Fritz Lang | The Spiders Part I: The Golden Sea | The Spiders Part II: The Diamond Ship | Destiny | Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler | Die Niebelungen: Siegfried | Metropolis | Spies | Woman in the Moon | M | The Testament of Dr. Mabuse | Fury | You and Me | Western Union | Man Hunt | Hangmen Also Die! | Ministry of Fear | The Woman in the Window | Scarlet Street | Cloak and Dagger | Secret Beyond the Door | House by the River | American Guerrilla in the Philippines | Rancho Notorious | Clash By Night | The Blue Gardenia | The Big Heat | Human Desire | Moonfleet | While the City Sleeps | Beyond a Reasonable Doubt | The Tiger of Eschnapur | The Indian Tomb | The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
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What ARE these visual forms? The following book on Lang's films will try to offer at least a partial answer to this question. Lang's use of geometric forms such as circles, spheres, cylinders, rectangles, polygons and spirals will be highlighted. So will Lang's exploration of architecture.
Fritz Lang's films will be placed against their background in prose mystery fiction, spy fiction and science fiction. Lang's approaches to manhunts, scientific detective work, and the ability of police investigation to change the picture of reality will be analyzed.
Fritz Lang's liberal, democratic political ideals will be analyzed, and his support for women's rights and women's jobs.
Fritz Lang's deep exploration of mass media and means of communication will be discussed.
Running imagery in Fritz Lang will be traced: clocks, mirrors, staircases, shop windows, water and shorelines, models of buildings, maps, uniforms, trains, cars, mazes, rocks, desks, complex machines, underground chambers, massed items. Continuing characters and plot ideas in Lang are explored.
Early filmmakers who might have influenced Lang are discussed: Louis Feuillade, Maurice Tourneur, Mauritz Stiller, Rex Ingram, the films starring Rudolph Valentino, and later, the films of Alfred Hitchcock. There are brief pocket discussions of many of Lang's screenwriters.
The book is formatted as a single long web page, to make searching it easier. Just use your browser's search capability, to track down all references to any topic or film in it.
People interested in Fritz Lang might want to visit:
Fritz Lang: Master of Darkness. The British Film Institute presents a range of events and activities devoted to Fritz Lang: a comprehensive retrospective, new writing on Lang and interview extracts.
Plot wise, such gangs remind one of the 1890's prose fiction of Harry Blyth, founder of the Sexton Blake stories. The Spiders show the same hideouts and meetings as Blyth's conspiracies. Just as in Blyth, they have powerful people on their side: in Lang's films, there is a team of top businessmen, clad in the frock coats of the rich of their time, who secretly meet together and finance The Spiders' operations.
The Spiders leave a calling card behind: a large model of a spider, sitting on the chest of their victims. It is unclear who was the first to use such a device. Robert Sampson, in his history of pulp fiction Yesterday's Faces, attributes it to Frank L. Packard. Packard's The Adventures of Jimmie Dale (1914) has his gentleman thief leave behind small gray seals to sign his crimes; the thief is known as The Gray Seal to the press. This device clearly spread, as Sampson pointed out, from Packard to other pulp writers.
The opening of the film, showing the noble American adventurer Kay Hoog arriving at his club, reminds one irresistibly of Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. (1924) some years later. Hoog enters the film in white tie and tails. His clothes, gestures and body postures while taking off his top coat remind one exactly of Keaton's while he makes his entrance as the Great Detective Sherlock, Jr in that film. Soon we're shown Hoog's elaborate mansion; Keaton similarly has his fantasy detective in equally rich surroundings, which in Keaton are delightfully overdone, satirically suggesting the absurdity of such movie traditions of wealth. One wonders if Keaton's film is an actual parody of Lang's. Certainly, the second section of Keaton's Our Hospitality (1923), showing Time Square way back when, is a conscious spoof of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), and Erich von Stroheim is lampooned in Keaton's The Frozen North (1922).
Lang draws on several movie traditions, as well. The second quarter of The Golden Sea is structured as a Western, with his American hero dressed as a cowboy, riding around on horses, and fighting a lot of other cowboys in the pay of The Spiders. This whole section is enormously enjoyable. It shows the rich invention found throughout The Golden Sea.
The treatment of the heroine and the villainess recalls to a degree The Three Musketeers (1844) of Alexandre Dumas. It leads to a finale that will be repeated in Man Hunt (1941), The Big Heat (1953), Moonfleet (1955) and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960).
Lang's politics seem similar to those of another great artist who fled from Nazi Germany to the US: composer Arnold Schönberg. Schönberg's Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte (1943) contrasts a scathing look at Napoleon, who stands for all dictators, including Hitler, with a great democratic leader, George Washington. It is a profoundly moving expression of Arnold Schönberg's commitment to democracy.
Both films have a hero who is a little more mature and more macho tough than those of many Lang movies. Kay Hoog is more confident and capable than many of Lang's later bewildered, persecuted young types. The fact that the hero of The Spiders works at a desk, analyzing documents and sending telegrams, gives him some of the characteristics of Lang's later villains. One thinks of Haghi in Spies, and the father in Metropolis. Like them, he is a competent businessman. Like them, he is in command of high tech communication at his desk, in this case the sending of telegrams. His life centers around his study, like the business offices of Lang's later villains, and not the bedrooms that are the venue of many of Lang's later heroes. He is not at all sinister, like these later villains, but he is capable and accomplished.
Points in common between this work and Lang's later films are rarer than one might expect. The high life of the hero at his club in the beginning recalls the milieu lived in by the hero of Spies (1928).
The elevator in the bad guys' headquarters anticipates the more famous one in Metropolis.
There are other shots in Lang showing this sort of overhead, 45 degree looking downward on a maze. The closest are the overhead shots of the police station near the end of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, through which the Inspector moves the doctor. This station is as rectilinear as the office, something that is underscored by all the grillwork and bars - this is the holding jail part of the station. The path through is constantly twisting and turning at right angles.
Other mazes in Lang:
The film centers on a loving couple, forcefully separated by death, as in Fury, Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. By the time of Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat, Lang's couples will be democratic partners, who make all decisions jointly after discussion. Only the couple in the Chinese episode of Destiny seem to have such a democratic union. By contrast, members of the couples in the Persian and Venetian episodes make unilateral decisions without consulting their partners, with disastrous results: the Persian hero disguises himself and goes to the sanctuary, ignoring the heroine's alarmed protests when she discovers him there, and the Venetian heroine seems to be a law unto herself, plotting a murder with equally calamitous results. It is harder to tell anything about the couple in the German episode, and how they live their lives. We do not even know where they are from - they seem to be visitors to the village.
The Persian and Chinese episodes conclude with manhunts, which try to track down the hero. Such manhunts will have a long career in Lang's films, such as M, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die!, The Woman in the Window, House by the River, The Blue Gardenia, Moonfleet, While the City Sleeps, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt..They also are a mainstay of Alfred Hitchcock, who was much influenced by Lang.
The disaster that ensues in the Venetian episode, where the heroine takes the law into her own hands, returns in further Lang films which warn about the dangers of vigilantism: Fury and The Big Heat.
Both films show sinister dictators and anti-democratic forces: the Caliph in the Persian episode, the Emperor in the Chinese, the member of the secret Council of 14 in the Venetian episode. All of these anticipate the later despot in The Tiger of Eschnapur. Lang wrote his first version of The Tiger of Eschnapur around 1920, and it is possible that the criticism of despotic regimes was already present in this early version. In most of these films, both The Tiger of Eschnapur and the Destiny episodes, the despot is trying to force himself on a woman, and her boyfriend is in jeopardy because of it. It is a striking pattern. The exception is the Persian episode, where the despotic killer is the woman's brother, instead. This same pattern will soon extend to Siegfried (1924), which the hero in love with the betrothed of a king. The anti-dictatorship theme looks forward to Lang's anti-Nazi movies. And the sinister forcing of a man's attentions on a woman anticipate Lang's attacks on sexual harassment in The Woman in the Window, House by the River and The Blue Gardenia.
The miniature Army, perfect in every detail, anticipates the model house in M, around which the circle is drawn on the map - as well as the model building in The Tiger of Eschnapur. The model army also reflects Lang's filmmaking technique. The village scenes in Destiny recreate a human village inside Lang's film. The film Destiny can be seen as a miniature "model" of a village. And M can be seen as a "model" of a city. At a time when other men loved to create miniature model landscapes as part of their toy train sets, Lang created models of villages and cities, using the medium of film. Lang's models are more virtual, as in "virtual reality", than purely physical constructs. They encompass the town's activities and institutions, as well as physical sets.
The overhead shot of the birthday reception for the Emperor, spells out the geography of the scene in detail, like the high angle shot of the back yards investigated by the police in M. These too have the same perspective as a human looking at a model train set or city. (The birthday reception also has the same elaborate spectacle as some of the court scenes in Siegfried.)
The table at the inn, where all the locals gather to drink, recalls a tavern table in M, at which men discuss the murders.
In Ministry of Fear, the hero is falsely accused of euthanasia of his late wife; here, all the sick people in the hospital, and others too, refuse to undergo a voluntary death. The hero's struggles in Ministry of Fear to take care of his dying wife, are perhaps echoes of the heroine of Destiny, and her repeated attempts to protect her dying boyfriend.
The heroine's brother in the Persian episode anticipates the heroine's brother in Ministry of Fear.
Death in Destiny is such a distinctive character, that it is hard to find analogues of him in other Lang films. But the Scotland Yard inspector in Ministry of Fear comes close. Both are played by fiercely macho performers, both are implacable and unstoppably forceful in pursuance of their duties. Both enter their films as mysterious figures who stalk other men. Both wind up kidnapping the young hero of the film, and taking him captive inside their impregnable fortress: in the inspector's case, Scotland Yard headquarters. Neither man has any relationships with women. Both wish to be to be reasoned with, and wind up issuing challenges to other characters in the film, asking them to prove something to them. Long scenes follow, in which the other characters try to meet these rigorous challenges (the heroine in Destiny, the young hero himself, having the police look for the remains of the cake in Ministry of Fear). The imagery associated with the inspector - he can project transparent slides on walls, which he superimposes on other images - seems oddly reminiscent of the special effects associated with Death, who creates transparent spirits out of those he summons. Both characters have vast stores of knowledge, which are denied to ordinary people. Both characters are on the side of Good, yet they are so fierce that audiences find them more frightening than warm.
Death is the only virile, dynamic grown man, in the German frame sequence of the film. All of the town leaders are shown as petty, trivial people, who are barely effective at doing anything. And visually, they seem much less macho than the forceful actor who plays Death. None of them are ever seen socializing with women - and the title card explicitly tells us that the Apothecary has never had a young woman in his home. And the heroine's fiancé is a strikingly young and mild-mannered man, without any trace of heroism about him. Death is also surrounded by phallic symbols: his staff, and the tall candles. His hidden gateway, outlined in stone on his wall, is one of the most explicitly phallic symbols in film history - in fact, it might have been hard to get it by the censors at a later date! Death's costume, a coat with an extra cape on the shoulders, was also considered extremely macho in its day. The cape emphasizes and expands a man's shoulders. It too, has something of a phallic image. Later, in the Chinese sequence, Death assumes the role of an archer - more phallic imagery. Riding his horse as an archer, towards the end of this episode, he looks uncannily like Siegfried riding through the forest, to come.
The hero shows his least passivity in the Persian sequence. Here, his adventuring is the cause of his death - which might just indicate his idiocy, but which also is a sign of his being active. The way the hero runs away from the crowd, going up a set of steep stairs and out through a trap door onto the roof, recalls the escape of the hero Kay Hoog from the cowboy mob in The Spiders Part I: The Golden Sea. Just as Kay Hoog was glamorously dressed as a cowboy, here the hero gets a macho explorer's outfit, with big boots. By contrast, the hero's costume in the Venice sequence looks like Wimp City. The hero seems constantly on the go, throughout the film. We first see him and the heroine in a carriage, and he is in transit throughout much of the film, either on foot, or in vehicles. The hero also seems nosy and curious: he penetrates the sanctuary in the Persian episode, apparently out of sheer curiosity, and he is always looking down over the edge of the flying carpet in the Chinese sequence.
Lang sometimes signals gayness, by having a man violate another man's personal space. Examples include:
Gay themes form a relatively small part of Lang's oeuvre, which mainly concentrates on heterosexual relationships. Even in Destiny, while Death's taking of the young man is the main story in the German half of the film, there are few traces of any gay elements in the Persian, Venetian or Chinese episodes, although Death as the archer is consistent with a gay identity for this character. On the other hand, there is more gay material in Lang than most people seem to acknowledge. One prominent critic claims that the serial killer's gender issues in While the City Sleeps are the only instance of anything gay in Lang. This does not seem accurate, either.
The crossroads sign looks like the traffic signal in The Woman in the Window (1944). It too has pointers sticking out in different directions, pointing to different roads. The Woman in the Window also shows a street clock on a large pole, at the beginning of the same nocturnal, disposal of the body sequence.
All of these images on poles - crossroads signs, traffic signals, crucifixes, public clocks on the street - can be seen as part of the mass media: mechanisms that inform the broad public. Lang will have a persistent interest in mass media throughout his films. The telephone pole which catches the balloon in M, and the telegraph poles in Western Union, are also examples of this sort of imagery. All of these images on poles, also anticipate the finials in the engagement procession at the end of The Indian Tomb. The candles in Destiny also stand on high poles. Death stands by a narrow tall white pillar at the end of the Venetian episode, in an otherwise black room: a visual echo of the tall white candles. The radio tower at the start of Spies, and the broadcasting microphone at the restaurant, might also fit in here.
The fountain in the German village, and the fountain on which the hero sits at the end of the Venetian episode, have tall poles, out of which come spigots standing straight out, in numerous directions. These are echoes of the crossroads seen at the start of the film, also a pole with signs sticking out. The fountains, with water spurting out, seem like phallic symbols. The basin of the Venetian fountain is octagonal, which echoes other octagonal imagery in the film.
The whirling dancers that open the Persian sequence anticipate the groups of square dancers in House by the River. Both are dances of groups of people, both involve people twirling around, both are full of enthusiasm; both make geometric patterns.
Bird imagery is everywhere in the German sequence of Destiny, including the goose of the old lady in the carriage, the bird fed by the minister, the owl, the apothecary's bird on the skeleton. Except for the owl, these are all birds owned by humans. This anticipates the birds on the island in House by the River, who are disturbed the villain in his boat, and the chicken in a cage held by the hero's client.
The way people live on the water in the Venetian episode, and travel by small boats, will recur in House by the River.
The sets have common features too. In Destiny, the heroine first stands outdoors, outside Death's wall. Then the door opens, and we see a huge inner staircase inside which she proceeds to ascend. Similarly, in House by the River, the garden outdoors opens through doorways to the inside sets of the house - and we always see the staircase inside the house through the door - the staircase where the murder was committed. Lang also stages the heroine's encounter with the beggar on the inn stairway in Destiny, as well as many of the chase scenes in the Persian episode.
Death's giant wall, and the huge wall with the murals of the sky, past which the hero walks in Venice, are like the giant wall above the staircase in House by the River. This mural wall is unusual in Lang in that it is full of painting, a device regularly found in Sternberg, but much less frequent in Lang. The Chinese archer also stands in front of painted screens. The staircase wall in House by the River is full of a busy wallpaper, abstract repeated circular designs, a different effect. The stonework on Death's wall is of the same kind as the front of the inn. Whether this is a deliberate echo, or just an artifact of design, is unclear.
The Chinese segment shows three nested circular doorways, one inside the other in the frame, in a long, tunnel-like effect. Also notable are the concentric circles on the ground, in the center of which the cockfight is staged in the Venetian episode. Such "circles within circles" will recur in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, although none seem so deeply nested as these in Destiny.
A square doorway is seen through a circular one, in the Chinese sequence. A square within a circle will return in Spies, in that film's boxing arena, and in the microphone used for radio broadcast from the restaurant near the end. (The opposite pattern, circles within squares or rectangles, is much more common in Lang.)
There is an alcove behind the Chinese emperor, one of many in Lang. The emperor also has circular steps in front of him, like the mob boss' house in The Big Heat.
A screen in the Chinese episode is full of rectangles with rounded corners. This is an atypical shape for Lang. His films are full of pure rectangles with sharp, 90 degree corners, and pure circles as well. But he rarely mixes the two to make a rounded corner.
The hero wears a round hat with a spherical ball in its center, in the Chinese episode. This looks a little like the banisters in the staircase in House by the River. Death wears a truncated conical hat. At the Chinese court, attendants carry huge cylindrical banners. The sculpture at the end has a cylindrical base. The sculptures on the crucifix in the opening shot are on a cylindrical bole.
The cemetery gate grillwork is full of diamond patterns.
Many of the Venice interiors put the characters in huge, purely rectilinear rooms. These are like giant boxes. Towards the end, a sweeping black curtain falls from an entrance alcove, making the giant room seem even more box like. The actors look lost in these large spaces. The hero makes his final entrance in a composition that stresses symmetry: often a sign of the sinister in Lang. The hero's house in The Big Heat will also be purely rectilinear.
Lang uses circular masks repeatedly in Destiny, to frame the image.
The Persian segment is full of architecture with zigzag walls. These have a step-like construction, filled with 90 degree corners. There are also step-filled, zigzag designs painted on the walls, as ornamentation. This universal system of design will return in Siegfried (1924). The rug in front of the Chinese emperor also contains zigzag patterns. One of the main buildings in the German village also has a step-like facade. The staircase seen in silhouette near the start of the Venetian episode also forms two zigzag step patterns. The carriage that opens the film also has a zigzag construction. It seems to have not one chamber, but two, one of which is wider than the other. This forms a zigzag side wall in the carriage.
The film is full of that Lang trademark, the staircase. The film is more unusual in Lang's work, for the many shots of bridges. These bridges tend to be staircases of a sort, too: people walk up one side of the bridge, and down the other, as if the bridge were a pair of joined staircases. There will later be an unusual bridge in The Return of Frank James .
The German sequence contains a number of silhouette images: the sign on the Golden Unicorn inn, various crosses seen at the cemetery and the crossroads, Death's staff. The Venice episode also opens with silhouettes. And Lang will use silhouettes in Spies (1928). Silhouettes were part of the repertoire of techniques available to silent film photography; they became less common with the arrival of sound. Lang would not employ silhouette photography in most of his sound movies, but he would still find a way to include a shot of an actress silhouetted against a screen in While the City Sleeps (1956). There, however, the silhouette is part of the story, the action of the film - it is not a photographic technique of Lang's camera, per se. Silhouettes were a technique sometimes used by Maurice Tourneur; this might reflect an influence from him on Lang. The early landscapes in the German sequence, with their jutting trees over a lower and richer ground, also are a kind seen in such Tourneur films as Alias Jimmy Valentine.
The Apothecary's wall, shelves full of objects, is an early example of the "massed items" one regularly finds in Lang.
The German village has a clock at the top of a tall building, presiding over the village square. The whole German sequence is synchronized to the passage of time, called out elaborately by town criers. This reflects Lang's fascination with clocks, and their sinister control over our lives. But the town criers also are an example of Lang's interest in mass media. Even in this primitive village, there are means of mass communication, that reach all the villagers. These are soon echoed by the criers calling out from towers in the Persian sequence. We also see letter carriers in the Venetian segment, and a humorously giant letter in the Chinese one. The magician makes it fly away - comic instance, perhaps, of the "destruction of the media" imagery in Lang which is usually much more tragic. A more sinister version of the destruction of the media: when the henchmen murder the messenger carrying the letters in the Venetian segment. This murder, with three assassins converging on the messenger, anticipates some of the "assassination on the road" imagery in later Lang pictures.
Imagery in the inn, where the town leaders are introduced, will get echoed later. One man puts salt on a sliver of food: this is like the poison being sprinkled on the end of the sword in the Venetian episode. The knife used to cut and eat cheese anticipates all the knives in the episodes. The notary adjusts the candles on the chandelier: this seems like a small, comic version of the Candle Room to come. The figurine sitting on the chandelier also anticipates the statue into which the heroine transforms herself, at the end of the Chinese episode. Similarly, some of the night time carnival images in Venice anticipate the final fire in the village.
Gothic style sculptures appear around the pedestal of the outside crucifix in the opening scene, and later on a cabinet at the inn. These anticipate the Seven Deadly Sins sculptures in Metropolis. The architecture of the city council room also suggests the Sins.
While the apothecary is a man of science, his imagery often suggests alchemists: he gather herbs by the moonlight, and his lab equipment looks more like an ancient sorcerer than a modern chemist's. Similarly, the scientist to come in Metropolis will have a Gothic look to his house.
The way the villagers form a fire fighting unit towards the end, anticipates the final disaster scenes in the underground city in Metropolis. These scenes recall the burning vicarage in Mauritz Stiller's Sir Arne's Treasure (1919), which a large group of villagers also worked to contain.
Both the German and Chinese episodes are full of fantasy, depicted with still delightful special effects. By contrast, the Persian and Venetian sequences are essentially realistic, with only brief transformations of Death at their ends offering anything fantastic.
Lang is careful to situate all aspects of Death's behavior within a Judaeo-Christian framework. God is mentioned, and a quote from The Song of Songs in the Bible plays a key role. This makes the film part of a long tradition of "religious fantasy" in film: films which include fantastic elements, to convey religious ideas. Death also sketches a cross with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, well known symbolism to Roman Catholics like Lang.
Lang also tries to undercut anything that might lead to a supernatural view. While we see spirits of the dead, they do not perform any hauntings, get involved with curses, appear at séances, or any of the other appurtenances of the supernatural world view. Instead, the spirits are purely taking part in the afterlife, that is part of orthodox Christian and Jewish religious tradition. The transparent spirits do recall visually those in Mauritz Stiller's Sir Arne's Treasure.
If the Death scenes are religious fantasy, the Chinese magician is a pure what-if kind of imagining, like the folk tales in The Arabian Nights, or Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Lang offers no explanation of how the benevolent magician performs his tricks. It is simply a burst of "what if" imagination, with Lang implicitly asking, "what if magic were real, and magicians could make flying carpets, and other clever tricks?" It is an exercise in pure imagination. This is fantasy, but without any religious elements, or metaphysical implications.
Characters in Destiny keep changing their appearance, as they take part in various episodes. And Death's change of appearance is shown right on screen, a magical transformation provided by special effects. In later, non-fantastic Lang films, characters will also undergo complete changes of appearance and costuming: see the heroes' transformations in Spies and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Luis Buñuel was inspired to be a filmmaker by viewing Destiny.
When Truffaut asked Hitchcock if any films had impressed Hitchcock during his years as a young aspiring filmmaker, Hitchcock immediately mentioned Destiny.
Schatten / Warning Shadows (Artur Robison, 1922) opens in a traditional German village that looks much like the one in Destiny.
Lola Rennt / Run, Lola, Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998) is a multi-episode film. The heroine is magically given three chances to save the hero's life, as in Destiny. We watch her attempt this in three episodes, as in Lang.
Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004) is also a two episode film, with the same actors playing different, but related, roles in the two sequences, as in Destiny. The first sequence is realistic, the second fantastic, recalling Lang's mix of the two modes. The second episode has one character as a magical hunter in a forest, the other character transforming himself into a tiger hunted by the first character. This is like the finale of the Chinese episode of Destiny, in which the hero is transformed into a tiger, and Death becomes an archer, who hunts him down and shoots him. The hunter in Tropical Malady also hears talking animals, just as Siegfried will in Lang's film.
