Late last year—late afternoon on 2011’s final day, in fact—I emailed the editors of the forthcoming book Film Noir: The Directors my essay on Fritz Lang. As of March 1, the book has come forth in reality. A couple of dozen film noir scholars and/or fans have written on slightly more than that number of key noir directors: Robert Aldrich, Joseph H. Lewis, Anthony Mann, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder…. Among the contributors are the prolific editors, Alain Silver and James Ursini, whom I thank for the invitation to participate. The publisher is Limelight; the official price, $24.99; the number of pages, 400; the shipping weight, 2.4 pounds.
Here’s how my part of it starts:
By Richard T. Jameson
Would film noir have happened without Fritz Lang? Probably, since so many factors and forces contributed to its flowering. But would it have been as rich and strange, as philosophically provocative and aesthetically exciting? Among the directors associated with film noir, no other possessed a personal vision—both style and worldview—so apt to that cinematic environment.
You could say that Lang had a two-decades-plus head start on noir. During his German Expressionist heyday, from 1921’s Der müde Tod (Destiny) to 1933’s Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse, he was exploring themes and forms, coining screen language and syntax, and forging an approach to character and ambiguity that would be crucial to noir world. Perhaps most crucially of all, the power and mystery of Lang’s Weimar-era films sprang from a uniquely dynamic symbiosis of narrative and design: story emerged through the recognition of pattern, as character was forged in the struggle against Fate—the ultimate design.
Those films serve as early recon maps of the terrain that would become noir. Most of the major works deal with criminality and shadow societies pervading, underlying, and sometimes flourishing right on the surface of a modern city. Several feature a criminal genius whose powers of disguise and organizational supremacy make him seem ubiquitous, almost supernatural. Sometimes called Dr. Mabuse (though the mastermind in the best of the “Mabusian” films, the 1928 Spione, doesn’t go by that name), his plots to orchestrate complex capers, undermine national currencies, steal international secrets, and so forth are finally incidental to his primary impulse: to play with the very fabric of contemporary reality. The nature of that reality is suggested by a hallucinatory mise-en-scène in which the décor is at once stark and decadent, a playground for perverse spectacle and gamesmanship, a maze of corridors and doorways and streets where the modern and the gothic interlayer. There’s a pervasive air of paranoia, a nightmare of a world in which chaos and order are opposite sides of the same coin.
Just as striking as the exoticism of these films is the social commentary. Decades before the pop socio-cultural epiphanies of the Godfather films in the 1970s, Lang was asserting the essential similarity, even the interchangeability, of the criminal and corporate worlds. M (1931) carries out a more extensive dissection of society at large in the course of following the hunt for a serial killer of children. Common organizing principles and parallel behaviors are observed among four distinct strata of an urban population: the miscellaneous citizenry, the police, the criminal faction, and the shadow army of beggars, peddlers, and street creatures who pass freely among the rest. One night both the police council and the leaders of the underworld hold simultaneous meetings to discuss the crisis; Lang intercuts the two sessions and composes the action so that, say, a question raised by a municipal official is “answered” by a representative of one of the criminal guilds, and a sweeping gesture begun by the chief gangster is completed by the chief of police. Other correspondences are worked into the texture of the film overall. When, in the penultimate reel, enraged members of the underworld’s kangaroo court leap on the captured child-murderer in an angular shot and drag him back down a flight of stairs, we recognize the echo of something an hour earlier in screentime: casual passers-by on a city street mistaking a misdemeanor arrest on the top tier of an omnibus for the apprehension of the child-murderer, and swarming the steps in vigilante frenzy. (The criminals give the Kinder Mörder a trial; what the ordinary citizens do to their perp is a question left unanswered.)
And yet surely the director’s greatest legacy to noiristes is stylistic….
Copyright © 2011 by Richard T. Jameson