Tag Archives: Fritz Lang

Top 100 Films #55 – M (1931)


maxresdefault#55. M (1931)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Paul Falkenberg, Adolf Jensen, Karl Vash (based on newspaper article by Egon Jacobson)
Starring: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustaf Grundgens

Fritz Lang’s first sound film, simply titled M, is quite possibly one of the most atmospheric films in the history of the medium.  Lang had already made a name for himself with his science fiction masterpiece Metropolis, and fantasy epic Die Nibelungen.  The story of M is simple – concerned parents and citizens of Berlin hunt for a child killer (Peter Lorre) – identified only by his whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”.  After the murder of a young girl named Elsie, the panic and anxiety-stricken people of Berlin enlist the help of the city’s crime lords in order to track down the killer for themselves.  What follows is a tense, atmospheric, and morally challenging thriller from one of early film’s greatest directors.  Peter Lorre’s performance as Hans Beckert, the child murderer, is without a doubt one of the creepiest, most menacing performances in early film history.  His whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” sets the tone for what’s to come, which it’s safe to say is never anything good, and his famous bulging eyes are perfect for the role.  Lang’s direction feels frantic once things ramp up, but he never let’s the film’s slow, psychological pace be forgotten by viewers.  His use of imagery is incredible, especially when it comes to the reveal of the “M” referred to in the film’s title.  The ending of M is one of the most morally ambiguous you’ll find in movies of its time, ending on the perfect note to stick with viewers for days after the credits roll.  Lang dares viewers to sympathize with Lorre’s monstrous Hans Beckert, going to several emotional lengths to make you question your own morals and values.  M is a very special film in many ways – it’s something of an anomaly for film of the 1930’s for how bleak and thrilling it is.  Lang always had a way of challenging his viewers, pushing them to reconsider their once rock solid moral code.  If you struggle with older films, I can absolutely say that M is a great place to start.

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Top 100 Films #84 – Metropolis (1927)


image-w1280#84. Metropolis (1927)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang (based on Metropolis by Thea von Harbou)
Starring: Alfred Abel, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Brigitte Helm

In 1927, Fritz Lang unleashed one of the most important, most ambitious science fiction films ever made.  Metropolis is recognized as one of the first works of the sci-fi genre, and continues to entertain and thrill audiences around the world. The epic story follows young Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the son of Metropolis’ master Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), as he joins the ranks of the city’s oppressed working class.  He meets a woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm), who serves as inspiration to the city’s working class citizens, inspiring them to rise up and take control.  Fritz Lang’s epic film spans nearly 2 ½ hours, but never feels too long or bloated – instead mesmerizing the audience with its incredible sets, inspiring and universally relatable message, and dazzling special effects.  Much of Metropolis was thought to be lost until 2008, when a large portion of the film’s missing scenes were discovered in an Argentinian museum and restored for the public. This new and nearly complete version of the film is the best possible way to experience Metropolis, making the already epic film seem even larger in scope and scale.  My personal highlight of the film has always been the performance of Brigitte Helm, who plays dual roles in the film – the innocent and inspiring Maria, and her mischievous, rebellious robotic counterpart.  Helm’s performance holds up to this day, and really stands out as being exceptional in a silent film full of typically exaggerated and larger than life performances.  If you’re a science fiction fan, you owe it to yourself to discover the roots of the incredible genre. Even with minor scenes still missing from the film, Metropolis is still a masterpiece nearly 100 years after its initial release – I can only hope that someday we get to see a definitive version.