Death's taking of the young man home with him in Destiny suggests gay interpretations, although these are never made explicit in the film. Dr. Mabuse's hypnotism of young hero Hull in Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler also suggests gay meanings. But this is soon dropped for a heterosexual story, the relationship between hero Hull and the femme fatale. This heterosexual relationship takes up far more of the running time of Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler than the brief hypnotism scene does.
At the end of Part I, Dr. Mabuse actually does kidnap a character, and take that character to his home. But this kidnapped character is a woman, the film's heroine, the Countess. The story-line here is just like that of Destiny, only here the kidnapped victim is female. The film makes this kidnapping explicitly heterosexual: the evil Dr. Mabuse is kidnapping this woman for sexual purposes, probably rape. This is one of many films in which Lang explores the tragedy of rape.
Later in Part I, Lang will cut from the spectacular circular gaming table of the Petit Casino, to a group at a séance with their hands around a circular table. Once again, the visual echo is striking, but the content is radically different.
The card tables at the Pontoon Club are arranged in regular, repeating rectangular grids. They form set of modules containing people, too.
The Schramm Grill set is almost entirely made up of triangles. The walls and ceilings are composed of sloping, interlocking triangles, like a huge crystal. Then one notices that the tables in the restaurant all seem to be triangular, something I've never seen in any other movie, or real life restaurant. And the chair backs are made up of two jutting triangles. There are also repeating triangle designs on the grill. The whole is one of Lang's most geometric environments.
Towards the beginnings of the film, we see two locales that are the domains of wealthy, upper class men: These include the Stock Exchange, and the Pontoon Club. Both are all-male environments. Both feature men who are identically clad in formal wear: the daytime frock coats and top hats of the stockbrokers, the tuxedos worn by the members of the Pontoon Club. Both are private areas, open only to a restricted membership, not the public. And both will be swindled by Dr. Mabuse, who has no difficulty in invading these bastions of wealth and taking the members' money.
Both environments are notable for their purely rectilinear designs. Both involve elaborate, four-sided, rectilinear pillars. The "backstage" or office area of the Stock Exchange, and the first look we see of the Pontoon Club with its pillars and corridors, are strikingly similar in architecture, as well. Both involve a perspective from one region which is fairly office-like, into an area in the back of the shot that is used by the membership as a whole. The Stock Exchange and the Pontoon Club thus visually echo each other.
The young hero Eric Hull who is a member of the Pontoon Club is explicitly a son of a wealthy businessman. He is not an aristocrat, like the Count we will later meet. While fabulously wealthy, he is a member of a business class. This links himself and his friends at the Pontoon Club with the brokers at the Stock Exchange.
State Prosecutor Wenk's office is also rectilinear, although it is much simpler than the Stock Exchange or Pontoon Club. It does not have the pillars that serve as phallic symbols in those places. Wenk's staff is also all male. There will be a long tradition of good guys in Lang films showing up in rectilinear environments: see the hero's hotel room and bath in Spies, the hero's apartment in Woman in the Moon, Glenn Ford's home and office in The Big Heat, and the minister and his church in Moonfleet.
Wenk's office reminds one of Inspector Lohmann's to come, in Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
The curtain at the strip club has unusual spherical weights on the bottom of each of its segments.
When femme fatale Carozza is seen in her dressing room, it is full of circular wreaths of flowers on the wall. The lighting fixtures also have circular supports.
The lobby of the Hotel Excelsior, at the opening of Part I, Act Three, is circular. It is organized around many concentric circles, from a circular opening at the top with a railed balcony, to a circular chandelier, to a circular table under the opening.
Schramm's Palais has a rounded - but not quite circular - dance floor. Its band are playing circular instruments: drums, cymbals, a banjo.
The most jaw-dropping set is that for the Petit Casino, late in Part I. This is formed by a series of nested cylindrical areas. The players sit in boxes, like those in a theater, within the two outer cylinders, while the croupier is on a rising circular platform at the very center. Between the croupier and the players are a set of radial arcs, which divide a huge circular platform into segments that approximate the triangles we saw earlier in the film.
The Petit Casino is also seen from the outside, where its boxes are decorated by complex curvilinear valences. Such elaborate, non-standard curves are not common in Lang. One is reminded a bit of Mizoguchi's Street of Shame (1956), whose buildings are full of even more complex curvilinear patterns. However, Mizoguchi's curves are "biomorphic" they echo the curved forms of living animals and the human body. Lang's curves here seem more purely geometric, and not at all biomorphic. Many of the curves incorporate almost full circles into their grill work. These round, open circular grillwork components recall the circles that supported the lamps in Carozza's dressing room.
The Petit Casino has many moveable components.
The croupier and the camera revolve, in a full circular camera movement. This is two years before Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), a film that ignited interest in complex camera movement around the world. It is also three years after Mauritz Stiller's Sir Arne's Treasure (1919), a film that probably influenced both Lang and Murnau. Stiller has a camera movement following a soldier down a circular corridor. It is less elaborate than this film of Lang's, but it still contains the idea of combing camera movement with circular forms.
The revolving platform and other movable parts allow one to consider the Petit Casino as a work of "kinetic art": art objects that contain moveable parts, and which move as part of their exhibition. The first work of kinetic art is often said to be Vladimir Tatlin's sculpture-architecture combination Monument to the Third International (1920), so Lang is coming to the world of kinetic art very early in the game. Lang's kinetic art, like Tatlin's before him, is composed of geometric forms, and involves revolving components. Later, the huge moving rocket ship in the launch sequence of Lang's Woman in the Moon (1929) also has elements that recall kinetic art. So do some of the revolving spirals found in M.
Other circle-based areas in Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler have kinetic art aspects as well: the curtain at the strip club goes up and down. And the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior is entered through revolving doors - like the hotel lobby soon to come in Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924).
The strange giant masks, seen in Carozza's stage act (Part I, Act Two) have movable cheeks that puff in and out, also making them a form of kinetic art. The cheeks are roughly circular in outline, and are spherically curved. The masks look vaguely Polynesian, and remind us that Lang collected primitive art masks. The masks here have outrageously phallic noses.
Dr. Mabuse's study at the film's opening has a polygonal region at its rear, with angled walls surrounding a window. Similarly, the elevator on the upper floor of the Hotel Excelsior has a trapezoidal recess leading back to it. These are examples of Lang's love of polygonal rooms and alcoves.
The hero has an octagonal table, which he uses while entertaining.
The table filled with food and flowers created by the hero to entertain the femme fatale bears some resemblance to the many table top still lifes in later Lang films. Unlike them, however, it is hard to identify the many individual elements on the table: they all blend into a huge blur of flowers and dishes.
Similarly, the shots of food that open the Schramm's Grill sequence are both like and unlike the "massed items" one sees in later Lang. Only the shot of liquor and cigars has the items arranged in the flat, rectilinear patterns of the true "massed item" shots found in later Lang.
Some of the imagery in Schramm's rise to wealth also is vaguely like the later Lang "massed item" approach. Both the dolls and gewgaws he peddles on the street, and the many papers he works on during 1913-1918, are large scale depictions of items. Although, once again, these are not in the flat repeated rectilinear arrangements found in later Lang.
The stock exchange is dominated by a giant clock. This circle has two sets of 12 hour numbers marked on it, one in Roman numerals, the other in Arabic - presumably for AM and PM. These markings are unique.
The clock at the Pontoon Club is ornate, suggesting wealth. It sweeps around, indicating the sinister passage of time while the young hero is being fleeced by Dr. Mabuse.
A wall clock has a circular dial, within an octagonal frame. This is another example of the nesting of a polygon and circle, a construction that runs through Lang.
The elaborate clock at the Countess', tricked out with every sort of gewgaw and geometric extension, seems more like a work of modern art, than anything else. It anticipates the elaborate art doorbell to come in Ministry of Fear. That doorbell was at the home of a woman who worked as a dealer of modern art, and there are a number of art examples on the walls. Similarly, this clock at the Countess' is part of rooms that contain a full gallery of modern art on their walls.
Later, he outlines a plan to his henchmen, using a city map that shows the location of the Petit Casino. In both cases, it is the villain in this film who uses map technology, to carry out his schemes.
Bernhard Goetzke, so formidable as Death in Destiny, plays the hapless State Prosecutor Wenk, who seems mainly to be one of those "authority figures who can't stop the bad guy", like Army officers who fail to blow up Godzilla or the Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1950's sf thrillers. Alfred Abel, so impressive as the Master of Metropolis, gets a thankless role as the wimpy Count.
Wenk has to wear the bow ties, that are the mark of later ineffective, low life characters, such as Bruce Cabot in Fury, Dan Duryea in Scarlet Street and Robert Ryan in Clash by Night. And indeed it seems to underscore Wenk's helplessness as a policeman to do much to stop Dr. Mabuse throughout most of the film.
In his next to last scenes in the film, we finally see the young hero in a suit. It is pinstriped, sort of, but the stripes are very widely spaced - an effect I do not recall seeing in any other suit, either real or on screen. In some ways he looks really sharp; in other ways, the whole effect is strange. This too seems to suggest the young hero is not really an effective character, unlike the later pinstriped suited characters to come in Lang, such as the heroes of Woman in the Moon and The Big Heat. Towards the end of Part I, Dr. Mabuse will himself wear a suit with widely spaced stripes, although it seems to have some other patterns mixed in with it too.
In his earliest scenes in the film, the hero is in a less dressy tuxedo, while Dr. Mabuse is in full white tie and tails, a more dressed up and upper class outfit. This helps suggest the villain's ability to dominate the hero through hypnosis. His friends back at the club are also all in tuxedos, which adds visually plausibility to the way the better dressed Dr. Mabuse can persuade and control them. Rogues who manipulate others through wearing the clothes of the upper classes have a long history in prose fiction, something of which one suspects Lang was aware.
In his final scenes at the Petit Casino, the young hero is at last in white tie and tails. They are splendid, with what seem to be unusually shiny black satin lapels.
The scene where Siegfried begins to understand the talk of birds, and hears them speak in their own language, perhaps influenced a number of later works. Darwin Teilheit's The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934) is an early anti-Nazi mystery novel, set in Germany. The hero seems to hear a talking bird, just as in Siegfried. And Gardner Fox had his comic book hero Hawkman understand the language of birds, a major part of his characterization. Such bird imagery also anticipates Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker who learned much from Lang. The huge forests in Siegfried, with their giant trunks, perhaps reappear as the redwood forest in Vertigo.
The flowering apple tree perhaps finds an echo in the small flowering trees on the farm, at the opening of The Return of Frank James.
Brotherhood organizations for young men had long been immensely popular among German speaking peoples in Austria and Germany. Men in their teens and twenties would join them, and made mystical pledges of brotherhood with other young men. There were a bewildering number of such organizations, ranging from small local clubs to huge national organizations, and they had a bewildering number of goals, everything from common interests in music or art, to idealistic visions of progress for the German people, to militaristic units where men wore uniforms, to seemingly apolitical social clubs - where men could also wear fancy uniforms. Brotherhood organizations seem to have been deliberately ambiguous on whether there was a gay aspect to them. They offered straight young men a chance to join in strong groups with other men, and young gay men a chance to express deep longings to other men that were part romantic, part similar to the bonding desired by straight guys. Lang's film is in part a reflection of this brotherhood tradition.
The film's visual style, with its geometric patterns all over robes, shields and rooms, seems less creative than that of many Lang films, although it is certainly an interesting experiment. The zigzag patterns on the armor of the knights is the first glimpse we have of the court. This shows similarity to the zigzag design that runs through the Persian episode of Destiny (1921). Such in and out rectilinear designs anticipate the many alcoves jutting off the rooms in Scarlet Street and Clash By Night.
The elaborately patterned carpet, and geometrically ornamented walls, anticipate the more elaborate futuristic world of Metropolis.
Metropolis takes one to a wholly imagined, future world. It is still one of the most transformed, completely developed futures of any science fiction film. The future depicted here shows Lang's gift for geometric forms.
The American Stuart Paton did an early feature length version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916), by Jules Verne, a film which is widely available on video today. Dramatically, the film is ordinary, but its underwater photography must have wowed audiences in 1916. I have seen Aelita and 20,000 Leagues, but there are other early sf films I have not.
Forest Holger-Madsen directed Himmelskibet / Heaven Ship (1917), a Danish film about a trip to Mars. The clip I've seen shows considerable excitement as the space ship is prepared and takes off. This article on Lang suggests that he was influenced in many ways by the serial maker Louis Feuillade. Himmelskibet also reflects the Feuillade tradition by clothing its space travelers in head to toe black leather uniforms, like Haghi's security force in Lang's Spies (1928).
Another film reported to have influenced Lang is the six part German sf serial Homunculus (1916), directed by Otto Rippert. Readers can find discussions of these films in John Baxter's very fine book, Science Fiction in the Cinema (1970).
There are other early films that perhaps influenced Metropolis. The young hero imagines that the machinery is consuming workers like the human sacrifice demanding pagan god Moloch. Moloch is mentioned in the Bible. A statue of Moloch plays a vivid role in one of the best known of early feature films, Giovanni Pastrone's historical epic, Cabiria (1912). Pastrone's film is one of the ancestors of most subsequent spectacle films, including D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916). It has huge sets, a cast of thousands, and much dramatic conflict. Lang would almost certainly have seen it and been familiar with it. Lang's The Spiders Part I: The Golden Sea (1919) also shows a lost world that demands human sacrifice. Lang's imagery in The Spiders is similar to that of his later Metropolis. Both films have huge sets. In both, there is much giant statuary around, and attendants wearing costumes that suggest pagan, barbarian splendor. All of these are features than remind one of Cabiria, as well.
Both stories are concerned about the battle between capital and labor, which is depicted as the key feature of both future societies. Wells' approach is essentially Marxist. Lang's is the direct opposite. Instead of preaching Marxist-inspired class warfare, Lang advocates religiously inspired reconciliation between classes. His heroine preaches peaceful solutions to the conflict, a direct embodiment of what we today call "non-violence".
Other influences on Metropolis are films about the French Revolution. Such films were popular in the early 1920's, and were made by top directors around the world. They include Ernst Lubitsch's Madame Dubarry (1919), Carl Theodor Dreyer's Leaves From Satan's Book (1920), D. W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm (1922), Rex Ingram's Scaramouche (1923) and Abel Gance's Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (1927). Gottfried Huppertz's original score for Metropolis bursts into La Marseillaise, the anthem of the French Revolution, in some of the worker revolt scenes, emphasizing the political parallel.
Metropolis is especially close to Scaramouche:
There are also similarities between Metropolis and an earlier film directed by Rex Ingram, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). That film interrupts its realistic modern-day narrative, to have one of the characters tell about the Biblical four horsemen. The horsemen are dramatized in a vivid, highly symbolic passage. This scene is actually the high point of the movie. Similarly, in Metropolis, Maria tells the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which is dramatized on the screen as she narrates. Also, later in Metropolis we see the Seven Deadly Sins, which are visually personified in the way that the evil four horsemen were in Ingram's film. The horsemen have a medieval look, anticipating both the Gothic elements such as the Seven Deadly Sins in Metropolis, and the medieval kings and heroes of Lang's previous film Siegfried. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse also has a young hero (played by Rudolph Valentino) who anticipates that of Metropolis. Both heroes are rich, spoiled young womanizers from wealthy families, handsome, good natured, self indulgent young men, who gradually gain tragic insight into serious social problems.
Both the father, who is the Master of Metropolis, and the workers, emerge as destructive forces. They contribute to the orgy of destruction that fills the second half of the film. By contrast, the foreman Grot, and the father's aide Josaphat, try to prevent the destruction. These men represent skilled labor and the white collar middle class, respectively. They seem to echo the truism that middle class characters are the backbone of social stability. The white collar work that goes on in the father's office early in the film, seems almost as dehumanizing as that of the factory workers underground.
There are fewer human deaths than in many films, and those that occur are treated far more seriously. The hero is devastated by the worker's death he sees early in the film. At the end, more of the characters survive, than is typical of big action movies, including even villains like the Thin Man.
Lang's heroes are often extremely sensitive, despite their macho fronts. They have often been put through some terrible event that makes them hyper emotional. The hero of Ministry of Fear (1943) has coped with his wife's terrible illness, the hero of The Big Heat (1953) has lost his family to a mob attack.
The father in Metropolis is depicted in ways that links him to villains in other Lang films. He has a huge office that is the center of operations for a large business empire; his minions report to him there for orders. This is similar to the villainous spy chief Haghi in Spies (1928), Lang's next film. Both offices are full of high tech equipment, centered on their desks; both are at the top of their buildings. Both are reached by staircases in outer chambers beyond their doors. In real life, rich people tend to have elevators, while poor people use stairs. In Lang's film, however, it is the poor workers who use elevators, while the powerful men have grand staircases leading to their high level offices.
A lynch mob goes after the heroine Maria in Metropolis. It anticipates the mob that gathers on the street after the suspect early in M, and also the lynch mob that attacks the hero of Fury. The mob of angry workers in Metropolis reminds one of the later mobs that attack the mad scientists in Frankenstein movies (and Far Side cartoons). They are raising their hands high, and they are composed of bewildered, angry ordinary people, trying to cope with a public disaster in the only way they know how. A somewhat similar lynch mob attacks the hero of Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926).
Recently rediscovered footage of Metropolis shows the Thin Man reading a newspaper, the Metropolis Courier. It is heavily illustrated with photographs, and perhaps represents the relatively new medium of photojournalism. Prominent real-life photo newspapers in that era included the right wing Daily Mirror in Britain, The Daily News, billed as "New York's Picture Newspaper", and the Communist Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung in Germany, which often published amateur photos taken by worker groups. (One of the papers behind the Thin Man at the newsstand is in fact called the Illustrierte Zeitung, or "illustrated newspaper".) Newspapers were overwhelmingly important to people as a means of communication. Even the homeless men standing in a breadline in Theodore Wharton's From the Submerged (1912) read the newspaper. Two years after Lang's film, The Daily News would move into a famous skyscraper headquarters (1929) in New York City, as impressive as some of the buildings in Metropolis.
There are also few mirrors in the film, also atypical of Lang.
Articles on contemporary movies often cite Lang as the ancestor of any modern film that has large, Gothic sets. The city sets of Metropolis are certainly awesomely huge, but they do not seem to be especially Gothic. The skyscraper buildings shown in Lang's future city tend to be plain and functional, in a style closer to the both New York skyscrapers and the Bauhaus than to Gothic cathedrals. Similarly, the office building that is the scene of the massive manhunt in M seems to be a nice, cheery "Modern" office building. Its architectural style is identical to the skyscrapers shown in Metropolis. This style shows repeated, slightly recessed windows, set in a concrete grid. It is not quite identical to any real life buildings that I know of, although it seems closest to real life New York City skyscrapers of the period. It would be interesting to learn the real life sources or models, if any, for these buildings in Metropolis and M.
As the middle class office workers in M leave their building at night and go home from work, the building is gradually taken over by members of the underworld. This recalls the way the workers in Metropolis contest the city owned by the masters. There is a parallelism in the way the characters in the two films dress. The middle class workers in M are in coats and ties; so are the masters in Metropolis. The underworld characters in M are in working class outfits, as are the workers in Metropolis. The middle class occupants of the office building in M are blithe, cheery and confident. They are the first people we have met in the entire film who are not consumed with anxiety over the killings. They seem completely oblivious to the sinister events in their city, being concerned only with business. Similarly, the masters in Metropolis take the city and the workers completely for granted, and have no interest in the suffering or struggles around them. The masters are serene to the point of being blasé; they seem to be played by vacuous actors.
In Spies, we saw the white collar, middle class looking workers of Haghi's Bank under arrest and being led off by police, something they hate. But one gets the impression that Lang is enjoying seeing middle class crooks under arrest. Both the exterior of the bank, and the exterior of Sonja's house in Spies, have some similarities with the modernist architecture in Metropolis and M. Both the bank in Spies and the office building in M, will have their interiors partly destroyed by full scale technological demolition.
The police in M also recall the workers in Metropolis. We see them arrive and leave from work, completely exhausted after terribly long shifts, in scenes that recall the famous entrance and exit of the workers in Metropolis. Like the police, the workers are uniformed, however drearily. For all of Lang's fascination with uniforms, I do not recall anybody of any individuality or significance ever wearing one in his films, except for Tyrone Power in American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950). Uniformed characters are always worker bees, people on the fringes who exist to offer support to more important people, carry out orders, open doors, and add to fire power in battle scenes.
By contrast, the large standing objects in the father's office seem more Constructivist that Deco. These objects are in pairs along the walls, and are full of complex round solids, mixed in with long straight poles. They are full of 3D geometric forms, that in general terms recall the Constructivist costumes in Aelita. It is not clear what these objects are: lamps? electrical equipment? abstract decorations? Like the dream objects in Secret Beyond the Door, they are both visually striking, and mysterious in nature.
Both the large statue of the mother, and the gargoyles at the cathedral, recall the idol in The Spiders.
The laboratory scenes involve dramatic lighting effects. So do the flashes that occur when the machines and city are destroyed. These kinds of light effects will recur in countless mad scientist's laboratories in later films.
The exteriors of the city buildings are full of lights. These lights blink on and off in beautiful patterns. Later, when the machines are destroyed and power in the city goes off, the lights go out in a second elaborate visual pattern (rather than just blacking out all at once).
There is also a terrific scene, showing the malfunctioning lights casting complex moving, changing lighting effects over the father in his office.
The television phones have small lights that blink, signaling that a call is coming through. (One can't hear a phone ring in a silent movie!) The Heart Machine also has small blinking lights on its control panel.
So are the elevators. These have complex moving parts. Not only do they go up and down themselves, but they have grillwork that rises and lowers as they move.
The guard gates at the Heart Machine also go up and down, like the grillwork on the elevators.
A room full of underground machinery, has large whirling machines hanging from the ceiling.
Later, there are striking images of abandoned cars, after the power fails in Metropolis.
There is a circle on the newspaper the Thin Man reads, and others on two of the illustrated periodicals in the newsstand behind him. These circles are in turn contained the rectangle shapes of their periodicals; the one on the Metropolis Courier is itself nested in a titled rectangle on the paper. The newsstand papers are themselves arranged into a rectangular grid. So are the photos on the front page of the Metropolis Courier newspaper. More circular forms are provided by the Thin Man's hat, a cylinder with a cylindrical ribbon, surrounded by a circular brim.
A more positive circular image is the drum used to summon the children during the flood. Both the drum and the stick-head used to beat it are circular. This image is forceful and insistent.
In the finale, the cathedral is full of circular forms, also positive:
Oddly, these are echoed by the polygonal line of the roof, in an industrial room full of water pools.
Many of the pillars in the underground city are angled polyhedral in shape. These are like three-dimensional equivalents of polygonal lines.
The buildings in the flooding Worker's City have angled flanges on their base. And the drum in the center has an oddly angled stand.
There are aspects of this long sequence that recall Allan Dwan. Dwan had worked with Douglas Fairbanks, making some outstanding action-adventure films. It is perhaps not too surprising, that there might be links between Dwan's approach, and action sequences in other directors' films.
