Destiny (1921)

Destiny (1921) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 01/21/2018

Recently reading that Luis Buñuel found Fritz Lang’s 1921 film Destiny the inspiration that drove him to cinema, I made the mental note that I had to see it.

I got introduced to German Expressionism in my very first film class at 17, by way of Lang’s own M (1931). It was then that I realized that all my childhood fascination with horror films and the birth of horror films pretty much dovetailed with the German aesthetic in its silent heyday. I’d longed to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (often cited in those childhood texts as the first horror film of all time rather inaccurately), Nosferatu (1922), The Golem (1920), and Lang’s Metropolis (1927). I had to good luck that my mother took me to see the Lon Chaney silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Though those latter ones aren’t German or Expressionist, I had a yen for these films from a young age.

Destiny is an exemplar of Expressionism while not at all really being a horror film. The film’s main story is the heart of the film: a young bride (Lil Dagover) loses her husband to death, and she goes into the realm of death to try to bring him back. Death is a human figure (the imposing Bernhard Goetze), but he is a monster in deeds only, giving Dagover three chances to save a lover from dying. Her failures in each of the stories leads her to plead with other people to give their lives for her husband. Her final realization, when she saves a baby from a fire, is what allows her to accept her “destiny”.

While it’s not my favorite of Lang’s films or the Expressionist genre, it is a very fine film. I try to take myself back to imagining a 21 year old Buñuel in 1921, encountering real cinema for the first time. It’s little wonder the Surrealists loved cinema so much.

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Rancho Notorious (1952) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 06/19/2017

Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious starts out with a rape and murder of a pretty shop owner by a vicious outlaw. For 1952, this suggestion is hardly detailed and yet more explicit than implicit. This is the event that spurs Vern (Arthur Kennedy) on a long, lonesome road to revenge, tracking through Indian territory on the trail of an outlaw, and finding himself at a secretive ranch run by a former showgirl Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), who now harbors criminals for 10% of their loot.

The bandits that meet up there range broadly in the crimes and characters, and Vern comes to hide among them but also to identify with some of them, most significantly Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), Keane’s long-time semi-beau. This is familiar territory for Lang, a criminal underworld, but one with its own ethics, honesty, and sense of fair play.

Really, it’s Vern who is the deceiver, playing a wanted outlaw to get close to the criminals who killed his girl. Though he joins them on a bank robbery, tying himself to the criminals, it’s his betrayal of Keane’s rules that allow him to eke out his revenge.

This is late Lang, a period somewhat disdained by his fans and critics. Produced and re-named by Howard Hughes, this is a cheapie by Hollywood standards. But Rancho Notorious was a film that Lang developed more fully than most, from conception to completion, and it bears the qualities of the work of one of the true auteurs in Hollywood.

It’s also got Dietrich, right at the top, a meta-legend in the story, and an aging movie star still relatively youthful at her age of 51.

I always seem to find Lang’s films sit with me, develop more and more in retrospect, and I sense that Rancho Notorious will as well.

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

Hangmen Also Die! (1943) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 02/19/2017

This year has got me thinking a lot about resistance to Nazis and fascists. So, now I’ve opened a new trope in my movie-watching “Anti-nazi/Anti-fascist movies”, particularly those made during the build-up and duration of WWII.

It’s not that Hollywood itself was ahead of the game on this, because in fact, it largely wasn’t. There was still money to be made in Europe and calling out the fascists didn’t happen a lot until war was actually declared. And by that time, the stuff shaped more in the form of propaganda a lot of the time.

Emigree director Fritz Lang made three films during WWII with explicit depiction of Nazis. He claimed to have been approached by Joseph Goebbels to join the Nazis as a propagandist and took this meeting as signal to get the heck out of Germany. Whether that story is disputable or not, Lang did emigrate and make films like Hangmen Also Die! a film noir resistance thriller based loosely on real events.

