits shoot at him, but kill Altar who gets in the way.

The theme of vengeance isn’t treated here as dogmatically as before. There’s no evolution for the hero, who, at the most, stays back a little too long at Chuck-a-Luck, where everything is so nice and pleasant. Vengeance mostly represents a poetic and mythic force here. Rancho Notorious in fact showcases the myths of the Western, and views them with a critical and disabused eye. The real hero here is a woman, played by Marlene Dietrich, who rules the lair of bandits—as magnificently organized as Mabuse’s gang, with everything in proportion—with an iron fist. Frenchy the cowboy is little more than a prince consort. In the thoroughly moral universe of the Western, what dominates is robbery, rape, and murder, as Frank affirms at the end in a speech full of lyricism. In a brief flashback, Lang seems to lament the good old days of the traditional Far West. The whole film is drenched in a cold atmosphere that accentuates the desolate quality of the setting. The limitation of human power is underlined by the omnipresence of luck, roulette wheels, and games of chance. The ranch itself is called Chuck-a-Luck. These themes and critical observations are diluted in the very natural presentation, in the realist discretion of this apparently lazy chronicle, which doesn’t exclude the virtues of friendship between men from its framework. Honour and word aren’t empty terms here. This objectivity constitutes the film’s strength.

Moonfleet (1954) possesses a comparable objectivity, but displays much more violence. Lang disowns the film, whose editing didn’t respect his intentions. I think this severity is unwarranted, as it is for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: measuring against his intentions, a filmmaker can perfectly misjudge his film if the final result, even though brilliant, betrays them, while the viewer, for his part, judges only the result, which alone counts.

England in 1760. The orphan John Mohune, ten years old, is sent by his dying mother to her old lover, the gentleman rogue Jeremy Fox, and falls into the latter’s den of smugglers. Fox decides to keep the boy despite the objection of his current mistress, Mrs. Minton, who is jealous of the dead woman and whom Fox neglects for the wife of Lord Ashwood. Mrs. Minton betrays Fox for this reason. He manages to escape with John who, hiding in the smuggler’s den, discovers a coded message containing information about the treasure of the Mohunes, a highly valuable ring. They get into a fortress and seize the ring. But as he tries to make off with the ring, Fox gets stabbed by the greedy Ashwood. Fox kills Ashwood before he can get the ring, which he gifts to little John before leaving on a boat, half-dead.

Moonfleet, Stewart Granger and Viveca Lindfords on the left, Liliane Montevecchi and George Sanders on the right.

 It’s a rather loose adaptation in Cinemascope and in colour—Lang’s only work in Scope—of a fine novel written in 1891 by the Englishman John Meade Falkner, a nonchalant gentleman who wrote three or four books purely for his personal pleasure. The film’s main narrative line consists of the itinerary of the innocent child who navigates a depraved world, seen solely from a picturesque angle by Falkner, seen from a moral angle by Lang: he enjoys showing the baseness of adults in this world, like this Lord Ashwood played by George Sanders, who always represents the respectable villainy of the successful, skilful schemer (Man Hunt, While the City Sleeps), and who only lives for luxury, women and money stolen from here and there. His wife cheats on him openly: in the same sequence, we see her kissing her dog, her lover and her husband one after the other. At the end, she cuddles up with Fox right in front of her husband, who doesn’t say a word because this kiss will allow Fox to cross the barricaded road incognito and get the ring that Ashwood, in turn, can snatch by stabbing Fox… on the back. Adding to these amazing scenes is Liliane Montevecchi’s mad dance on the table with Fox’s guests and numerous episodes featuring the smugglers, physically and morally monstrous, who terrorize little John.

The setting, by itself, is a means of producing fear and makes it possible to reflect the characters’ mental universe, impossible to reveal from the inside, and to have the viewer take note of it by acting on him violently: bodies hanging on the road, sinister cries and noises in the cemetery, where John slips into a tomb to end up a prisoner of the hideous smugglers, comparable to the future lepers of Das indische Grabmal. Even the warmest colours of Dorset, the splendid tonalities of deserted lands are unsettling in their density. The sea especially, with its waves, offers a concrete image of the timelessness of Fate. But this terrifying universe isn’t devoid of the natural charm that the novel possesses, like all adventure novels.

While Lord Ashwood is ruthless, Jeremy Fox lacks neither dignity, nor courage, nor greatness, as his final dash to John’s cabin demonstrates. He gives the boy an immense fortune at the cost of his own life. As for John, he is the only wholly positive character in the story, which suggests that every man becomes corrupt with maturity. We have here at once a bitter critique of and a certain respect for the characters, a respect that disappears in the films dealing with contemporary life. The critique divests actions from the past of their romantic aura and reveals their base motivations, rather similar to those found in our day—the Sanders of While the City Sleeps is the same as the one of Moonfleet. On the other hand, Lang always remains sensitive to the romanticism that characterises his first films. Like all of Lang’s masterpieces, Moonfleet owes its success to a strong expression of both terms of his dialectic, there where the German period exhibited a clear imbalance in favour of one idea or one of the two opposing elements.

The lyricism of the most profound baseness is compounded by a more traditional lyricism. This way, the film retains a great suppleness of tone as well as of rhythm, which makes it hard to separate intentions from the normal course of life, all the more because MGM’s recut seems rather sloppy. The observations on the hero’s morality are never underlined and are presented with such a discretion that the viewer must remain very attentive to discern them; the passive viewer doesn’t see them. A double game of artistic commercial cinema that has the advantage of grafting interesting gestures and actions inserted onto the surface of everyday life. It just goes to show how commerce and realism often go hand in hand.