[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.

Pierrot Le Fou
(Pierrot Goes Wild)
1965

Pierrot Le Fou is perhaps Godard’s most loved film after Breathless and it isn’t a coincidence that the films are often placed on the same platform for discussion. Pierrot Le Fou intentionally reverses the narrative that Breathless offered which just reinforces Godard’s stand on the nature of the medium. Breathless ended with a murder while Pierrot Le Fou essentially starts with one. The previous film had wandering souls falling in love whereas the latter has two lovers on the run. And even the starting quote of Breathless resembles the final one of Pierrot. He bends the rules all right, but what is more interesting is that he redefines film grammar that he had constructed.

Pierrot Goes Wild (1965)

Pierrot Goes Wild (1965)

Godard continues to play with the genre system, paying homage at times and ridiculing it at others. Early on in the film we see Samuel Fuller putting forth his definition of cinema as being one about emotions alone. And Pierrot tries to do exactly that. As with most Godardian characters, Pierrot knows that he is in a film and also that we know that he is in a film. He tries to make his journey as “cinematic” as possible by trying to indulge in all possible emotions that he can cook up. Surely, Pierrot stands for Godard himself as he moulds his life as per his whims as Godard does with the film itself.

But the film works the most on a personal level as Pierrot Le Fou sharply marks the end to what I would like to call Godard’s Anna Karina years. The film was made after the couple got divorced and Godard seems to lament the years gone by. Pierrot’s suicide in the final scene may be a manifestation of Godard’s own mental landscape. He even insinuates his future moves in the form of the impromptu play that Pierrot and Marianne put up, where he comments on the attitude of the west towards the Vietnam War (and this was when the war was going on, mind you). So, in a sense the film forms the junction between the two starkly different periods of Godard’s filmography. On the whole, a film about a man dissatisfied by conventions and with nothing to lose made by a man dissatisfied by conventions and with nothing to lose.