Tag Archives: Fritz Lang

Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

On the 27th of May, 1942, the high ranking Nazi General, Reinhard Heydrich, was severely injured during an assassination attempt upon his life by members of the Czech resistance in Prague. Heydrich died from his wounds on the 4th of June that same year.

His death saw brutal reprisals brought against the Czech population; with thousands of people being killed, or being deported to camps where they would later die. Details of what happened to the brave resistance members who were responsible for his death can be found by searching for Operation Anthropoid on the internet(I must warn you that it does not make for easy reading).I admire their bravery, and I was very shocked at how brutal their end was.

I have only recently become aware of this vile man and his assassination thanks to the recent film, Operation Anthropoid(the code name given to Heydrich’s assassination plot). Reading up about this event, I have been really surprised that I had never been aware of any of this before, as I am very familiar with the majority of events which happened during WW2. Heydrich was one of the main architects of the Holocaust and he was an all round real nasty piece of work. Some of his nicknames included The Butcher and The Hangman.  

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Heydrich in the opening scene. Screenshot by me.

The year after Heydrich’s assassination, the German director Fritz Lang (who became an American citizen in 1939) made a film about this event and its brutal aftermath. I only became aware of Lang’s film recently, and when I saw that it was being released on Blu-ray, I jumped at the chance of being able to watch this film. It arrived a few days ago, and I have to say that I am so impressed with the film. I’m also very impressed with the visual quality of the Blu-ray release.  

Hangmen Also Die! is an extremely violent, gritty and very dark film. There are several scenes in this that I’m really surprised got past the censors at the time –  scenes such as the taxi driver who commits suicide before he can be taken in for torture; the execution sequence near the end; the badly beaten man being dragged through Gestapo headquarters and the murder of a main character near the end of the film – of course it’s good that these scenes were included because they help to bring home the terrible reality of life under Nazi rule.

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Masha is interrogated. Screenshot by me.

This film is also one of the best films about a resistance movement that I have ever seen. I love how the resistance live right under the noses of those who seek them, yet they move around freely in the city invisible to those who seek them. Their group seems to exist separately from everyone else and they communicate by looks and gestures in public that only they can understand.

So under everyone’s noses these people are planning and carrying out operations without being noticed. They are like a ghost community living and working alongside the community that everyone sees and experiences every day.Lang’s film is suspenseful, tense, moving, and downright scary at times. It also captures mans inhumanity to man, and Lang also does a good job of showing us how much courage it takes to stand up to oppression and cruelty.

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Dr. Svoboda and Dedic discuss their resistance plan. Screenshot by me.

In this film we see that members of the resistance are not only those who belong to a resistance group and carry weapons and carry out operations. Resistance members can include anyone who goes against the rules of the oppressors such as remaining friendly with people who everyone has been told not to associate with by order of the oppressor, or in refusing to name somebody to the authorities.

The film is a rather fictionalised version of the real events, but it certainly succeeds in capturing the horror, the violence and the bravery that surrounded those events.  Lang lets the actors do the work in this film, they bring these characters to life (both the heroes and the villains)and they all get their chance to shine (even actors in very small roles)and they all succeed in conveying to us how the courage of ordinary people making a stand can have an impact. This story is a human story and Lang shows us the best and worst of humanity. The film was written by Lang and the celebrated German playwright and screenwriter, Bertolt Brecht. This film would end up being Brecht’s only successful Hollywood film.

The cinematographer working on this film was the legendary James Wong Howe, and he uses his camera to create a mood and atmosphere that is reminiscent of Lang’s German expressionism films of the 1920’s. This film also serves as a good example of a film that is a mix of German Expressionism and American Film Noir. I love the shots where he films the shadows on the walls cast by torturers questioning and hurting people. I think my favourite shot in the film is the man coming into the jail cell carrying a whip, we only see his shadow on the floor but the image shocks, we don’t need to see the act of brutality that will follow to be horrified by the inference of it.

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                       Two of my favourite shots in the film. Screenshot by me.

The film focuses on the search for Heydrich’s assassins, and also for the people who are hiding them from the Gestapo. Interestingly the assassination itself is not shown in the film. I think this was a good choice because it shifts attention away from Heydrich and focuses instead on the men and women who stood up against him, and against what he stood for and represented.

