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[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

The Cheat (1915): Tori the Japanese man (Sessue Hayakawa) in front of a Chinese shadow play.

At the beginning of his career, DeMille had to deal with the grievances of theatre owners, who complained that there were a lot of dark areas in his films’ visuals, and so asked for a price discount… He told them that he practiced chiaroscuro, and began boasting about it: he saw himself as the Rembrandt of cinema.

It’s likely that DeMille knew Rembrandt, given he came from a family of Dutch immigrants himself. DeMille incidentally means ‘mill’ in Dutch. Now, when we look at Rembrandt’s paintings, we see that chiaroscuro consists of alternating dark areas with bright ones, which, according to specialists, make for only one-eighth of the picture on an average. Faces, or parts of faces, may be in the dark. This technique creates a realistic effect: in real life, elements that seem the most important may very well be in the dark, especially at a time when there was no electricity. Not everything is handed to the viewer on a platter. Standing before the painting, he must participate, put the necessary effort to see, to discern it. This device produces the impression of relief: it helps establish a distance between what is clearly visible and what is hard to perceive. And it expresses a metaphysics: man is only a small part of the universe. The Taking of Christ, Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes, The Abduction of Ganymede, and Aristotle with a Bust of Homer are the finest examples of chiaroscuro’s accomplishment.

However, chiaroscuro is rare in DeMille’s work: two shots in Carmen, five shots in The Cheat, which bring out the secretive, mysterious quality of the Japanese man’s home, and also serve to mask a sexually aggressive behaviour, which could have been shocking. It’s more noticeable in The Little American, in the scene showing the sinking of Lusitania (fewer discernible elements make the job easier) and in the scene at the chateau where the heroine is pursued by Germans. Or else, only one profile of an actor is illuminated (The Warrens of Virginia).

It would seem then that this reference to Rembrandt is something of a publicity stunt.

On the other hand, often in DeMille’s work, only faces are visible on the foreground of the shot. Everything else in complete darkness—a good way to avoid expensive sets and extra lighting in these low-budget films, while also showcasing the technique, which has nothing to do with Rembrandt here.

It is, by the way, remarkable that when DeMille made Samson and Delilah, he didn’t resort to the chiaroscuro employed by Rembrandt in his three paintings featuring these characters.

In The Cheat, we see shadows of the characters on matted glass partitions common in the Japanese world, which helps us understand who is there and what is going on, sometimes solely with the help of extras—pure economy and narrative economy.

Another feature is the frequent presence of superimpositions. The uses are twofold: to evoke the appearance of the Virgin, angels and other representatives of the divine order, or signs of religion, such as the cross (Joan the Woman, The Whispering Chorus). In the latter, there’s the Angel of Good on the right and the Angel of Evil on the left whispering their advice to the lead character—hence the film’s title. Or the superimpositions help evoke public opinion, the supposed reactions of the crowd (nearly twenty separate rotating faces in inset—movements that brilliantly underline the hero’s disarray). Most of the time, DeMille amplifies the supernatural, artificial quality of these image implants with his choice of a blinding white, especially when it comes to the Christian Cross.

Raymond Hatton in The Whispering Chorus (1918): a superimposition of twenty heads that advocate good or evil.

Or these effects indicate that the hero is thinking of someone not present in the frame: the husband is with his girlfriend, but is thinking of his wife, with discrete superimpositions of the two faces at times.

The device tends to disappear after 1918, which meant that old-school criticism, estimating quality to be dependent on the number of superimpositions, blur effects, and slow motions, could claim, with William K. Everson and Kevin Brownlow, that DeMille ceased to be creative after The Whispering Chorus, thirty-eight years before the end of his career…

In fact, DeMille did pursue this path, rarely to be sure, as the public no longer appreciated these outdated violations of realism: in Forbidden Fruit (1921), the dollar sign appears in the eye of a penny-pincher and, in North West Mounted Police (1940), the victims of the brother’s desertion and the murderous machine gun, moving from left to right and then down, enter a small corner of the frame, next to the repenting man—an effect that probably won the film the Oscar for Best Editing.