Similarities to Dwan include:
Louis Feuillade showed people climbing building walls, and over roofs. Before Feuillade, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) had crooks climbing the sides of train cars, and standing on top of them.
Lang's hero, Donald Tremaine, is played by an actor who looks rather like Lang himself. One wonders if there is a bit of a fantasy here, Lang imaging himself as a spy. This is not at all self indulgence: a large number of great storytellers imagine themselves in their stories. It is part of the creative process.
Lang's film seems close in its approach to the work of, the at one time very popular British spy writer, William Le Queux. Some parallels in both Spies and Le Queux:
Le Queux, as noted above, was full of schemes for communicating secret information. Lang is as well, but he gives a uniquely high tech twist to this. The opening of Spies shows radio, cameras, telephones, duplicating devices and other high tech appurtenances used by his spies; and the bank raid later on shows radio sets and a man hanging from a telephone pole, talking on the line (a similar telephone pole will capture a balloon in M). This is typical of a long range fascination in Lang with modern communication technology's ability to dominate and control people. In Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956), the television network and its broadcasting and news divisions are shown reaching out their tentacles, and gaining control of everybody and everything in the United States. One also recalls the mirror device for spying in The Spiders (1919), the automatic alarms in the office building in M (1930), the news reel cameras in Fury (1936), and the television monitoring in The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960). These reflect the mirror device in Feuillade's Judex (1916).
In both Le Queux and Lang, the realism of the social setting is implicitly used to justify a loosening in sexual morality. These are heroes that have to function effectively in the real world of upper class men and international diplomacy. The safety of their countries depends on this. They cannot exist in a straight laced fantasy world of Sunday School moralists. Instead they have to live in the real world of well to do men, mistresses, high society parties, romantic liaisons and intrigue. Because of this, they are constantly involved with glamorous loose women. Furthermore, their lives are filled with turmoil, and near sudden death. All of this suggests that they can and should have affairs. These arguments are undoubtedly specious, but they make superb escapist entertainment. One hastens to add that the heroes are always single men, that they treat the women well, and that the women want the affairs just as much as the men.
One can see aspects of Lang's interest in Le Queux' themes as far back as The Spiders Part II: The Diamond Ship (1920). The hero of that film is placed in a death trap: an underground pit that fills with water. The gang of The Spiders is mainly interested in getting hold of international treaties.
One can also see the influence of Feuillade on Lang's compositions in Spies. One of Feuillade's trademarks, the double door with one door open and one door shut, occurs in Spies as well; it will recur in the doctor's office in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), and in The Indian Tomb (1959). Feuillade liked to compose scenes in several flat planes, as David Bordwell has pointed out; we get a similar effect in Lang. A door or window will be open toward the back of the shot, revealing another wall with people standing in front of it. We see such shots in Haghi's office, in the telegraph office towards the beginning, and the shot where Sonja sees in Tremaine's railroad car from her own. The shots of the stairwell in Haghi's building are built on the sort of diagonals one occasionally sees in Feuillade, as well.
When people walk in Spies, they tend to do so in forceful straight lines. For example, we see guards marching purposefully past Haghi's open office door, parallel to the planes of the shot, perpendicular to the spectator's light of sight. Also: at the dance, when the hero is looking for the heroine's dropped necklace, we see first a close-up of feet moving in one direction, then another set of feet moving exactly perpendicular to the first. Third example: at the telegraph office, the bad guy exits directly towards the back of the shot, followed by the entrance of the hero perpendicularly, straight from the left of the screen.
Lang tends to show people in medium shot, say from the waist up. There is often plenty of "upper" space in Lang's compositions. It shows the high walls and ceilings of Lang's sets, which are usually tall and imposing looking. It also gives room for Lang's characters to jump up or suddenly stand up, which they do frequently. Feuillade's shots also often have this sort of upper space: the lower half of the shot shows the people, the upper half shows the architecture of the place in which the characters find themselves.
A whole parallel world in Spies are the close-ups of characters' hands. Lang often cuts to hand shots, showing the characters holding clues, guns, papers or the Russian icon which plays such a key role in the plot.
The policeman trying to halt the bad guy's car in front of the hotel has his arms stretched out wide. A similar gesture will soon be used by one of the officers at the bank. Both recall the worker stretching out his arms on the huge circular dial in Metropolis.
The leather uniforms of Haghi's guards also recall a bit the elaborate leather coat worn by Rudolph Valentino in Beyond the Rocks (Sam Wood, 1922) - and so does the leather coat worn by the underworld chief in M. There are echoes throughout Lang of various Rudolph Valentino films, suggesting that Lang was a fan. The glamorous, sophisticated and well-dressed heroes of many Lang works, including Spies, seem in the tradition of the characters Valentino played. Maurice Tourneur, an early director whose films might have influenced Lang, also had his hero in a really elaborate black leather costume in Lorna Doone (1922). We have already mentioned the leather flight suits in Forest Holger-Madsen's Himmelskibet / Heaven Ship (1917). And in Cecil B. DeMille's Why Change Your Wife (1920), Gloria Swanson flirts with a pilot in a leather flying coat.
Other Lang devices include the mirror in the hotel suite, recalling the store window in M, and the mirror around the fireplace in The Woman in the Window, which are used by Lang to show a single person reflected at two angles.
A striking shot uses a shadow as a sinister way for a character to make an entrance, like the villain in M. Some of the fighting in the bank will also be shown as shadow silhouettes. Silhouettes were part of the repertoire of Maurice Tourneur, a director who might have influenced Lang.
In some Lang films, circles are used to highlight "sinister" objects, and activities of the villains. In Spies, however, both sides have their own circular devices. The common denominator of circles in Spies is instead technological: circles tend to be associated with machinery, technology or engineering. One of the main subjects of Spies is that innovative technology is now in play in the world's spy organizations. The use of circles highlights technology, making it catch the viewer's eye.
The radio broadcast animation shows circular radio waves being broadcast from the towers.
The miniature camera has a circular lens, surrounded by the rectangular camera box. This is one of Lang's trademark "circles within rectangles".
Haghi's desk has a transparent circular clock on a stick in front. It resembles the sight-scope on a rifle, and looks menacing and threatening. We see the action aligned with this, with the camera looking from Haghi's desk over the clock, to the opening door of his office, bringing in the escaped murderer. The visual effect of a rifle scope is especially strong here.
The alarm clock used by the hero in the flop house near the start, has an extra tiny dial inside for setting the alarm. This is one of the most complex clocks in Lang. It has the "circles within circles" effect that will be a major motif in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The clock also has round bells at its top, making the whole thing be one of Lang's elaborate machines, like the mysterious office equipment used by the Master of Metropolis, or the gas pumps in Fury.
The heroine has a complex machine of her own, full of tall cylinders, which she uses to dispense coffee or tea at her home. She also has a round table full of desserts, almost all of which are on round platters - although there is also a rectangular box on the table. This anticipates the "still life" of breakfast in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Like them, it also features "circles within circles": the round dishes inside the circular table.
The train corridor has hemispherical lights along its walls. And the tunnel is a cut-off circular arch. There is a second round tunnel, through which the hero's motorcycle passes at the end of the chase. The motorcycle has a large circular headlight.
Haghi's radio set is full of circular gauges and wheeled handles.
The radio broadcast unit in the restaurant is circular, with a square inside, three triangles, and a V pattern below. The V and the triangles make vertical diamonds, which are echoed, after a 90 degree turn, by the horizontal zigzags and diamonds on the wall paper behind. (Radio broadcast units will return in Woman in the Moon.) The agent making the sinister broadcast has his face much hidden by the elaborate geometry of the broadcast microphone. The fusion of the two suggests that the human form is merging with technology, and with geometric patterns.
The cart with the spherical coconut smoke-bombs has large round wheels, and a building window sign behind it is shaped like a rounded arch. This street scene anticipates the one early in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, in which men roll out barrels from a truck that burst into flame in the street. In both cases, a deserted, quiet urban backstreet is suddenly filled with smoke or fire. The cylindrical barrels and the spherical smoke-bombs, both circular forms, make vivid, eye-catching imagery. Somewhat more distantly, one recalls the yard incinerator in The Blue Gardenia, which also generates flames in a placid, deserted outdoor setting.
Haghi's leather uniformed guards carry club-like objects attached to their belts. These clubs are made up of three cylindrical regions. The clubs prove to be bombs.
The door to the bank vault room has both circular and rectangular holes. The vaults themselves have circular handles, and large cylinders of acetylene are used to burn them open. The multiple vault doors recall the room with many doors in the mad scientist's house in Metropolis.
The hero is associated with the complex rectilinear equipment of his bath. The rest of his hotel room, including the door mirror, is also rectilinear, as was the path and ladders he took over the roof to get to his room. His train compartment is also full of rectangular regions, such as his seat. This association of the hero with rectilinear imagery will return in The Big Heat.
The boxers at the night club are in a square boxing ring. This is in turn surrounded by a circular dance floor: a rare instance in Lang of a square inside a circle, instead of the other way around. Lang gets some good overhead camera angles here. The regularly arranged steps down to the dance floor add to the geometry of the composition.
There is a spectacular overhead composition, showing police and motorcycles lined up outside the bank on its steps. The steps form a shallow, rectilinear pyramid, and the men and bikes keep to these strong rectilinear forms.
The square sidewalk plugs through which Haghi Bank employees try to escape are visually striking.
The doorbell to Sonja's home is a recessed, four sided pyramid. The pyramid panels are triangles, which ascend to a square base. Elaborately geometric doorbells return in Woman in the Moon.
The thermometer used to measure the hero's bath water is narrowly pyramidal in shape.
The hotel that is invaded by the bad guy after the chase to the city seems to be the very same one as in Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924). It has the same famous revolving door: something which Lang has his bad guy wreck. This seems both like a homage by Lang to Murnau, and a gleeful destruction of his chief setting. Perhaps this is an inside joke.
The best part of Woman in the Moon is the middle section: the planning for the launch, the launch of the rocket and the journey to the moon. The rocket launch is so much like later, real-life launches at Cape Canaveral that one wonders if NASA used the film as a model. The fact that Lang made this film thirty years before humans were launched into space, and forty years before they went to the moon, is astonishing.
Before the flight, the heroine officially congratulates the many workers who helped build the rocket ship. This is both a human gesture, and an official recognition of the role Labor had in constructing this landmark in human history. The relation here between Capital (Helius) and Labor (the workers in his company) is exactly the cooperative one advocated at the end of Metropolis. And like the end of that film, the relationship is symbolized by handshakes. The joyous celebration is one of the film's most inspiring and moving scenes.
Earlier, we saw the foreman of the company, toasting the heroine at her engagement party. This too, recalls the sympathetic foreman of Metropolis.
The heroine shows determination, and insists on being part of the moon flight. This is a feminist stand. She anticipates the later heroine of Western Union, who wants to be part of building telegraph lines. There is also a woman among the villains, one of the crooked consortium, which otherwise consists of four men. Both the heroine and this female villain are associated with phallic symbols: the men's tie the heroine wears, just like the hero and the engineer; and the villain smokes big cigars. These symbols seem to reflect that the women are taking part in a man's world. One of the women in the anti-Nazi undergound in Hangmen Also Die! will wear a shirt and tie.
The opening scenes show the poor professor's terrible hunger. There must have been lots of hungry people in 1920's Germany. After this, the film switches to the most elegant of upper middle class apartment buildings. These buildings seem strikingly modern in their decor. Although the film seems to be set in 1929, not the future, Lang has chosen the most modernistic, futuristic design elements throughout the film. These enhance the science fictional tone of the movie. The switch from settings of poverty for the hero in the opening scene, to luxurious settings in his home and car, recalls the transformation of the hero at the beginning of Spies.
The film's villain is an agent of the crooked consortium. He seems to be their representative, not their leader. Lang has him played by the same actor, Fritz Rasp, who was the Thin Man, the spy and agent serving the Master of Metropolis. Here Rasp is once more dressed in formal clothes, like both the Thin Man, and John Carradine's Nazi villain to come in Man Hunt. However, these formal clothes in Woman in the Moon are especially lavish and elegant. Their opulence and utterly upper crust élan contrast with the business suit worn by the film's businessman hero Helius. Helius is a business man who actually builds things; Rasp is a representative of Wealth or Finance, looking like the capitalist plutocrat of a million cartoons. Rasp's card says his character is "Walter Turner, Chicago". Little is made of this man's Americanness in the rest of the film, although the Chicago connection might be a reference to Al Capone and other gangsters, already world famous. He's billed in the titles as "The man who calls himself Walter Turner", and both the name and the Americanness might be fake. The character is a master of disguise, like Haghi in Spies, and his henchmen wear black leather uniforms, like Haghi's men, and like Mabuse's chauffeur in Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler. The uniforms are not as sharp as Haghi's agents', and the henchmen look more thug-like.
The woman flower seller who attacks the hero is one of a series of related characters in Lang. We have the brainy and creative blind vendor who recognizes the killer in M, the fake blind man who is the spy in Ministry of Fear, and finally the sympathetic blind flower seller at the night club in The Blue Gardenia, who unites the two kinds of characterization, flower vendors and blind people. One notes that the two genuine blind characters in M and The Blue Gardenia, are both sympathetic people.
Lang also comes up with another unique clock: this one shows 24 hours in two loops around the dial. Lang's films are full of unusual clocks, each one having some unique property. There is also an unusual small clock on the hero's study table, done in a modernist design, and containing a pendulum. The hero's housekeeper has a clock in her kitchen. It is on the wall over where she works, and seems in an archetypal Lang position of control over her work.
The terrorist attack on the factory is timed: it has a 24 hour deadline. By contrast, all aspects of the rocket launch and flight are also carefully timed. The rocket timing is one of the few possibly "good" uses of clocks to control human activity in Lang. Even here, it includes the eight terrible minutes of high pressure which might kill people.
When an unmanned rocket goes to the moon, it contains an automatic camera, which takes motion pictures of the moon's surface. Lang shows the elaborate clockwork mechanism that controls this camera, its various telephoto lenses, and shows the results of the filming. This is remarkably imaginative for 1929.
Radio broadcasts describe the moon launch. Title cards describe how bells and sirens all over the world are announcing the launch. A sky-writing plane also announces the launch.
We see the professor lecturing to a learned society. This anticipates the academic lecture in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, although that was to students, and this is a lecture to colleagues. The skeptical colleagues jeering a professor for making visionary science fictional statements are a staple of books, films and comics, although this is the earliest film version I recall. Jor-El in Superman stories will be greeted skeptically for announcing the coming explosion of Krypton. The lecture also recalls Maria's preaching in Metropolis, the speeches to the workers in Western Union, and the sermon in Moonfleet. The professor's jeered lecture will later be contrasted with the hero's radio broadcasts, announcing the rocket launch.
We see many scientific documents, and these include mathematics and diagrams, as well as text. There are also similar scientific writings, complete with illustrations, on the wall of the professor's room at the start. This is a brilliant piece of visualization, that helps establish the character, as make his ideas vividly come across at all times in the shots. The walls also include newspaper articles. Later, we will see illustrated scientific botany books on the neighbor's desk.
The film includes an animation of a scientific diagram, showing the planned trajectory of the flight from the Earth to the Moon. There were other animated passages in silent Lang. This one is the most informative and detailed. We also see a still version of this animation, as a drawing on the hero's wall.
We see entries into the ship's log. And the manuscript of a book by the professor.
The telephone shows up. A woman muffles its bell at a party, preventing communication. This is like the "death of the media" imagery that runs through Lang's films. The hero's telephone has what seem to be "bugs" removed from it by the villain, an act which exposes the mechanism of the phone.
The boy Gustav reads science fiction magazines, about a space adventurer named Mingo. These are illustrated, as well, and contain a science fiction story recursively within the main science fiction tale of the film. Earlier, the consortium of villains had watched a film within the film, complete with title cards. We see this film being projected.
Throughout Woman in the Moon, circles tend to highlight science fictional elements.
Lang uses circles for some of the most important images in the natural and scientific world: the Moon and Earth. These images include both literal views of these bodies in outer space, and representations of them. These representations include both photos and scientific diagrams. They also include the globe of the Moon the scientist sleeps with: one of the film's most moving images.
The animation shows circular lines of gravity radiating from the Earth and Moon. These recall the circular lines broadcast from the radio towers in Spies, and the circular ripples on the pool in Secret Beyond the Door.
There are also circular dials on the spaceship's control panel. The gauges showing speed and acceleration are especially important. Lang has explained the science so clearly leading up to this scene, that we have no trouble following the different values on these dials, and the progress of the plot they represent. They fall naturally into the smooth "flow" of the storytelling.
The weightlessness produces spherical bubbles of liquid floating in the air. These are captured by hand, and re-united into one mass.
On the moon, the bubbling pools of liquid are nearly all pure circles. And the bubbles often seem spherical. This is a geometric world made up of circles which the heroes enter.
The rocket ship is shaped like a 3D version of the doorway in Death's wall in Destiny. Whereas that doorway is flat, the rocket is round. Its emergence from a hangar is somewhat like the hidden doorway emerging from the wall in Destiny. Blueprints of the rockets looked at by the consortium include circular cross-sections. Interiors of the actual rocket also emphasize its circular walls and floor plan. They also show the circular hole linking the two floors. Both the real rocket, and its model, contain struts with repeated circular holes.
The boy descends the giant staircase in the hero's building by riding the banister. This staircase is rounded, and perhaps is another of Lang's spirals. It is a striking image, one that suggests the boy's flexibility, and willingness to travel fast. It hints about his later involvement with the moon flight, whose trajectory also involves giant loops.
There is also some circular imagery in the early espionage segment, that does not relate to science fiction. Most importantly, when the hero is attacked in the car, we see his round bowler hat roll into the street, next to a bulbous cylindrical ironwork and its shadow. This iron reminds one of Marcel Duchamp's bottle rack ready-made sculpture, although Lang might not have intended the comparison. There is also a circular table in the hero's study.
There are two beautiful "still lifes", one showing mainly rectilinear articles on the botanist's desk, but also including his circular glass lenses, and a cylindrical telephone. Some of the rectangular photographs in the articles show plants which also are rounded. I cannot be sure, but I think the plants in the photos are cacti. Lang cuts on this to a still life of the celebration at the party, which is all circular forms, glasses, ash trays, and a conical glass.
The rocket jet (seen in the film within the film) is a hexagon embedded in a circle. Lang will mix polygons and circles again with the wheel at the well in Moonfleet.
The model of the rocket launch area, seen in overhead moving camera shots, is full of angled lines. This vision of an entire miniature city is one of the most inventive shots in the film. It anticipates another overhead view of an architectural complex: the ranch in Rancho Notorious. Both seem to be created through model work. And both remind us that Lang trained to be an architect. Such overhead panoramas anticipate futuristic vistas in comic books, showing science-fictional buildings in landscapes: Alonzo Vincent's art for Calling 2-R (1940) in Target Comics, and Sid Greene's vistas in the 1950's and 1960's in such science fiction comic books as Mystery in Space and Strange Adventures.
The rocket is supported by gantries, with bent angled lines. Much of the supporting scaffolding on which the reporters and photographers climb is also at non-90 degree angles. So are the huge moving structures which form one of the most dynamic components of the launch sequence.
The ladder which the heroine climbs to enter the rocket, is composed of repeating trapezoidal units.
The rocket berths are supported by triangular wire frames.
It is a standard part of astronomy to speculate without proof on the interpretation of astronomical photos. So Lang's film is scientifically accurate to include a scene of such speculation.
Still, it is fairly rare for any narrative filmmaker to include images that are impossible to interpret. These remind one of the mysterious underwater fronds in the dream sequence that opens Secret Beyond the Door. These fronds, too, are impossible to interpret, or assign a clear fixed meaning. Lang does not point out how hard to interpret the fronds is: but the difficulties in understanding what these moon patches are is mentioned right in the titles. The moon patches form a strange, beautiful, surrealistically odd landscape: characteristics they share with the fronds.
As far as one call tell, the patches are never explained, not even after the characters go to the moon.
Both the glass case and the table also recall the hero's huge wall safe. Its door and inside are both complex patterns of vertical divisors and horizontal shelves or lines, just like the glass plant case.
Two other images like this, also in the hero's apartment building: the recessed window shelf, where the boy Gustav sits, and the series of windows behind the hero's desk in his study. Both involve glass, both have complex mixes of vertical lines and horizontal ledges.
The films of Maurice Tourneur sometimes contained complex patterns of verticals mixed with horizontal lines within them. There is more discussion of this in the article on Tourneur. Lang's images here might have been influenced by Tourneur's. Lang's patterns are a bit different from Tourneur's, which tend to include smaller and more numerous lines and rectangular regions formed by them.
The hero's whole apartment building seems rectilinear. Other Lang good guys, such as Glenn Ford in The Big Heat and the minister in Moonfleet, will also live in rectilinear environments. All three will be deeply integrated into their societies, and are the opposite of alienated. The hero also wears a pinstripe suit, like Ford to come in The Big Heat, another association of their characters with straight parallel lines.
M was a huge hit in its day and widely distributed; a dubbed version was shown in the United States in 1933. One wonders if M is the direct ancestor of the police semi-documentary film tradition that later developed in the USA. These later films always emphasized police lab work in fighting crime. (Please also see the chart showing the history of the semi-documentary.) The earliest Hollywood semi-documentary films I know of showing police lab work are William Dieterle's From Headquarters (1933) and William Keighley's "G" Men (1935).
M has a key scene, in which a fingerprint is projected as a slide upon a screen (or perhaps this shot is a double exposure, showing the large print and the police below - it is hard to tell from the film). A second ambiguous projection of a slide will occur in this film's sequel, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, when the doctor will apparently project Dr. Mabuse's picture as a slide, to show his students. Lang will use similar projections later of the microfilm in Ministry of Fear (1944). Such projection also reminds one of the use of film within the film in Woman in the Moon (1929), Fury (1936) and Clash By Night (1952), in which the Robert Ryan character is a movie projectionist by profession.
Much of M is based on real life police cases: this is true of both the crimes themselves, and the police methods used to detect them. M is also contemporary with a large school of fictional mystery stories that emphasized realistic police detection of crime. Possible ancestors of M and its scientific detection include the prose mystery fiction of the Realist School, still largely a British tradition in 1931. Such British Realist School writers as R. Austin Freeman showed the use of laboratory work in crime detection. Freeman's work is also full of scenes of manhunts in which criminals are hunted down, another feature of M. The Realist School writer Freeman Wills Crofts emphasized detailed, routine police work as the key to solving crime; this is also a key element of M. Lang introduces police Inspector Lohmann here, a continuing character who also shows up in his next film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. This unheroic, average guy policeman, who knows his business and good naturedly plods along doing his routine, successful investigation recalls Crofts' Inspector French. Lohmann is a bit of a comic figure in M; he seems more of serious policeman, and also more of a central character, in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
In previous films like Spies, Lang and his scenarist wife drew on British spy writer traditions; it is not implausible that they were familiar with English detective stories as well. Although M is set in Germany, the filmmakers are careful to include references to Scotland Yard, and to state that one criminal is the best at his profession from Berlin to San Francisco. Such references put the work into an international context. They also suggest that the events of the film are relevant not just to Germany, but the whole industrialized world as well, especially the English speaking countries of the USA and Britain that were often the setting of the team's previous work.
