Fritz Lang: The Silent Films (Kino Classics, Blu-ray)
Fritz Lang was a towering giant of silent cinema, legendary for his ambitious, epic scope and the imagination and grandeur of his visual storytelling. Kino has been releasing glorious new editions of his silent films as restored by The Murnau Institute in Germany for years: eleven silent features in the last decade, including the landmark restoration of Metropolis. Fritz Lang: The Silent Filmscollects them all, with the respective Blu-ray debuts of three early films previously only on DVD and the home video debut of an early film written by Lang. In all, 12 silent features on 12 discs: an instant collection of one of the most important–and most entertaining–filmmakers of the 1920s.
Making its disc debut in the set is The Plague of Florence (1919), directed by Otto Rippert from Lang’s original screenplay loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.” This is on DVD only and not available separately at this time.
Harakiri (1919), Lang’s adaptation of “Madame Butterfly,” features German star Lil Dagover as the Japanese geisha married then abandoned by (in this version) an American naval officer. Lang is still learning to tell a visual story and he hasn’t mastered the art of directing actors but it sure looks impressive. It’s one of the three films making their respective Blu-ray debuts in this set, along with The Wandering Shadow (1920), his first collaboration with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who became his longtime collaborator and, later, his wife (until Lang fled Germany and von Harbou joined the Nazi party), and Four Around the Woman (1921). The latter, a complicated thriller of intrigue, crime, suspicion, and mistaken identity, looks forward to his popular spy and crime thrillers and is mastered from the only known available print, which is incomplete and damaged. It features a lively score by a small combo.
No supplements with these films.
The rest of the set collects the superb Blu-ray editions previously released in separate editions.
The Big Heat (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of the masterpieces of film noir, a film of subdued style, underplayed brutality, and a well of rage boiling under a surface of calm corruption.
Directed by Fritz Lang on a modest budget, the 1953 crime drama stars Glenn Ford as the workaday family-man cop driven over the edge when the mob violently kills his wife in a hit meant for him (the scene is the first of the film’s explosive eruptions of violence that tear through the poise of normalcy). Gloria Grahame co-stars as the willfully blind gangster’s moll scarred to the soul in an even more scalding moment of brutality and Lee Marvin is memorable as a drawling gunman with a nasty vicious streak, but the usually stiff and stolid Ford is the revelation as his hatred and anger brings him to a boil. The lean narrative drive builds a real head of steam as the private vendetta of revenge turns Ford into a real bastard only brought back to Earth by the kindness and courage of others touched by the same evil.
Fritz Lang, once the master of grand expressionist scenes, tones down his style as he works on a diminished budget, instead playing up the mundane visual quality of family homes, anonymous apartments and hotel rooms, and generic city streets. Even the back gate of a wrecking yard looks more like a theatre piece than a slice of down-and-out life. It all becomes part of the shadowy world of corruption and violence and psychopathic criminals.
Twilight Time originally released the film a couple of years back in a limited edition of 3000 copies and it had been out of print for some time. This is one of the few titles to get an “Encore Edition,” with 3000 more copies, and this edition includes additional supplements: new commentary by Twilight Time’s house team of film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman, plus video introductions by Martin Scorsese (6 minutes, carried over from the “Columbia Film Noir Classics” DVD box set) and Michael Mann (11 minutes).
It features the superb high-definition master from the original Blu-ray release—the image is sharp and rich, with deep blacks and textured shadows, a reminder of just how beautiful black-and-white can be on a well-mastered, well-produced Blu-ray—and the isolated score, attributed to Columbia’s musical director Mischa Bakaleinikof but including musical cues from the studio’s music library, plus a booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Also note the new cover, a reference to a key moment in the film that will draw knowing nods from anyone who has ever seen it.
Hangmen Also Die (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is Fritz Lang’s fictionalized take on a real-life historical event: the only successful assassination of a major Nazi commander by the underground resistance in occupied Europe. Reinhard Heydrich, who earned the nickname “The Hangman” for his brutality as Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, was attacked in 1942 and died of his injuries, an action that was met with terrible reprisals against the population.