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Noirvember II #3 – Scarlet Street (1945)

scarlet-street-movie-poster-1945-1020413479Scarlet Street (1945)
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Dudley Nichols (based on La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardiere (novel) and Andre Mouezy-Eon (play))
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, Jess Barker

“Jeepers, I love you Johnny” – These five seemingly innocuous words have haunted me since my first viewing of Fritz Lang’s brilliant film noir Scarlet Street.  Coming just two years after the previously reviewed Hangmen Also Die!, Lang shows the world exactly why he is regarded as such an innovator of the genre.  Starring the prolific Edward G. Robinson as a down-on-his-luck sad sack who gets wrapped up in an apparent love triangle, Scarlet Street offers up the trademark psychological twists and turns of the film noir genre, while also serving as an intricate and complex character study.  Today, Lang’s film is hailed as one of the best films the genre has to offer, but it didn’t fare nearly as well during its initial release.  Despite being a monetary success at the box office by more than doubling its budget, some critics felt that it was cliched and unethical – definitely not the first time in the history of the medium that the consensus would vary so wildly all these years later.

Scarlet Street follows a hapless middle-aged store clerk and aspiring artist named Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) as he very literally stumbles into an unrequited romance with a younger woman named Kitty (Joan Bennett).  Cross, unsatisfied with his loveless home life, is immediately smitten with the young Kitty, who sees an opportunity to easily swindle the gullible Chris.  Together with her boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea), the two plot to extort money from Chris, whom they foolishly believe to be a famous and well-regarded painter.  Johnny, being the bold and mischievous man he is, steals paintings from our sad sack protagonist in order to sell them to an art dealer.  Through a series of misunderstandings, Kitty is given artistic credit for the paintings after art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker) expresses interest in them.  This triggers an unforgettable and unpredictable chain of events that will forever change the lives of Chris, Kitty, Johnny, and all those around them. In typical film noir fashion, nobody gets off easy.

Fritz Lang is a director I’ve been interested in for many years now.  I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t seen nearly enough of his films, but the ones I have seen have largely been excellent.  In my opinion, Scarlet Street stands out among classics like Metropolis and M as one of his very best.  It’s an incredibly bleak, obsessive, soul-crushing affair, but that’s where most of its charm comes from. While the story may seem contrived to some viewers, it’s one of the more focused and organic film noir’s I’ve seen.  The screenplay by Academy Award winning writer Dudley Nichols (The Informer, The Long Voyage Home, The Bells of St. Mary’s) is razor sharp, pitch black in tone, and concise.  Nichols’ focused narrative, paired with Lang’s penchant for moody, dimly lit imagery and fluid camerawork, makes for one of the most satisfying film noir experiences in the history of the genre.  Edward G. Robinson steals the show as Christopher Cross – perfectly capturing the spirit of the truly sad and pathetic character. Married to a woman who still pines for her ex-husband, stuck in an unsatisfying career, and hopelessly lusting after a beautiful young woman, it’s at times difficult to sympathize with Robinson’s character.  He very rarely sticks up for himself, letting all those around him treat him like a human doormat or a sad punchline.  He’s not particularly good at anything he does, he’s not especially charming or handsome, and yet there’s something so refreshing about the character. Edward G. Robinson’s Chris is one of the most complex, layered, and ultimately tragic characters I’ve seen in the genre yet.  It’s a shame that Scarlet Street initially opened to such a lukewarm reaction, because otherwise I would have considered it a shoe-in for a host of prestigious Academy Award nominations.
What I Liked:

  • Edward G. Robinson delivers one of the most complex and powerful performances I’ve ever seen.
  • Joan Bennett’s Kitty is another standout performance, mostly in how she successfully manages to convince both Chris and the audience that her intentions aren’t cruel.  She’s the perfect femme fatale.
  • The repetition of specific sounds and phrases (the record player skipping, “Jeepers, I love you Johnny”) throughout the run-time creates a haunting and at times hallucinatory atmosphere.
  • The film’s ending is perfectly twisted and tragic – ensuring that no single character escaped the situation unscathed.
  • Dudley Nichols’ narrative felt very unique and important, despite being so small in scope.
  • Rosalind Ivan’s turn as Adele Cross, Chris’ unhappy and spiteful wife, was perfectly grating and easy to hate.