The police use maps of the city to help them in their detective work; so do the well organized criminals. Maps will later be used by the Nazi conspirators in Man Hunt, to do similar tracking of characters. Inspector Lohmann has a huge map of the city behind his desk in M. And the burglar alarms at the office building are connected to a series of floor plans of buildings on index cards (the architect hero of The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) will also create floor plans). These represent a whole systematization of geographical knowledge in society. Lang would probably be fascinated by the even greater geographical knowledge that is available today, through the use of computers. Maps regularly showed up in the novels of R. Austin Freeman, aiding the hero in his detection.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his review of M, has pointed out that Lang includes a portrait of an entire modern city in M. This portraiture is one of the film's richest features. One might note that detailed "backgrounds", showing some part of society in detail, were a regular feature in Realist School detective writers, beginning with Freeman Wills Crofts. For example, Crofts' first and most influential mystery novel, The Cask (1920), gives an in-depth look at the shipping business in London and Paris. It forms an almost encyclopedic account of business activities in those cities, and how shipping was used to transport goods. Such documentary-like backgrounds were usually combined with a foreground look at a mystery story in Realist School detective novels. This is the same structural approach as in M.
Both the police and the underworld have group conferences, in which they brainstorm ideas that will be used successfully to find the killer. These anticipate the police group scenes in Kurosawa's High and Low (1963).
The article on Ellery Queen describes how M might have influenced such later American prose fiction about serial killers such as Jerome and Harold Prince's short story "The Man in the Velvet Hat" (1944) and Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails (1949). The early scenes in M of a city in fear seem like especially strong influences here.
The underworld scenes in M are often full of bizarre comedy. The police and the underworld often run on parallel lines, and Lang milks this for humor. Such early silents as Alias Jimmy Valentine (Maurice Tourneur, 1915) also contrasted police and sympathetic crooks, although nowhere as systematically or humorously as Lang does in M.
Tourneur's film also centers around a crook who has a deep love of kids and tries to protect them, something which redeems him in the eyes of the audience and the characters in the film. This theme was repeated in other early fiction about crook heroes, such as the Boston Blackie stories and films, and Outside the Law (Tod Browning, 1921). The "crooks who love and protect kids" idea is given a dark twist and parody here in M: it is one of the motives for the underworld leading its manhunt against the child-murderer in M. This is far more serious and sinister than the sentimental, kind-hearted child protection of the earlier films.
The underworld will later use a phony policeman in one of these police uniforms, a gambit that will reappear in Man Hunt. Stewart Granger will also impersonate a British Army office in Moonfleet, in a stolen uniform.
Louis Feuillade had included crooks disguised as police in episode 5 of Les Vampires (1915-1916), Blake Edwards will open his TV series pilot for Peter Gunn (1958) with one, and Sam Peckinpah will include one in The Osterman Weekend (1983). Allan Dwan will include a phony US Marshall in Silver Lode (1954). In comic books see the Hercules tale "The Overland Bus Mystery" (Hit Comics #4, October 1940), the Radio Squad "Phony Cops" (More Fun Comics #60, October 1940), written by Jerry Siegel with art by Chad Grothkopf, "Superman Versus the Futuremen" (Superman #128, April 1959), written by Bill Finger with art by Wayne Boring, and the Lois Lane tale "The Fantastic Wigs of Mr. Dupre" (Lois Lane #35, August 1962). In prose mystery fiction, see "The Master of the Conjurers' Guild" (1930) by Joseph Szebenyei, The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen, The Unicorn Murders (1935) by "Carter Dickson" (John Dickson Carr).
M has no love story. This is unlike Lang's other films, and unlike most commercial films of its era. In his interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang seems quite proud of this fact. However, I really miss the love story - it is one of the best elements of Lang's other films. One attribute of the hero of Lang's love stories survives in M, by being transferred to other characters. Lang's romantic hero is usually extremely well dressed. Here in M, it is the head of the police and the head of the underworld who are the fashion plates. Usually in Lang's films, these men are intimidating, and usually well dressed as authority figures, but not really fashionable.
M is full of crowd scenes. People in the film always look as if they have been herded together in a very small space. Restaurants look crammed, with tiny tables. Sidewalks look narrow, with overflowing crowds packed in. By contrast, Peter Lorre typically looks as if he has a lot of space, perhaps an indicator of how isolated he is from society.
The opening shows a pathetic woman, working away in a lower class, poverty stricken apartment. Her little girl will be the first victim shown in the movie. Her poverty stricken domestic space will recur with the heroine of Man Hunt. Both women live in the depths of Depression era poverty in European cities; both have lives that engulf in tragedy. Both cook in their apartments, and try to take care of other people. Later, the policeman's wife in The Big Heat will also be shown in a typical domestic house of 1950's America, complete with kitchen. Her life is at a much higher, and more middle class level than these earlier heroines, but it is just as typical of her society. Her life, too, will end in tragedy, a tragedy centered on her house, and one caused by the villains in the picture.
The raid on the underworld bar reminds one that Lang's films are full of nightclubs, bars and dance halls. Night clubs run by mobsters were an archetypal scene of hard-boiled pulp prose mystery stories written by members of the Black Mask school. Some of Lang's bars have underworld connections, such as the ones in M and The Big Heat, but many do not. Lang's bars and dance halls are always a place where men date women they are romancing. They tend to have a real lack of respectability: there is always a sense of looseness about them. They are often raffish, or even down right tawdry.
By contrast, Hitchcock's characters tend to meet in restaurants; these restaurants tend to be respectable in the extreme. However, such "decent" couples in Lang as the ones in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and You and Me also meet in restaurants.
M is full of characters consuming alcohol, coffee and tobacco. These will recur in The Big Heat. The endless preparation, serving and consumption of these products will furnish Lang with a series of gestures and bits of business for his characters in both films.
M is Lang's first sound film. Lang often uses non-standard speech patterns in M. These include the chanting children's song which opens the film, and the "extra" cries of the news vendors. There are also many crowd scenes in the film, with overlapping shouts. This gives the sound track an unusual quality.
Many of the scenes are silent montages, with voice over narration. A telephone conversation between the police head and a government minister is used to narrate the early police sequence.
Whistling is common in the film. Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is associated with the murders, just as Lang will later link Wagner's Liebestod with the killing in The Blue Gardenia. Classical music tends to be Northern in Lang, and always associated with murder - no one ever seems to listen to it for fun!
By the way, we see the mirror in Lorre's room during this early shot, without any indication of exactly where it is in his room. Only much later, do we get a clear understanding of the layout of the room as a whole, including the locale of the mirror. This is typical of Lang. Similarly, we are introduced to various underworld leaders in shots depicting sections of the room serving as their meeting place: one is at a desk, two others on a leather chair and couch in the room's corner. Only later do we see shots of the room as a whole, enabling us to "position" the desk or chairs. Lang will push this approach to extremes in later films, with the ultra-complex apartment in Scarlet Street, for example, whose shots are often very hard to match up to an overall plan of the apartment.
Much is made of the window sill, where Lorre writes his missives to the press. This is similar to other Lang villains, whose desks are the centers where they are in high tech communication to the rest of the world. But Lorre's windowsill is a "hidden" desk. It is not obviously a desk, the way Lohmann's is. The police have to use considerable ingenuity to track down this "desk", and identify it as the windowsill.
The strange balloon figures reminds one of Lang's fondness for primitive art masks, which appear in Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and Secret Beyond the Door.
M is full of shop windows, a recurring image in Lang's films.
The balcony scene at the opening involves a series of straight lines passing over the screen at a slight angle from left to right. Later, the wires on the telephone lines will form a similar series of straight lines.
Lang has a long pan along the upper reaches of the office building in M, when it is first introduced in the movie. It is unclear whether this is a real building, or a scale model constructed for the film. It has a very elaborate, and largely rectilinear architecture. But towards the end of the shot, we see a corner window which is "cut off", forming a polygonal angle on one of the floors. This polygonal corner makes a nice climax to the rectilinear imagery of the rest of the shot. The architecture here might have influenced the apartment building in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954); this is discussed in more detail in the article on Hitchcock.
The book store where the little girl encounters the killer has a polygonal corner. Lang shows this when he moves around from the front of the book store to its side. Nothing actually bad happens at the book store. There is some sense in which polygonal imagery seems "harmless" in M. Key tragic events of the film do not take place near it.
Before Lang, the room the mother rents while she is working as a teacher has a cut off corner, in Louis Feuillade's Judex (1916). This corner contains one of Feuillade's trademark double doors. This scene differs from both Lang and Hitchcock in that they show the exteriors of buildings with cut off corners, while Feuillade shows what such a room looks like from the inside.
The alarms at the office building also involve circles within rectangles. Inspector Lohmann makes his entrance into the film, while standing under the round arch over the staircase at the bar.
The meeting of the underworld leaders takes place at a circular table, within an almost square room. It is eventually cross cut with a meeting of the police, who are at a rectangular table in a long rectangular room. This provides geometric contrast to the two groups. Later, the killer's room will have a large oval table in its center: a third, contrasting geometric shape. The police officer will put his head down over this table, while the camera shoots him from above. This anticipates the shot in The Big Heat, of Gloria Grahame putting her head over the octagonal table after the coffee attack.
The underworld room has a small circular table right next to the big circular table in the center; the small table is used to hold a telephone. This mixture of two attached circles somewhat echoes the balloon figure at the beginning, with its circular head attached to its elliptical chest. More circles will be added to the mix of tables at the underworld meeting. At a climax, we see an overhead shot, with both table's large and small circular outlines clearly visible. One of the characters has outlined a question mark on the big table, to express their puzzlement about how to catch the killer. This question mark is made up of two nearly circular sections. This makes a complex series of circular images in the shot. James Ivory will later include a similar outlined question mark in A Room With a View (1986).
There are many circular objects in the mother's room at the beginning, both the washtub where she is scrubbing, and the cooking pots on the stove. These work implements are distracting the mother from thinking about her daughter. They are sinister in Lang's point of view, and their circular shape highlights them to the viewer.
Most sinister of all: the spherical ball that plays a role in the first killing. The apples loved by the killer are other spherical objects in the film.
The circles drawn on the map by the police, surrounding a model of the searched crime scene, are an astonishingly dramatic image. This image's abstract quality, and dynamic use of circles, anticipates the circles in the opening dream sequence of Secret Beyond the Door. This image takes one to a highly imaginative, abstract kind of reality. Models also show up in other Lang: the rocket model in Woman in the Moon, the new buildings' architectural model in The Tiger of Eschnapur.
Spirals run through the films of Joseph H. Lewis, especially in metal work such as gates and bed frames. Please see the article on Lewis for details.
Spiral imagery shows up in the work of other directors, too. Spirals include:
This is perhaps appropriate, because the characters in Testament are mainly "lower down" in their organizations. Everyone in Spies was a star. We see the Head of the Secret Service, the head of a spy ring plotting to take over the world, Britain's top spy, the evil ring's most beautiful secret agent, and so on. These are glamorous people, completely in charge of their fate. By contrast, everyone in Testament is just a minor cog, caught in a big wheel. The police inspector and his assistants are just some officers among many in Berlin. Tom is a minor crook, trapped by the crime organization and wanting to get out and go straight. The gang in the apartment are also minor members of the big criminal operation.
The clutter in Testament emphasizes how lost the characters are among a world they didn't make. They are always wandering through buildings full of stuff they didn't create, and have no control over. By contrast, in Spies, even when there are props, they serve as a direct expression of the characters' activities. For example, in Sonja's living room, we see the elegant food she is offering the hero, symbolic of her ability to nurture him, and the altar at which she worships.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse has a very dream like feel. In dreams, we often wander through strange situations that we neither fully understand nor control. This is exactly the feeling of Testament. The characters are often lost in the criminal conspiracy in the film, being lower downs who are just a small part of a big picture. Also, the audience usually does not fully comprehend all the details of the mystery plot. We are always waiting for more information on what is going on: who is in charge, how does the gang operate, what are their goals. This information eventually comes, but through most of this film the audience is in a state of baffled mystery.
The explosions in the chemical factory anticipate the finale of Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949). The chase down the highway at night, with car lights illuminating the road in front, and shots of trees receding overhead, anticipates similar scenes in Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1958). Lang's car chase here has some of the same imagery as his day-time chase in Spies, including shots of trees whipping past behind the characters as they drive.
Lang is extremely good at gestures and postures. In Spies, he always had his star performers stand or sit in just such a way, as to convey their feelings. In Testament, there is a virtuoso sequence near the beginning, where Dr. Baum is lecturing his students for the umpteenth time about his obsession, Dr. Mabuse. Lang tracks down a row of students, each of whom is showing his boredom or disgust with this topic. Lang has given each student a different posture and facial expression to convey this boredom; no two postures are alike, and the scene is a startling treatise on the visual appearance of dislike.
There are other such episodes in Lang:
The dialogue of the film actually refers to such arrangements of objects as "still lifes", using the term from painting. This reflects Lang's background as a painter. Table-top still lifes run throughout the movie - and many other Lang films.
The microphone in the curtain room contains an octagon in its center. This is a true, regular polygon, not a rectangle with its corners snipped to make an eight-sided figure of different edge lengths, like the blotter and the label.
All in all, the many nested and concentric circular arcs of this film make a running motif of visual style throughout.
The lamp in Tom Kent's office has numerous arched segments, each itself curved. This is echoed by the pillar with the posters: each poster takes up a different curved segment of the pillar. The underworld jeweler has many circular and triangular dishes on his work bench - echoed by the curved triangular containers next to his assistant's stove. The three curved arcs, that make up the sides of these containers, resemble the multitude of curved arcs on Kent's lamp.
The doctor has drawn a circle on the map around his intended target, the chemical factory. This echoes the circles the police drew on the map in M. The doctor's car has a circular hood ornament, often shown against his rectangular windshield - an example of the "circle within rectangle" pattern often seen in other Lang films. (The ornament also recalls the circular dial on the front of Haghi's desk in Spies - another villain's motif.) The doors in Tom Kent's apartment have half-circle plates around their handles. These half-circles sit within the rectangular doors.
The flaming barrels at the start are cylindrical. The row of lights above the curtain room are circular, as are the spotlights from the cars at the chemical factory. Circles are frequently associated with light in this film, the flames, the lamps, and the brilliantly lit all-white lecture hall. A contrast: the rectilinear, Art Deco lighting in Tom Kent's apartment, which looks avant-garde and chic even today.
The printing press used by the counterfeiters has a prominent, if small, circular wheel, that seems to show up in the middle of Lang's compositions. The sound equipment and loudspeaker in the curtain room are circular, and the phonograph in the doctor's study is full of circular forms. A round phone dial in the crooks' apartment is right next to an equally circular stopwatch; a second round phone in the doctor's hall is next to the dial of a grandfather clock. Both the phone and clock in the doctor's hall are rectangular boxes, giving the "circle within rectangle" effect. Circles here are associated with the media machines that fascinate Lang: the sound-producing equipment (loudspeaker and phonograph), telephones and printing presses. They are also linked once again to that Langian obsession, clocks.
In many Lang films, circles relate to sinister events. This is mainly true here, with circles largely associated with criminals, including the doctor and Tom Kent. But there is some ambiguity. Tom Kent is certainly one of the crooks. But he is also a sympathetic young man who has doubts about the crooks' organization. The doctor is a sinister figure, but his lecturing the students is not a criminal activity. The circles heighten reality, and call attention to the objects they circumscribe. They seem to take us to a more intense form of existence.
The corridor full of white posters anticipates the poster hall at the entrance to the rock club in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup (1966).
Lang is of two minds about this. He deplores criminality, but he understands why his hero wants to have nice clothes and a place to live. The hero undergoes a drastic change in attractiveness in these scenarios: he is much more appealing rich than poor.
The curtain room sequence shows the ability to bring "something out of nothing". At first, the room looks empty, totally and completely. It is hard to imagine that anything interesting will take place there, or even could. But gradually, the film creates a whole series of interesting developments out of the barren room. Partly this is at the level of plot, with new developments in all directions. Partly it is visual, with Lang making many new compositions out of recombinations of elements we have already seem such as the curtain, the cutout, and the sound equipment table. There is something thrilling about this. It also suggests that life is much richer in possibilities than we suspect, if only we use imagination to develop its materials.
The couple make the life-and-death decision to try the water, jointly. This anticipates the democratic marriages in The Big Heat and The Indian Tomb (1959), where decisions are also made by the couple as a team.
The floor boards create a strong series of parallel lines, which Lang uses for compositions. They anticipate the use of the parallel lines on the trains, used as backgrounds in Human Desire. After some of the floor boards are pried up, they eventually float, allowing Lang to create complex compositions. These floating straight line segments recall the rushes floating on the water at the end of Murnau's Sunrise (1927), also arranged by their director into elaborate compositional patterns. Lang's conical arrangement of the draperies, in a shot containing the cut-out and floating boards, is also strikingly geometric.
1) The opening shows a man trapped in a building, trying to escape. This recalls Peter Lorre trapped in the office building in M. The man in is a storage room full of junk, just like Lorre was in trapped in the attic storage area. When the man gets to the outside of the building, the sidewalk has a lowered area (presumably for water run-off), in front. This recalls the raised and lowered levels of the sidewalk in the office building in M.
2) Inspector Lohmann talks about the high hopes he had for Hofmeister, a cop gone bad. He looks at a formal group photo of cops on the wall, while doing this. This anticipates a similar group photo Glenn Ford's policeman will have on his wall in The Big Heat. Both photos summarize the police heroes' devotion to their organization. Both photos seem organized in the same way: groups of standing men, lined up in formal rows, much like class pictures that were often taken in that era's schools. Other similarities: in both films the policeman has an assistant, both films include police corruption.
3) A shooting is staged by having the screen go dark, followed by lightning-like flashes of blinding light when shots occur. Lang would re-use this in Ministry of Fear.
4) The employment office has four rows of desks, jutting out in parallel. It reminds one of the obstacle race in Rancho Notorious, which was also organized into parallel rows. The men want work here, recalling the workers in M. They are in a long line, recalling the movements of the workers into the factory at the start of Metropolis - proletarians being processed.
5) The car murder recalls the simpler one at the start of Spies: both involve a man in one car being shot by a man in another. The staging in Testament will re-occur in the car murder in The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960).
6) The couple have their meal at the alcove in the restaurant, anticipating the alcoves in the homes in Fury, Scarlet Street and Clash By Night, and in the subway tunnel in While the City Sleeps.
7) The staircase and upper mezzanines in the file room at the police recall the architecture outside Haghi's office in Spies.
8) The huge open stairwell in Tom Kent's apartment building recalls similar ones in Woman in the Moon and Hangmen Also Die!. All are apartment buildings, all have wide spacious stairs, all are built around unusually large open central spaces.
9) The doctor's calling out Kent's name in surprise gives him away, just like the turncoat's laughter in Hangmen Also Die!. Both are betrayed by automatic responses from their subconscious.
10) Much of the shoot-out at the crooks' apartment takes place in its entry hall: such halls being an architecturally common feature of dwellings in Lang. The hall has glass-windowed doors, also common in such Lang vestibules: see The Woman in the Window. We also see the entrance hall in Tom Kent's apartment. Both halls have large mirrors in them, in which a woman checks her appearance. With the rest of the shoot-out taking place in the staircase outside, we have two of Lang's most central images, mirrors and staircases.
11) The outdoor forest scenes, with the police investigating near the chemical factory, anticipate the forest investigation in The Woman in the Window.
12) The doctor wears a white lab coat, and frequently appears in white settings, such as the lecture hall and Mabuse's asylum cell. This recalls the many white settings in Woman in the Moon. The still life on his desk, when the colleague discovers Mabuse's jewel robbery plans, is full of open books, and recalls a similar still life of open books on the botanist's desk in Woman in the Moon. The botanist has a glass case in his study full of plants; the doctor has a glass cabinet full of skulls.
The film's second half, in which the prosecutor works to prove his case seemingly against hopeless odds, recalls the equally impossible appearing attempt of the couple to escape from the curtain room in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. In both cases, the characters create "something out of nothing", by finding imaginative solutions to their problems. The plot developments are breathtaking in both films. They show the power of imagination and reason, and their ability to do things that at first seem impossible. The rectangular, seemingly barren courtroom in Fury, also recalls the curtain room in the earlier film.
Hero Spencer Tracy has to talk his brothers out of a life of crime near the start of Fury. This recalls the rescue of young Tom Kent from a life of crime in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and the effort of the couple to go straight in You and Me.
As soon as Spencer Tracy buys a car, he immediately gets in trouble, being falsely accused of a crime while traveling on the road. This is one of many negative results of automobiles in Lang: see also the doomed taxi driver in Hangmen Also Die!, Edward G. Robinson's car trip to dispose of the body in The Woman in the Window, and the killings in Spies, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, The Big Heat, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. One also recalls the high ramp with many apparently abandoned cars near the end of Metropolis. (By contrast, Lang seems to be happy to be in pre-automobile worlds in such historical films as Destiny, where people get around by horse-drawn carriage, and House by the River, where they use trains and a bicycle.)
The brothers buy a gas station. They are working class characters who make their living using modern technology - like the factory workers who build the rocket in Woman in the Moon, the telegraph employees in Western Union, the cannery workers to come in Clash by Night, and the railroad engineers in Human Desire.
The low-key but persistent characterization of the sheriff recalls Inspector Lohmann in M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Both have scenes in which they interrogate suspects while they sit at their office desk. Both have "wanted for murder" posters on their walls, and both have desks lamps with hemi-spherical shades - so does the heroine on her desk. Both lamps are simpler in shape than the complex ones in the earlier film.
The haunting of Spencer Tracy at the end, with voices pursuing him for his actions, anticipates the similarly doomed Edward G. Robinson at the finale of Scarlet Street. He sees ghostly images, just like the spy seeing the men he sent to their death in Spies, and the doctor seeing the spirit of Mabuse in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. All of these recall the haunting spirits in Mauritz Stiller's Sir Arne's Treasure (1919). In Fury, the people Tracy sees fill the top of the screen, like the mental imagery seen by the hero in Murnau's Sunrise.
The many episodic scenes showing the vigilantes in the lynch mob recall the brief vignettes in M.
Fury opens with a shop window, that depicts a wedding. The imagery in the opening anticipates the dream sequence that opens Secret Beyond the Door (1948). The first shot of Fury is full of nearly abstract imagery that symbolizes a wedding. In this, it anticipates the even more abstract imagery of the dream sequence in Secret Beyond the Door. The shot in Fury contains a number of dangling chains. Their arcs form of series of curves, nested within one another. These recall the concentric circles on the water in the dream in Secret Beyond the Door. Lang's camera moves over the arcs in Fury, making a diagonal camera movement right into the curving arcs. Similarly, his camera moves over the circles rippling in the water in Secret Beyond the Door.
The camera in Fury then moves to a series of more conventional and less abstract bridal imagery in the shop window, including a bride in her wedding dress. This is similar to the non-dream prologue that follows the dream in Secret Beyond the Door, which shows the marriage of Joan Bennett, including her white wedding dress. Both films include much discussion of marriage between their central characters. Both films contain a fairly long prologue sequence, dealing with the courtship and marriage of their characters. In both films, this prologue has only a little connection with the crime thriller that follows in the rest of the movie. In both films, the prologue dealing with the wedding is emotionally intense, and full of imagery stressing romantic longing and the bridal night.
