The Other Fritz Lang

Cowboys, swashbucklers, and guerrillas in the noir master's non-noir films
by Cullen Gallagher  posted January 27, 2011
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Not since his days as UFA's leading director has Fritz Lang been in the spotlight as much as he is now. The 2008 discovery of a near-complete 16mm reduction negative of Metropolis (1927) in Buenos Aires's Museo del Cine and its 2010 premieres on screens big and small was a reminder of just how global Lang's reputation was and continues to be. That silent sci-fi spectacular, along with M (1931), solidified Lang's status as a filmmaker of international renown. His reputation was at its peak when David O. Selznick invited the Austrian-born director to America. The resulting film, Fury (1936), marked the start of a 20-year sojourn in Hollywood that led Lang from the pearly gates of MGM to the slums of poverty row and back again. Often overlooked in favor of his colossal early work, the 22 films produced during Lang's American exile are the focus of a long-overdue retrospective at New York City's Film Forum, Fritz Lang in Hollywood.

The majority of Lang's American works fit conveniently under the umbrella term noir. From the rural, middle-class landscape of Fury to the political hotbed of Europe in Cloak and Dagger to the urban dangers of While the City Sleeps, Lang specialized in contemporary crime thrillers with a dark streak a mile wide—with five notably incongruous exceptions. Three westerns (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, and Rancho Notorious), one swashbuckler (Moonfleet), and one war film (American Guerrilla in the Philippines). These five stick out not only as generic digressions for the director but (along with his penultimate film, The Indian Tomb) his only color movies. Moreover, except for Rancho Notorious, they are also the most critically neglected of his extant works. But putting aside what is commonly thought of as "Langian," these works contain more of the director's personality than is often assumed.

Despite the critical success of Fury, clashing egos and grueling shoots soured Lang's relationship with almost everyone at MGM, and he was not asked to make a second film at the studio. His follow-ups—You Only Live Once for United Artists in 1937 and You and Me for Paramount in 1938—fared increasingly poorly at the box office. (In hindsight, the latter is one of the director's most enjoyable, eccentric movies—a Brechtian gangster musical!) What Lang needed to sustain his career in Hollywood was a smooth production and a box-office hit. The Return of Frank James (1940) could just as well be called The Return of Fritz Lang, as it proved his commercial viability after nearly half a decade of incessant conflicts.

According to Patrick McGilligan, who wrote the Lang biography The Nature of the Beast, it was Lang's rich historical knowledge of the American West and his (for once) smooth tongue that got him a foot in the door at 20th Century Fox. After charming no less than Darryl Zanuck himself, Lang was offered the chance to redeem his career. A follow-up to Henry King's Jesse James (1939), The Return of Frank James finds Henry Fonda reprising his role as the less famous younger brother who has given up bank robberies for farming. When he hears that the Ford brothers were pardoned for murdering Jesse, Frank picks up his irons and goes hunting for revenge. Parallels to earlier Lang characters are apparent—Spencer Tracy in Fury similarly sought personal justice when society failed him, while Fonda's three-time loser in You Only Live Once was also fated to live and die by his gun—but, as McGilligan notes, "This was Lang without teeth." Even Variety commented on the film's lack of grit: "Effort to put wings on Frank is too much." Fonda's Frank James is undermined by the ghost of his Honest Abe from Young Mr. Lincoln, made two years prior. The mild-mannered, country-bumpkin nature of both characters is most evident in the jocular courtroom scene (a blatant rip-off from Lincoln) that descends into an overdone burlesque of Civil War politics. This Frank James lacks the deception and duplicity that Lang is typically so adroit at exploring.

Where The Return of Frank James does succeed, however, is in its uncommonly tenebrous use of Technicolor. Lang departs from conventional western photography and focuses not on the wide-open vistas, but on the nebulous shadows of nightfall. The film's most significant moments all occur in the dark. When Frank is pacing his barn, wrestling with whether or not to pursue vengeance, lanterns project his specter on the walls (representing the lingering phantoms of his past life) while moonlight passes through the slats, casting noirish, confining bars across his body. Showcased here are Lang's Expressionist roots and his mastery of visual communication, which allow the director to explore psychological elements that were absent from the script. Here, the forward-thinking Lang anticipates the noir-western fusion that would become much more common in the late 1940s and early 1950s in such films as Pursued (1947) and Blood on the Moon (1948).

Having managed to stay on Zanuck's good side, Lang was invited back to do another oater for Fox: Western Union (1941). Significantly, the only name above this title is Zane Grey's, the famous western author who passed away shortly after writing the original novel this movie was based on. Grey's romantic view of the West was a cornerstone of the genre, and from the final product, it's clear the studio didn't want to tarnish this image. Western Union reverses the characteristic Langian inquiry: it investigates the good nature in criminals rather than the latent criminal capacity in "normal" people. Like Fonda in the previous film, Randolph Scott plays an outlaw who tries to go straight by getting a job with the enterprising Western Union, overseeing the installation of telegraph wires across Indian Territory. Scott soon finds that his criminal past follows him wherever he goes, compromising any chance he has for a fresh start.

