Man Hunt (Lang, 1941)

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Fritz Lang levels his crosshairs at British appeasement in Man Hunt, a tensely plotted thriller set weeks before Germany’s invasion of Poland. In the Expressionist opening sequence, Lang introduces a cavalier big game hunter named Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) as he stalks through a thick and shadowy forest, finally reaching a perch overlooking Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. Thorndike takes aim with Hitler dead in his sights, pulls the trigger, and “click”. He laughs to himself having completed a personal victory – it is possible to stalk the world’s most dangerous man. However, this theoretical experiment makes for a dark moment of historical revisionism, pushing Thorndike down a perilous path of murder, guilt, and finally national responsibility, as he’s captured by the S.S., tortured, and pursued back to England by heinous German agents.

When Man Hunt reaches London, Lang reveals his most damning argument against the British upper class’s indifference toward the German advancement. Throndike’s ambassador brother is a squirmy rationalizing bureaucrat of Chamberlain’s ilk, stressing to the high heavens the Nazi’s wouldn’t dare start WWII. Even Throndike himself, after seeing the true audaciousness of the S.S., casually struts through the London harbor commenting on how the “fresh British air” comforts him while completely missing the German spies who’ve been waiting in the shadows. Western arrogance only leads to destruction, and Lang constructs Thorndike as an analogy for all of Britain. The aggressive and vengeful nature of the ending is alarming, and not completely unexpected considering Thorndike’s path. But ultimately, Lang’s masterful use of cinematic space feeds into his main goal – to bring the true evil of the Third Reich out from the shadows and into the forefront for the world to understand and combat against.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Lang, 1956)

Once again Fritz Lang dissects American injustice using a fake murder suspect to reveal the immoral nature of capital punishment (not too immoral as we find out). Dana Andrews plays the seemingly clever writer/guinea pig, purposefully thrown to the wolves (in the form of an ambitious D.A.) so that he and his journalist accomplice can publicly undermine the death penalty. Lang doesn’t really show his cards until the surprising finish, but as usual his seamless process includes great Noir visuals and calculating, deceptive characters. Still, I love some bite with my Lang, and this film has little to chew on.

While the City Sleeps (Lang, 1956)

In both While the City Sleeps and The Blue Gardenia, director Fritz Lang overextends himself by packing too many contrasting genres into seemingly strait-forward material. While the City Sleeps uses a serial killer plot-line, but adds in scenes of bland melodrama about the love lives of the newspapermen attempting to break the story. Furthermore there’s a juvenile competition by these same men to see who can win over the boss with such a scoop in order to get a prime promotion, all framed by a truly disturbing psycho killing young, beautiful women. The NYC setting means nothing to Lang’s expose’ of compromised ethics (even though the ethics aren’t that compromised), except to make the story-line seem grander and more sustainable. But these characters haphazardly run into each other, ideas, and successes, making the whole affair a jumbled mess of danger, comedy, and anticlimactic suspense scenes. Lang is best when he’s focused on one genre, specifically Film Noir, where he can unleash the furies of rage, angst, and familial disconnect through clear cut genre traits, undermining them through morally ambiguous characters (see The Big Heat). While the City Sleeps bases it’s whole existence on the sensationalism of a killer, yet Lang doesn’t match the man’s cruel tactics with any sense of character. He’s just a story to these boring characters, too caught up in their own problems to recognize the true brutality at work. Lang’s look at breakdowns in psychology remain his most interesting projects, showcasing the director’s need to explore the dark corners of madmen and murderers. While the City Sleeps settles for uninteresting hack jobs.

The Blue Gardenia (Lang, 1953)

A solid Noir with all the dark and shadowy trimmings, but surprisingly timid compared to the Lang masterpieces of the same era. The Blue Gardenia takes a romantic, softer and in turn more forgettable look at guilt and trauma than Woman in the Window or Lang’s best film, The Big Heat. Maybe if Raymond Burr’s character had been dirtier, a real creep to Ann Baxter’s woman in distress, the situation would have gathered more steam. Instead he’s just a liquored up fool looking for a kiss, so his demise is regular and uninspired. Baxter’s moral conundrum that follows never really reaches meltdown status so her melodramatic turns respectively come off safe. One brilliant scene in Richard Conte’s ace newspaperman’s office does signify the danger Lang’s so good at achieving through mise-en-scene. The Blue Gardenia offers a tight, well planned coup of an ending, but leaves little else to be desired in terms of complexity through genre or character.

You Only Live Once (Lang, 1937)

After Fury, Frtiz Lang’s brilliant American debut, he made this crime/romance picture with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Syndey that also deals with unjust punishment, miscommunication, and mistaken identity. Fonda plays a three time loser who finally gets out of prison, marries his waiting sweetheart (the radiant Sydney, sixty years before Mars Attacks!), and slowly realizes that he doesn’t have a shot in hell at keeping a job or earning the respect of the judgemental citizens in his community. Does he turn back to crime in order to make ends meet?

The film cleverly plays with this notion by making the answer ambiguous for a while. However, we learn that he didn’t, but Fonda is arrested anyways for the supposed crime, a bank heist that ended up killing six people, his hat with initials found at the scene. The setup is flimsy, lacking the taut crispness felt throughout every scene in Fury. But the harsh contrast lighting of german expressionism abounds and most scenes within vastly different spaces, ranging from the prison to the home, ensnare the characters with crossing/dissecting lines (prison bars, window frames etc.)

Using entrapped souls as his models, Lang wants to expand on Fury‘s critique of mob justice on a grander scale, this time directly going after institutions (prison, the church) and the inability of these heirarchies to protect us from injustice. Solid work by one of cinema’s greatest artists. P.S. The DVD from Netlfix is a terrible transfer.