Another outmoded effect is transition with wipes (moving vertical bars), present until 1951.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Joan the Woman: the Siege of Orléans, a beautiful disorder.

This title is a bit inaccurate, because there aren’t just films with Geraldine Farrar during this period, but these are his most ambitious and expensive films of the time, though not necessarily the best ones.

The collaboration with Farrar (who resembles the filmmaker Danièle Huillet a bit, but is less pretty of course) lasted five films. Curiously, he called upon her to play Carmen, obviously a silent version: the year was 1915. He chose her because she was the most famous soprano in America. It was a stupid choice: it’s as if Callas was asked to play Aida in pantomime. DeMille probably thought that a disc of Bizet could accompany the visuals in the theatres. It wasn’t to be: Bizet’s descendants were uncooperative when it came to rights, as was proven by their later opposition to Preminger’s all-Black Carmen, which was banned in France for some twenty years. The challenge for DeMille, a small-time, failed, hung-up playwright, was to bring the greatest Opera singer to Hollywood for the first time ever, just like he had got the famous stage actor Dustin Farnum to the West Coast to play The Squaw Man.

A prestigious affair…

Geraldine Farrar again played an opera singer, still a silent one, in Temptation (1915). Farrar was then thirty-four. It may have been believable on stage, with its distance, for her to play a nineteen-year-old Joan of Arc [in Joan the Woman, 1916], but not in cinema with its close-ups. Moreover, Farrar was something of a tank: you need a solid pair of lungs to sing. It was therefore the opposite of the traditional image of Joan of Arc, the frail young maiden who, with her faith and enthusiasm, defeated the powerful soldiers of the English army. So the spice, the paradox of the Joan of Arc story had vanished.

The film is worthy for the sequence showing the Siege of Orléans, the best battle scene shot by DeMille: a beautiful, chaotic and inventive wave of soldiers in action, with multiple arms under the fortifications, on the rampart walls and in the city. Carmen, in contrast, is interesting only for a brief sequence realistically showing the work of cigarette makers and was rightly sent up in [Chaplin’s] Burlesque on Carmen.

Farrar was followed by America’s sweetheart, Mary Pickford; or the triumph of the star system. Pickford’s salary came up to 71% of the final cost of A Romance of the Redwoods, a rather ordinary Western (in fact, a “Northern” since DeMille always preferred adventure films set near his native Massachusetts). In contrast, Pickford is remarkable in her spontaneity in The Little American, a contribution to the war effort (along with Joan the Woman, a film indirectly campaigning for entry into conflict, and Till I Come Back to You). DeMille hedges his bets: before the war in France, Pickford was seen trapped in the sinking Lusitania, which has a bit of Titanic about it. It’s all on the nose: Pickford, a young American girl above the fray, becomes, without wanting to, a heroine who saves the good French soldiers at the risk of her life… There are some rather melodramatic images here, with the trenches, the ruins, a Christ statue standing alone in the middle of rubble, and Pickford in a tearful pietà pose at its foot. Even so, the result is impressive. The scene may even have influenced Gance in J’accuse, made shortly after.   

Coming in the line of “great spectacles”, the last Geraldine Farrar film, The Woman God Forgot, is disappointing, offering us only a phoney Mexico from the time of the Aztecs.

Finally, this period is more interesting for its naturalist films and its low-budget melodramas.

Charlotte Walker, Raymond Hatton in Kindling (1915): a high point of naturalism.

On naturalism: going through DeMille’s work chronologically, it’s shocking to come across an almost neorealist film like Kindling, a pure gem that follows a series of uninteresting movies. What could have happened for DeMille to rise to the peak of his craft in one go? To be frank, the transition from the preceding period isn’t as clear-cut, which doesn’t make the critic’s job any easier. Later films like Maria Rosa or Chimmie Fadden Out West are just as disappointing as early attempts such as The Unafraid or Rose of the Rancho. There’s an element of chance shaping the choice of projects at any given point. I’ll come back to this naturalist period.