What I Didn’t:

  • The emergence of a subplot involving Adele Cross’ deceased ex-husband feels too convenient in the context of the film.  I don’t have a problem with the actual subplot – it’s just introduced far too late into the film.
  • Dan Duryea’s performance as Johnny is slightly too ham-fisted to be a believable mastermind of the plot.  He comes off as brutish and dopey – never clever enough to be perceived as an actual threat.

While perhaps not as important as some of his earliest masterworks, Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street is a brooding, haunting, hopelessly bleak near-masterpiece.  It features a remarkable performance by one of Hollywood’s greatest unsung stars, an excellent supporting cast, a sharp script by veteran writer Dudley Nichols, and excellent film noir imagery by one of the genre’s innovators.  It may be flawed, but it’s an unforgettable and thrilling experience that I can’t wait to revisit over and over and over again.  Much like Christopher Cross, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to purge the phrase “Jeepers, I love you Johnny” from my mind – but unlike him, I’m certainly not complaining.  Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street gets my highest recommendation.

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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.
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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November Theme – Film Noir

After setting a personal goal to cover one theme for an entire month and actually being able to stick with it, I’ve found an incredible amount of inspiration and motivation in continuing to write about films, whether people out there or reading or not.  Having some sort of theme, no matter how strict or loose, gives me something to look forward to for an entire month, and has already taught me a great deal about writing and about films.  I’ve finally seen documentaries that I’ve been putting off for years now, and I hope to do the same with many different genres, movements, and filmmakers throughout the life of this blog. While I don’t think I’m a terrific writer by any means, being able to have some sort of creative outlet in my life feels incredible, and I plan on seeing this thing out to the bitter end.  There comes a point where endlessly listening to film podcasts, browsing discussions and reviews online, and thinking day and night about movies just isn’t enough, which is why I’ve decided to write.  This is something I’m incredibly passionate about, and boy is it a great feeling to finally get my thoughts out there without constantly worrying about views and being self-conscious of my own writing style.

I’ve decided the theme for November is going to be an introduction to the film noir genre, and will officially titled Noirvember.  You may ask yourself, what exactly is film noir?  Well, that’s a terrific question, and hopefully you’ll bear with me in order to find out.  Film noir is a genre of crime film that was immensely popular during the 1940’s and 1950’s, featuring expressionistic black and white cinematography, shadows, fog, and thick clouds of cigarette smoke, notoriously unhappy endings, fedoras and shabby suits, and most famously femme fatales – strong women who often blur the line between wanting to love and kill our main character.  Film noir is without a doubt one of the most iconic and famous American film genres, sitting beside its polar-opposite neighbor, the Western. These films are concise, fun, full of dread and betrayal on all sides, and are infinitely re-watchable as a result.

The pioneers of the film noir genre include the famous Hollywood bad boy Orson Welles, with films like Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai, Polish export auteur Billy Wilder for the iconic Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd., John Huston for The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, and Key Largo, and Fritz Lang for Scarlet Street and The Big Heat among many others.  These are films that have often been parodied and poked fun at, but the influence they hold over modern filmmakers is unparalleled, as are the reputations of many of these incredible and timeless works. To keep things fresh, I’ve decided to only tackle films that I have never seen before.  The tentative schedule for Noirvember is as follows:

#1 – Laura (1944) (dir. Otto Preminger) – November 1

#2 – Detour (1945) (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer) – November 5

#3 – The Killers (1946) (dir. Robert Siodmak) – November 8

#4 – Nightmare Alley (1947) (dir. Edmund Goulding) – November 12

#5 – They Live by Night (1948) (dir. Nicholas Ray) – November 15

#6 – The Big Clock (1948) (dir. John Farrow) – November 19

#7 – D.O.A. (1950) (dir. Rudolph Mate) – November 22

#8 – Night and the City (1950) (dir. Jules Dassin) – November 26

#9 – Kiss Me Deadly (1955) (dir. Robert Aldrich) – November 29

#10 – Touch of Evil (1958) (dir. Orson Welles) – November 30

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