For the film version, Brian Donlevy (one of the stiffest of Hollywood stars) is the assassin, a doctor working in the resistance who is forced to hide out with a Czech family when his getaway driver (Lionel Stander) is arrested and he is forced to find his own escape. The actual assassination takes place offscreen in the opening moments, which keeps the focus on the plight of the citizens under the boot of Nazi tyranny, and the message of the film follows in every scene: never inform, no matter how many die in reprisals. It’s a hard lesson for Nasha (Anna Lee), who misdirects the Gestapo soldiers during his escape and hides him when the area is cordoned off at curfew, then chooses to turn him in when her father (Walter Brennan), a scholar who clearly knows more about the resistance than he voices, is arrested as a hostage. Her very intention to go to Gestapo headquarters brings the boot down on her family and she watches one innocent after another sacrifice their own lives to protect the assassin’s identity. The lesson is clear: the only victory is in denying the Nazis any form of victory.
Lang fled Germany after equating a criminal mastermind and his organization of thugs with Hitler and the Nazis in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). When America went to war and Hollywood was given the word to twist its message to war propaganda, Lang sunk his teeth into the assignment with a conviction matched only by fellow European exiles. Hangmen Also Die was the second of Lang’s wartime trilogy of anti-Fascist—making a nice companion piece to Lang’s earlier Man Hunt (1941), released a couple of months ago in a beautiful Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, and later Ministry of Fear (1944), which Criterion put out on a terrific Blu-ray edition last year and the most overtly political—and the most politically driven. Lang wrote the original script with Bertold Brecht (though John Wexley, who translated the script and rewrote the English version with Lang’s input, took screenwriting credit on the film) and pretty much took over shaping the film to his own desires once shooting began, which infuriated Brecht and led to his break with Lang.
Hangmen Also Die is, frankly, the least dramatically compelling of the three. It’s a sprawling story that leans heavily into the propaganda. The stolid Donlevy is a flat and uninspiring hero who barely changes expression and Anna Lee seems always on the verge of unraveling in panic. Where it’s most effective is when it plays the up to the heroism of everyday citizens, driven less by altruism than hatred for the enemy, and in the telling little touches strewn through the film, like the carefully sharpened pencils lined up like soldiers on the desk of a Gestapo officer, or the crates of beer from the collaborator’s brewery stacked up at Gestapo HQ. The mixture of patriotic drama, detective story and espionage thriller knits together in the second half and pays off in a climactic bit of poetic justice that is a fantasy, a kind of con caper played on the Gestapo, yet is oddly satisfying despite the terrific cost in innocent lives.
Though it’s been on disc before, this edition is mastered from a 2013 restoration, which uses numerous sources (including the original negative) to create a mostly beautiful and fully complete version of the film. There are a couple of rough patches from sequences taken from lesser source material but for the most part it is clean and clear, with sharp images and fine black and white contrasts.
Film historian Richard Pena provides the informed commentary and there is a 30-minute featurette with historian Robert Gerwath on the real life history of Reinhardt Heydrich and the differences between reality and the film’s portrait of events. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Peter Ellenbruch on the production of the film and the falling out between Lang and Brecht.
This is Not a Film (Palisades Tartan) is one of the bravest films of recent memory. While Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was under house arrest awaiting appeal — he had been prosecuted for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and sentenced to six years in prison and forbidden from making films for 20 years — he used a friend’s video camera and his own camera phone to make this production.
This is not a conventional film by any means. It’s something between a diary of his house arrest, a video sketchbook for a film he’s unable to make, and a cinematic essay on his position as an artist denied the right to make art and a citizen suppressed by a government who doesn’t like what he says about his country. It’s also a lively engagement with the creative impulse where, like most every film in Panahi’s career, the border between fiction and non-fiction is indistinct.
There’s a tremendous power under the simple-looking surface. Panahi is on camera for the entire film, which was shot by friend and collaborator Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, talking with friends on the phone about his legal situation, addressing the audience to discuss the film he’d like to make but can’t, looking back on his previous films (which he pops into a DVD player) to discuss the nature of filmmaking. But as he sketches out ideas for a film he’s unable to make, the frustration breaks through: telling a film is not making a film. And he clearly is not making a film because, of course, he’s forbidden to. Therefore this is not a film.
