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

Spy Films (1941-43)

With war looming over the USA, and much before Pearl Harbor, Lang began to contribute to the struggle against fascism. Not in order to exculpate himself from any affiliation to Nazism, as certain historians claim, but because of a profound and personal desire expressed in the second Mabuse film, among others. Five films in all, four of them in succession if we count Confirm or Deny (1941) which Sam Fuller speaks about elsewhere and which Lang quit during the shoot—just as with Moontide (1942)—which proves that Lang cherished his freedom of expression more than the beneficial domesticity imposed by Fox, Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1942), Ministry of Fear (1943), and as addendum, Cloak and Dagger (1946).

The last one is a little odd: if it reuses all the elements of the other spy films, its aesthetic is based on an outmoded, even embarrassing sentimentalism, impressive and convincing in the audacity of its excesses than in its quality. It feels too loud not to be sincere. Is it the nostalgia of the exile that’s speaking? We can’t say.

These works, with the exception of Hangmen Also Die! with its 1961 rerun in Paris, were poorly received by critics. It is true that they bring nothing new to Lang’s work, but even so, they are undeniably successful, clearly superior to the spy films Walsh churned out serially at the time, and more perfect than even Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, contemporary films by Hitchcock. It’s understandable that finicky critics don’t like these films, for what they have in common is a total disdain for realism, and particularly for local colour. The Austrians (Man Hunt), the Czech (Hangmen Also Die), the Swiss and the Italians (Cloak and Dagger) and even the English (Man Hunt, Ministry of Fear) are characterized, in their behaviour as in their living conditions of the time, with a schematism that could seem repulsive to local population and to those who knew Europe under occupation or at war, and which could be compared to Minnelli’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But, with the ties between America and Europe severed, Lang only had access to second-hand accounts. This rejection of realism also seems voluntary. Everything holds together thanks to the implausible, the fantastic and the extraordinary. The synopsis of the plots is telling.


[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

The saga of the left profile: Cooper has to always have the most marked face possible… (Sergeant York, 1941)

Gary Cooper became famous, most of all, in uniform: thirty of his eighty-two films present him in attire, starting from Opus 5, Wings (1927), till the penultimate one, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), and we must perhaps also include For Whom the Bell Tolls, where he is in plainclothes but at war. He stands, then, for the conventional, official Right, somewhat perverted towards the end of his career since, in the comedy You’re in the Navy Now (1951), he plays an officer holding a post that has nothing to do with his capabilities, since The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) shows him as an outcast general criticizing the decisions of the army. And the captain of the Mary Deare, the only man on board the ghost ship that traffics arms, would also go on trial, just like Billy Mitchell.

But more than a moral value, the uniform represents a visual asset: it throws Cooper’s great height into relief. His lean build makes him look almost like a model. All outfits go on him: army, navy, air force, ancient (in Westerns) or exotic (attire of the French legionnaires) uniforms, or both at once (The Lives of Bengal Lancer).

Morocco (1930) is not the first film where he is a legionnaire (there was Beau Sabreur already in 1928), but it’s the one that imposed this brand image. Undoubtedly, the success of Morocco incited lazy producers to cast him as an army man in five consecutive films from 1931 to 1933.

Watching Sternberg’s Morocco, we could say that Cooper is more of a silhouette, a statue, an image, a model, a prop, an element in the general aesthetic of the film. He belongs to the class of Sternbergian strongmen, the giant variety (like John Wayne later) that alternates with the stout variety (Bancroft, Jannings, McLaglen, Beery, Mature), the Mitchum of Macao being both — a predilection that might explain the failure of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov-Peter Lorre being evidently the antithesis of the Sternbergian man.

This mythical aspect goes hand in hand with the spirit of the film. You get the feeling that Sternberg—in this film as in his other works of the period—accepted and even sought out all the already-mythologized elements of convention—a handsome army man, a femme fatale, an impossible love, a rich and wily old French seducer, and the charms and the dangers of mysterious Africa. This strategy allowed him to come out of all charges unscathed: if the film failed, wise guy Sternberg could always claim that it was impossible to make anything from such a ridiculous plot. If the film succeeded, he could boast of having overcome all these superhuman obstacles.


[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger (1946) was made at a peculiar historical moment in 20th century American history. The Second World War had just ended and with it the rivalry with Germany. But the Cold War, marked by red scare and communist witch-hunts, hadn’t yet begun. The effect of this unusually peaceful period, nevertheless characterized by an exhaustion with the long war and an anxiety about the nuclear future, is palpable both in the circumstances of the film’s production as well as its narrative. In its own way, Cloak and Dagger attests to the passing of the baton from Hollywood’s left wing, in the ascendant since the Great Depression, to the conservatives, who will dominate the industry in the subsequent decade.

Made by Warner Brothers, the film is set just before the end of the war and opens in southern France with one of its many wordless sequences: a reconnaissance mission involving freight trains, a liaison with an Allied informant at the back of a bar, a double-crossing leading to a double murder. Back at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington D.C., we learn that Germany is amassing raw material for the development of an atomic bomb and that the OSS needs a scientist in their ranks to sabotage this development. So they solicit Professor Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper), a physicist at “Midwestern University” working on the Manhattan project.

