Noirvember II #1 – Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

hangmen_also_die_1943_posterHangmen Also Die! (1943)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang (story), Bertolt Brecht (story), John Wexley (screenplay)
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Anna Lee

Back in October I briefly reviewed Sean Ellis’ new film Anthropoid, the story of a secretive British-Czech joint operation to kill high-ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich.  That film was not the first time it has been adapted for the big screen.  Released just one year after the events took place in 1942, legendary Hollywood director Fritz Lang adapted the true story for his film Hangmen Also Die!  The film is more of a loose adaptation of the true story, as the details of the event vary wildly from those portrayed in the film.  Director Fritz Lang is responsible for some of the most acclaimed films of the era, and made an entire career out of directing suspenseful and stylish film noir and crime movies.  Some of the most acclaimed works in his prolific filmography include Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, M, Fury, The Big Heat, You Only Live Once, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Street.  It is important to note that Lang left his native Germany during the rise to power of the Nazi Party, and so had a tremendous stake in the outcome of the second World War.  Fritz Lang’s influence on the film noir genre cannot be understated, first with the development of early noir in Germany, and later with his incredibly successful dark Hollywood noirs.  His trademark shadowy lighting style, pessimistic worldview, and famous composition can be identified in nearly all of his films.

Hangmen Also Die! tells the story of Dr. Franticek Svoboda (played by Brian Donlevy), who has just taken part in a mission to assassinate the “Hangman of Prague” Reinhard Heydrich.  Svoboda’s safe house is compromised at the last minute, and the young doctor is forced to seek shelter.  He meets a woman named Mascha (Anna Lee), her father Dr. Novotny (Walter Brennan), and a group of various Czech rebels who assist Svoboda by misleading the Nazi soldiers sent to find Heydrich’s assassin. Before long, an incentive program is created to out the highly sought-after assassin – Czech citizens will be executed forty at a time until the perpetrator is given up to Nazi officials.  Dr. Svoboda’s ally Professor Novotny immediately becomes a target of these executions, creating tension between the doctor and the Czech rebels.  Will Svoboda be given up to the Nazi’s, or will the Czech people work together in order to find a solution to save their own and the Heydrich’s assassin?  Find out in Fritz Lang’s 1943 film Hangmen Also Die!

With a filmography that includes some of the greatest films ever made, Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! is a difficult film to rank.  It certainly isn’t Lang’s best work – it lacks the focus and innovative filmmaking techniques that defined his work.  At the same time, it certainly isn’t a bad film by any stretch.  It’s contemplative and suspenseful, and features some really solid performances. The problem with Hangmen Also Die! is that it’s bloated and at times pretty dull. At more than two hours long, Lang’s combination of noir and war film struggles to hold the attention of the viewer, despite having a complex and intriguing plot. Unfortunately, the film features very few truly memorable moments, instead slowly building up its complicated but fascinating narrative.  It lacks many of the trademarks that make film noir such a beloved genre: there is little mystery to be found in the screenplay, no dark or guiding narration, and features a pretty basic use of the foggy, shadowy cinematography employed in the genre’s best features. Hangmen Also Die! is a film I’m very glad to have seen, but it’s one I fear won’t be committed to memory for very long.
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What I Liked:

  • The changes to the true story are enough to present an original story while also paying tribute to the courageous act of heroism.
  • The primary messages of patriotism and sacrifice in the name of country are very clear and subtle.  These themes could be over-the-top and obnoxious, but instead become uplifting.
  • The supporting players serve as the most compelling performances in the film.  Highlights include Walter Brennan’s Professor Novotny and Gene Lockhart’s Emil Czaka.
  • The film never resorts to cheap action set pieces to push the suspense and stakes.  The core story elements are more than enough to make the plot feel important.

What I Didn’t:

  • Fritz Lang’s usually innovative and brilliant direction seem to be missing – replaced instead by slightly uninspired filmmaking.
  • The runtime is completely unearned, especially since so much of it is spent on what feels like such minor elements of the story.
  • The lack of established noir elements makes Hangmen Also Die! feel like something of an ugly duckling in the genre.  The basic framework is there, but things just don’t feel right.
  • The audience is never given a reason to despise Heydrich as much as the Czech people in the film do, which creates something of a disconnect between viewers and the movie.

While Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! isn’t a great film, it certainly isn’t a bad one by any means.  The film’s story often feels important and heavy, even if it’s a little bloated due to its runtime.  Supporting players like Walter Brennan and Gene Lockhart deliver solid performances, but they’re at times undermined by the slightly uninspired filmmaking and lack of classic film noir elements. Hangmen Also Die! is absolutely a better film than Sean Ellis’ recent Anthropoid, but it’s also a completely different one altogether.  It’s a respectable and entertaining tribute to the acts of heroism by the Czech people during a time of great turmoil, and delivers an important message about these same themes.  It probably won’t change your life – nor is it a great starting point for those looking to be introduced to film noir – but Hangmen Also Die! is recommended.  

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