This is Not a Film is a true act of courage. Panahi made it clandestinely and had smuggled it out of the country in a thumb drive hidden in a cake (call it a cinematic jail break) to show at the Cannes Film Festival, essentially trading any hope of leniency in his appeal to get his statement to the world. It’s not about his suffering, mind you, for he lives well in his apartment. It’s about censorship and intimidation and making your voice heard in spite of it. It is political art in the very best sense, a creative piece of non-filmmaking that defies expectations of documentary, a personal rumination of the necessity of art and the responsibility of an artist in the face of censorship, and a creative act from an artist forbidden to create.
It certainly isn’t a commercial film, even by arthouse standards, and it played very few engagements outside the film festival circuit. This DVD release may be the first opportunity for many folks to see this humble yet defiant statement.
Iranian with English subtitles. The DVD features commentary by Iranian-born film critic and documentary filmmaker Jamsheed Akrami and a 9-minute excerpt from a 2008 interview with Panahi
Ministry of Fear (Criterion), a conspiratorial wartime thriller from 1943, presents Fritz Lang directing a Hitchcockian screenplay, but the sensibility is all Lang. Ray Milland is the wrong man here, recently released from a mental asylum (he was sentenced for the mercy killing of his dying wife) and immediately plunged into the middle of a Nazi spy ring in Britain. Milland emerges from his exile back to the social world with an eagerness to connect. Enticed by the crowds and the energy of a village fair, a charity fundraiser for war widows and orphans, he plays along with the fortune teller and the cake raffle with a good-natured humor, oblivious to the forces of darkness circling around him. He’s assaulted by a blind man who isn’t blind, barely survives a German bombing raid in an otherwise peaceful country meadow, and is framed for a murder at a séance crowded with suspicious characters. Lang constantly lays land mines in seemingly unthreatening locations.
Die Nibelungen (Kino) is the original fantasy epic, a magnificent silent spectacle based on the same German myth that inspired Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and the wellspring that nurtured “Excalibur,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Game of Thrones” (not mention “Metropolis”).
This blood and thunder myth of warriors and dragons and brotherhood and betrayal, is awesome in its scope, both visual and dramatic. Warrior prince Siegfried is both innocent child-man of the wild and the blonde Aryan ideal of German myth, a mortal god in his own right destroyed by the pettiness of human vanity and weakness of his own sworn blood brother. The betrayal of the first part of this mighty diptych is answered in the title of part two: “Kriemhild’s Revenge.” His widow vows vengeance (“Blood cries for blood!”) and it is as enormous and devastating as anything Shakespeare created, practically destroying two kingdoms in a literal conflagration.
On the one hand, Lang presents is as a tragedy, of vengeance burning down everything and everyone it touches, but Kriemhild can also be seen as the hand of the gods burning out the corruption of a compromised kingdom that defends a killer with the same sense of honor that justified the betrayal of a blood brother. “You do not understand the German soul,” explains one knight to the King Attila of the Huns, but as embodied by the weak-willed King Gunther, their is little to understand beyond perhaps regret for past sins and a futile gesture to regain lost honor.
Beyond that, “Die Nibelungen” is simply magnificent to behold, a mythic landscape of ancient forests, fairy tale waterfalls, lakes of fire, and caves and crevices hewn out of earth and rock, built entirely in the studios of Ufa. There’s a half-hearted inclusion of Christianity with a massive cathedral and a few carefully-placed crucifixes, but if there is any religion to this film, it is of the Earth and nature and the old gods, and every set and manufactured landscape serves the grandeur of this primeval, pre-religion world.