Tannen's suit is double-breasted, as are District Attorney Walter Abel's clothes. Lang associated double-breasted suits with upper class, socially powerful males, such as these two government officials in Fury, and the brother and Bob in Secret Beyond the Door.
Tracy and his car when he leaves are framed between the two pumps of the gas station. The pumps are tall, complex objects, made up of a wide variety of radially symmetric components - just like the tall, Constructivist objects in the office of the Master of Metropolis.
When Tracy decides to cut himself off from all humanity at the end, he first goes to a beer garden. This is full of circular tables, geometrically arranged - a Lang image of repeated circular forms. As usual in Lang, the circles seem sinister: they are expressions of some nightmarish order the hero has entered, in which he celebrates his solitariness. Each circular table is covered by a checkerboard table cloth. The clash between the circular tables and the rectilinear cloths is jarring and visually overwhelming. The dance music somehow seems to amplify the sense of movement this optical effect creates. The multiple repeated chairs also add to the rhythm of the image.
The barbershop anticipates the one in Rancho Notorious. Both add a mix of violence and comedy to otherwise much grimmer and more serious scenarios. The shop has a huge rectangular grid, each of which contains someone's cylindrical shaving cup. This is a small-scale example of the "repeated cells" one often finds in Lang pictures. The barber corners his comic "victim" at the mirror. We see two versions of the barber, surrounding his victim in the middle, like the more serious mirror scene to come in The Woman in the Window.
The massed items at the railroad food stand anticipate the other displays of sale goods in such films as You and Me. There are plenty of round oranges, like the dish at the crooks' breakfast in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
The first half of Fury deals with the arrest of Tracy for a crime, and his incarceration in a cell at police headquarters. His arrest is a very uncertain affair. It is not like an arrest in a conventional movie. Instead, it is contested by an angry mob, debated by the governor of the state, and made the subject of controversy by the various deputies. In this extreme uncertainty surrounding the arrest, it resembles the arrest of the gangster in The Racket. He too is brought into custody at the police station that is the locale of The Racket. But he has so many political connections, and his arrest is contested by so many people, that it is utterly unlike an ordinary arrest, where a man is charged with a crime, and simply booked. In both works, an armed mob outside the station threatens the police station: in The Racket, this is the gangster's henchmen. They do not actually invade the station, like the mob in Fury, but they do threaten the station and send bullets into it. In both films, a corrupt government debates the status of the arrest. In The Racket, this is the crooked political machine that runs 1920's Chicago, in Fury, it is the governor of the state. In both works, the authorities cannot make up their mind about how to deal with the arrest, and vacillate between a number of approaches.
During much of the second half of Fury, the lynch mob who attacked the station are put on trial. These sections too relate to political ideas and situations in The Racket. Most of the town in Fury tries to cover up the crime, and perjures itself to protect the members of the lynch mob in Fury. The governor of the state and his political associates also try to protect the criminals. This is similar to the political situation in The Racket. In The Racket, Cormack shows how everyone in the city collaborates to protect the gangster when he commits crimes.
Cormack was a former Chicago newspaperman, and both works have a largely sympathetic depiction of the press. The press can be a bit opportunistic in both works. It is full of fierce, energetic people, who are always racing around on the trail of a hot story. In both works, the press is shown racing to telephones, to phone in hot news. In both works, the press plays a mainly productive role, although their coverage can also inflame a hot situation. The information they print stirs up crooked members of the public, and gives them info about crimes that they would not otherwise have. But the press is honest in both works. It is one of the few non-corrupt institutions in both works, and does not support crime in any fashion. Press coverage is also a force for honesty in both dramas, putting pressure on the criminals and the forces who support them.
There is also a reversal of Cormack's previous point of view here. In The Racket and his script for Cecil B. DeMille's This Day and Age (1933), Cormack seemingly admired people who took the law into their own hands, when going against sinister racketeers. But Fury has a full scale denunciation of such activities, describing them (correctly, I think) as an attack on democracy itself. The racial and ethnic slurs that severely mar The Racket are mercifully absent in Fury, as well. Instead, Fury presents some non-stereotyped black characters, briefly.
Bartlett Cormack's The Racket (1927) is reprinted in Richard Nelson's anthology Strictly Dishonorable and Other Lost American Plays (1986). John Cromwell directed the 1951 film version of The Racket, as well as starring in the play on Broadway in 1927 as the policeman, opposite Edward G. Robinson as the gangster villain. Cromwell's film version rewrites the play a good deal, and completely deletes all its ethnic slurs.
There is a final raid on the store, first by the crooks, then by the police, like the climactic raids in Spies and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the raid on the underworld nightclub in M, and the raid on The Spiders' headquarters in The Spiders Part II: The Diamond Ship (1920). Violence in Lang tends to be concentrated in scenes of raids. Today's "heroes" seem to be fighting everyone they encounter constantly throughout a picture. Such "heroes" - and I put the word in quotes - often seem to be more like serial killers than someone to be admired. Audiences in 1930 would have been appalled by such killers. By contrast, in Lang most of the fighting occurs in big battles between the good guys and the bad guys. These battles tend to be decisive struggles for power. This image is not necessarily innocent or admirable. It is based on military ideas and metaphors: a battle to gain control of a goal or turf. Fritz Lang was an officer, a lieutenant, in the First World War, and such military metaphors clearly dominated his thinking. I would prefer a pacifist approach in films: one that emphasizes political solutions to problems through negotiation, compromise, ingenious thinking, and win-win situations. We can see in places like Serbia and Northern Ireland and Iraq the folly of thinking about battles over turf. All such approaches do is destroy lives and the economy of the countries concerned.
The star-crossed young lovers in You and Me recall those in earlier Lang films:
Later Fritz Lang films will explore related themes:
Van Upp's early films were often saddled with Fred MacMurray, that least glamorous and charismatic of all Hollywood heroes. The charming Affair in Trinidad (1952) has much better casting in Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, as well as decent direction by Vincent Sherman. In the mid 1940's, Van Upp became a producer, one of the few women to assume this position of authority. Her role lasted for three films, culminating in the box office sensation Gilda (1946), also with Hayworth and Ford. If a man had produced such a hit, he would have had a huge future. However, one suspects that Van Upp was a victim of the post World War II "separation of women from their war time jobs". Probably her producer's title was taken from her, and given to some returning man.
As in Gilda, both the man and the woman in You and Me are trying to recover from troubled pasts. Their role as ex-convicts (in You and Me) and people on the lam (in Gilda) makes them have fewer opportunities and freedoms than other members of society, and live lives controlled by other people: the parole officers in You and Me, the casino owner played by George MacCready in Gilda. Both couples also eventually get involved in schemes that threaten their relationship: the man in criminal conspiracies, the woman in lying to her husband. The woman eventually look seriously unfaithful to he husband, something that is not in fact true. In both films, the couple are involved in a large scale institution that provides much of the setting for the film: the department store in You and Me, the casino in Gilda.
Lang's use of a single room for his heroes is oddly complementary to all the wrecked rooms in his films, such as the chambers in M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. These wrecked rooms are always business offices or bad guys' headquarters, never a character's dwelling place, although perhaps the hero's train in Spies is an exception.
When the hero and heroine get married in You and Me, they share their two rooms, joining them together as a suite. As the dialogue points out, this is a unique event in their lives. The fact that they have two rooms visually symbolizes the united, double life they are now leading. Similarly, the married couple in Clash By Night (1952) live in a whole, multi-roomed house, as do the married couple in Secret Beyond the Door (1948) and Glenn Ford's family in The Big Heat (1953). All of these marriages are fraught with tension and conflict in Lang. Living together is not something his characters do easily.
However, Hollywood was deeply into Art Deco, especially Paramount, where You and Me was made. The department store has Deco features. Notable is a shot of a character ascending a staircase, dominated by a l arge Deco wall relief above.
One also recalls the massed items confiscated from the police raids in M; however, these are arranged in different geometric patterns than most of the above. They are grouped together in one continuous mass, a bit like the food items in the You and Me montage.
Other massed items in Lang include the Apothecary's wall shelves in Destiny, the plants in the botanist's wall case in Woman in the Moon, the food at the railroad in Fury, the jewelry tray in Man Hunt, the implements on the professor's lab wall in Cloak and Dagger, the food on the docks in American Guerrilla in the Philippines, the obstacle course race, and later, Dietrich's piles of money and watches in Rancho Notorious, the passengers assembled in the court in Human Desire.
The desire for valuable objects is always seen as sinister by Lang, and destructive of a better life for his characters. One thinks of the scene with the "holy candles burning" in The Spiders Part I: The Golden Sea, where the desire of the gang for the golden artifacts causes them to turn on each other and kill each other. The search for gold on the moon in Woman in the Moon, which is also ultimately destructive. The robbery and murder in the assayer's office in Rancho Notorious.
Such an accompaniment of a song with montage will be put to narrative use in Rancho Notorious.
The heroine of the film is a telegraph operator. She anticipates Anne Baxter's phone operator in The Blue Gardenia (1953). Lang heroines tend to be highly competent people, in touch with modern technology. They also tend to be "lower downs" in their organizations, rather than leaders. The heroine of this film has some interesting feminist lines, where in she regrets that women are not allowed to take part in major enterprises such as building telegraph lines. She keeps trying to get involved, and keeps being rebuffed. She has a good attitude. But today's film makers would take her feminist concerns farther. Lang has always shown sympathy with working women in his films. These include the poor washerwomen who open M, and their back breaking labor, lugging mountains of wash up one of Lang's steepest and most endless staircases. One also recalls working woman Sylvia Sidney in You and Me, the cannery workers in Clash by Night, and the clerk who aids Glenn Ford in The Big Heat. Even the upper crust heroines of Metropolis and Ministry of Fear who do charity work are busy with productive labor.
Fritz Lang's previous Western The Return of Frank James (1940) also has much in it about the growth of media in the United States. We see no less than two different frontier newspapers, a mail train, and a telegraph office in a railroad station. We see the birth of mass publicity, with a story fed to one reporter in Denver fanned out across the country by telegraph. The heroine here is trying to become a newspaper reporter. As in Western Union, she faces both opposition and surprise from men. These films have a feminist quality, showing women trying to break into male dominated professions, in both cases that of the mass media.
Jagger is the most sympathetic of the three characters. He represents what they could be, if their lives were more respectful of their workers, and in tune with democratic institutions. While the Master of Metropolis exploits the working class, making them work and live in terrible conditions, Jagger treats his workers respectfully. He pays them bonuses, and asks them to share in his goals as a group. His relationship with the workers is what one hopes will come after the end of Metropolis, when Capital and Labor are joined in a new, democratic, religiously guided alliance.
Jagger is the only one of the three characters who respects and works with democratic political institutions in the society around him. While Kyne's media empire answers only to itself, and Metropolis has established a dictatorship of the upper classes over the workers, here Jagger is endorsed by, and endorses, Abraham Lincoln, and his enterprise is kicked off on a patriotic Fourth of July celebration.
Just as Aeschylus created a portrait of idealized head of state in Seven Against Thebes, one who listens to counsel and respects the laws and citizens, so does Lang present an image here of what Capitalism could be at its best, instead of its worst as in his other films.
The climax of Jagger and Scott's relationship is a scene in which they exchange intense looks. Lang shoots this so the two men are looking straight into the camera. The viewer gets the full gaze of the two men staring directly out at the viewer from the screen.
The other hero of the film, played by Robert Young, also shows personal Lang characteristics. He resembles the hero of Spies (1928), in that he is elaborately dressed in many fancy costumes. Both heroes are exuberant, romantic leading men, and both love to dress up in elaborate clothes. This is made an explicit part of the story line in both pictures. Here the other characters kid Robert Young about his clothes, something in which he takes much naive pride. As an Easterner who starts out the film in suits, and who eventually switches over to cowboy clothes, he also resembles the hero of The Spiders Part I: The Golden Sea (1919). All of these Lang heroes have a distinctly aristocratic edge. They are not Everymen.
The destruction of the camp at the end recalls the similarly apocalyptic ending of Metropolis, in which the city is destroyed. In both cases, renegade groups of working class men destroy the enterprise - although here it is not actual workers, but a Confederate guerrilla group. The destruction in Metropolis comes through water, but here it comes through fire, recalling the sinister fire scenes in such films as Destiny, Woman in the Moon, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Ministry of Fear and The Big Heat.
The gift of a watch by Jagger to a cowboy is a comic version of the importance of clocks in Lang's films. The cameo portrait given by the heroine later is also in the tradition of portraits in Lang and film noir.
Lang has similar problems with his depiction of black people in The Return of Frank James (1940). He shows them as kind hearted and hard working. But he also depicts them as stereotyped comic relief, dim-witted and superstitious. These scenes just make one cringe. These films are a blot on Lang's record.
After 1945, Lang's attitude will change, and there will be a positive, dignified treatment of racial minorities in his films. Lang's change of attitude parallels that of Hollywood as a whole. It would take Word War II, and the pioneering Civil Rights movement of the early 1940's, to bring a change to Hollywood's depiction of black people. Organized protests from black labor unions and Civil Rights organizations against Hollywood stereotypes forced Hollywood executives to make a change.
As in While the City Sleeps, the manhunt here leads to a suspense sequence in the subway. These involve both subway staircases, and pedestrian chases in train tunnels. There are other underground chambers in the film, such as the hold in the ship, and the cave at the end. These too recall the underground traps in The Spiders Part II: The Diamond Ship (1920), The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), Secret Beyond the Door (1948), Moonfleet (1955) and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960).
George Sanders' character is in the tradition of other evil Lang masterminds. Like them, he has a large office. He also directs a large crew of henchmen, including many in uniform. Like other masterminds, he has more than one identity: here, he masquerades as an English gentleman.
The sinister Nazi played by John Carradine, dresses and acts much like the sinister spy, the Thin Man, in Metropolis. Both are gaunt, both wear funereal, formal clothes, both move stiffly and cast much sinister menace whenever they appear.
The boy who befriends the hero on ship recalls the young boy who allies himself with the hunted hero of Moonfleet. This character Vaner in the original novel, is not a cabin boy as in the movie, but a man in his early twenties.
Joan Bennett makes her first appearance in a Lang film, playing the first of the fallen women she will portray in her next two Lang movies. Her character is entirely made up for the film. The only heroine in the novel appears in a brief two-page flashback, and is completely different.
According to Truffaut's book on Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart's wife prevented him from ever playing a villain's role, fearing it would ruin his movie good guy image. Such concern with projecting a single persona was common in studio era Hollywood. But surprisingly, well-known actors who played Nazi villains in World War II era movies suffered no loss of image. George Sanders could play the monstrous Nazi torturer here, then switch back to his romantic lead as the detective hero in the Saint movies, without any loss of popularity. Similarly, the popular young cowboy star Tim Holt could play a wretchedly misguided Hitler Youth in the still harrowing Hitler's Children (1943), then resume his Western film career as a good guy for the next dozen years. Apparently audiences interpreted these roles as patriotic gestures on the part of the actors, rather than as revelations of their inner personalities. Both movies are deeply anti-Nazi, and their political beliefs come over loud and clear, thus helping to enhance the reputations of the actors who played in them. Admittedly, Sanders here sticks to many aspects of his typical screen personality. Here, as elsewhere, Sanders plays suave, highly articulate sophisticates, full of intelligence and cunning. Sanders played a wide range of heroes and villains in many films, almost always playing the highly intellectual British sophisticate in most of them.
The jeweled pin the hero gives the heroine, is made out of a few straight lines. In other Lang films, such "joined straight line patterns" are often symbols (the chalk M in M, the Y crest in Moonfleet, the K logo in While the City Sleeps, the chalk arrows signs drawn in The Indian Tomb). Here the pin is very much a physical object, however.
Other polygonal features in Lang are associated with men: the mirror and teletype machine in The Big Heat are linked to Glenn Ford.
The polygonal bar in While the City Sleeps is used by both male and female characters, and the crooked consortium's headquarters in Woman in the Moon has both male and female occupants.
One also thinks of:
Bennett's room has a prominent circular table. It also has a light fixture with paired round shades.
The gun shown in the close-up, when the hero pulls the trigger at the start, is full of geometric forms. A sphere sticks out. Many other curved geometric shapes are in the metal. The gun is one of the complex pieces of geometric machinery that run through Lang. These include:
The bar in M has symmetrical grill work, too, and the woman bartender behind it is another female business woman.
There are other two-chamber offices in Lang, such as the telegraph office in Spies, and the railway office in Human Desire, but the architecture of both is a little different.
The rocky streams the hero encounters, first at the start in Germany, and later in the finale in England, are personal for Lang: such rocky water landscapes also show up in The Return of Frank James and Rancho Notorious. These streams are always shallow, always easily forded and walked through by the hero, always made up of complex paths, and always full of rocks making complex visual patterns. They bear some similarity to the moon landscape in Woman on the Moon, and the bubbling pools of water through which the characters pick their way.
The Gestapo inspector in Hangmen Also Die!, Gruber, has some similarities with Inspector Lohmann, the policeman hero of M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). There are eerie suggestions that Gruber is what Lohmann might have evolved into, had he kept on being a policeman after the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933. When Lohmann is first introduced in M, criminals call out, derisively calling him "fatty". The same term is applied to Gruber in Hangmen Also Die!. Lohmann is a relatively sympathetic character. His behavior never steps over the line of responsible policing in a democratic society. Still, the behavior of the two men, Lohmann and Gruber, in conducting their intensive police manhunts, has similarities.
Gruber has a picture behind his desk, of a group of men in uniform. Democratic policeman Glenn Ford in The Big Heat has a group photo of the police in his house.
The tall white candles on Gruber's dining table link him to another figure who conducts manhunts, Death in Destiny.
Hangmen Also Die! shows not only the manhunt by the police. It also shows the conspiratorial counter-actions of the hunted, as they put forth elaborate schemes to fool the police. In this it recalls Fury and The Woman in the Window. This two part construction - a man hunt by the police, and conspiracies by the hunted - gives Hangmen Also Die! its enormous plot complexity.
The anti-Nazi underground here has some of the same structural role, as did the criminal underworld in M. Both are institutions of near government scope and powers. Both undertake elaborate projects. Both have people who can monitor every aspect of their societies, just as governments do in Lang. Both launch vast conspiracies, trying to achieve their own ends. There are differences, too, of course. The underground here is morally justified, and full of admirable heroic people, in complete contrast to the organized criminals in M. The two groups are totally different morally and politically.
The real life Heydrich was a notorious harasser and sexual exploiter of women, who used his position with the Gestapo to force his unwanted attentions on women. This aspect of Heydrich's character is accurately captured in Sirk's film. In fact, even before his Gestapo days Heydrich had been expelled from the pre-Nazi German Navy for conduct unbecoming to an officer, in his exploitation of women. However, Hangmen Also Die! paints a different and historically inaccurate portrait of Heydrich, as a mincing, stereotyped gay. Other Gestapo agents in the film, such as Inspector Ritter and the Prague Gestapo head, are also depicted as cheap anti-gay stereotypes. This bigotry is a serious flaw in the film, and a blot on Lang's record as a filmmaker.
The enormous length of Hangmen Also Die! is directly caused by this attempt to show a whole country's existence under Nazi rule. It is the longest of all of Lang's American films, at 140 minutes. Lang's other films dealing with life in Axis-run countries, Man Hunt, Cloak and Dagger, American Guerrilla in the Philippines, are also longer than his other American movies. They are all nearly two hours, while most of Lang's pure crime films and Westerns clock in at around an hour and a half.
Hangmen Also Die! deals with one of Lang's most persistent themes, the suffering of civilian populations in war time. In this, it anticipates Ministry of Fear, Cloak and Dagger and American Guerrilla in the Philippines.
The Czech people are depicted here as a nation of scientists, scholars and artists. They seem profoundly civilized. Lang's portrait of life in Eastern Europe is perhaps influenced by fellow émigré director Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be (1942) showed similarly civilized Polish theater people trying to cope with the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Both Lubitsch and Lang also emphasize the charm, refinement and grace of the cafes and restaurants in Eastern European cities: see Lubitsch's Budapest set film, The Shop Around the Corner (1940).
Lang also includes bugging by the Gestapo, as they use hidden microphones to listen in on ordinary Czechs' conversations. This use of media technology to monitor and control civilian populations is a persistent Lang theme. We also see the huge file room of the Gestapo, with their files on Czech citizens.
Lang takes us into movie theaters, twice in the film. Nazis stop the showing of the first movie, another instance in Lang when the shutting down of the means of mass communication is seen as a bad event.
The arrest of the Czech poet is explicitly described in the dialogue as an attempt to destroy traditional Czech culture, and replace it by Nazi "values" instead. The shutting down of teaching in the universities is also a closing of the media of communication by the Nazis. We will see the professor attempting to carry on his teaching work in very difficult circumstances. The Gestapo will later attack the books in the professor's library, another distressing look at an attack on media.
The code message at the end, is also a form of technological communication.
Lang has a shot in which we see the Gestapo hunting Donlevy on the streets of Prague; the Gestapo are framed through a narrow doorway. The camera moves, revealing a different view of the streets through the doorway. It is an unusual effect.
The large, wide staircases in the professor's apartment building, with plenty of space in the central well, recall the equally gracious staircases in the apartment in Woman in the Moon, and the office building in M. In both films, the spaciousness of the staircases suggests a middle class life style.
The apartment is shot in a way that makes it difficult for the viewer to get a firm spatial orientation. Like the Greenwich Village apartment in Scarlet Street, Lang's camera jumps all over the place, making camera set-ups that are difficult to place within the geometry of the apartment.
The scenes in which the wounded man must be hidden in the doctor's bedroom, recall the hiding of the hero in the ship in Man Hunt.
The decrepit room in which the underground meets has wooden walls whose boards do not quite join together. In this it resembles the room of the poor professor at the opening of Woman in the Moon.
The room where the Nazis keep the hostages has "unfinished" walls. It resembles the trap room in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which also bares its infrastructure. This hostage room is also a kind of death trap for the hostages - they are taken from it to execution. The execution chamber in the prison in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt also bares its infrastructure.
The hospital locker room is full of modular equipment: repeated lockers, benches, sinks and even towels. Everything in it is white, matching the men's white clothes.
The Nazis shoot through a locked door at Czaka's. This recalls the famous scene of shooting through a door in Ministry of Fear. First there is a dark screen - then light emerges after the door is shot open.
Truth comes out, when Inspector Gruber looks at the lipstick on his face in the mirror. Both Gruber and the young man perform shrewd deduction in this scene.
The restaurant, when Czaka is denounced, has a circular table, with four circular plates with napkins.
When the boy tries to pick the lock, we see two well-composed still lifes, showing the contents of his pockets dumped on the floor.
Another clock shows Death as a skeleton. This recalls the Gothic statues in Metropolis. It also recalls Death in Destiny.
The whole framing is based on time tables. It is another example of the sinister power of time schedules over people's lives in Lang.
At the young man's, the chimney or stove in the corner is covered with tiles. Each tile has a circle on it, and the tiles are modified squares in shape. This is close to the Lang image of circles in squares.
There are three X's on the head of the bed, where the young man is tied up.