The melodramatic section includes very diverse films: the perfect outline of The Cheat (1915) contrasts with the complex and tormented itinerary of The Whispering Chorus (1917). The first part [of the latter film] is a realistic depiction of the life of accountant John Tremble and his family. When he is forced to flee following a forgery he has committed, the film becomes a wildly imaginative soap opera: he disguises himself, changes his physical appearance completely, assuming the identity of a dead body he finds by chance and which he passes off as his own. After a wide variety of episodes—a beautiful Chinese festival, a serious accident at work—he returns home. We learn that the police are after him for the murder of… John Tremble. Fortunately, his mother recognizes him and sets out to resolve the matter. But, alas, she dies two minutes later. He is arrested and lets himself be sentenced to death, not wanting to jeopardize the future of his wife, who is now married to a bigwig. The extraordinary nature of the story works very well, since it appears only slowly, halfway through the film, after an initial anchoring in everyday reality. We manage to understand everything of this extremely complicated story. A triumph of great melodrama, as is underlined by the film’s French title, The Supreme Redemption. The French titles of the films that follow reinforce their affiliation to the genre: Price of a Throne, Whirlwind of Souls, The Damned of the Heart.

[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

 

Cecil DeMille at work.

The first film was both an artistic success and a commercial triumph, achieved at the age of thirty-two (DeMille was born in 1881), which suddenly made Hollywood the capital of cinema. The Squaw Man (1914) is often misunderstood: it is not “the man who was a squaw”, but “the husband of the Indian woman”, which is the film’s French title. The strength of this production is its rapid pace centred on a story with twists and turns, since it is about an Englishman wrongly accused of fraud, who is forced to leave the country of his birth, before emigrating to New York and then to the Rocky Mountains, where he has an affair with an Indian woman, who is soon driven to suicide. He is exonerated and returns to England with his half-breed son to find the woman he loved. It’s actually much more complicated than that. There is here not only the interest generated by complete changes of place and milieu (the London gentry and the Wild West), but also the complexity of the various plots. In short, it was to become a model for more than fifty years of film history. No time to get bored.

It’s surprising to note that none of the twelve films that follow is at the level of this striking debut. There’s at times a certain observational humour in the life of the husband of a stage star, a real prince consort (What’s His Name?), and in the vaguely Henry James-like quality of a cosmopolitan affair (The Man from Home). And I love the gag from The Captive conceived by DeMille’s favourite screenwriter, Jeanie MacPherson: a prisoner of war is placed in a farm to work the fields, with a harness on his back. But once the war ends, it is he who places the harness on the shoulders of his boss, whom he has married. There’s an almost identical gag in Male and Female four years later. It’s not much. There are minor comedies in this period featuring a mediocre but successful comic, Victor Moore, midway between Fernand Raynaud and Jean Lefebvre (the two Chimmie Fadden films, Wild Goose Chase), and Westerns or adventure films (The Girl of the Golden West, The Virginian), but DeMille will learn to use the Western to his advantage only twenty years later.

Seen today one after the other, these movies disappoint in their casualness: whether they are set in Turkey, the Rocky Mountains, Andalusia, Montenegro, near Naples or Mexico, they have all been shot in the same Californian landscapes, with their small arid hills. There are the same houses and the same actors, who reflect very little of the physical characteristics of the local people.

This decline could be explained by the fact that The Squaw Man was co-directed by Oscar Apfel, who was more experienced than Cecil, who was going to be left to his own devices on the following films and was going to learn his lessons, which were honestly a bit laborious.

And then DeMille didn’t expect such a success. He may have been caught unawares, without a project close to his heart. It’s because everyone, attracted by such a triumph, asked him for more films…

1915: thirteen films in the year. A record! Some have said that this profusion was somewhat imposed on him by Lasky, his producer. He served as an example for other directors under contract. He showed them that he wasn’t one to laze around. He ensured excellent returns. But at this rate—more than one film a month—it’s hard to make anything good.