Hangmen depicts a fictional version of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reich Protector of German-occupied Prague, the highest ranking Nazi assassinated during the war. In Hangmen, the assassin is Brian Donlevy, a doctor involved with the underground Czech resistance. In his flight after the murder, he runs into a young woman (Anna Lee) who inadvertently helps him escape and soon becomes involved in his continued escape during a vicious and random crack-down by the nazis to root out the killer and any possible associates.

The ruthlessness and brutality of the crackdown no doubt have basis in fact, but the rest of the story is total fabrication. But it works and is tense and thrilling. Shining brightest is Tonio Selwart as the chief of the Gestapo, the canny, cruel mustachioed policeman who orders roundups and executions with cheerful disregard for humanity.

Propaganda is propaganda, but Nazis suck.

The Big Heat (1953)

The Big Heat (1953) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 07/29/2015

I’ve been working my way through the American films of Fritz Lang (as well as the other German films by Lang).  The Big Heat is Fritz Lang film noir, one of the noirs with the adjective “Big” in the title (The Big Sleep (1946), The Big Clock (1948), The Big Combo (1955), and The Big Knife (1955) to name a few.)

This one stars Glenn Ford as a clean cop in a pretty dirty town.  When he starts investigating the suicide of a fellow officer, he finds out just how dirty the town is, and all the dames around him start dropping dead, including his beautiful wife.  The real stand-outs of the film are moll Gloria Grahame and thug Lee Marvin.  Grahame is an odd, funny girl until Marvin scalds her face with hot coffee in a fit of rage.  Marvin is all brutality like that.

Lang’s films are interesting, sometime more so in retrospect.  I’ve realized ones like You Only Live Once (1937) and Scarlet Street (1945) have totally grown on me.  But others so far have seemed like interesting if somewhat diminished films.  One viewing is rarely enough to really come to terms with a movie.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 09/20/2014

I’ve had this film in my queue for God know how long.  So much of Fritz Lang’s body of work has lingered in my consciousness since childhood, even, though largely around his most famed Expressionist works Metropolis (1928) and M (1931).  The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was often cited around these films, which makes sense, it was certainly of this period and has real ties to the film M it seems.  Even more directly still, the film is a sequel to Lang’s silent film of Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and is even followed by The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse by Lang in 1960.

The Mabuse character was apparently taken from some popular literature at the time.  Stories of master criminals who reigned supreme in the underground of the city.  In this case, Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is locked up in a madhouse but incessently writes out his plans for anarchy and mass crime, which someone, it seems, is taking to the streets and playing out as if at his command.

It’s easy to see how well-situated Lang was for the American crime films.  Mabuse is full of action and drama, including a couple trapped in a room rapidly filling up with water.  And even though you have Otto Wernicke playing the same Inspector Lohmann character from M, the steadfast lawman is up against an evil genius from beyond the grave, a super villain almost more in need of a superhero to fight against.  Really, he’s quite the Lex Luthor prototype.

And that is one of the interesting things about the film.  The madness and genius of evil, whose goal is not greed by chaos, whose pervasive tentacles reach all around, controlling everything.  It’s an interesting contrast to M in which the criminals are citizens as much as the people who do not inhabit the underworld.  And even though the plot is overthrown in the end, the lingering thought is the strength and wiliness of the uber-criminal.  Of course he will rise again!

So, now I’ll be going both backward and forward with Lang and Mabuse.  I’ve had many others of Lang’s silent films queued up, waiting to see them.  So much to see.  So very very much.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Ministry of Fear (1944) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 02/26/2014

Fritz Lang is certainly one of the first name directors in cinema, but for all my years of knowing him and watching movies, I’ve seen so very few of his Hollywood movies.  It’s one of the many focal points that I’ve acquired for my watching movies this year.

Ministry of Fear is a WWII propaganda-style film with the propaganda duly muted.  Adapted from a Graham Greene novel, it’s spies and intrigue in Britain during the war with active Nazi villains for bad guys.  Apparently, Lang, like other emigre directors of the time was employed to rail against the enemy during the war, but the resultant film is an intentional muddle of ideologies.