The film opens with an obsessive staring at a clock, underneath the title credits. This is one of many sinister clocks in Lang, controlling someone's life. Here, it will determine when the hero can be released from the insane asylum in which he is a prisoner.
The credits over the clock are done in a traditional, Gothic German script. The dramatic theme music suggests there is something sinister about this. The credits are the first of several sinister "contemplations of Germanness" in the film. The characters, viewers and the filmmakers themselves, are repeatedly forced to examine German imagery throughout the film. In each case, there is a suggestion of something deeply abnormal. In 1943 we were at the depth of the Nazi era. The film tries to explain this, by confronting German cultural traditions. Among the images in the film:
The séance is also deeply embedded in the spy operations of the plot. Both the séance and the fortune telling are phony. Lang regards both of these concepts as sheer nonsense. But sinister nonsense. They represent false, worthless ideas, but ideas to which people often surrender control of their lives. Nazi ideology represents a similar series of worthless doctrines to which people have surrendered control. Lang is placing Nazism as one of a continuum of false, controlling doctrines which have usurped people's lives.
There are other box like regions in the film. Once again, all of these fascinate with their 3D geometric quality:
The train compartment. This is a box area itself. It also has two box like luggage compartments on top. Lang emphasizes these by having his hero store his suitcase in one rack, and the cake in the other. Once again, we have a series of box like regions, side by side, facing in parallel directions, but oriented in opposite ways. The region outside the train also seems like a large, rectilinear, box like area.
The entrance passage to the séance room. This passage has a raised floor, marking it off from both the entrance hall and the room itself. The hall, the passage and the séance room form a series of rectilinear boxes. The whole effect is visually fascinating. The passage seems unlike anything I've seen in other movies. It recalls a bit the raised sidewalks and lowered driveway, in the entrance of the office building in M, and the similar lowered gutter in front of the building at the start of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. In all three films, the various levels of the floor regions make fascinating geometrical patterns. Lang's disciple Claude Chabrol included rooms with different floor levels in the apartment in The Champagne Murders (1967).
The overhead shot that is the hero's first view of the fete at Lembridge. There is a huge empty public square in the foreground, with the complex fair area in the background. The square forms a large empty box like region at the foreground of the image; the fete is a similar region in its background. Once again, we have two highly contrasted box like regions on screen. One might note that the fete area is not a pure box - it has extensions on its sides. However, its outlines are rectilinear.
Later, Lang will stage a famous shoot out through a door. It too will echo some of the visual appearances of these two early scenes.
There are other visual echoes between the asylum scenes and the fete. The two poles on either side of the clock are echoed by the two small posts that hold up the canopy on top of the fortune teller's tent. The sculptured hedges at the asylum are also used to mark out the boundaries of the fete grounds.
Lang lines up the fete's denizens in a diagonal. They stand behind each other, with each character a little to the side of the previous one. This makes each character plainly visible. Lang also uses diagonal staging for the shots of the fortune teller and Duryea outside her tent. The diagonal staging seems to link the characters, implying they are members of a common team.
Bayard Veiller's stage play The Thirteenth Chair (1916) is an early work in which a phony séance is interrupted by murder. As in Lang's film, everyone in Veiller's play joins hands in a large circle. The lights go off, the séance is held, but one of the participants is dramatically killed. In Veiller's play, a man is stabbed, unlike the shooting in Lang's movie. In both works, the female medium is a major fraud, and both works are structured as an expose of the séance racket. The Thirteenth Chair was reprinted in Famous Plays of Crime and Detection (1946), edited by Van H. Cartmell and Bennett Cerf. Veiller's vintage mystery melodrama was a major hit on Broadway; it was made into a 1929 movie by Tod Browning.
Lang will later include similar imagery about a psychic in The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960).
An actual viewing of the two films makes them seem very different, however. The heroine and hero in Window are basically sympathetic and intelligent, whereas those in Scarlet Street are deeply flawed, although they build up sympathy too. Even Dan Duryea is less sleazy here than in the second film, although viewers who have only seen this picture will not believe this possible! He is a little more decently and conservatively dressed here in Window, and a bit more purely concerned with money and less personally exploitative of women.
The country road where Robinson abandons the body is curved. The final shot shows this road receding into the distance, curving under a growth of trees, disappearing into a forest. It is like something out of a fairy tale, many of which are set in mysterious forests. Lang accentuates the curve of the road in several ways. Both sides of the road have a low fence along it; its curve exactly parallels the curve in the road. The tire tracks left by Robinson's car also form parallel curves in the road. Such a strong concern for geometric forms is typical of Lang's cinema. The curve echoes all the circles that play such a role in Lang's geometric films. The curve here is one of the two most noticeable things in the shot; the other is the darkness under the trees that swallows up the cars as they move down to the end of the road.
Lang executes several complex camera movements in the scene immediately following, at Robinson's club. These camera movements occur in stages, and are closely tied to the architecture of the club set. One shot opens with Robinson and his friend at a circular table - a favorite Lang shape. The camera is stationary as they talk. Then the camera pulls back, as Robinson and his friend move forward. The camera then executes a sharp 90 degree turn, facing the hat check desk. In front of this desk, Raymond Massey looms sinisterly, blocking Robinson's path. He is like an avenging angel or terrible figure of menace in Robinson's path. The camera moves forward towards the hat check stand. Then later, it tilts at an angle, showing us the path Robinson is walking to the door, at a 90 degree angle again. Each stage reveals a different architecture of the club. The camera moves and compositions are strongly tied to the architecture. These are not the free flowing, actor-centered camera movements of many other directors, both good and bad.
A later moving camera shot will move along the path from the doorway of the club. It too will be architectural, in stages, each tied to another section of the set.
Although Lang loved mirror shots and used them in many works, The Woman in the Window has, I believe, more mirror shots than any other Lang film. Most of these shots use Lang's trademark: one person filmed from two different angles.
One particularly striking shot involves two people. Dan Duryea has backed Bennett into a corner in his blackmail scheme. His trapping her is shown visually by a shot that features both of their reflections. He is the outer person in this shot, and his two images are shown surrounding the two inner images of Bennett, which are back to back and very close to each other. The effect is that his two images literally have her surrounded.
Robinson is a psychology professor; the film opens with him lecturing to his students about crime, just like the psychology professor Dr. Baum in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. In both films the hero is a respected, moderately successful member of society at first; in both films he detours into a life of crime.
Raymond Massey's DA has some redeeming features, even while he spends the film unwittingly trying to run down Robinson's character. Unlike many DA's in films and books, this man is not insidious. He seems to bear no personal malice towards anybody. He also treats everyone around him well, and he does not psychologically manipulate suspects or lie to people. He seems to perform his job in a straightforward manner. He also seems genuinely interested in truth: he does not try to frame any suspect; rather he keeps an open mind about which suspect is actually guilty. All of this makes him a far more admirable character than many policemen of fiction. His sheer forcefulness is frightening; so is the technological and state machinery he has at his command to investigate citizens. But these are structural aspects of his role in society, not personal flaws. Lang keeps us focused on these powers, and not on personal difficulties with Massey's character. There are also hints that Massey is making a deeper effort to track down the killer, because the murdered man was so wealthy. This might be wrong, but it too is not a personal flaw. Rather, the script seems to imply that this is how the world and the system works. The fact that the DA is well dressed, and on the right side of the law, paradoxically links him to some of the heroes of Lang's previous films.
Throughout the film, Robinson seems to be less affluent than the characters at his club. The dialogue points out that his shoes have been resoled and mended: the sign of a poorer person. His house seems far more modest than either the club or Bennett's apartment. He is dressed in a fussier and less glamorous style. He certainly looks less affluent than the DA. The fact that the DA is a tall WASP, while Robinson is a short ethnic, also suggests that he has lower social standing. Robinson played working class characters of ethnic origin throughout his career; many of his gangster films, both serious and comic, centered on him trying to break through to upper levels of society. His characters expressed the difficulties experienced by many immigrants to America, and their problems blending into a class and ethnic conscious society. All of this gives a pathos to Robinson's character here, and a certain audience sympathy. The other characters in the film are firmly anchored in different social strata, too. Even the Boy Scout in the newsreel comments on his lower class background. Such a concern with class is perhaps more typical of screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, than of Lang. As in other Johnson films, such as Jesse James, rich people turn out to be thoroughly rotten.
Dan Duryea's role as a man who monitors and blackmails the other characters, somewhat recalls the sinister but intelligent Thin Man, in Metropolis, who is sent to spy on the hero by his father. Both men seem frighteningly capable.
The ending has been controversial, but I love it. It has some formal similarities to The Wizard of Oz (1939), especially in its treatment of the characters.
Johnson showed an astonishing variety of ideas in his presentation of hero criminals. It is amazing, too, that the Hays office allowed him to do this, in an era in which "Crime Does Not Pay" was one of the basic principles of movie censorship. The public tended to love Johnson's work, however. There was always an attitude of wholesomeness about his criminals. They often were motivated in their crimes by what today we would call family values. The criminals tend to be people that respectable, middle class, family oriented people could identify with. Audiences often judge screen characters, not by the morality of their actions, but by the social class they belong to and the social attitudes they express. For example, it was common in the 1980's for critics (incorrectly) to call music videos "pornographic". An actual look at the videos would rate almost all of them G, however: everyone kept their clothes on, there were no scenes of love making or swear words. But they were full of wild looking rock singers with rebellious attitudes, and this really pushed many conservative people's hot buttons, apparently causing people to imagine there was something X rated about them. By contrast, soap operas of the era were full of scenes of lovemaking, and illicit relationships. Because everyone in them was middle class and respectable looking, however, they were rarely the targets of media critics.
Johnson is the subject of an excellent biography by his daughter Nora Johnson, a successful writer in her own right, best known for her novel The World of Henry Orient. Unlike some other Hollywood children, Johnson clearly loved and idolized her father. He comes off as a nice, normal person in her book. Even allowing for the familial point of view, it is clear that Johnson maintained a life style of extreme bourgeois respectability, especially by Hollywood standards. Becoming a writer-producer allowed him to assume the identity of the prudent, reliable businessman. Unlike many Hollywood types, Johnson did not pose as a wild eccentric, an arch cynic, a set side tyrant or demonic man of genius. Johnson's best film as a director was in fact The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), a famous portrait of Eisenhower era executives. I am not trying to justify conformity, but I can see some refreshing virtues in Johnson's behavior. Too many Hollywood figures have left records of on set sadism or personal heartlessness. Johnson was a man who worked hard, treated others well, and kept his commitments to other people.
Johnson was apparently not perceived as a man whose work centered around a common theme. The description above, of Johnson's works depicting sympathetic criminal heroes with middle class motives, is my own interpretation of his work. Johnson's contemporaries apparently regarded him as a "reliable professional", a "good storyteller", someone who "knew how to please the public". He was respected without being typed. Each new Johnson screen play was viewed as a fresh beginning, one that had nothing in common with the others except good professional standards.
Paradoxically, Johnson's personal reliability masked a creative life devoted to fantasies of wild, criminal behavior. Johnson apparently had an intuitive knowledge of what middle class people thought about when they imagined breaking free of their roles.
Johnson will include a nice homage to The Woman in the Window in the dialogue of a later mystery film he scripted and directed, Black Widow (1954). Unfortunately, I think Black Widow is one of Johnson's poorer films. It is based on a novel by a mystery writer I have never liked, Patrick Quentin.
The Woman in the Window is squarely in the Freeman tradition. In addition to the inverted detective paradigm, it shows such Freeman specialties as:
Lang shows a tendency in his films to explore themes first in films that show them affecting large numbers of people, and then in later films depict the same themes affecting just a handful of people. For example, the huge flood scenes in Metropolis are scaled down to single room in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The underworld wrecks a whole building in M, just one room is attacked in Testament. Similarly, M depicts a criminal being tracked by the entire police force and the whole underworld; here in The Woman in the Window the hero and heroine are stalked by a small group of police, and a single blackmailer.
The hero is present at both crime scenes, both during the original sinister nocturnal events, and later during the daytime investigations. In The Ministry of Fear, he is an eager participant in the investigation, hoping it will prove the truth of his story, and further the overall mystery investigation. In The Woman in the Window, he is there through coincidence, and the investigation has the power to uncover his secret life, something he deeply fears. This very different position and motivation of the hero plays a role, to a degree, in how Lang interprets the meaning of the investigation. But I think it actually is a subservient aspect of the situation, which is fairly similar in both films.
In both films, the "exterior" landscape of the crime scenes looks like an artificial set, constructed on a sound stage.
Dan Duryea is dressed in pinstripe suits and bow ties. In Lang's films from 1945 on, these clothes have a definite meaning in his characterizations. Pin stripe suits are used to indicate sexual attractiveness in men. Most notably, the hero of The Big Heat (1953), played by Glenn Ford, wears pin stripe suits. Men did not have a lot of fashion options in the post World War II era. Their clothes were deliberately dulled down, in keeping with the relentless bourgeois conformism of the period. One of the few ways they had of adding any panache to their outfits was by wearing pin stripes. Even today, pin stripe suits suggest financial success in men' clothes, and are a way to express swagger in men's appearance. They reached their recent peak of popularity in the mid 1980's, during the Dress For Success era.
The bow ties worn by the Duryea character have quite another meaning, however. The long regular tie worn by men is a phallic symbol. By contrast, the bow ties that were worn in the late 40's and 1950's suggested a man had been emasculated. They are worn here to suggest the utter inadequacy of the Duryea character as a man. He is way below the slightest standards of male adequacy, let alone admirability. He seems far more interested in exploiting Bennett's character financially that making love to her, for example. He keeps trying to take money from her, and use her as a pawn in con games. Although the heroine is emotionally obsessed with him, the film keeps hinting that he is a lousy lover, and completely inadequate in bed. The implication is that this relationship is entirely one sided; Bennett's character is in love with Duryea's, who is unable to respond to her with any potency, and chiefly uses her and exploits her.
Duryea's appearance seems modeled on that of another 1940's screen character, Dagwood Bumstead of the Blondie series. Dagwood also wore bow ties; in fact they were so closely associated with him that 40's audiences seeing any man wearing one would immediately be reminded of Dagwood. Duryea's hair also is styled quite similarly to Dagwood's, with a peak of hair on the side foaming out from a part in the middle. Since Dagwood is, as Andrew Sarris once pointed out, the most thoroughly emasculated man in the history of the cinema, such stylings send an immediate message to the audience. (The Dagwood character of the comic strips is far more likable; we are talking here of the Dagwood shown in the movies.) Comic book characters of the 1940's who wore bow ties with suits also tend to be comedy relief figures, often less than competent with their jobs. The comically inept spoof super-hero Johnny Thunder wore a bow tie; so did the comic private eye Slam Bradley, in his later stages.
Duryea has one scene later on where his look is somewhat altered. This is in the bar, when he is telling Bennett what he has learned about Robinson's paintings. For once, he has achieved something, and is telling the truth. The filmmaker presents him in a more macho light. He is shown from the back, and the camera angle emphasizes his large shoulders and pin stripe suit. This is the closest he is shown at any time in the film, as a character to be admired.
Lang repeated Duryea's look in his later film, Clash By Night (1952). Here it is the Robert Ryan character who wears the pinstripe suits and bow ties. He is the adulterous lover of Barbara Stanwyck's character, the one who tries to break up her marriage. The pin stripes suits once again suggest his sexual appeal. And the bow ties suggest how inadequate he is as a man: he hasn't the strength to offer her marriage, love or any sort of decency. He is just cheap. A similar combination of bow tie and a cheap suit is worn by the Bruce Cabot character in Fury (1936). This is the character who stirs up the lynch mob in the movie. The character is a wastrel who talks big, hangs around bars, and lives off the dole. Once again, Lang is suggesting something deeply defective in the character's psychological make-up by such an appearance.
Scarlet Street really picks up when we are introduced to the apartment Robinson rents for Joan Bennett. Lang is completely fascinated by the architecture of the apartment. He constantly shows it from different angles and camera locations. He shows us the apartment throughout much of the second half hour and more of the picture. Everything about these scenes is completely gripping. They are a triumph of visual style. They show Lang's artistry with composition and the integration of sets and camera work.
The apartment is full of glass. There are the large studio windows, through which one can see the apartment from the walkway outside. There are the sliding glass doors in the hall. Other sets in the film also have glass: The apartment shared by Robinson and his wife has glass doors. At the bank, Robinson works in a large glass cashier's cage, through which he can see the entire bank. Even his boss' office has glass windows. One is reminded of the observation car the hero rides on the railway in The Spiders Part I: The Golden Sea (1919), through which one can also see everything. There is the also the hall in Woman in the Window, Lang's previous film, which has not one but two sets of glass doors, and the glass walled media offices in While the City Sleeps (1956).
Lang loves corners for his rooms. The apartment sets in Scarlet Street are positively polygonal. Rooms are always having angles in corners, so that instead of one 90 degree corner, we have two corners, each somewhat off the perpendicular. He also uses recessed areas, places where the wall juts back a straight 90 degrees. There is a large recessed area in the studio, along the far back wall. It has a sloping ceiling, and is used to contain the artists' modeling stand. The studio also has a recessed, built in set of shelves, along its far right wall. The bed head in the bedroom is also in a recessed area, this one mirrored. Both of these areas are used to multiply the images of Joan Bennett. The modeling stand in the studio is where she stands while Robinson paints her portrait; the bed mirrors show her multiple images during the film's climactic murder scene.
Andrew Sarris has profoundly described Lang as an "architectural director". The typical shot in a Lang film shows a handful of characters arranged against an architectural background, whether an interior shot of a room, or an exterior of a building. The geometric pattern formed by the architecture dominates the shot. It forms the main mise-en-scène. It suggests the emotional relationship of the characters, and how they stand in the story. Usually, the pattern formed by the people and the architecture is a stunningly brilliant composition.
Typically, there is only a little camera movement in Lang's films; that is because his characters are so closely linked to their architectural backgrounds. Lang's direction finds the right composition, and sticks to it. Camera movement in Lang is often "establishing". It occurs towards the beginning of a shot, as the characters "move into place". When they have found their full, final position in the shot, the camera movement stops, and we get one of Lang's superb compositions.
More unusual is the shop window. It is one of Lang's polygonal rooms, here seen from the outside. But it is surrounded by a large rectilinear opening in the storefronts, like a box containing the window. A polygonal room inside a rectangular box is something atypical for Lang. It shows his interest in geometry, on a large physical scale. The box-like store opening also recalls the entrance hall in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
The polygonal store window is echoed by a polygonal lantern on a nearby wall. The lantern casts a complex pattern of diamond-shaped regions on the wall.
The parallel horizontal lines on the store front, anticipate the parallel lines on the train in Human Desire.
The slightly elevated camera angle, recalls the overhead view of men hunted in the street in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Shop windows run through Lang, and are sometimes happy images: see Fury. But this one is linked to the tragic finale.
Just as in Spies (1928), the characters who walk in this scene are moving in straight direct lines. These lines are perpendicular to the camera's direction. There are two such lines of motion, parallel to each other. The shot is composed of five planes. The rearmost one contains the wall of the gallery, and the portrait of Joan Bennett. The next plane consists of a group of people walking. They go straight across the shot, from one end to another. The next plane contains the art critic Janeway. He is tilted slightly away from face forward; this angle is the most conspicuous one in the composition, and makes him a major center of attention. He is also doing much of the talking. The next plane shows the seated people with whom he is conversing. Finally, the plane closest to the camera is another stream of walking people, also moving in a straight line, parallel to the other stream. There is camera movement here: the camera starts out in a close-up of the painting. It gradually moves back, revealing more and more planes of the composition. Its movement is straight out from the wall, directly perpendicular to the direction in which the people are walking. There are also two-plane processions in the dynamite scene in The Indian Tomb (1959).
One can see a few parallels with other Lang films:
King's novel has two prominent characters that have been excised from the movie. One woman journalist is a fanatic Communist; another man is an equally fanatic extreme conservative; the two are arch-enemies in the novel. King does not directly comment on their political ideas in the book, but, politics aside, both characters are among the novel's loathsome villains, and King's novel is probably therefore expressing skepticism about both Communism and Conservatism. Also, like most gay writers then and now, Rufus King probably despised Communism and all it stood for; Communists have always been fanatic in their hatred and persecution of gays.
King's book first appeared in magazine form in 1945, virtually the last year when Communism and enthusiasm for the Soviet Union were respectable in American society. It was realistic for King to depict a Communist writer like the woman in his tale as having a large public following. Even by 1948, such characters would immediately be seen as far more outside the mainstream of American life. The decision to excise them from the film version leaves us with a story that is essentially apolitical.
But the biggest changes from novel to film concern the character of the husband. In King's novel, everyone but the poor, unsuspecting wife immediately recognizes the husband as a rotter, right from the start of the book. He is seen as marrying her for her money, and many people suspect he is going to kill her, too. King's novel is in large part a suspense thriller about "a woman in jeopardy". It is part of a large group of plays, novels and films, about women who are menaced by evil husbands and relatives, a genre that goes back to the 19th Century mystery writer Joseph Sheridan LeFanu. By contrast, Lang makes the husband the hero of the film, a flawed troubled man, but a romantic hero nonetheless. The film is basically a love story, between the husband and the wife. It is a bizarre, psychological love story, but one nonetheless. The husband's bad behavior is seen as stemming from deep-seated neurotic problems, problems that need a psychological cure, not punishment.
This decision leads to some immediate problems. Some of the husband's bad behavior can be seen by most audience members as psychological: the rooms, and his obsessions with keys and locked doors. Other problems are much harder to classify under this rubric. The way the husband has concealed from the wife his past life and financial problems, for instance. Most people just see these as indicating the husband is no good. The film does not even begin to resolve these contradictions. Hence, long before any psychological "cure" can be breached, most viewers have written off the husband as simply no good.
One suspects Lang was familiar with the dreams in Murnau's silent films, such as The Last Laugh (1924). Other silent films include dream sequences, such as Crainquebille (Jacques Feyder, 1922). Alfred Hitchcock had included a Salvador Dali designed dream in Spellbound (1945), as well as opening Rebecca (1940) with a dream. Such noir films as Boris Ingster's The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet (1944), Edgar G. Ulmer's Strange Illusion (1945), Jean Renoir's The Woman on the Beach (1947), Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963), Shinoda Masahiro's Pale Flower (1964) also contain elaborate dreams. So do musicals and comedies, such as Ulmer's American Matchmaker (1940), Allan Dwan's Brewster's Millions (1945), Vincente Minnelli's Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Father of the Bride (1950) and Michael Curtiz' My Dream is Yours (1949). So do the horror films Cat People (1942), directed by Jacques Tourneur, and Ulmer's The Daughter of Dr. Jeckyll (1957). There is also a comic dream in George Cukor's The Marrying Kind (1952), and the dream ballet in Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955). Dreams run through the films of Luis Buñuel. The dream sequence that opens Claude Chabrol's Ten Days Wonder (1971) seems inspired in part by Lang's here. Secret Beyond the Door is Lang's homage to Hitchcock - there are many references in it to Rebecca and Suspicion, as well.
The Lang shot is very different from anything in Hitchcock - from the rest of cinema too. It seems to be in one long moving take, over a pool that represents the heroine's mind, or subconscious. Or maybe it is just a pool she sees in her dream. The spreading circles on the water remind us that Lang loved pure geometric forms. These are perfect, spreading circles, like those in Ministry of Fear. But here, the circles are in motion, which makes them even more striking. They recall the animation showing circular radio waves being broadcast from the towers near the start of Spies.
