Fritz Lang in America
by John Farr
Fritz Lang directed many fine films; here are 3 of his greatest shot Stateside.
An innocent man (Spencer Tracy) on his way to a long-awaited reunion with his fiance (Sydney) is stopped by police en-route and accused of a kidnapping he didn’t commit. The angry townspeople then take justice into their own hands, and only later is the enormity of their crime revealed in court.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Master Director Fritz Lang creates a superb showcase for a young Tracy as a random victim of mob violence. The film’s denunciation of all too common practice (particularly against minorities) was well ahead of its time. This bold, gut wrenching feature culminates in a memorably potent wind-up.
Hangmen Also Die (1943)
After Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy), a leader of the underground Czech resistance, assassinates a prominent Nazi minister known as “the Hangman,” the surgeon seeks refuge in the home of Mascha (Anna Lee), whose own father, Professor Novotny (Walter Brennan) is on a short list of enemies of the Reich. Seeking revenge and obedience to Nazi rule, the Gestapo begins rounding up suspected dissidents and agitators, including Novotny. Meanwhile, they issue an ultimatum to the people of Prague: Surrender the assassin or the detainees will die.
WHY I LOVE IT:
One of the finest anti-Nazi thrillers to emerge from the WWII period, Lang’s noirish approach to the propaganda film involves cloak-and-dagger intrigue, sinister interrogations, and plenty of light-and-shadow atmospherics, courtesy of camera great James Wong Howe. Such elements were second nature to German ex-pat Lang, director of “M” and “The Big Heat,” and his impeccable direction of numerous character actors – a cab driver (Lionel Stander) and a fruit merchant (Sarah Padden), in particular – adds to the visceral power of this story of resistance. Brennan is also excellent playing against type as a radical patriot. See “Hangmen” or die trying.
The Big Heat (1953)
Scrupulous police detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) targets mobster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) after a colleague’s suicide note implicates him in corruption at the city-government level. In response, Lagana’s men plant a car bomb meant for the snooping cop, but instead kill Bannion’s wife, prompting the enraged lawman to seek vengeance.
WHY I LOVE IT:
This brutal, in-your-face noir thriller about organized crime and political graft by German ex-pat Lang is about as hardboiled as they come. For starters, the dialogue is sharp and blunt, like a smack in the jaw, and Ford’s portrayal of the obsessed Bannion is downright fearsome. “Heat” is particularly memorable for two performances: Lee Marvin, as psychotic henchman Vince Stone, and the peerless Gloria Grahame, as a sultry moll whose face Marvin cruelly disfigures-with a cup of scalding hot coffee! Crisply paced and unrelentingly fierce, “The Big Heat” is one steamy ride.