However, at the heart of Western Union is a creation mythology that is crucial to many of Lang's films: the exploration of how technology can shape a society, and the violence that erupts in its wake. This theme can be seen in the telephone lines used by the gangsters of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler; the improvised barbed-wire telegraph lines in American Guerrilla in the Philippines; the police's clever direct-address on television to communicate with a serial killer in While the City Sleeps; the evil mastermind's intricate network of television cameras and monitors in The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse; and in Metropolis, in which the oppression of the workers backfires, almost causing the collapse of the entire city. Many of these films investigate this theme with far more sophistication than Western Union, which seems more interested in sagebrush hokum and folksy humor than conspiracy theories. Lang was no stranger to humor—even his suspense pictures have their light moments—but he didn't always have the comical finesse necessary to pull them off. In Western Union, the comedy is occasionally broad enough to grate on one's nerves. The repeated gimmick of the cook's eyes widening at every moment of danger is far from Lang's best visual motif. (Patrick McGilligan, in fact, attributes these shots to a direct order from Zanuck, and not Lang.)

Unlike his first two westerns, Rancho Notorious was not a studio assignment, and his personal interest shows in the final product. Vern Haskell is one of Lang's darkest protagonists, and Arthur Kennedy delivers a masterful performance as the everyman corrupted by "hate, murder, and revenge" (as the film's theme song says) after the rape and murder of his fiancée. To find the killers, he becomes an outlaw himself and gains entry to the notorious hideaway Chuck-a-Luck, run by Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich). Kennedy strips Vern's quest of any nobility: there's a nastiness to his drive, a psychotic glint in his eye. He mixes with the professional outlaws too easily for comfort, and his romantic manipulation of Altar contradicts the supposed chivalry of his mission.

Rancho Notorious is often criticized for the obvious artificiality of its painted backdrops. Nonetheless, it's a visually sophisticated film filled with powerful, poetic Langian touches. Flashbacks to Altar's dancehall past (with women riding men across saloon floors) and repeated close-ups of the outlaws' lecherous, guffawing faces recall the debauched Yoshiwara sequences from Metropolis. The final shootout is particularly impressive, with all the characters forming one large ring of betrayal and resentment. As the outlaws confront one another with accusations and realizations, their shape becomes a metaphoric circle of justice and moral latitude—a symbol of the many shades between right and wrong that so preoccupied Lang.

American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950) has the distinction of being Lang's least commented-upon film. Even Lang and Bogdanovich, in their book-length interview Fritz Lang in America, spend that titular chapter speaking about Joseph Losey's remake of M. Other than writing American Guerrilla off as a meal ticket, the director has nothing to say. Lotte Eisner, one of Lang's first and still most astute critics, makes a valiant effort: "It is interesting to see how typical Lang themes and concerns work outside of the studio. The basic situation is like those in Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die, Ministry of Fear, and Cloak and Dagger." While those films also have wartime stories, the difference is that they are suspense thrillers, with the emphasis on subterfuge and paranoia. In American Guerilla, the enemy is simple—the reigning Japanese army—and most of the dull story involves Navy ensigns Tyrone Power and Tom Ewell avoiding them. Lang, who could find conspiracy even in cakes in Ministry of Fear, is at a loss for menace in the Philippines. The film's chief virtues lie in its evocative location photography.

One of the real treasures of Film Forum's series, and one of Lang's most criminally undervalued films, is Moonfleet. It took 20 years, but MGM finally came calling once again, and this time they offered Lang the A production values he was rarely accorded. Based on a novel by J. Meade Falkner, the story is about a notorious smuggler, Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger) who takes under his wing an orphan, John Mohune (Jon Whiteley). As the law closes in on Fox and his gang becomes distrustful of the young Mohune, Fox must negotiate his own betrayal in order to stay alive. Moonfleet may have been Lang's first swashbuckler, but it harks back to the sweeping costume epics that began his career, Destiny (1921) and Die Nibelungen (1924). The scope is scaled down from his days at UFA, but Lang brings to Moonfleet the same attention to detail and atmosphere as in his early days. The characters, however, are much more in touch with his American period. Instead of the larger-than-life heroes and heroines of his silent pictures, Moonfleet's protagonists are more recognizably flesh and blood. Granger and Whiteley manage a sincere and heartfelt relationship that would be out of place in the coldly mythological landscape of Lang's early epics.

Beginning with the opening shot, Lang mines the sinister hues of Eastmancolor and the eerie, unsettling expanse of CinemaScope for maximum atmosphere. The director famously mocked the widescreen format as being "only good for funerals and snakes," but even in these first shots we see Lang expanding the frame horizontally with somber hues and menacing blackness. He might have resented the aspect ratio, but he surely knew how to bend his nightmares to fill the screen. Gothic touches abound in Moonfleet: corpses hang from trees and crypts are pillaged; an imposing, sword-bearing statue looks down upon the church like an angry avenger; and every inch of the coastal English landscape is charged with ominous, Expressionist chiaroscuro.

The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious, American Guerrilla in the Philippines, and Moonfleet. It's easy for five films to get lost in a career that spanned 39 directorial works and many more as a screenwriter, and it's even easier when they don't superficially fit in with the rest. But what these movies show is that, despite surface differences, even the most seemingly aberrant of his films can reveal something of the greater capacity and sensibility of Fritz Lang. 


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Twentieth Century Fox
Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James, directed by Fritz Lang
Photo Gallery: The Other Fritz Lang


January 28–February 10, 2011 Fritz Lang in Hollywood


Fritz Lang  |  film noir  |  Hollywood  |  studio system  |  western


Cullen Gallagher is a film critic who contributes regularly to The L Magazine and Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

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