The narration talks about the interpretation of dreams. But this does not seem to be Freudian. Instead, it invokes one of the many traditional "meaning of dreams" books that used to be popular at one time. It tries to interpret the imagery the heroine sees in her dream. Some of this imagery is clear. We see a paper boat, and some daffodils. But others are much less so. What are the fingery looking fronds under the water? Vegetation? Abstract biomorphic forms, like those in Miró and other abstract modern painters? Clutching fingers? Something indeterminate? Whatever they are, they are unique in film narration.
The dream, like much of the opening, is about two subjects: "danger" for the heroine, and her romantic life. As we soon see, the dream takes place on the heroine's wedding day. This emphasis on the heroine finding the right wedding partner becomes the subject of much of the prologue. Lang moves right into a core area of the woman's life here. Just about everything that happens is linked to the heroine's sexuality, and her romantic feelings.
After the heroine wakes up, or at least leaves the dream proper, Lang immediately begins another tracking shot, one that moves along the baroque architecture of a beautiful old church in Mexico. It is almost as abstract as the opening dream shot. Alain Resnais might well have remembered this shot when he created a similar opening for L'Année dernière à Marienbad. It is one of several shots in the prologue, which track over the upper regions of complex studio sets representing locales in Mexico. These shots are highly complex, with the camera often briefly lingering over some striking formal composition, then moving on.
A number of striking corridor shots run through Secret Beyond the Door. These too might anticipate L'Année dernière à Marienbad. The mansion also has a porch with a stone balustrade, anticipating Resnais' film.
He is also duded up in some of Travis Banton's spectacular suits, including a snazzy pin striped number he wears while proposing to the heroine. These echo the pinstripe suits worn by other virile men in Lang's films. His outfit is closest to hero Glenn Ford's pinstripe suit in The Big Heat, in that both men wear it with a regular tie, not the bow ties sported by Lang villains. The suit is also double breasted, like that of the heroine's brother.
The brother introduces the heroine to Bob, and immediately endorses him as a good marriage prospect. Both men are prosperous, dignified New York businessmen; both wear the double breasted suits that are the mark of wealth and power in late 1940's film noir. The film is full of echoes between the two men, both visually, and in the plot.
By contrast, the suits of the man the heroine eventually marries seem constructed on different principles. They are single-breasted and look more like sports wear than a suit for business. They show his complete difference from the respectable, solid, but a bit dull world of the brother and Bob. (Later at the train station, the husband will at last be in a respectable double-breasted suit for business.)
Frankly, I think the heroine would be much better off with Bob. He seems better at all levels as a husband. He even seems much more virile, unlike many dull boys back home in the movies.
The hero compares the heroine to Sleeping Beauty. Schafer starts talking about him slaying the dragon, as in the fairy tale. This links the hero to Lang's Siegfried, who begins his adventures by killing a dragon.
The numerous candles at the wishing well also recall Destiny, and its three candles.
Both the wishing well, and the fountain where the couple stay, have legends attached to them. Lang treats these as beautiful, romantic folklore. But the film does not endorse them as any sort of fact. Like everything else Lang made from Metropolis on, Secret Beyond the Door refuses to accept anything other than a scientific, rationalist operation of reality. Lang has no truck with superstition.
In the brief finale, the couple return to Mexico. The heroine has a blanket covered with circles.
The first sign of trouble, is when the husband tells his wife that women do not think as well as men. She is justifiably indignant.
Soon afterward, he is making a unilateral business decision about his magazine, without consulting his wife.
The tiny package of keys that arrives for the heroine is a striking image.
When the heroine takes the key impression, the key is on the same table as the hero's wristwatch. Shortly before that, she looked at herself in a wall mirror, which also contains a small clock standing in front of it.
Later, there are more still-lifes, showing the contents of the opened luggage. One is of jewelry, recalling Man Hunt.
However, unlike the sinister Mrs. Danvers, the sister in Secret Beyond the Door is basically a sympathetic character. She is not caricatured or treated as evil.
A camera movement next tracks in, to the giant arched fireplace inside. Two men are playing chess, anticipating the checkers game on Death Row in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Natalie Schafer returns: the first link to the heroine's old life since her marriage. Bob unexpectedly returns too. He is now the Old Boyfriend, like the Assistant D.A. in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, who is also named Bob! Both Bobs are truth-tellers, and both investigate the hero's life.
The men's suits are reversed in style from the Prologue. The husband is now in the dressier double-breasted suit with peaked lapels; Bob is in a less impressive single-breasted suit, with notched lapels. Somehow, however, Bob still looks like a businessman, and the husband still does not quite.
The first room has symmetry: there is a peaked arch in the center, flanked by two slightly curved triangles of candles on the walls on either side. Symmetry is often sinister in Lang. The room is linked to what the dialogue explicitly calls "religious bigotry": The St. Bartholomew Day's Massacre.
The second room is a basement that filled with water during a murder. This recalls the trap room in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
The third room also has symmetry: both in the bed region, and the entrance way, with more paired geometric triangles of candles. The third room also has one of Lang's polygonal walls, along the left-hand side.
Natalie Schafer's hat makes a circular shadow on the door of the final room. Later, the heroine's flashlight will make similar conic sections of light on the door: ellipses, circles, parabolas. We also see the flashlight's circle of light in the darkness. These circles are associated with women.
There is an overall pattern to the geometry in Secret Beyond the Door:
I have always thought Freudian psychology was worthless pseudo-science garbage. It isn't any more impressive in Secret Beyond the Door. But if you are going to enjoy the movie, you are just going to have to accept it, at least during the runtime of the film.
On the negative side, the film gives ridiculous Freudian explanations of this violence. Dominating mothers and big sisters are seen as the causes of male violence. This can be viewed as trivializing this issue, and absolving men from the blame.
The film is based on The House by the River (1920), which seems to be the only crime novel of A. P. Herbert (Sir Alan Patrick Herbert), although he wrote many novels and plays on non-crime subjects. He also wrote a crime play, and numerous satirical short stories about the law, for which he is best known.
House by the River falls into a long line of Lang thrillers, in which a person innocently involved in a killing covers it up, only to find themselves at the center of an ever tightening web of investigation. It differs in several ways from other Lang works in this genre. The killer here is far from innocent - he did not intend to kill, but he certainly was committing violence and immoral acts when he killed. Second, and more surprising, is the way in which he thrives under the investigation. Most Lang protagonists wilt, reacting in terror to the police closing in. The killer here is unique in Lang, in thriving, benefiting from, and actually enjoying all the happenings after the killing. It is an astonishing turn around in Lang traditions.
There is a courtroom, but a much less intimidating one than in later Lang films, such as Human Desire. The police are also more clueless, than in other Lang works. Lang keeps showing the jurors' seats in the courtroom, but they are empty for this inquest.
There are perhaps other ways in which the hero is a "good" version of the villainous Haghi:
The hero enters the film, when we and the villain see his face obscured by patterns in a glass door. This recalls the way the agent who makes the radio broadcast near the end of Spies has his face partly hidden by the microphone.
The hero also has similarities to Bob, in Lang's previous film Secret Beyond the Door. Like Bob, the hero is a solid, square businessman, offering a more stable but less glamorous romantic alternative to a villainous man in the arts - who the heroine actually marries. Like Bob, he turns out to be much more financially successful than this sinister husband. Like Bob, the hero wears pinstripe suits - Lang's mark of sexual virility.
Memorable shots, both in the credit sequence and the film's mid point, shows the POV of a boat moving forward among thick river vegetation. There is more camera movement in House by the River than in many other Lang films.
The water from the bathroom is heard flowing down pipes outside the house. This look at a building's infrastructure recalls the underground room in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, whose infrastructure also gets exposed.
The villain's manuscript is scattered on the floor at the end of the film, also like the madman's papers in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Several times, Lang shoots the path back to the house straight down it, so it is receding directly from the viewer. This is visually striking.
At the brother's house, the breakfast dishes form a Lang still life, as do the dinner dishes later. The egg cozies for the soft-boiled eggs are an example of Lang's love for household machines. So is the elaborate inkwell on the villain's desk.
Clocks play a small role till the end, when the villain frames the hero by putting false evidence in his clock. Once again, clocks start assuming a sinister control over people's lives.
The view from the garden into the house, often contains the staircase where the murder took place. It is a constant visual reminder. It often pops up in interiors, too. The huge empty wall space above the staircase, often looks ominous and imposing in interior shots.
Lang also shows the husband's upstairs study, at the end of an interior corridor leading from his wife's bedroom. His door is nested in the screen composition within her door. Such tunnel-like effects, with one door nested within another door, recall the Chinese episode of Destiny.
At the end of the courtroom scene, Lang shows us the courtroom from the corridor outside. The courtroom is staged so that it is a symmetric spectacle, with twin doors opening on the central aisle of the courtroom, and the two sides of the courtroom balanced in the composition. Such symmetric panoramas of large rooms are often sinister displays of social power in Lang: e.g., the evil Nazi pageant in Hangmen Also Die!. Lang stages a rare complex camera movement here. The camera pans down the corridor, making a 90 degree turn, to reveal the three principal actors moving down the corridor. One stops and turns back, and the camera eventually reverses its pan, and moves back to near its original position, showing the courtroom again. One of the double doors of the courtroom are now closed - someone has closed it during the panning shot, while it was off screen. The "double door, one door open and one door closed", is a trademark of Feuillade. Lang inherited it, and it frequently shows up in his films. This staging of the closing of the door - offscreen during a complex camera movement - is unique in Lang's treatment of the double door image.
In addition to depth staging, the way one set flows into another set has consequences in the construction of space. Nearly every set in the main house is precisely located with respect to the other sets. The garden, the first floor of the house, the staircase going to the second floor, and the upstairs, with the husband's and wife's rooms, are all firmly linked to one another. Only the upstairs bathroom is hard to place within the upstairs sets, although its relationship to the garden is well established.
The open framework of the summer house recalls the booth with the cake in Ministry of Fear. Later, there is a round cake on a circular platter at the party, just as in Ministry of Fear. Lang often shoots through the windows of the summer house: shooting through windows and other "frames within the frames" was common in Spies.
The low wall next to the house next door, has phallic looking posts around a gate. These anticipate the phallic posts on the banisters in While the City Sleeps. The house next door has a garden, beyond this wall - recalling the walled garden in Destiny, and its much more hidden, but equally phallic looking gate.
The garden next door has elaborate formal paths, not as complex as those in The Indian Tomb, but in a somewhat similar style. Both gardens mix rectilinear areas with rounded ones, nearby. Other parts of the house set mix rectilinear with circular imagery. The staircase is mainly rectilinear, but the banisters on the lowest portion of the stairs have inverted circular arcs. The windows in the house have arched, circular tops, but are otherwise rectangular. The posts in the garden wall have circular arcs on each of their four sides, but are otherwise rectilinear.
The posts on the banisters in House by the River are radially symmetric, made up of many curving circular regions. The same is true of the inkwell on the villain's desk.
The bay in the alcove at the end of the interior is an example of Lang's love for angled rooms. This alcove sticks straight out of the rear wall of the house, as we can see from the garden outside. It is one of many such protruding alcoves in Lang.
The hero's housekeeper carries an octagonal tray. The glass containing the rose on the villain's desk is cylindrical, and covered with triangles in geometric patterns. The villain keeps his manuscript in a folder with a diamond array of circles on the cover. The wallpaper over the stairs is full of circular patterns, arranged in a repeating grid. By contrast, the wall paper in the courtroom forms rectangular borders.
The dock scene at the end shows many tall posts standing up from the edge of the dock. These recall the tall posts at the opening of Destiny, and also the candle room in that film. The candles near the mirror also recall the tall candles in Destiny. The dock also recalls the phallic looking posts on the dock where the prosecutor is rescued from the rowboat in Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler.
Lang also includes an old-fashioned photo album. The way one photo - that of the husband - is missing throughout, adds a distinctive visual thread to the movie. The collection of photos recalls Mabuse's photos of people in Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler, and the photographic evidence Dana Andrews will assemble in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. The removal of the photo from the album, in a small way echoes the "destruction of media" imagery in other Lang films.
Lang shows early phonograph players, and telephones. Records will soon return in The Blue Gardenia. They were high tech at that time; now they are becoming part of the ancient past...
The way the villain "calls out" the moves in the traditional square dance, embodies Lang's interest in how traditional modes of communication served less technologically advanced societies. It is like the minstrel's song in Siegfried.
There is much talk about how the housekeeper has stenciled the hero's name on the wood sack, as well as other places. Stenciling is another early, technologically primitive form of mass communication.
Elaborate handwriting appears on the sign in the book store window, and on the cover of the villain's manuscript. This handwriting is perhaps old-fashioned, and a relic of an era which valued penmanship.
Most of these influences on Hitchcock are from the opening scene of House by the River. The backyard setting of the opening of the film also anticipates the backyards that are the main locale in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). There are flower beds, geometric paths, and different yards marked out by boundaries. And a corridor-like gap between two houses that leads out to the front street - exactly where such a similar gap is in Rear Window. Lights being on or off in the buildings' windows plays a role in each film's plot. Creative work, the villain's writing, goes on in the back yard of House by the River, just like all the creative types in Rear Window. Hitchcock takes the depth staging and connecting sets of House by the River one stage farther, with all the apartments of Rear Window being visible through the backyard set.
The way this set is viewed from the water, at the very start of the film, anticipates the view of the hero's ranch in The Birds (1963).
The interview with Pierre Rissient on the DVD mentions Claude Chabrol, one of Lang's most fervent admirers. The genial, charming killer of this film, presiding over a household full of dark secrets, will return in such Chabrol thrillers as Masques (1986). The way the perverse villain seems to thrive on his killing, and milk it for psychological benefit, also anticipates the killer in Chabrol's La Femme infidèle (1968).
The river setting also anticipates Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955).
The film resembles Ministry of Fear in its numerous crowd scenes. Both works show flocks of civilian refugees, trying to cope with bombings and other attacks on their homeland. The crowds in Ministry of Fear take refuge in the London Underground; here there are great crowds of Filipinos on the road.
A key scene at the opening of Guerrilla shows the last broadcast after the Japanese invasion, and the original mass media of the society expiring. Lang achieves considerable pathos here. The death of communications media seems like the death of society, and almost as mournful as the death of a person.
A good deal of the film concerns money. We see the heroes creating their own system of money here, engraving it and printing it up in scenes that recall the counterfeiters in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).
We also learn what money can buy; an early scene shows a great array of food provisions on the dock; these recall the still lifes of consumer goods in You and Me (1938), also a film with much to say about money. The provisions are arranged in a horizontal frieze along a dock, instead of being spread out in a grid on top of a table, as in Lang's earlier films.
The hero is an American who spends much of World War II behind enemy lines. He both struggles to survive, and works to defeat the Axis. This also describes the hero of Cloak and Dagger (1946). Later, the hero of Lang's Western Rancho Notorious (1952) will go undercover in areas controlled by outlaws. During the late 1940's and early 1950's undercover agents were also great favorites in film noir, such as Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947). Oddly enough, undercover agents in Lang show up in his spy, war and Western movies, but rarely in his pure crime films.
The many scenes of jungle adventure here also recall The Spiders. Such adventure was clearly part of Lang's personal vision; it is just infrequently expressed in his films, coming out here and in The Spiders.
Lang shows a nice bit of visual wit at the end of the film, when the hero opens a foaming bottle of a soft drink at his belt. The visual pun suggests the hero's virility.
Many of Trotti's scripts are highly dramatized biographies of various people: Bringham Young, Wilson, With a Song in My Heart, Young Mr. Lincoln, Stars and Stripes Forever. American Guerrilla in the Philippines involves its fictional hero with a series of historical events. Trotti's films also frequently starred Tyrone Power, who returns here.
Trotti's A Bell for Adano (1945) deals with the democratic reconstruction of Italy, following its conquest by the Allies in World War II. Like American Guerrilla in the Philippines, its subject is the redevelopment of a country devastated by warfare. In both, members of the American forces work with the inhabitants of the country on its reconstruction.
Trotti and Lang also share a liberal point of view about society and modern history. Both Lang and Trotti made anti-lynching pictures: Lang's Fury, Trotti's The Ox-Bow Incident.
Architecture here often includes porches with staircases. Lang loved such shots, and they anticipate the porches with stairs in the fishing village in Clash By Night (1952). Some of the staircases are quite elaborate, such as those at Phillips' office near the start of the picture. These recall Haghi's stairs in Spies (1928).
The most elaborate interiors in the film are those of the Martinez home. This building recalls the apartment in Scarlet Street (1945). There are railed walkways outside the rooms, along which the characters can progress, just as in that earlier film's living room. There are many open spaces serving as doorways and windows, through which one can walk, and through which the camera can peer to form architecturally complex compositions. Lang returns to the location, and shoots scenes there with different angles from before. As usual in Lang, this produces compositions that make the rooms look very different from earlier angles.
Lang's camera set-ups transition from outdoors to indoors at the Martinez home, a nice effect. Either Lang was shooting at a real Philippines house, or he built a set right on the outdoor location in the film. The entrance of the home is a major locus for Lang's films, but only rarely does it lead to genuine outdoors shots. In The Big Heat we instead have a studio set that represents the "outdoors" front yard of Glenn Ford's home.
Feminists have struggled for years to get society to prevent rape, destroy the conditions that create it, help its victims, and ensure that its perpetrators are punished. Rancho Notorious was made long before feminist thinkers offered their critique in the 1970's of how the justice system handled rape, often blaming the victim rather than the perpetrators. Such insights are not mirrored in the film, which does not show a police investigation of the crime or a courtroom trial. Also, since the victim in the film is dead, we do not see how society often mistreated victims of rape after the crime. The film does make clear, however, that the authorities are doing little of value to investigate the crime, and that only the hero's personal commitment to tracking down the criminals is offering any hope of their identification and punishment. The film is thus consistent with later ideas about the lack of government action in rape cases, without offering any sort of sustained social critique in this area. Also, the victim in the film is absolutely not blamed in any way. The film makes it entirely clear that she is a completely innocent victim of a terrible crime. Rancho Notorious shows how deeply tragic rape is. It does not sweep this tragedy under the rug; instead it holds it front and center, for everyone to see, in one of Lang's most emotionally involving stories. Rancho Notorious still has a powerful intellectual, moral and emotional message to the world, about the importance and tragedy of rape. In societies around the world that still have a long way to go, in taking this crime as seriously as they should, this film has much to contribute.
Lang will soon return to this theme in an equally feminist work, The Blue Gardenia (1953), a film that deals with the subject of date rape.
Arthur Kennedy deserves great credit for his performance here.
Rancho Notorious is often called Lang's third Western. Actually it is the fourth, if one includes the Western episodes of The Spiders.
Rancho Notorious recalls the traditions of Lang's German films. It has a German star, Marlene Dietrich. Its hero, Arthur Kennedy, is a man with an undercover role, like the hero of Spies. His affair with Dietrich, while they are both entangled in their personal missions, recalls the love affair in Spies. The alliance of outlaws at Dietrich's ranch resembles the crook union of M. Both groups of criminals are like a self contained universe, nestling within a larger society dominated by an "honest" state authority. The way these crooks build a separate world, complete with laws and their own system of government, also recalls the partisans in American Guerrilla in the Philippines, however. The scenes where loot is divvied up at Dietrich's ranch recalls the loot episode in M. So does the way the film concentrates on a search for a man who has committed a horrific crime.
Frenchy (Mel Ferrer) is in the tradition of elegantly dressed, aristocratic Lang heroes. Unfortunately he is not an actual hero, being a criminal. He is what the young man in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse might have become, had he persisted in a life of crime. Lang has plenty of sympathy for Frenchy, but not for his criminal acts. There is a sense here of a life gone wrong, a man of real potential who has wasted it.
There is a little boy running around in the opening scenes of this Western, just as in George Stevens' Shane, Otto Preminger's River of No Return, Phil Karlson's The Texas Rangers, and many other 1950's Western films. These little boys tend to be adventurous and rambunctious, but also good natured and decent. There never seem to be any little girls in Westerns. I suspect that filmmakers thought of boys as the main audience for Westerns. Including a boy in a film gives the young audience a character they can identify with. It is also a person who symbolically represents the audience to the film maker, a character whose inclusion has a sort of structural effect of putting the audience in the movie. The hero of Lang's Woman in the Moon (1929) has a boy sidekick, who gets to share in the science fiction adventures. Lang will make another film with a young boy as a principal, continuing character throughout the whole film: Moonfleet (1955).
Dietrich's villainess is a person who organizes the world into racial hierarchies. She employs a black maid early in the film, and later has only Mexican hands at her ranch. One of these men has mysteriously disappeared, and the film strongly hints that he was murdered by Dietrich for talking too much about crime at the ranch. Lang is looking at racial oppression here. This recalls the Nazi racists in Cloak and Dagger. Oddly enough, in both films these racists are women.
There is a comic tone to the crooked Western town episode of Rancho Notorious. Themes that are serious in other Lang films get a light hearted touch here. This is true of the political material, dealing with corrupt governments. The episode involving the corrupt government in the town resemble Lang's war films, such as American Guerrilla in the Philippines, which also looked at life under Axis occupation. They also anticipate the corrupt city government and police force in The Big Heat. These scenes are a lot more light hearted and playful than Lang's grim war movies, however.
The crooked politicians are in jail, awaiting hanging by the crowd outside if they lose the election. This is a grisly comic echo of Fury.
The element of comedy extends to the film's hideout premise. In many Lang films, the worst thing that can happen to you is to be wanted by the police for murder. Here, however, in the world of this Western, wanted men simply hide out on Marlene Dietrich's ranch - hardly a terrible fate. However, Lang ultimately returns to the tragic tone of the opening of the film, for its final episodes.
Rancho Notorious contains many montage sequences, that tell the story while the recurring "Chuck-A-Luck" theme is sung. These recall in many ways the montages in M, which showed events while a telephone conversation offered a kind of narration concerning the events they depict. In both films, silent montages tell a story in pictures on the screen, while a parallel flow of words is synchronized to them. Lang shows considerable imagination in both films. (Later, Elliot Silverstein's Western spoof Cat Ballou (1965) will also be a Western narrated by an ongoing ballad throughout the film. It too will show imagination with this narrative technique.)
The jail recalls the holding cells of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Both include long corridors, and cells with grilled bars.
Lang maximizes his interiors by shooting each shot in them from a different angle. This produces an effect of visual variety. It makes a set look visually new and interesting. It also seems to be a sort of challenge: how many ways can the director frame this set?
At the assayer's office, Lang reserves his most striking set-up for the death of the heroine. This is the shot showing both parts of the grill work on opposite sides of the frame. Lang often associates such symmetry with the victimization of women: note the similarly symmetric fireplace shots in Woman in the Window.
The Ranch contains arched entryways. These are nearly full semi-circles.
The mirror shattered by a bullet here anticipates the shattered mirrors of The Blue Gardenia (1953). The elaborately composed mirror pieces in that film form virtual works of abstract geometric art; here the imagery is simpler.
The shop window here is also shattered, in a smash and grab robbery by Frenchy. This is unusual for Lang, whose many shop windows are usually treated as untouchable displays.