It should be noted that these films, shot on location for the most part, were, however, mostly adapted from plays, a cultural sphere that DeMille knew well since he was a playwright and an actor. It seems that he wanted to restore a certain prestige to cinema, then considered minor entertainment by the people of Boston, by bringing to it what he thought was the best in theatre, including plays by Booth Tarkington (future Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of The Magnificent Ambersons) and David Belasco, the numero uno of the stage around 1915, with whom Cecil and his father had already collaborated. This was enough to overcome the reticence of his older brother, William DeMille, who vigorously criticized him for getting mixed up in a kind of show business that was totally unworthy of their family.

[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s book on Cecil B. DeMille, L’Empereur du mauve (“The Emperor of Mauve” 2012, Capricci)]

I. Career

 

Apprenticeship (1914-15)

The Farrar Years (1915-17)

Rembrandt or not Rembrandt?

A Pioneer of Naturalism

High-society Films (1918-1923)

A Time for Extravagance (1923-1930)

Hiccups (1931-1935)

The Safety of Adventure (1936-1946)

More and More (1949-1956)

The Emperor of Mauve (1949-1956)

 

II. Recurring Elements

 

Epics and Religion

Everything is Theatre

S&M

Present/Past

Reincarnation and Resurrection

Faults and Other Hobbyhorses

Trials

Mr. Bathtub

The Conception of Chaos

Kitsch

An Heir to Corneille

Comedy

A Master of Storytelling

The Law of Two-Fifths

The Conception of Women

Actors

Opportunism, Politics, Witch Hunts, Racism, Xenophobia

Conservatism

Intertitles and Dialogues

Cecil Banknote DeMille

An Unwitting Genius?

Missing Films

Misfires

Influences

DeMille and the Critics

 

III. Seven Wonders

 

The Golden Bed (1924)

The Road to Yesterday (1925)

The Volga Boatman (1926)

Madam Satan (1930)

Cleopatra (1934)

The Story of Dr. Wassell (1943)

Samson and Delilah (1949)

[The following is a translation of a dialogue between Hélène Frappat and Jacques Rivette originally published in La Lettre du cinéma in 1999 and reprinted in Textes Critiques, the collection of Rivette’s film criticism issued by Post-Éditions in 2018. The reprint carries an introductory note by editors Miguel Armas and Luc Chessel, reproduced hereThere are no images accompanying the reprint, the additions here are mine.]

Hélène Frappat and Jacques Rivette

Towards the end of 1997, Hélène Frappat contacted Jacques Rivette, who was about to finish editing his film Secret Defense, in order to propose a conversation intended for publication in a new quarterly magazine called La Lettre du cinéma, whose first four issues had come out that year. Their constant exchange, following the release of the film in March 1998, gave way to two recorded conversations, held on 30 September of the same year and then on 6 January 1999, whose transcription was revised and reworked by Rivette, who added three footnotes with his pen.

Together, they constitute a truly collaborative work, published in two parts in issues 10 and 11 of La Lettre du cinéma in the summer and autumn of 1999: the first part carried the title “Trailer”, as a quick introduction to an upcoming dialogue; the second, initially announced under the title “Hunt down the imposters!” was finally titled “Secrets and Laws”, providing the text its general and final title.

It wasn’t the first time that Rivette participated in this kind of exchange: recall the importance of the sprawling conversations he had with his companions at the Cahiers du cinéma, attentively read over and corrected by the filmmaker himself, on his films L’Amour fou (“Time Overflows”, issue no. 204, September 1968) and Le Pont du Nord (“Interview with Jacques Rivette” in two parts, issue no. 323-324, May 1981, and issue no. 327, September 1981); or his dialogue with Serge Daney in two parts, “Day” and “Night”, filmed in Paris by Claire Denis as Jacques Rivette, the Nightwatchman, for the collection “Cinéastes de notre temps” in 1990.