[May 9, 1972, program note for a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, “Fritz Lang in America”]
With the possible exceptions of Scarlet Street and parts of Fury, The Big Heat is the most corrosive of Fritz Lang’s films. Its very title sounds definitive of the darkly, sometimes loathsomely brilliant film noir, a class—if not precisely a genre—of American movie to evolve in the wake of the Second World War or, more accurately, after the tide of war had turned in favor of the Allies: tortured imagings of a then-contemporary America, the high neurotic intensity of which would astound anyone who fancies the movies came of age this side of Stanley Kubrick. The film noir put out inky tendrils in many existent genres, forever altering even the Western (Anthony Mann, perhaps the most gifted director associated with the new vision, the new mode, also began his remarkable series of James Stewart Westerns in this era: Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, etc.); and certainly its temperamental affinities to the science-fiction film, a prime manifestation of the McCarthy era, are worth a nod. Basically, though, the film noir flourished in and reflected a contemporary milieu; films noirs tended to have to do with the world of crime, whether overtly (police and FBI stories, private-eye flicks, gangster stories) or by extension—that is, films in which “the world of crime” proved to be inseparable from the world of nightclubs and cabarets, offices and tenements, cars and homes where private citizens might become, by accident or design, guilty souls. The arrival of the film noir coincided with a new penchant, inspired by Italian neorealism, for moving out of the studio on occasion and onto the great rich set of the American city and its suburbs, a readily available set which became, sometimes with only minimal adjustment of light and shadow, fully as “Germanic” as anything constructed at Ufa in the Twenties. Of course many makers of films noirs were authentically Germanic: Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, The Killers), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd.), Otto Preminger (Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends), not to mention other directors and—just as important—designers and cameramen. But the most Germanic of all, Fritz Lang, clung to the resources of the soundstage. Still, part of the reason why The Big Heat looms large even in the incomparably rich spectrum of cinema that is film noir is its recognizability as a studio re-creation (specifically, mid-Fifties Columbia, as Man Hunt represents early-Forties Fox craftsmanship at its highest). The imagined milieu of The Big Heat may look less freaky than that of that earlier Lang picture of an earlier generation, Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922), but its distortions are (therefore?) more subtle, its ultimate force and effect more subversive.
For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, which runs from Sunday, May 13 through Friday, May 18, 2012, is dedicated to helping the National Film Preservation Foundation raise money to score and stream the recently unearthed reels of The White Shadow, a silent film from director Graham Cutts that young Alfred Hitchcock worked on as screenwriter, production designer, editor, and assistant director, for all to enjoy. The blogathon is hosted by Ferdy on Films, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod, and you can make your donations to that effort at the NFPF website here.
Film historian, critic, and film collector Fernando Martín Peña spent twenty years tracking down the holy grail that was the complete, long though lost “Metropolis.”
Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic is a landmark science fiction filmmaking, a masterpiece of silent film and a visionary work of cinema, and its reputation has been based on an incomplete version of his original film. After its premiere in Berlin, UFA (which produced the film) cut it down for general release, and it was often cut further for export (the American release was cut by more than a third). But there rumors that an uncut print that had found its way to Argentina, thanks to an ambitious distributor who saw the film in its first run in Berlin, and Peña had heard stories of a private print in the possession of a Buenos Aries film critic and historian, a 16mm reduction of a 35mm print imported before any of the cuts had been made (Peña tells the entire fascinating story here). He spent decades trying to follow the leads to a public archive, where he was met with bureaucratic wall.
In collaboration with Paula Felix Didier, director of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, he finally found it print. They confirmed its authenticity and contacted the Murnau Foundation, which had undertaken the task to reconstructing the original version. It was only one of many elements that went into the definitive version that has since screened around the world in digital prints and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino — lost footage was also recently discovered in a New Zealand archive, and in better condition than the Argentinean print — but it was the essential missing link. Not only did it contribute footage unavailable in any form elsewhere, it provided an visual invaluable guide to the artists, historians and technicians doing the physical work of restoring and reconstructing the definitive version.
The Murnau Institute first embarked on a major restoration about a decade ago with the materials they had on hand and it revealed just how much footage — including significant sequences and entire subplots — was missing. Title cards sketched out subplots lost when the film was edited down by UFA (against the wishes of Lang), in particular the stories of The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who in previous editions is sent by Joh Frederson on a clandestine mission and then all but disappears; Joh Frederson’s assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), who is fired by Frederson and taken in by Freder; and the worker 11811, who Freder relieves from the exhausting duty of working the hands of the clock-like device. and his adventures in the world above ground where he becomes intoxicated on the decadence. Those stories, suggested in the earlier reconstruction, are played out here, and there are further additions, from an additional action scene in the escape from the flooding underwater city to shots trimmed from within scenes. The restoration of even these brief shots fills out the rhythmic qualities of Lang’s editing and adds detail to the montage, and in a few significant scenes it adds to the scope and intricacy of the drama.
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:
FRITZ LANG 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….