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Svoboda helps the injured Dedic. Screenshot by me.

Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy)is the assassin of Heydrich, he flees the scene of the crime and goes on the run. He is seen going into a building to hide by Masha Novotny (Anna Lee). Masha deliberately misleads the pursuing Nazi soldiers as to where he is. He remembers this kindness. The Gestapo’s investigation into the assassination eventually lead them to Masha’s door.

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Masha and Svoboda are cornered by Gruber. Screenshot by me.

When hundreds of hostages, including Masha’s father, Professor Novotny (Walter Brennan), are taken prisoner by the Nazis and sentenced to death, Svoboda must wrestle with his conscience to decide if he turns himself in or lets these people die. Gestapo investigations are being run by the cunning Inspector Gruber (Alexander Granach)and he is fast closing in on Svoboda. He also has help in locating the Czech resistance, thanks to his double crossing informant Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart).

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Some of the hostages. Screenshot by me.

The film becomes a cat and mouse game between the resistance members and the Gestapo. Time is running out for the hostages, people are being murdered, tortured, and betrayed, and these horrible events show no sign of stopping. The resistance have a cunning plan up their sleeve, it is one that will paint someone else as being the assassin, rather than Svoboda.

If there is a downside to this superb film, I would say it lies with some of the casting. The casting is a somewhat mixed bag for sure. I think this film would have been better had they cast German or Czech actors in the lead roles, it would have added a great deal more authenticity for sure. Brecht had hoped that they would cast German speaking actors, but in the end it was decided they would go with a mix of American and German actors.

Brian Donlevy strikes me as an odd casting decision. He has never been an actor I’ve liked, and he often strikes me as being rather wooden in many of his roles. He isn’t too bad here, but he does come across as quite unemotional and calm, which I doubt would be the case for his character when he was on the run in fear of his life. As the film goes on I think his performance improves somewhat, but during the first part of the film he isn’t all that great.

Anna Lee also starts out as not being that impressive, but then she gets much better as the film goes on. She is very convincing as the frightened young woman who finds an inner strength, and the courage which enables her to do her bit in standing up against oppression.

When I saw Walter Brennan’s name on the opening credits, I thought to myself what a very strange casting choice for this film. Brennan is a very good actor, but his screen persona didn’t really strike me as one that was really going to fit this story. How wrong I was! He is excellent as the professor and I was pleasantly surprised to see him deliver one of the best performances in the film. His very famous voice sounds quite different here to how it usually sounded. He is excellent as the quiet, gentle, and dignified man who accepts whatever the Nazis do to him because he knows it will show them up as the monsters they are.

Lionel Stander has a small role and I’m afraid to say that his distinctive voice will take you right out of the film, he just sounds so bizarre and out of place here.

Jonathan Hale is excellent as Dedic, the highly experienced leader of the resistance movement. He steals all the scenes he is in. Hale makes his character strong, calm under pressure, and also someone who is a reassuring and strong presence.

Reinhold Schunzel is creepy, sadistic and completely over the top as the Gestapo chief who enjoys his job a little too much. He sits there playing with the people he is about to torture, cracking his knuckles and giggling, while adeptly tripping people up in their stories and catching them out in lies.

Hans Heinrich von Twardowski is very memorable in his small appearance as Heydrich. He conveys the power and arrogance of this man perfectly, and he makes us see why he was so hated and feared.

Dennis O’Keefe is very good as Jan, who is Masha’s boyfriend. He plays his character as someone we are never really sure about, can he be trusted, will he turn on his girl to save himself? This character is also quite heroic and likeable.

Gene Lockhart delivers a standout performance as Czaka, the man who pretends to be one thing and who is actually another.

Alexander Granach delivers the performance of the film for me. He steals every scene he is in as the watchful and tough inspector. Love how he guzzles down beer after beer with seemingly few side effects. 

My favourite scenes are the following. Masha and her father saying goodbye in the cell. The people in the cinema rebelling against the Nazi soldier. The hostages reading and memorising a poem about resisting. Masha cradling the beaten old woman in the torture cell, in silhouette we then see a Gestapo officer walk into the cell carrying a whip, we don’t need to see more to know what is about to happen to these two women. Flowers being laid on a mass grave following a mass shooting. The betrayed resistance members giving their betrayer a piece of their mind. The lipstick mark scene and the fight that follows on from that. Svoboda and Masha acting out a conversation for the Gestapo bug hidden in the apartment.  Svoboda deliberately spilling red wine to cover up a bloodstain.