But “Secrets and Laws” seems like a separate work in itself. While presenting it then, Hélène Frappat gave the following guideline:

“What you’re going to read isn’t an interview, but more precisely what Rivette prefers calling a ‘dialogue’, for him a more interesting form than the traditional ‘Q&A’, a form more open and closer to his usual method of working when he’s writing, preparing or shooting a film with members of his crew. The concern of this dialogue will be more general and theoretical (what is a film?) than particular and circumstantial (how to evaluate this or that film?). It’s perhaps for this reason—though he is loath to mention his older writings most of the time—that Jacques Rivette returned to two foundational texts published by Cahiers du cinéma, one in 1953 and the other in 1956: “The Genius of Howard Hawks” and the “Letter on Rossellini”. In these two articles, Rivette reflected on a double evidence: the self-evidence of Hawks’ genius and that of Rossellini’s modernity; a question all the more crucial because, in a way, it poses a threat to the very activity of criticism: how can one prove a self-evident fact (if it can’t be demonstrated, only confirmed)? And what are the conditions that make it possible to think about the feeling of self-evidence that often underpins our critical judgment [1]?”

“Secrets and Laws” thus constitutes as much a reflection on the work of criticism in its relation to the history and practice of cinema as a return to Rivette’s journey, his thought and his work by the filmmaker himself: a major text on the theory of art, which develops invaluable and unexpected ideas in trenchant orality, soberly offered for the use of future readers, where the questions “what is a film?”, “what makes a film a work of art?” register as political questions, in line with the one that Rivette never stopped asking under the name of “modernity”.

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

III. CONCLUSION

 

Lang and Our Times

 

Lang’s body of work is among the most important in Germanic cinema. It’s generally placed before those of Lubitsch and Pabst, but immediately after that of Murnau. From an international perspective, Lang is always cited among the greatest, but never among the highest echelons, often because of a respect for tradition rather than a knowledge of his work. He tends to be considered a filmmaker of the past, an academic director. Rare are those who love his entire body of work, from 1919 to 1960: older critics see him disappear from cinema in 1926, reappear furtively in 1931 (M), or even in 1936 (You Only Live Once). The youngest don’t like his first expressionist films, and locate his real beginnings towards 1924, or 1928, or 1936, or even near 1946. Leftist critics consider only the films between 1928 and 1938 as valuable. There’s a fierce and vain battle between the supporters of German Lang and those of American Lang, which hasn’t facilitated the understanding of his work.

As a matter of fact, Lang’s body of work is one and indivisible. That’s what makes for its power and its weakness. Its power, because this unity is evidently made of equal (or almost equal) films, or at least ones worthy of interest, except Guerrillas. It can’t then be said that Lang, who has more than thirty successes to his credit, has made bad films. It’s a performance that was equalled, by Hawks, by Hitchcock most notably, but never surpassed. None of these films is really independent of the others. The body of work is to be explained, in its totality, by the course of its evolution. And it’s nothing less than the moving course of a human life that we have the pleasure of following, a pleasure superior to the one felt before any one of these films taken alone, which is only one moment in the evolution, and thus incomplete.

The period of search, of artistic youth, is logically completed by the period of maturity, which marks an end point. The contrary is equally true, for this second period lacks the power, the ardour of youth. Hence the difficulty in selecting films that are representative of Lang in the public’s eyes, films that stand apart from others and allow us to describe his art to the layman who has neither the time nor the possibility to see his forty-three films, of a total length of sixty-seven hours. Der müde Tod, Siegfried, Metropolis, M, say the old. M, You Only Live Once, say the more moderate ones. M, Fury, Hangmen Also Die, affirms Lang. Human Desire, Moonfleet, While the City Sleeps, according to the young. Finally, the two Hindu films for the extreme-right among our critics. The game is rather vain, and I don’t think it’s any useful to play it. But it shows clearly that there aren’t any perfect masterpieces, superior to the rest of the films, like it is the case with Buñuel, Capra, Dreyer, Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Gance, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Stroheim, Sternberg, Vidor, Vigo, Welles, who are “auteurs of films”. Along with Godard, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Renoir, Rossellini, Lang belongs to the class of “auteurs of bodies of work”.

