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

Critique of Our Times

Clash by Night (1951) is an adaptation of a play by Clifford Odets. Lang is certainly at ease in modern New York theatre which wallows in the spectacle of human degradation. But where the New Yorkers ascribe degradation to a kind of undefined Ananke, clumsily associated with the social constitution of America, and mostly explicable by the playwrights’ resentments, Lang insists on the notion of responsibility. Fate, represented once more by the movement of waves, becomes one with the realist document, the presentation of port life, boats and fishermen in the credits sequence.

This time around, the characters are bestowed with a certain psychological depth, which rules out implausibility. After ten years of tumultuous life, Mae comes back home to lead a more orderly existence; she marries Jerry, a brutish and unsophisticated fisherman older than her, whom she leaves for one of his friends; but she returns to her house for her child. Jerry is full of good will, but can’t understand a woman who has lived in other milieus. In contrast, Earl the lover is rather abject; with Jerry refusing to hand over the child to the adulterous couple, and Mae refusing to leave without the child, he splits without confronting Jerry. Earl is a violent lunatic.

It’s one of the rare occasions in Lang’s work where secondary characters have their own existence, which can be explained by the faithfulness to the original play. There’s the completely senile grandfather, tormented by the image of an abandoned baby girl, the infirm and alcoholic uncle, and especially the typical young American couple: Marilyn Monroe plays a worker who knows perfectly what she wants, where she’s going and whom she wants to marry. The man she has chosen, Keith Andes, is passive, listless; he lets himself be led around by the nose. It’s a microscopic study of American society, run by women, just as they dominated the fake Übermenschen of the German period.

The meanness of the original play makes way for a superior irony, sometimes combined with a nuanced sympathy or an amused curiosity. There’s no metaphysical point of view to explain either the action or the facts: Clash by Night is a simple exercise around a cocooned world defined at the beginning. There’s the same heavy atmosphere as Scarlet Street here. It produces a rather unpleasant effect, not amplified by any poetry, if we discount the highly welcome, intimate scenes between Marylin Monroe and Andes.

Like all Lang films with female heroes—while the moral character of his work requires the presence of a positive, male hero—Clash by Night disappoints. Too down to earth, dealing with a rather limited melodramatic subject, it registers as an honourable failure, due more to the shaky premise of the play than to its direction.

Clash by Night, Barbara Stanwick, Paul Douglas and Robert Ryan.

In contrast, The Blue Gardenia (1952) deserves no reproach. Sharing a room in Los Angeles with two friends, Sally and Crystal, Norah Larkin, who has just discovered that her soldier fiancé is having an affair in Tokyo, responds positively to the man courting Crystal, the painter Prebble, who takes her home to seduce her. She hits him with a poker and faints just as a record player plays The Blue Gardenia. The police discover the body of Prebble, who was seen just before his death with a girl whose description matches Norah’s. She, however, left the room as soon as she woke up and saw the dead man. The journalist Casey Mayo publishes an open letter to the unknown killer, promising her a good lawyer in exchange for an exclusive statement. Norah meets Casey. The second time, the police follow Casey and arrest Norah, who takes him for a snitch. Casey learns that the record found on the player wasn’t The Blue Gardenia, but a classic bought from a shop whose owner, questioned by Casey, tries to kill herself because she was the one who killed her lover Prebble, who wanted out, after Norah’s fainting. Happy ending.

This banal crime story supplies none of the sensational dramatic effects that abounded in Lang’s previous crime thrillers. Unexpected events and the final reveal aren’t even made use of. What interests Lang are solely the characters, caught up in the everyday world of Los Angeles, their actions, their reactions. The crime movie outline is only a pretext for an intimate chronicle of women’s lives. That the lead characters are women poses no problem here, because it’s a negative film. Like Les bonnes femmes, The Blue Gardenia constitutes a meticulous and critical study of the lives of workers particularly marked or deformed by contemporary social life, in this case those of switchboard operators. These are starry-eyed girls that, outside of work, think only of flirting, dating, discussing each other’s boyfriends or various useless things, reading crime novels etc.

With little else to do, the heroine celebrates her birthday with an intimate dinner whose only guest is herself, seated in front of a photo of her fiancé. Lang doesn’t miss the chance to satirize the foolishness of these simple girls attracted to romance: Norah even falls into the trap set by the journalist, who puts her on the front page of a major newspaper.