When Stephan Neale (a young Ray Milland) is released from a psych ward following the mercy killing of his terminally ill wife, he steps out of the institution into a madhouse of a small town British fun fête, in which everyone seems to be conniving in a scheme that includes microfilm in a prize cake.  After the cake is stolen by a man pretending to be blind (only to be killed in an air raid), Neale seeks out the organization that ran the fête to see if he can figure out what is going on.

The organization, the Mothers of Free Nations, is run by two emigre Austrians, brother and sister Willi and Carla Hilfe (Carl Esmond and Marjorie Reynolds), who seem to befriend and help Neale solve the mystery.  Austrians in London during WWII with Nazy intrigue, surely they are the villains, right?  Or no way?

This film is no masterwork like Carol Reed’s film of a Greene novel, The Third Man (1949).  In fact, it’s quite an interestingly Hollywood film set version of London, loaded with propaganda posters all over.  It’s still an intensely interesting movie, especially with some of the context and history thrown in, via a supplemental interview with Fritz Lang scholar Joe McElhaney, showing just how intentionally muddled the portrayal of villains and heroes is.  It’s not exactly rife with clarity.

It is quite interesting and quite worth the while, only further egging me on to see more of Lang’s Hollywood work, films that I’ve intended to watch for years and years and years and am only now getting around to.

Scarlet Street (1945)

Scarlet Street (1945) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 01/23/2014

I’ve long been meaning to see more of Fritz Lang’s American films.  I’ve really seen quite few.

Scarlet Street is a film noir remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931), starring Edward G. Robnison as I’ve never seen him, a meek cashier who earns his gold watch at his company, a henpecked fellow, who has sublimated his life to live peaceably until he runs into the wrong femme fatale, Joan Bennett, whose wiseguy boyfriend, Dan Duryea smells an opportunity to milk the poor schmuck for all he’s worth.  Only Bennett and Duryea are under the impression that he’s worth a lot more than he is.  In their clutches he steals from his wife and his office to pay for an upscale apartment for the gal.  These stories never end well.

There is a convoluted plot about how Robinson is a great painter, though he never was discovered.  Until Duryea tries to sell the work pretending that Bennett was the artist.  It’s too much to recap.

But in the end, Robinson ends up stabbing Bennett with an ice pick in a moment of fury, but leaves Duryea on the hook as the killer.  One of the notable traits of the film is that it ends with the wrong man going to the chair for the crime and the once kind, upstanding milquetoast wandering homeless on the streets of New York.  It’s bleak and pessimistic, especially for Hollywood of this time.

Duryea is great.  Such a character, with his thin yadda-yadda patter, “Great cats!”  And Robinson is very good.  I’ve only seen him in films where he’s the heavy, so it’s quite a different role.  And Bennett is quite good too as “la chienne”, the bitch, if you will, though I still prefer femme fatale.  Quite good stuff, this.

Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis (1927) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 08/11/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The second film of the Castro’s Fritz Lang double feature was his masterpiece, Metropolis.  It was only a couple of years ago that I had seen it as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, that time with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.  Certainly, you can’t beat a wonderful live performance with a silent film, but it was great to see it again.

I was enthused to see M (1931) and Metropolis, but I was keen to share it with the kids.  I figured that it would be the more accessible of the two films.  Hard to beat seeing it on the big screen.

Oddly Felix said that he preferred M of the two.

I was again impressed, as I was the last time I saw it, by the dance sequence in which the false Maria lures the rapt, ogling stares of the men, eventually a panoply of eyes.  To me, still the most vivid sequence in a wholly brilliant film.

I spent much of my childhood very curious about silent horror and science fiction films, wondering if I would ever get to see them, poring over the still images snipped from the films.  I don’t think that is something I could or should even want to replicate in my kids.  It was just the way it was in my childhood with my proclivities.  It is, of course, one of the great films of world cinema.