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

Contemplation (1954-60)

 

The last phase of Lang’s work embodies, not the view of a man who asks himself painful questions about life, its meaning and the moral value of men of his time, but a superior view, that of God, which observes the indifference of the external world to the individual, the difficulty of communication between individuals caught up in the Social Order. Lang responds to it with an equal indifference that establishes his superiority. That was already the attitude of his positive heroes, stingy when it came to gestures and movements.

Critique now gives way to contemplation. Films like Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, Rancho Notorious, and The Big Heat at times demonstrate this contemplative style inherited largely from a tradition of objectivity in classical American cinema and from the commercial necessity for double games. But now contemplation attains an excessive degree, moving far away from classicism.

Truth be told, there was a film foreshadowing this tendency even in the German period. Twenty-six years before Human Desire, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon, 1928) reconciled its sets and its style: it’s indeed a lunar film. The plot, centred on the conquest of the moon and on the conflicts between scientists and profiteers in search of precious metals, conflicts aggravated by the presence of Gerda Maurus, is simply a pretext to showcase the sets and to place characters within these sets. There’s no human emotion. Everything here is a decomposition of the emotional and physical movements of characters who are analysed with a meticulousness, a mania that makes Frau im Mond the longest (two-and-a-half hours), the most boring and the most painful film by Lang for those who aren’t interested in following the work of the creator through the plot. There’s here the same abstract scheme as in Kriemhilds Rache, a scheme based on the repetition of identical movements, on the rotation of similar acts that end up bestowing even such excess with the outline of a vertiginous, wholly intellectual fascination, producing a new form of poetry.

Five films fall in this line, two American works, one of them rather Germanic in its style, and three other German ones. All five reprise earlier attempts made from a very different point of view, one which isn’t that of contemplative maturity: Human Desire (1954) is an improved version of Clash by Night (1951), in the similarity of its atmosphere and themes, and The Big Heat (1953), whose actors reappear here, but not in their critical virulence. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) takes While the City Sleeps (1955) further, minus the critique once more. Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (1958), Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960) rework Lang’s earlier films (1922, 1932) and scripts (1919).

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[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.

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[The following is a translation of a program note that Godard wrote on Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James (1940). The note, originally written in 1956 on behalf of UFOLEIS (Union française des œuvres laïques pour l’éducation par l’image et le son) for film club screenings of the film, was republished in Godard par Godard (1985, Cahiers du Cinéma). 

A. Presentation

I. The Director: Fritz Lang

 The Return of Frank James is the third film Fritz Lang made in the United States. F. Lang was forced to flee Germany when Hitler came to power, and he had taken refuge in France (where he made Liliom) before leaving for Hollywood, where he settled down in 1934. Naturalized as an American citizen in 1939, Fritz Lang is today a veteran of Californian studios and, like his compatriot Otto Preminger, has adapted himself to them very well. He’s the last representative, along with Carl Dreyer, of that glorious era which saw the combined talents of Griffith, Eisenstein and Murnau (on this subject, refer to a volume of film history for F. Lang’s role during German expressionism).

Fascinated by the Far West since his youth, he worked from 1938 to 1940 on a film that would retrace the entire history of the American West, a sprawling fictionalized documentary like the one Eisenstein had attempted with Mexico and the one Orson Welles would dream of with Brazil. The project was shelved, but Lang’s penchant for the Far West and its legendary heroes encouraged the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck, to entrust him with the direction of a typical Western, The Return of Frank James, which marked Lang’s debut in colour film.

II. The Western

It would be incorrect to classify the Western as a separate genre. What sets a Western apart from other films is only the setting in which it unfolds. In fact, there are historical Westerns, crime Westerns, comic Westerns, and cowboy psychology can be as meticulously probed as those of Bernanos’ peasants or R.L. Stevenson’s adventurers. To be sure, characters in Westerns are among the most ‘stereotyped’ in the whole of cinema, but that’s because myths play a significant role in their existence. Jesse James [1], the ‘beloved bandit’, or ‘The Durango Kid’, are first of all heroes from legend; they are treated by screenwriters as such, in the same way as The Song of Roland or Chanson de Guillaume. That explains the frequent comparisons made between their reactions and those of Corneille’s characters: the same concern to act solely on the given word, the same respect for a homespun morality ruled by a sense of honour.