It’s a rather odd casting choice whose oddity is revealing too. As he’s written, Jesper is a nuclear scientist who speaks German, which suggests that his character was imagined as an immigrant (like Lang himself). Casting Cooper—and not someone like, say, Edward Robinson, the star of Lang’s previous two films—transposes a flavour of American exceptionalism over the anxious scientist character. But Jesper remains a man of science only for his first scene, in which Cooper, in suit, fixes a lab equipment, flexes his fingers and plays with an apple as he converses with the OSS emissary sent to persuade him. Convinced of the importance of using science only for humanity’s good, Jesper is reluctant at first, but joins the mission nevertheless when he thinks of the horror of a German nuclear weapon. Once recruited, Jesper becomes a full-time spy—a character that fits Cooper like a glove, even when he’s speaking German with an American accent.

Right away, Jesper flies to Switzerland to gather more information from Dr. Lodor (Helen Thimig), a German scientist who has just fled the Nazis. At the end of a series of twists, Jesper finds himself en route to Italy to meet with Lodor’s colleague Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff). After his illegal crossing into Italy via a lake—another tense, wordless sequence—he meets Gina (Lilli Palmer, also a German immigrant to Hollywood), an Italian resistance fighter who will help him contact Polda and lie low until an escape is planned. His first sight of her is when Gina removes her dark raincoat and hat in the cargo truck, her sexy white dress and blonde hair illuminating the dark interior of the truck. It’s a tender introduction that sets the tone for the film’s first major transition: following a long meeting with Polda, which slows down the narrative tempo and prepares us for the second movement of the film, Jesper is asked by his peers to simply hole up with Gina for a week.

This is where Cloak and Dagger turns into a full-scale romance, as its guiding perspective shifts from Jesper to Gina. The focus of their first night together moves from their mutual seduction, mediated by a hungry cat, to the scars from Gina’s past. We learn that Gina was a hopeful musician in love until the war forced her into an untrusting, broken girl who kisses without feeling. As they flee from her flat—now no more a safe space—to an abandoned circus to a lavish apartment and finally to the ruins, the film enacts a narrative of tortured domesticity, emphasizing the feeling of never being able to settled down. Their journey through these symbols of purity and homeliness becomes a reminder of what the war has damaged, perhaps irreparably. Even so, this time together with Jesper is a moment of respite for Gina, who finally dresses up in a nostalgia for life before the war.

While the transition to sentimentalism can seem jarring for viewers used to tight film noir narratives of the era, Cloak and Dagger deems it important and just to give Gina this passage of peace and warmth before the spy film resumes with all its violence and mayhem. For Lang’s film is first and foremost a fable about the loss of innocence—a theme that preoccupied the filmmaker throughout his working life. In 1945, the year before the film’s production, the Nazi concentration camps were discovered, shaking western civilization’s deep-rooted faith in progress. It was also the year atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, catapulting humanity into an age of fear and uncertainty.

One of the first Hollywood films to deal with the moral and existential repercussions of the nuclear era, Cloak and Dagger evokes the disillusionment of a civilization with the stories it has been telling about itself. The film was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriters blacklisted in 1947 as part of Hollywood’s anti-communist drive, and Jesper’s opening speech spells out their pacifist dispositions. In an interview years later with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang revealed that the film’s original ending had Jesper discover an abandoned concentration camp with several thousand deceased inmates who had been forced to work on the bomb. This conclusion, with its suggestion that the real danger had only begun, was too strong for producer Milton Sperling, who instead ended the film triumphantly with Jesper returning to America with Polda.

Jesper, too, experiences this loss of innocence in a stylized-yet-austere scene set in an apartment foyer, where he’s forced to fight a henchman tailing Polda. It’s an unsettling, very physical sequence of hand-to-hand combat in which the henchman digs his nails into his rival’s eyes while Jesper, with Gina’s help, strangles the man to death. That this peace-loving scientist of lofty ideals could suffocate a man with his bare hands is the kind of dark irony Lang was adept at driving home. A master of mixing tonalities, Lang amplifies the brutality of the sequence by cutting it with sweet accordion music playing in the streets. As the dead man lies on the floor, a ball comes bouncing towards him from the staircase—a quintessential Lang image of corrupted innocence that harks back to his German-language masterpiece M (1931).

Cloak and Dagger might also be regarded as one of the first examples of the Euro thriller—a sub-genre of Hollywood thrillers whose action takes place in attractive European locations and which is predicated on the prerogative of the American hero to go wherever he wants without hindrance. The challenges of the film’s plot are rather conveniently resolved by Jesper, who wanders around Switzerland and Italy without much trouble. The Italian streets splattered with Mussolini propaganda are, of course, shot in Hollywood studios, whose artificiality sticks out all the more considering Rossellini made the neorealist epic Paisan the same year. Realism of appearance, however, is not the primary concern here. Cloak and Dagger puts its finger on a paranoia that will come to define a decade, attaining its full proportions when the Soviet Union performs its first nuclear weapon test in 1949.


[Originally published at Firstpost]