Fritz Lang arrived in Hollywood as an artist in exile and, as the creator of some of Germany’s most famous and most successful films, accorded all due respect. Unlike a lot of artist refugees from Hitler’s Germany, he was offered prestige assignments, “important” subjects and major stars. At least at first. Without major hits or awards to his credit, and with a reputation for autocratic methods (there’s nothing a studio hates more than a “difficult” director), he very slowly slipped down the ladder into smaller budgets and increasingly turned to independent productions.
Fritz Lang’s final three American productions were released through the Warner Archive Collection this year. And while they never reach the heights of his greatest American films—You Only Live Once (1937), Man Hunt (1941), Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat (1953)—they have their pleasures and rewards.
Moonfleet (1955) was Lang’s last film for one of the Hollywood majors. The budget-minded MGM production set in 18th century England, it’s like “Great Expectations” by way of a gothic film noir, in this case a world of smugglers, knaves and decadent, corrupt gentry on the rocky, foggy British coast. Jon Whitely is the film’s answer to Pip, a plucky young orphan sent to live with the dark criminal aristocrat Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), a brigand with money and status torn between his mercenary instincts and his growing sense of responsibility for the innocent and unfailingly loyal boy, the son of the woman he loved and in many ways the symbol of the road not taken.
Lang shot in CinemaScope entirely in the studio and still creates a claustrophobic world of craggy moors and bleak architecture. Even the stony church is a bleak sanctuary where cold statues seem to judge, if not outright threaten, the parishioners. Visually it anticipates the look of the Hammer Gothic horrors and Corman’s Poe films, with its studio moors and gloomy sets of stone gray and rough wood and costumes of royal purple and soldier crimson, all shrouded in fog and mist like a perpetual purgatory. Granger delivers a perfectly sardonic and arrogant performance while George Sanders purrs pure aristocratic decadence and moral bankruptcy, relishing his easy corruption with wry looks and cheerfully greedy behavior. “You’re cheating,” accuses one man at a card game. He fixes a weary smirk and replies: “Even if I were, I’d consider it grossly impolite to say so in my own house.” Sure, there’s a redemption in the offing, but the brigands are a lot more fun.
After this low-end studio assignment, Lang ended his Hollywood career at RKO, once a major studio slowly withering under the capricious command of Howard Hughes, working with falling stars and budget-starved productions in black and white that he did his best to turn into an asset.
While the City Sleeps (1956) is less an all-star cast than a veteran line-up of studio pros: Dana Andrews as the ostensible lead, a TV newscaster in a multi-media news company that encompasses a metropolitan daily paper and a wire service, Rhonda Fleming, George Sanders, Howard Duff, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price and Ida Lupino as the newspaper columnist whose nose for office politics is her greatest survival skill. Ostensibly a thriller about a serial killer (John Drew Barrymore) and the media circus around the investigation, there isn’t much tension or crime movie thriller energy, but it does offer a thoroughly corrupt portrait of life: while a psychotic leatherboy kills girls and blames his mom, the staff of a new organization plays politics to maneuver themselves into a promotion when the playboy son (Vincent Price) of the deceased owner takes over and essentially pits his employees against one another to vie from promotion.
Dana Andrews is back in the lead of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a clever little thriller that has Andrews and a crusading newspaper publisher (who is, not so coincidentally, the father of his fiancée, Joan Fontaine) staging his “guilt” in a murder investigation by planting circumstantial evidence. It’s all an elaborate anti-capital punishment protest, until an untimely accident destroys all the evidence of his innocence and leaves him facing the death penalty while Fontaine takes up his cause. It doesn’t have the poetry or the intensity of his best American films, and it lacks the power of “The Big Heat” or even the embrace of the decadent and corrupt world of “Moonfleet,” but it makes an odd little bookend to Lang’s 1930s dramas of social protest and it boomerangs back with a weirdly cynical twist. Those familiar with Lang’s disdain for Hollywood’s contrived happy endings will have a field day imaging how Lang would have preferred to end this barbed little picture.
Both of these films are presented in the SuperScope process, a cheap widescreen alternative to the anamorphic CinemaScope process. Where CinemaScope used the entire 35mm frame, the widescreen of SuperScope uses only a portion of the frame, masking off the top and bottom and rephotographing the image on an optically squeezed anamorphic print, which would then by widened out by an anamorphic lens in projection across the big screen at a ratio somewhere between 1.75:1 and 2:1 ratio (twice as wide as it is high). The process inevitably resulted in a soft, degraded image and for years television prints presented the original, unmasked version. David Bordwell offers much more detail on the process at his blog here. The process, needless to say, didn’t last long.