M (1931)

M (1931) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 08/11/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The Castro Theatre features any number of films, double features, festivals or special events that I so want to go to but mostly miss out on.  What makes certain showings more accessible or compelling is a combination of my own capriciousness and the capriciousness of my schedule.  But when I saw that a double feature of Fritz Lang films, M (1931) and Metropolis (1927) were on the bill for the day, I very much felt compelled to take them in.  On top of that compunction, I was keen to take Felix and Clara, too.

In reality, I figured that Metropolis was the more accessible of the two films, visual as it is, fantastical, far out, and with a robot.  Also, it is not a film about a child murderer.  But again, scheduling being what it is, Clara took the opportunity for a playdate and Felix and I took the opportunity for a double feature.

Not exactly a kid-friendly film, M doesn’t really even have a central star outside of Peter Lorre, the serial killer of children.  And the film is not from his perspective.  In fact, we only see his face as he reflects upon it in a mirror, tormented by his compulsions.  He’s initially a shadow, then a mysterious figure.  The rest of the film is an array of non-central characters: the police and the upright citizenry and the criminal underworld.  Certain characters get more screen-time and focus, especially the chief detective and the head of the safecrackers, but the story is not about other individuals, rather it’s about humanity in its structural groups.

The detectives, as part of the establishment, work hard to find the killer.  The criminals, due to pressure from the establishment, organize themselves to hunt the killer as well. Both converge at the same time, but the criminals hunt Lorre down first and set him to a trial in the basement of an abandoned factory.  Though they all want his head on a stick, he is given a begrudging defense attorney and who argues that the child killer is a sick man and needs to be treated as such.  What is fascinating about the way that this whole trial plays out is that the killer receives a fair trial but looks to still get lynched by the mob, only when the authorities finally step in and pull him away.  We never hear what happens in the main court.  Judgment is suspended. Punishment is ambiguous.  The edict is one about protection and vigilance about one’s children.

Felix liked the film, though I’m not sure how well he kept up with the subtitles.

You Only Live Once

You Only Live Once (1937) movie poster

(1937) director Fritz Lang
viewed: 09/11/10

After seeing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), I was interested in finally seeing more of his other films, his American films that he made after emigrating before the outbreak of WWII.  The first of these films that I queued up for myself was the Depression-era crime film You Only Live Once, starring Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney.

Considered a proto film noir, the movie is actually the first cinematic interpretation of the story of Bonnie and Clyde (with a great deal of liberties thrown in).  What’s most striking about the film are both some of Lang’s very poignant and powerful visuals and violence, but also the outsider drama and passion for the two misunderstood criminals.  I would argue that surely it’s proto-noir, not the genuine article, but that it is a fascinating step in the generation of the style while tying itself to the populist antihero criminals that are its stars.

Fonda plays a small-time criminal who is just being released from prison, reformed and ready to toe the straight-and-narrow with his loving new wife Sidney.  But a harsh world for ex-cons doesn’t show him either hospitality nor much leeway and he quickly loses the job that he’d gotten lined up for him on the outside.  Down on his luck, things get worse when he is framed for a bank heist that kills four bystanders and cops, and when his wife convinces him to turn himself in to prove his innocence, that backfires too and he is found guilty and sentenced to death.  His innocence on the crime is found out, but not before he kills a priest, a friend of his who has worked hard to help him, in a desperate jailbreak.  This lands both Fonda and his once innocent wife on the wrong side of the law for good and they take to the lam in a tragic story arc.  Harsh times beget harsh realities.

Really, it’s a very pessimistic film, a dark message for the Depression-era audience.  But it’s lively and well-made.  Fonda has never been a favorite of mine, but he and Sidney are strong in the film.  The real star is Lang’s construction, in most particular the violent bank robbery, which is deftly shot and powerful.  It’s fascinating to see the heroes/anti-heroes, good-hearted, good-natured people driven to extremes, driven in desperation by a world that doesn’t cut them an even break, and to see it all wrapped up in tragedy, not a merry ending.  Harsh times indeed.  Excellent film.