This is a cracking film. I think it is one that really does deserve to be much better known by classic film fans today. I’d say that this is one of Lang’s best films. He manages to capture the best and worst of humanity in this film, and he creates a dark and gloomy atmosphere that stays in the mind long after the film is over. This one is also very remarkable given the fact that it was made so soon after the real events, it is also very frank for the time in its depiction of the violence and horror of the Nazi regime.

It is a somewhat depressing film, but there is certainly a glimmer of hope and happiness at the end. I think that this ending was included to boost the morale of people watching this. This would hopefully have served as a lesson to ordinary people in how they could fight these monsters who were invading their homes, and who were trying to destroy cultures as they moved around Europe.

What are your thoughts on the film?

 

 

The Big Heat (1953)

What a film this is! A gripping story of violence, corruption, hate, revenge and a strong determination to fight back against evil. It also quite interestingly shows us that the line between people who are good and bad can sometimes get quite blurred.

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The film is based upon the Saturday Evening Post Serial by William P. McGivern. I have never read this but would love to do so. If you have read it, I would love to get your take on the differences and similarities between the text and the film. The film is very violent and brutal. Some of the violence we actually see on screen, some is inferred, but all of it makes quite an impact on us. The film still shocks and grips when viewed today. The clothes and cars may have dated, but the story, shock of the violence, and the types of people seen in the film certainly haven’t changed all that much.

The film is directed by Fritz Lang. He made so many masterpieces throughout his career(especially his German Silent films), that I find it very hard to single out any one of his films as being better than others. The Big Heat is one of his that I would certainly single out though, and for me it is his best American film. Lang focuses on the darkness of humanity and really rubs our noses in that darkness and dirt. He also lets us see that there can sometimes be good, decency and courage found in the sewer of humanity. This is a film that is all about humanity and Lang focuses upon the characters and their actions and motivations, instead of making the film one that is all about visuals and action.

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Glenn Ford as Bannion. Image source IMDb. 

This is what I call an actors film. The entire cast all deliver superb performances, and for some I think it’s fair to say they deliver career best performances. Glenn Ford in particular is excellent as the good detective who ends up going around filled with barely concealed rage and hatred.

The vast majority of the films power comes via the interactions between characters and their reaction to the violence that occurs throughout the film. I also love how the film is split into little sections which almost come across as mini films in their own right. Apart from one scene, the film all takes place inside. The interior locations and the close way the camera is focused on the actors really gives the film a claustrophobic feel. The film has an almost documentary style about it.

I like that women play a major role in this film. The female characters we see are very strong women and once they get mixed up with Bannion’s investigation they suffer unspeakable cruelty. Much of the violence in this film seems to be directed towards women. Women are the main victims in this film, they either end up getting killed, physically scarred, emotionally damaged, or have their lives put at risk. Even Detective Bannion’s own daughter suffers too, as her childhood innocence gets shattered and lost due to what happens to her mum.

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Gloria Grahame as Debby. Image source IMDb. 

It is also the women in this film who either take most of the risks, or who get hurt the most. In the end it is also a woman who gets revenge on two of the main villains of the film. Bannion, who is supposed to be the hero, actually doesn’t get his hands dirty all that often, but through his investigation and persuasion others face danger or lose their lives by helping him get revenge. Debby comes across as being the real hero of the film. Bannion also does or say things that make him not unlike the people he is seeking revenge against. There’s that old saying which I think applies perfectly to him and his situation; violence begets violence. Revenge is just a never ending cycle of pain and violence.

The film begins with Bertha Duncan (Jeanette Nolan)hearing a gunshot. She comes downstairs and finds her husband (a police detective)dead in an apparent suicide. She reads a letter he has written, but we don’t see what is in it. Throughout all of this she never looks shocked or upset in any way, she looks cold and seems unbothered by the grim sight before her. She makes a call to dapper crime boss Lagana (Alexander Scourby)to inform him of the death, he seems to have mixed feelings to her news, and he says he will see her soon.