There is some debate over what Lang intended and how the film was ultimately shown in the U.S., given the rather inexact nature of the process and the sometimes capricious treatment of films by studios who could “widescreen” a film in post-production. These discs present the SuperScope editions at 2:1 and you can see that they are just a little softer and grainier than the usual widescreen movies, not distractingly so on home video but enough to notice the sacrifice. And they like fine to my eyes, though a little cramped at times. David Bordwell digs into the debate, does his research and offers illustrations here.
On a side note, these last two films got me thinking about the strange case of Dana Andrews, the leading man of the forties who aged into lower budget and off-studio productions as the fifties wore on. He was off the A-list but still cast as romantic leads, often opposite women decades his junior. Not an unusual state of affairs of Hollywood then (see Clark Gable) or now (Bruce Willis anyone?), but next to the square stiffness of Andrews it plays a little weird. Such as in “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” when he picks up a showgirl in his campaign to stage his guilt, or in Jacques Tourneur’s The Fearmakers (MGM Limited Edition Collection), a 1958 Cold War drama that plays on fears of spies and propaganda and the insidious manipulation of public opinion polls to shape (rather than measure) public opinion. The subject matter is as timely as ever but the film itself a confused production that, even as it hammers on its themes in speech after speech, conflates the Red Scare with Fascism and stumbles over its insistent exposition. Meanwhile, this Korean war veteran hero deals with PTSD (not named as such, of course, and rather too easily conquered) and solves the murder of his partner while winning the girl (Marilee Earle, easily two decades his junior) and striking back against the “fellow travelers” with his two American fists. The Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument watch on in approval.
Andrews starred in a great number of superb American films, well cast and directed in Laura (1944), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and two of Jacques Tourneur’s best films, Canyon Passage (1946) and Curse of the Demon (1957). The Fearmakers is a disappointment, but its attempt to discuss the complex issues of media manipulation and political opinion makes it and interesting disappointment. It also illustrates why Mel Torme, who has a supporting role as a milquetoast conspirator, never became a movie star.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
O listen … listen well:
Listen to the Legend of Chuck-a-Luck, Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the song of the gambler’s wheel,
A souvenir of a bygone year,
Spinning a tale of the old frontier
And a man of steel,
And the passion that drove him on, and on, and on.
It began, they say, one summer’s day
When the sun was blazing down;
‘Twas back in the early Seventies
In a little Wyoming town.
So, listen to the Legend of Chuck-a-Luck, Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the Wheel of Fate
As round and round with a whispering sound
It spins, it spins
The old, old story of
Hate, Murder and Revenge!
Any movie that gets underway with a song like that is going to be a little strange. And Rancho Notoriousis strange. Peculiar. Outrageous. Utterly distinctive. I can only sympathize with any Western fan who dropped into his local grindhouse some night in 1952 for an hour-and-a-half of vicarious gunplay and eye-soothing scenery. Although it includes a goodly amount of shooting, a jailbreak, a bank holdup, a vicious fistfight and some token (very second-unit–style) hard riding, RanchoNotorious offers little in the way of genre compensations. Its theme ballad forgoes the customary easy jogging rhythms of most Western music for a tortuous, neurotic progression all its own; the mode is epic, but closer to Brechtian Epic than big-country epic. Indeed, the song bids to be exemplary: we are advised to “listen, listen well.” The didactic note is consistent with the previous work of a director who has specialized in putting his protagonists through hellish learning experiences (a character in one film speaks of having watched himself burn to death a dozen times over in a newsreel of his “lynching”; another Lang film consists mostly of a dream wherein the protagonist witnesses himself succumbing to what seems a single harmless temptation, then being lost in a morass of guilty complications that serve to confirm his waking self in straitlaced morality). And the film is exotically personal. It is drolly, thrillingly right that the last four words of the chorus should coincide with the credit title DIRECTED BY FRITZ LANG: RanchoNotorious is a Teutonic revenge drama that partakes of the conventions and uses of the American Western—gunmen on horseback settling disputes against mythic backgrounds—without ever leaving the Fritz Lang universe. Siegfried, Kriemhild, and Hagen Tronje would feel right at home at Chuck-a-Luck.