Far from being stupid, the men turn out to be loathsome bastards: the flirtatious painter embodies a boorishness and villainy that associates the film with the same lyricism of odiousness as Moonfleet. As for the journalist who keeps track of his conquests in his little pink notebook, he’s mostly an arriviste who looks to take advantage of Norah’s foolishness. The American way of life debases men and women, and Lang views this fallen world with a cynicism that shouldn’t be confused with pessimism, which he is too often and unjustly accused of. Lang’s pessimistic period stopped with Siegfried. Cynicism, in contrast, is relatively optimistic, since it’s the manifestation of a great moral demand which supposes the possibility of its materialization, especially in the one who professes this cynicism. It’s the ironic and superior observation of a lack, not the manifestation of a despair before man’s defeat, voluntary here.

Lang will make his critical observations more effective through the use of a technique particular to the aesthetic of modern cinema: the man who limited camera movement to the bare minimum shoots a large part of the film with a crab dolly, a small camera on a rail that allows it to move around freely and follow all character movements over the course of rather lengthy shots. Key pieces of dialogue are underscored with a short movement, forward or laterally, towards a prop or a character: intentions are thus encompassed in the fluidity of shots.

While the City Sleeps, Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell and Vincent Price.

While the City Sleeps (1955) revolves around a New York newspaper called The Sentinel of the Kyne Consortium. On his deathbed, the supremo of the firm attaches great importance to the case of the lipstick killer, who has just strangled a young girl at her house and scribbled on her wall with lipstick: “Ask mother”. The supremo’s son Walter Kyne, an indolent and spoilt brat, decides to hand over the reins of the newspaper to one among the four most important members of the newspaper, the one who will help trace the killer: Griffith, in charge of the editorial department, an old traditional journalist; Loving, of the wire service, a skilful arriviste who has taken charge of the radio and TV branch of the consortium; Kritzer, of the photo service, as incapable as Walter Kyne; Mobley, a brilliant writer who has a daily show on TV on Kyne’s behalf, and for whom the post holds no interest. Mobley, who has just gotten engaged to Nancy, Loving’s pretty secretary, makes a resounding televised appeal to the killer, who is onto his fourth victim, and broadcasts everything he knows about him. This appeal brings a lot of publicity to the TV branch of the consortium, giving Loving the edge, and provokes the anger of the killer, who, per Mobley, will now set his eyes on Nancy, carefully surveyed for the occasion. But Loving, to keep Mobley under his sway, deploys his formidable gossipmonger Mildred, who starts seducing Mobley: Nancy breaks up with him and sends her bodyguard away. She narrowly escapes the murderer. Even though Griffith comes out with the news of his arrest, Kyne gives the post to Kritzer who’s been blackmailing him. Mobley spits out his disgust for Kyne, who then gives the rightful posts to Griffith and to Mobley, who doesn’t respond to Kyle’s call, busying himself instead with Nancy.

The principle of the film is to present its characters in a positive light, to the reveal their deep flaws or their vileness, in such a way that these revelations could lead to dramatic twists. Mobley, who has the physique and moral quality of the Langian hero, lets himself get drunk and vamped by a girl who drags him along without difficulty. For his personal success, he comes up with a scheme whose guinea pig is his own fiancée, whose opinion he’s not bothered to ask. Beneath his honourable appearance, Loving is the worst of these rogues. The honest Griffith, the old hand, doesn’t think twice about dealing under the table and pulling strings to get the post he rightfully deserves. Nancy gets mischievous when the killer, talking in Mobley’s voice, asks her to open the door. She wants Mobley to go down on his knees before she opens the door and looks to get back at him for humiliating her by going out with Mildred. Dorothy Kyne, a “model wife”, cheats on her husband every day. All the way up to the chairman of the newspaper, who has all the makings of a brave man of action, and who expresses his last wish that the newspaper make the most of a recent murder.

In a different way, Lang cheats the viewer again with the Kritzer character, whom we take to be a gigolo of no great depth, and who, as a skilful strategist of private secrets, almost aces the game.

Remain the irreducible elements: the psychotic killer, a victim of magazines, television, and an excessive maternal love; Walter Kyne Jr., a rich kid who enjoys keeping the three candidates for the post at his mercy—these are his superiors whom he gets back at by belittling them; Mildred the go-between, who sleeps left and right to help Loving. These characters are products of the American society. They couldn’t fight it, or they could do so only incompletely. It’s true that all of them belong to the world of journalism, shaped by a social and collective moral that rewards lies. After the reporter of The Blue Gardenia, and before the novelist and the fraudulent journalists of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Lang displays his contempt here for the profession, to go with his distrust of all forms of creation—which seek to take possession of the universe and to enact machinations comparable to those of the Nazis—be it literature or cinema (House By the River, Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse).

