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Fritz Lang in Hollywood

"Not since his days as UFA's leading director has Fritz Lang been in the spotlight as much as he is now," begins Cullen Gallagher at Moving Image Source. "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."

This "two-week series, showing all 22 of Lang's American movies, opens with an explosive double bill," notes the Voice's J Hoberman: "the brutal rogue cop revenge tale The Big Heat (1953) and its equally sensational follow-up, the adultery-murder story Human Desire (1954), both featuring morally dubious Glenn Ford and (never better) bad girl Gloria Grahame. The follow-up bill, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), features a classic s/m triangle in both films: fatal woman Joan Bennett, mercenary creep Dan Duryea, and bourgeois victim Edward G Robinson. Stark, unsentimental tales of victimization and self-delusion, Lang's noirs — which also include Secret Beyond the Door (1948), House by the River (1950), Clash by Night (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) — are in some ways more expressionist than his Weimar films."

"Lang's first two American films, Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937), are still unparalleled dissections of an odious society closing in on unlucky victims played by Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda, both of whom were never better and never angrier." Dan Callahan for the L: "Lang had a liking for pulp material that he could transfigure with stylized, Caligari-style visual nightmares, yet his imagery also has a deadly kind of symmetry, tight as a snare drum and cool as a python hovering in the air and ready to strike." Also: "If you haven't seen it, be sure to check out House by the River (1950), one of Lang's least known and most carefully designed portrayals of lurid villainy spurred on by sick sexual desire (Hitchcock took a lot from Lang, and if I was to crassly generalize the difference between them, it would be that Lang got laid a lot while Hitch did not)." And for Fandor, Callahan revisits Scarlet Street.

In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis focuses on Lang's version of his self-exile to the States (versus the more likely and less sexy reality), the collaborations with Brecht (Hangmen Also Die!, 1943) and Clifford Odets (Clash by Night) before writing, "Hollywood endings can be beautiful fibs, but in Lang's movies the glossy smiles and fade-outs feel forced. You can almost feel him pulling at them, trying to bring them back into the dark where they belong. The miracle of his Hollywood era is that, even when the screenplays tried to force his work in one direction, he managed to take them into richer, more complex realms with a style that was alternately baroque and stripped down and peopled with characters whose cynicism was earned."

"Lang especially relished making westerns," notes Kristin M Jones in the Wall Street Journal. "In The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952), he approached the genre with an immigrant's sensitivity to the stark landscapes and moral code associated with Western mythology, which he conveyed through color and shadow. 'He associated the Western with the myths of Germany,' [Peter] Bogdanovich said. 'He thought that it was like the American Nibelungen.'"

 



The New Yorker's Richard Brody on Human Desire, based on Émile Zola's La Bête Humaine: "As in Jean Renoir's 1938 adaptation of the story, the railroad men's labors and camaraderie anchor the action (although, in Lang's version, the American trains, being electric, are much cleaner to run, and speed and power are not fearsome but benignly normal). Husband ensnares wife in a plot of blackmail and murder involving her ex-lover, but the heart of the movie is the struggle of a regular guy with the inner violence of desire and the outer violence of the warrior at home. With a coldly passionate eye, Lang contemplates the fray as it resolves itself in a heroic series of inactions — an ironic tribute to the sedentary comforts of home." More from Craig Keller.

Yesterday, David Cairns discussed Hangmen Also Die!, Ministry of Fear (1944), a film that "seems simultaneously an attempt to capture ground taken by Hitch (who learned a lot from Lang and achieved far greater commercial success in America), and a transplanting of the Mabuse genre to English soil: there's even a bogus séance," and Cloak and Dagger (1946), which "in particular deserves to be better known."

In June 2009, Daniel Kasman considered Lang's increased focus on objects in his American films, particularly in the case of Man Hunt (1941) and this March, he had us gazing at Joan Bennett in Secret Beyond the Door.

"Lang's final American films carry his career-long themes to virtually abstract peaks of concentration and detachment," writes Fernando F Croce for Slant. "Moonfleet (1955) is the kind of unique venture (a Gothic period fable shot in Cinemascope) that at the time could only be appreciated by the Cahiers du Cinéma gang (Jacques Rivette claimed it as one of his all-time favorites), and While the City Sleeps (1956) revisits M's sex killings as part of a withering look into the manipulation among a group of reporters. Dana Andrews, who plays one of the unscrupulous journos, also stars in the brilliantly bleak Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), which takes a cold scalpel to the very notion of a heroic protagonist in this corrupted world. Rather than autumnal mellowness, in these films one finds the chilling clarity of an artist who has witnessed and understood a century's worth of struggles and traumas, a medium pioneer whose work remains resolutely modern (surely one of the reasons Godard invited Lang to play himself as a sagacious old Tyrannosaurus in Le Mépris)."

Update, 1/29: Robert Horton: "Made for Republic Pictures in 1950, House by the River has an appropriate feeling of cost-cutting and imposed thrift; the cheapness of the production fits the sleazy subject better than a bigger-budgeted version might have. Nobody (I guess) has ever mistaken it for one of Fritz Lang's greatest achievements, but it has a smothering quality that is evoked with utter authority."

Updates, 1/31: Miriam Bale posts excerpts from a 1959 interview with Lang conducted by Jacques Rivette and Jean Domarchi for Cahiers du cinéma.

The New Yorker's Richard Brody, briefly, on The Blue Gardenia: "In this 1953 film noir, Fritz Lang savors the grubby working lives and even grubbier romantic entanglements of a trio of spunky blond Los Angeles telephone operators who room together in an apartment full of fold-out beds."

Update, 2/7: "Raymond Chandler famously remarked of Dashiell Hammett that he 'gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse,'" recalls Cullen Gallagher at the L. "Those words ring even truer for films like Lang's Clash by Night and Human Desire (1948), or even Max Ophüls's Caught (1949) and The Reckless Moment (1949), films that could be labeled as domestic noir. These are movies that give up the gangsters and the rain slicked alleys and embrace middle-class domesticity. These characters don't wear fedoras and carry Photostats of their PI license — they work day jobs. And that makes their violent outpourings all the more brutal, their corruption all the more devastating, their amorality all the more empathetic. It's one thing for a gangster to plug a dame; it's another for an average joe to wrap his hands around an average jane's neck. The former is entertainment; the latter is tragedy."

 


OTHER EVENTS


Le Beau Claude: Eight Thrillers by Chabrol opens today at LACMA and runs through February 5. "Habitually drawn to the wet pulp of murder thrillers (taking on Rendell, Highsmith, Simenon), Chabrol had genre on his side; though he was often saddled with a Gallic sub-Hitchcock brand, he was a far less formal, less manipulative and less visually controlled filmmaker," writes Michael Atkinson in the LA Weekly. "Chabrol made films about homicide and its vapor trails as if he loved to see modest, middle-class French life hit with a silent bullet and then shatter, in undramatic slow motion. Murder was never a moral issue in Chabrol's universe, but just something that happens, around which the moral verities of the bystanders, victims and sometimes the perps must realign and settle."

Also opening today is the Children's Film Festival Seattle 2011, running through February 6, and Lindy West has a typically unconventional preview in the Stranger.

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I’m about to lose a bunch of cash to Film Forum this month….
Pretty amazing range Fritz Lang demonstrated after coming to America. Most persons only remember him for Metropolis. Thanks for the article, David.
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I’m the opposite. I was introduced to Lang through 40s noir. I didn’t see any of his German films until long after. But it still amazes me just how many films he made in America, and like you said, the diversity of his range.

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