III. Practical Tips

As part of the projection, we could use the disc Rocky Mountains of Times Stompers (Vogue EPL 7201) in order to create an ‘ambiance’ that will put the viewer in a favourable mood. This disc includes famous tunes from the Far West such as Oh Susannah, Old Faithful, Down in the Valley etc.

 

B. Discussion

I. Dramatic Value

a) The Return of Frank James is the story of a revenge. After gaining notoriety in the West, the James brothers lead a peaceful life. Frank learns from one of his friends, Clem, that Jesse has been murdered by the Ford brothers, their old enemies, who have been acquitted after a trial. Frank, followed by Clem, vows to avenge his brother and sets out in search of the Fords. To get the money that they need, Frank and Clem hold up a cash desk at a small railway station, but a clumsy move by Clem ends in the death of an employee. Frank is wanted for murder. In order to mislead the Fords, Frank passes himself off as dead with the help of Clem and a young rookie reporter, Eleanor Stone, whose articles about the death of the famous Frank James create a nationwide sensation. This way, Frank manages to catch the Ford brothers off guard. One of the Fords plunges fatally during a fight, but the other, Bob, manages to escape. Wanting to save Clem [2], who is charged with the death of the railway employee, Frank James falls into the police’s hands. Bob Ford reappears during his trial and taunts his adversary. But Frank is acquitted thanks to a skilful defence by an old lawyer friend of his. Right away, Frank goes after Bob Ford, who flees after he hears the verdict. Young Clem tries to stop him, but he is shot in the fight and dies in Frank’s hands. Bob Ford is also hurt and dies in a nearby barn. Having had his revenge, Frank James marries Eleanor, the pretty journalist.

b) The theme of vengeance is Lang’s favourite (we find it in all his works, in the second part of the Nibelungen films, in Man Hunt, in Rancho Notorious, in The Big Heat): a man leads his peaceful little life and refuses to poke his nose into other people’s affairs until he loses someone dear to him. He takes law into his own hands, not in the name of society, but on his own behalf.

All of Lang’s scripts are constructed the same way: chance forces a man to come out of his individualist shell and become a tragic hero insofar as he ‘forces the hand’ of the fate abruptly imposed upon him.

II. Cinematic Value

a) Fritz Lang’s mise en scène is of a precision that borders on abstraction. His découpage is a mixture in which intelligence trumps sensitivity. Fritz Lang is more interested in a scene as a whole than in an insert shot, like Hitchcock for example. The role of sets is primordial in each one of his films. Let’s recall that he was once a brilliant student of architecture. One image could singlehandedly define Fritz Lang’s aesthetic: a policeman takes aim at a fleeing robber and is about to kill him; in order to bring out the inexorable quality of the scene better, Lang has a viewfinder attached to the gun; the viewer immediately senses that the policeman cannot miss and that the fugitive must mathematically die. 

b) If The Return of Frank James has an happy ending, in contrast to so many of Lang’s other films, it shouldn’t be seen as a concession to the American censors. Going beyond the moral man, Fritz Lang arrives at the sinful man, which explains his bitterness. But more than the sinner, it’s the study of the regenerated man that attracts the most Germanic of American filmmakers. If the fierce individualist Frank James finally finds happiness, it’s only after he is rewarded morally for his troubles. “Why are you so happy today?”, asks his fiancée; “Because, from today, I can look at myself in the mirror without feeling ashamed”, replies the former outlaw.

III. Additional Reading

– The Western: Or the American Film Par Excellence, J.-L. Rieupeyrout and A, Bazin (Éditions du Cerf).

 

(UFOLEIS notes published in Image et Son, issue no. 95-96, Oct-Nov 1956)

 

Footnotes:

[1] Cf. Jesse James, a film made by Henry King in 1938, whose sequel is The Return of Frank James.

[2] [Translator’s note] It’s actually Pinky, Frank’s black ranch hand, who is charged with murder.

 

[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.

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