With such a range of characters, played by second-tier American actors, Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, Vincent Price, Ida Lupino, Sally Forrest, Rhonda Fleming, John Barrymore Jr, Mae Marsh, etc., Lang weaves an extremely complex mesh, the most advanced of his career, in my opinion. It’s enough to recall the scene where Nancy refuses to open the door to the murderer, who then rushes towards Dorothy Kyne, who’s coming out of her lover Kritzer’s apartment, located next to Nancy’s as though by chance, an annoying proximity that obliges Kyne, faced with Kritzer’s account and photos, to give him the post in exchange for his silence and for Dorothy, and to brush the affair under the carpet to avoid a scandal.

This perfect construction, which forms a rather complete microcosm, is served by a rapid, incisive style reminiscent of the American cinema of 1930-1940, where every detail is expressed clearly and with great power, and where there’s nothing other than a series of effects: not a single moment of dead time. This classical masterpiece, with a rhythm exceptional for a Lang film and characterized by its slow precision, is infinitely easier to like than Moonfleet or The Blue Gardenia. It’s surprising that neither the public nor the critics gave it the respect it deserved, but which it will certainly receive very soon.

The Big Heat, Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford.

The Big Heat (1953) must be placed somewhat apart. Inspector Bannion is investigating the suicide of his colleague Duncan due, according to his widow Berta, to health reasons. But barmaid Lucy tells him that Duncan was in good health and was about to leave town with her. Lucy is killed, and Bannion learns that Duncan, sold like everyone else in town to the powerful Lagana mob, had, before killing himself out of remorse, written a confessional letter with which Berta is blackmailing Lagana. Bannion goes to see Lagana, who has him kicked out of the police department and plants a bomb in his car. But it’s Bannion’s wife who dies. Vance, Lagana’s right hand, disfigures his mistress Debby after she makes advances to Bannion, who was hoping to get information to help him avenge his wife’s murder. She takes refuge at Bannion’s house. After saving his daughter from a kidnap, Bannion manages to make one member of the gang confess. Debby kills Mrs. Duncan so that the famous letter can be made public by her advocate. She is killed by Vance, whom she disfigures in turn and whom Bannion arrests, helped by his corrupt superior who has come back to clean up the police force.

The film is at once positive and negative. It offers a line of conduct of the individualist hero Bannion, who refuses to obey the Law debased by his superiors, and avenges the death of his wife without becoming a murderer.

But around him, we have various degrees of villainy and corruption. Firstly, there’s Lagana and his mob. Lagana is a mamma’s boy with a passion for pink ballets; his henchmen are violent and daft. Then there are those that turn over a new leaf: Duncan, who kills himself to save his honour; the commissioner Higgins, dedicated to Lagana, who changes sides, thanks to Bannion’s persistence and friendship, after Lagana kills Bannion’s wife and threatens his daughter; Debby, the two-faced woman, whose one side is deformed by an atrocious burn, a symbol of her double life and of our human condition in general. Like While the City Sleeps, The Big Heat constitutes a microcosm within a setting defined at the start. After the little people that were fishermen, switchboard operators, workers, here’s the world of journalism, that of police and gangsters: we have here a valuable and relatively complete social testimony on contemporary America.

The Big Heat is characterized by the simplicity of its style, much like the hero’s, by its refusal of artifice and by the violence of its action: in additional to the pot of boiling coffee thrown at Debby, there’s the bomb that kills Mrs. Bannion. Making women the primary victims of the mob’s atrocities (like in Cloak and Dagger) increases the viewer’s hatred for them. In the end, a fisticuff and a bottle of acid, followed by a chase to death, push the film towards a paroxysm that, per Lang, imparts a physical sensation that works on the blasé audience much more than any moralist talk and inspires in it a physical fear of punishment. This excess is acceptable all the more because it’s embedded in a natural and objective vision of reality. This classical film follows a relatively slow rhythm that adapts itself to every movement of the hero’s, even the plot’s. Even when Bannion opens or closes a door, we see him do it.

An apparently functional cinema, which makes artistic intentions seem involuntary, so deeply are they anchored in the normal course of life and of the plot. Existence is nothing more than a series of important moments; its continuity is made of neutral moments, almost exclusively, within the framework of an indifferent world. The frequency of transitions, or transitory milieus, corridors, doors etc., corresponds with man’s vacillations and his own, equally transitory condition.