[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.

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

Lang and Me

In 1941, when rumours began to circulate that Hitler’s ships were assembling to cross the English Channel, then known as the Corridor of Hell, and invade England, I had an idea for a script: what would happen if the London office of the Associated Press were to be destroyed by bombardment, if the AP set up shop in the wine cellar of the Ritz, and if its head found himself trapped by a German time bomb in the same cellar with the official censor of the British press? I’d thought of this story from the particular point of view of a practicing war correspondent, whose work has its own rules and duties: when must he deliver the information? Should he instead keep it a secret? What should he decide, redacted or good for print? Who can judge? What is the best solution? My AP head, a prisoner of the cell and the bomb, decides it’s good for print. The government deems him wrong; the profession deems him right. You probably remember, or were at least told about it, that Hitler’s attempt to invade England failed. The boats were scuttled, the Channel was full of oil, the free countries heaved a sigh of relief. That was the general situation at the time. In my original script, the AP head was killed by the bomb.

Since I’d never set foot in England, I sought the help of an old friend, the late Hank Welles. He had covered the Great War for The Chicago Tribune and had, at one time, managed the Paris office of the Tribune. I asked him a load of questions about London’s streets, its slums, its cellars, about transatlantic cable terminals near Penzance etc.  I wrote ninety-two pages of the adaptation in fifteen hours. Hank prepared cocktails of coffee and cognac. As I asked him technical details about London’s atmosphere, I played the keyboard—I mean I worked on the typewriter—while listening to him. 20th Century Fox bought the story, titled Confirm or Deny, for $20,000.

Hank and I were delighted to learn that Fritz Lang was to direct this film. A peerless creator, Lang remains a symbol full of meaning for all filmmakers. Darryl Zanuck had Jo Swerling adapt the script.

A while later, we heard that Lang wasn’t involved in the film anymore and that Archie Mayo, I think, was to replace him. Why? What had happened? Mayo, I know, was also a filmmaker with a lot of experience. But there were certain touches, certain nuances, certain secret flashes as imperceptible as an exclamation point in literature that Lang could’ve harnessed to the smallest detail, with which he could’ve nailed it so perfectly that you’d have your hair standing on the head.

Whatever it was, I was very disappointed. I knew Lang’s stylistic signature from M until Fury, this admirable cinematic account of mob rule and blind justice.

I was disappointed by the film too. It was a cheerful, rather ordinary melodrama sprinkled with love scenes and punctuated by humorous touches. There was everything except my original idea: the journalist’s struggle with himself to decide whether to print or withhold an information of international importance at a time of war. There was a syrupy love story, with a dash of the sour cream of goodness, embodied by an old journalist. This sermon didn’t move anyone. The war cry seemed to be coming from behind a lectern rather than a teletype. One of my key scenes was when the editor, caught in the trap and finding it impossible to warn the hotel manager that a bomb is about to go off in the cellar, uses the Allied transmission code to send an SOS to the rest of the world, so that it can reach the manager, who is five metres away on the other side of the wall. I thought this scene was sensational.

One day, at the bar of the Screen Director’s Guild, I met Fritz Lang and asked him what had happened to the story of Confirm or Deny. If I remember correctly, he told me that he had read the adaptation I’d written, that he had liked it, and that the final script had nothing to do with the original anymore. So he left the film, which I’ll always regret. I often think that if he hadn’t left, he might have introduced some of the original flavour that had excited him in the first place.

Now, I have something else to reveal to you that will amuse you. In 1946, I had an idea for a film. It was set inside an insane asylum [1]. I sent the script to Fritz Lang. His assistant returned it to me on June 26th 1946 with a letter from Universal under the letterhead of Diana Productions. The letter said that Lang thought my script was very interesting, but that he was already preparing a film on the same lines.

(Unpublished, 1962)

 

Footnote:

[1] It was to become Shock Corridor.