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Debby and Bannion team up to get justice. Image source IMDb. 

Detective Dave Bannion(Glenn Ford)is put on the case and at first seems convinced it is a simple suicide. His suspicions are aroused when he speaks to Lucy Chapman(Dorothy Green)a woman who was Duncan’s mistress and who claims there is no way he killed himself. Bannion sees there is more to this when Lucy is found brutally murdered shortly after telling him what she did. 

Across town, the thuggish Vince Stone (Lee Marvin)is one of Lagana’s men and he is put in charge of getting rid of Bannion. A car bomb meant to take out the curious detective accidentally kills Bannion’s wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) instead. Bannion is driven crazy by his grief and is determined to get revenge and uncover the truth about the case. He also puts his young daughter into the protective custody of former army pals of his to keep her safe.

Vince Stone’s flirtatious, and fun loving girl, Debby(Gloria Grahame)is rebellious and she takes a liking to Bannion. This affection gets her a pot of boiling coffee in the face, scarring her for life. Debby teams up with Bannion in his quest to get the men who killed his wife. Debby gets to dish out some revenge along the way.

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A disfigured Debby and the vicious Vince. Image source IMDb. 

Glenn Ford is excellent as a decent, ordinary man plunged headfirst into violence, grief and pain. He is excellent at conveying little gestures or looks showing Bannion becoming enraged and no longer playing by the rules. His performance is all in the eyes, pay close attention to him in every scene. Glenn often looked quite baby faced in many roles, but here he looks more mature and proves what a good dramatic actor he could be.

Lee Marvin steals every scene he is in as the despicable heavy, who has no feelings for anyone, not even for a woman who is supposed to be his girlfriend. Marvin had such an expressive and fascinating face and here he says so much with that face. You sure wouldn’t want to mess with this guy!

Gloria Grahame (who to me has always been quite an underrated actress)is at her best as the fun loving, strong, and stubborn Debby. In the last part of the film Debby becomes the main focus of the film instead of Bannion. Gloria relishes these scenes where she shows us Debby overcoming her pain to become a strong woman determined to get some justice for herself and Bannion.

Jocelyn Brando (older sister of Marlon) is very good as Bannion’s loving wife. She gives him a normal, happy and stable existence away from the darkness of his job. Jocelyn and Glenn work well together making us feel this couples connection and devotion.

Jeannette Nolan steals every scene she is in as Bertha, the ice cold woman who thinks only of her self. Her character is one of the most interesting and controlling in the whole film. Jeannette was a superb actress, but I think this may be one of the best performances she ever gave.

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Bertha makes Bannion lose his temper. Image source IMDb. 

Alexander Scourby oozes evil as the big boss who thinks he is king of the city. He has people very afraid indeed, but of course he won’t dirty his own hands by killing or injuring, he hires heavies to do that for him. Lagana uses words and body language to scare and intimidate, he finds this doesn’t work on Bannion. Scourby is excellent and gives you a good sense of what his character is all about.

This film features many fine supporting performances from the following: Dan Seymour, Willis Bouchey, Edith Evanson and a young Carolyn Jones.

My favourite scenes are the following. Debby answering the phonecall from Lagana for Vince. Bannion and Katie sharing a steak, a drink and a cigarette. Debby going to Bannion after she has been injured. The carbomb sequence. The “sisters under the mink” sequence. Bannion speaking to the old woman through the fence. The finale in the penthouse. Bannion’s Lt speaking to him after Katie’s funeral.

This is a taut film which packs quite a bit into just 89 minutes. There is not one wasted second in this. There are also scenes where you don’t find yourselves wondering why two characters are suddenly together, as they will say a few words that explain all (we don’t need to see them come together to do what they are about to when we catch up to them).I also like how Bannion is showed to enjoy a very happy marriage and home life. Quite often in films like this the detectives are unmarried or are unhappily married. I like how this film takes a different approach. I also like how this happiness in his character allows Ford to turn in a very dark performance once the happiness is shattered. 

I also have to praise the photography by Charles Lang, he keeps the camera close to the actors at all times and makes us feel a part of the scenes. The film is interesting visually, without the look of the film being the sole focus of attention (like many of the visuals in Fritz Lang’s Silent films).

Any other fans of this film? Please leave your comments below.