The gambling imagery in this film recalls Lang's silent Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler. Gambling in both films is controlled by wheeled machinery: the Chuck-A-Luck wheel here, the roulette wheels in Mabuse. These circular wheels and their controlling effect on human life oddly recall the many clocks in Lang's films. So do the concentric circles on the floor which contain the cock fight in Destiny. The expose of crooked gambling here recalls the expose of equally crooked séance in Ministry of Fear, a séance which was also dominated by a giant circular table.
The obstacle course race reminds one of the still lifes of massed objects in Lang's films. Like them, it is rectilinear in design. However, it comes in pulses, adding a new design element to its composition. Dietrich's piles of money in the film are also in Lang's rectangular geometric traditions. The way men carry women on their backs recall the young man in white tie and tails who carries the false Maria in Metropolis.
Much is made of Frenchy's shiny black leather boots, and those of the croupier. Lang will include similar close-ups of the policeman's boots in The Blue Gardenia. The hero of the Persian episode of Destiny, the fancily uniformed guard who bolts the door in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Stewart Granger in Moonfleet and the hero of The Tiger of Eschnapur also wear boots. We also get a close-up of the villain's shiny black shoes in Woman in the Moon.
The razor blade whirled about in the barbershop fight anticipates the halberd whirled by a bad guy in the inn fight in Moonfleet. Both are among Lang's deadly, extremely violent and desperate duels.
The most important colors in Rancho Notorious are red and green. Sometimes they appear by themselves; other times in red-green combination.
At the start, the heroine's dress is an off-shade of green. The hero's vest also has a green tinge. This unites the two characters. Lang also highlights the hero's chaps by making them a warm light brown color. Here, it is the hero who wears leather, unlike the lower downs of earlier Lang films like Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler, Spies and Woman in the Moon. There are also red items for sale on the store's shelves, in the background of this scene.
Marlene Dietrich enters the film wearing bright red.
Red and green are principal color schemes of some of Dietrich's clothes in the film, both in the gambling hall scene, where she wears a red blouse and two-toned green skirt, and the evening clothes she wears at the ranch, which are green on the right and red on the left, a most unusual combination. They echo the colors of the Chuck-A-Luck wheel, which combines dark greens, almost black, with bright reds. The Chuck-A-Luck board contrasts red with a much brighter green. The croupier wears a green apron, to complete the red-green color scheme.
(Red and green combinations will return prominently in The Tiger of Eschnapur. They also can be found in The Return of Frank James, in the scene in which the heroine dresses in front of her mirror, and in her father's newspaper office.)
Later in Rancho Notorious, when Frenchy smashes the window of the perfume store, it contains a huge red bottle in its corner. There is also a spectacular red sunset, which mixes red with the dark regions that fill so much of the film's screens; and the red rocks near the entrance to the ranch. Green is provided in several scenes by foliage and vegetation. Dietrich's lamps (always a Lang signature) on her piano have painted roses, pink with green leaves. Dietrich's bed is pink, so is her traveling bag.
Other colors appear in Rancho Notorious beside red and green.
When we first meet Frenchy (Mel Ferrer), he is wearing a shiny silver vest. This anticipates Stewart Granger's bright gold vest and breeches in Moonfleet. Both of these roguish leading men are in metallic vests. There are occasional gold touches, such as signs, in Rancho Notorious. Gold will be prominent in The Tiger of Eschnapur.
Red and green are colors associated with two-color Technicolor in the 1920's. Gold was also used by some processes that colorized silent films in the 1920's, such as Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1925). It is as if Lang's imagination was fired by ideas from the silent era.
Dietrich wears a fancy lavender dress when she parades through the town in her cart. Some walls in the film will be lavender or light purple. The young girl in Moonfleet will also wear a light purple dress.
Blue sometimes appears on walls. But it is most closely associated here with men's clothes. This is a traditional link. There is a proverb, "blue is for boys", and it is common in men's clothes in real life.
The brook in one scene here is both a natural feature, and a political boundary, marking the limit of the sheriff's territory. The crooks pick their way through the shallow pools of the stream, recalling the way the moon explorers stepped their way through the circular moon pools towards the end of Woman in the Moon.
Dietrich also has to pick her way through a wet, muddy street, a scene which echoes the actual stream landscapes in Rancho Notorious.
The best scene in Lang's earlier Western The Return of Frank James (1940) also involves rocks and a river. Frank is trailing the Fords across spectacular mountain scenery, including a two part bridge that is unlike anything I've seen in the movies. In both films, the river is small and not deep looking; it has a flat quality. It meanders through a landscape filled with rocks. Both the arrangement of the rocks and the curve of the river make intricate geometric patterns. An earlier Missouri river scene in The Return also shows a flat river curling in a complex path through trees. These are all archetypal images for Lang. The Return also shows the men climbing through rocks in the mountains. The strange rounded forms of the rocks have an almost biomorphic quality. One also recalls the somewhat different rock and water scenes towards the end of The Spiders Part I: The Golden Sea (1919). Lang will also include rock filled streams in Man Hunt (1941).
The title of the film comes from Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach (1851). It is a place "where ignorant armies clash by night". Certainly this is a vivid image to describe conflict whose meaning and causes are hardly understood by anybody.
Lang keeps to the beach imagery of the poem by his opening credit sequence, showing storm tossed waves rolling in to the shore. It is a remarkably powerful opening. Few things are more fascinating than moving water. It reminds one of Paul J. Sharits' experimental film, S:tream:S S:ection S:ection:S S:ectioned (1968 - 1970).
I think the first of the two halves is much more entertaining. Partly this is a question of subject matter. In the first half, unmarried woman Barbara Stanwyck flirts with two men. This is light hearted and unobjectionable. In the second half, the now married woman played by Stanwyck commits adultery with the other man. This is pretty grim stuff. The first half is also much more visually creative. I like the first half of this film, but do not recommend the gloomy second half.
Similarly, there is a tiny mirror in Paul Douglas' home, just big enough to reflect his head. There is a suggestion that he is nearly completely lacking in narcissism. The mirror is not absent, but it is reduced to its smallest possible size. There is a suggestion once again of a lack of abnormality. Both Monroe and Douglas are happy characters, well adjusted to their environment in Monterey. They are explicitly lacking in mental aberration. Such devices that suggest emotional trouble as clocks and mirrors have been reduced to manageable size in their lives. They are not absent: they are part of the universal troubles of the human psyche, but they are as small as possible.
Their size might also be related to the poverty stricken environment of Monterey: it is definitely not glossy. We are at the direct opposite of the chic urban living room of Woman in the Window, with its huge complexly shaped mirror, or the elaborately shattered mirrors of The Blue Gardenia.
Lang does show ingenuity in lining up compositions so that we see persons' isolated heads reflected in the mirror. There is also the business of the alarm clock in the second half of the film.
Monterey is an unusual area of the United States. It has its own architecture, one that gives unique shape to its homes, streets, canneries and docks. This sort of distinctiveness is very unusual in a country as homogeneous as the USA. The area has been a favorite of prestigious, high art writers, such as John Steinbeck and Clifford Odets, whose play is being filmed here. Lang especially picks up on the trapezoidally shaped lots. The street in front of Stanwyck's home is not parallel to the front of the building, but is at a sharp angle, thus forming a trapezoidal front yard. The building also has a conspicuous staircase. Lang loves all of this. Few directors would be as good as capturing such features as Lang.
Douglas' house has glass windows flanking the interior doorway from the kitchen to the living areas. These recall the interior glass windows in the apartment in Scarlet Street. Also striking: the party at the end of Part I. We see the house first from within, then from without, as a disgruntled Ryan leaves and descends to the street. The architecture in both views is highlighted by all the bulbs strung along the house boundaries to celebrate the party. The combined interior / exterior view gives one a very deep look at the architecture and complex geometric shapes of Douglas' house.
Clash by Night is full of polygonal architecture:
The projection booth run by Ryan is also full of tall, geometric equipment. It is typical of Lang to give us this backstage look at modern media and their technology.
The checkers game features Lang's motif of circle in squares.
1) The phone system. Two of the heroines of the film work as operators at the phone company. The large switchboards, with their thousand of interconnecting wires, are a powerful visual metaphor for all the interconnections of the modern communications grid. Lang returns to the phone company again and again throughout the film. The switchboards are always above the heads of the characters, dominating the upper halves of the compositions. This visual arrangement suggests the power that mass media have over us, controlling our lives. As usual in Lang, the technology behind the media is stressed: we see the wires and boards.
2) The newspapers. The hero of the film, played by Richard Conte, is a newspaper columnist. It is his column that especially seems to pursue the heroine. His influence is much more powerful than the police, and his ideas are more intelligent, both facts being repeatedly stressed in the film. Conte has an assistant in the film, but otherwise he is the only main newspaperman on the story. Later, in Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956), a whole slew of competing media types will pursue a criminal. This film will be even more scathing about the role of the press in tracking crime. Even here, the portrait of Conte is ambiguous. By the end of the film, after meeting Anne Baxter, he develops into a compassionate hero. But his early role in the film includes disseminating in his column a portrait of the killer and her character and motives that we know to be substantially different from the facts in the case. This gives a sinister edge, and a criticism, not so much of Conte's character personally, but of the press itself.
Lang also looks at the machinery of mass distribution of the newspapers. We see the city room at the paper, see the papers being delivered to newsstands, newsboys hawking them, watch ordinary people read the articles. It is a whole course in the technology and organization of a mass medium.
3) Phonographs. Music plays a key role in the film. Nat King Cole appears in person to sing the title song, "The Blue Gardenia", at the restaurant. Later, records of his song turn up in the film. Records of music playing on the turntable have a key role in the murder plot. Eventually, we wind up in a record store, which sells such music to the masses. We also see juke boxes, and canned music in restaurants, treated as a new technological development.
One of the records that is heard is the Liebestod, from Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde. This plays a somewhat sinister role in the plot. Lang, with his background in German culture, would have overwhelming feelings about Wagner, many of them negative after Wagner's use as near official composer of the Nazi regime. Although the admirable police inspector in the pre-Nazi The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) refers to Wagner's "Magic Fire Music" sympathetically, Lang links it through montage to a violent, fire-based attack by the film's criminals. Lang is also the director of Die Niebelungen (1924), one of the two main modern retellings of the medieval saga, along with Wagner's Ring Cycle of operas; so in some ways Lang is Wagner's opposite number. Oddly enough, the dialogue of the film never identifies the music.
4) Photographs. Baxter has dinner with her boyfriend's photograph, while he is off in Korea. This shows how photographs play a role in modern life. Lang is quite tender about all the problems caused by the Korean War. One of the main subjects of his American films was all the suffering that war brings to civilians. One sees this in Ministry of Fear, Cloak and Dagger and American Guerrilla in the Philippines. The Blue Gardenia is one of the few non-war films to even mention the Korean War.
5) Monitoring. When Baxter calls Conte, one person listens in and records the call, while his other assistant has the call traced. It is a demonstration of the power of modern technology to monitor communication. A policeman even shows up on the other end of the phone, further conveying the idea of high tech surveillance. Everyone in L.A. seems to be watching everybody else, and reporting what they learn to the police. The paranoid effect is closer to Nazi Germany than to modern America.
A blind person forms an important witness here, just as in M. The actress who plays the blind woman is Celia Lovsky. Lovsky was at one time married to Peter Lorre, the star of M, and Lang would have known her from their European days. Lovsky will also play the nurse near the start of While the City Sleeps. Lovsky is one of my favorite performers; I've been a big fan of hers since she appeared as Vulcan leader T'Pau in "Amok Time" (1967) on the original Star Trek. "Amok Time" was directed by Joseph Pevney, as were many of the best Star Trek episodes; Lovsky also played the hero's mother in Pevney's theatrical film Man of a Thousand Faces.
Newspaperman Richard Conte in The Blue Gardenia and police sergeant Glenn Ford in The Big Heat each have assistants. Neither of the assistants ever does anything of significance. Both are just there, perhaps to indicate that the men have achieved a certain rank. They also give each man someone to talk to, just as each protagonist gets a friend and confidant in the plays of Jean Racine. Ford's assistant Hugo is in police uniform, while Ford is in plain clothes. This is typical of Lang, in which uniformed characters are plentiful, but rarely have a significant role. The hero of House by the River also has an office boy, a likable character who provides comedy relief, just like Conte's assistant. Both men admire their bosses, and would like to be big shots like him; both get involved in the hero's use of the telephone, with the office boy answering the phone, and Conte's assistant inheriting his book of phone numbers.
Both men also have bosses. Both bosses keep trying to remove the heroes from the central crime problem of the film. Conte's does this unmaliciously, as a plot device; Ford's is under pressure from corrupt superiors, and is much more serious threat to the hero. Conte's boss wants him to travel to an H-Bomb test; this reminds us that Lang made Cloak and Dagger (1946), and is deeply worried about the nuclear age. Lang's last film, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), will also look at villains who want to exploit atomic weapons to take over the world.
In both films, it is sometimes hard to tell exactly where one is in the apartment. There is very little camera movement, and Lang's camera will suddenly materialize at a particular point. It will show us a well composed view, with everything within the view crystal clear; but where this segment of the apartment is will be completely unclear to the viewer. Lang himself used scale models of his sets to compose his films. Looking like doll houses, Lang could plan every camera angle long in advance of the actual shooting. This meant that he was deeply familiar with his sets, knowing them at a profound visual level. I have found that it really helps me to try to construct a similar diagram. Repeated viewings of a film, taking advantage of the pause button on the VCR, allow one to try to reconstruct the shape of the apartments, and the position of each shot. Far from spoiling my pleasure in the film, this activity deepened it. Lang's camera placements and set design are the result of deep thinking about visual relationships. The more intensively the viewers look at these things, the deeper the actual pleasure.
Lang's visual style is genuinely architectural, to use the word employed by Andrew Sarris. One can compare Lang's compositions to Hathaway's. In Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death, every shot forms a geometric background. Hathaway likes to film his characters against vertical lines and rectangular regions. Hathaway is as geometrical as Lang, but far less architectural. In Lang, one is always conscious that one is seeing a background of the apartment. One sees a group of walls at a certain angle, together with the space between them. One always sees a continuous section of the apartment walls. This forms both a 2D geometric pattern on the screen, and a 3D piece of space, that the viewer can imagine walking around in, and otherwise occupying as a piece of spatial area. Hathaway gives equal time to non-architectural features in his compositions: two standing policemen might form parallel vertical lines framing his hero, or a shadow on the wall might form a geometric shape. In Lang, the background is much more purely architectural.
Raymond Burr's apartment in The Blue Gardenia looks more like that in The Woman in the Window. Both are more upscale, and look like seats of decadent, self-indulgent behavior. Both have large mirrors over their fireplaces, as the center of attention. The mirror goes down the sides of the fireplace in The Woman in the Window; the one in The Blue Gardenia does not, but the corresponding space is taken up by two tall plants. These plants form a similarly striking composition. The foliage of these plants is really excessive by any standards; it calls attention to itself, and suggests an out of control sensuality.
Another common feature of the Burr apartment and Joan Bennett's in The Woman in the Window: the sense that the living room contains a large open space. Unlike the much more hemmed in spaces of the heroine's apartment, one senses that the living room is a large, open, nearly square area. Often Lang shoots this room to emphasize its open quality. His camera will be quite far back, and we will see this large open area in which the characters can move around. This sense of space does many things. It suggests more money and more luxury. It also makes the heroes' lives look less determined by their environments here. There is also a completely different psychology about these spaces. Both are places where the protagonists visit, and foolishly decide to get involved in illicit relationships.
The vestibule of Burr's apartment also looks like that of The Woman in the Window. One difference: Burr lives on an upper floor, and Baxter descends to the vestibule via a staircase, while Joan Bennett's apartment is on the ground floor. There is also a staircase in her vestibule, but it leads on up to other tenants' apartments. Both vestibules are places of maximum emotional stress for the protagonists, following the killing. There are the locus of escape for the heroes.
The restaurant in The Blue Gardenia recalls to a degree the one in Clash By Night. Both are open, full of various rooms, and resemble a maze the characters are entering, a zone where emotions run high and from which it will not be easy to escape. Each room through which the heroine passes seems to get her deeper and deeper into the clutches of Raymond Burr. In some ways The Blue Gardenia resembles an anthology of Lang's previous films, a place where he resurrected techniques from his earlier movies, and gave them another chance.
The restaurant also has a tilted mirror over Nat King Cole, giving us a dual view of his performance. This is typical of Lang's fascination with mirrors. Here, as elsewhere, we get to see a character in two views in the same shot. It was often the hero that received the mirror treatment in early Lang films, such as Spies; here it underscores Nat King Cole's importance in the film.
Lang's architectural approach to composition sometimes associates characters with architectural features. When Baxter makes her courageous trip to the newspaper, Lang uses a striking composition where the elevator door is in turn seen through he newsroom door. First we see the geometry without Baxter, waiting for her. Later we see her arrival, deep in the image, then walking through the two doors towards the camera. The name of the newspaper appears and disappears in shadows over the top wall of the image. The whole dark shot recreates the newspaper as an institution, one made up out of shadows and darkness, into which Baxter is entering, a small figure.
Similarly at the gas station, Lang includes a scene with a gas station attendant and a policeman. The left side of the screen includes the attendant and the gas pump, the right side the cop and the telephone booth he is monitoring. Each gets associated with one of these two architectural features. The shot is face on, and carefully composed. Both the booth and the pump become rectangular regions in the composition. Later we see the cop in the phone booth, similarly head on. The images deeply combine him with this architecture. When the policeman stoops to pick up a handkerchief, the camera travels up with his body, giving us a close up of his uniform.
Lang includes a pan of Baxter wandering city streets, after her phone call. She goes through different vertical zones of buildings, each illuminated in a different style, light or dark. The shot turns into a series of architectural images.
Stolen Moments has exactly the same murder mystery plot as The Blue Gardenia. (SPOILERS COMING!) Valentino plays the film's villain, a smooth predator on women, and he has the same role as Raymond Burr has in The Blue Gardenia. He tries to assault the heroine, just like Burr, and ... One does not want to spoil the plot of either movie - but the murder stories are identical, right down to the same surprise twist ending. By contrast, none of the surrounding plot of The Blue Gardenia is in Stolen Moments: there is no reporter, no roommates of the heroine, no Dear John letter, no telephone switchboard, etc. By the way, Valentino wears the sort of idiotic mustache in this that symbolized villains in old stage melodramas.
Did Lang ever see this? This Lang essay argues that other Lang films might also be influenced by Rudolph Valentino movies.
Caspary's mysteries often contain plot twists. Sometimes these twists are surprises to both the audiences and the characters in the story; in other cases, the audience or reader knows what is going on, but her characters do not. These twists tend to be the most important structural elements of her plots. The famous plot twist in Laura, which occurs part way through the story, is far more important than the final revelation of whodunit, at the end, for example. Caspary's plot twists often affect the characters' beliefs: often what they strongly believe to be true turns out to be based on misconceptions. One can see reflections of these structural features in The Blue Gardenia.
Lang can milk considerable visual style from small changes in position and angle. For example, take the scene early in the movie when Ford is interrogating Jeanette Nolan upstairs, near a window seat. Sometimes he shows the seat from an angle. At other times, his camera is directly perpendicular to the window, so that the plane of the image is parallel to the plane of the window. Sometimes Lang positions people so that they are standing in the zone of transition between the window and the wall; other times the characters are directly in front of the window. All of these changes allow Lang to get many different kinds of shot, out of what is in fact a small and not apparently very varied or elaborate set. It is as if Lang is exploring every inch of the set, using it to create every different visual arrangement possible. Such explorations occur throughout The Big Heat. Later, Lang will explore Ford's hotel room, and his boss' office, in similar ways, ringing every change possible in his set-ups.
One suspects that these sets are fully of moveable components. For example, sometimes Lang will show us a wall of a room. Other times, we will see this room with the camera pointing in the other direction, directly away from the wall. One suspects that Lang has had the wall removed, to make way for his camera. This is especially true of the satellite rooms. One suspects that they are detachable from the main room, and can be set up on their own, to make filming within them easier.
The police office is also a pair of connecting sets: one shows the main police room, with Ford's desk among others; the other is Ford's boss' office. One can see the main police room through the door of Ford's boss. Another such set made out of a suite of connecting rooms is the mob boss' house. Lang constructs it as a suite of three rooms, each of which allows one to see into the next through a door.
The bar set in The Big Heat is one of Lang's happy inspirations. A semi-circle, it allows Lang to mix circles and straight lines in his compositions. The entrance to the bar is a descending staircase. When Ford enters, he is both in the background, and slightly above the other characters so that he stands out. He looks like a remote but disruptive force entering the bar. The geometry of the situation expresses his relationship to the world around him.
Lee Marvin's apartment is full of elaborate doors, in the Lang tradition. One door has folding screens that can close it; this is a high tech, modernistic alternative to the doors with beaded curtains, cloth curtains or glass paneled doors that show up in other Lang films. The startling, bright stonework frames along the sides of the door are also visually striking.
Lang uses his traditional subjects here. Images on walls, both paintings and photographs, are prominent here. Ford's house has a large photograph of a group of policeman. Although the dialogue does not specify this, one suspects it is Ford's graduation picture from the police academy. It is situated in the most prominent spot in the house, where one would place a religious icon. It does have a quasi-religious significance: it expresses Ford's whole world view, the value he places on being a police officer. It expresses what he and his family find most meaningful in the world.
The second shot in the film compares the evil Jeanette Nolan character with the grandfather clock on her staircase. Both are tall vertical figures. The shot is a kind of visual pun, expressing the equivalency of these two forces. Since clocks always have a sinister meaning in Lang, this is a striking indication of Nolan's power and sinister nature. A clock also presides over the bar, another place of corruption.
Mirrors here are associated with Gloria Grahame, and her pursuit by the monstrous Lee Marvin. This is similar to Joan Bennett and the villainous Dan Duryea in The Woman in the Window. Mirrors also are linked to other corrupt characters: there is one in the commissioner's' office, and at the Lagana mansion. When Ford moves into the hotel room, it too has a mirror, as well as one of the film's numerous and sinister pitchers.
The desk of the crooked cop who dies at the beginning recalls the desks owned by villains in many early Lang films. Much of the evil in the world seems to be plotted out at this desk. It is at the center of corruption. The prominence of a nearby clock also suggests the sinister nature of this locale.
Katie Bannion is associated with her refrigerator near the start of the film. In a movie filled with fire imagery, she is the only character associated with cooling.
The bar is a riot of circular forms. There are circular booths, carved out of an extended surface that joins the booths together: a vivid geometrical form. The actual bar itself is circular. There are circular shelves and tables inside it. When Lang shows a clock over the bar, it has a circular dial, and Lang then moves his camera down to reveal a still life of round brandy snifters. The staircase leading into the bar is circular: one of the few circular stairs in Lang; there are two in M. The phone in the booth has a round dial, and there is a picture on the wall of the booth that is all curving lines. The canopy outside in the street has scalloped edges, forming a series of near semicircles. The dress worn by Lucy Chapman, who works at the bar, is full of circular scallops on the shoulders and elsewhere. She also wears circular earrings, and a round, almost cylindrical necklace.
Lagana's big mob mansion has a circular drive out front, like the circles in the ground in the Venetian episode of Destiny, and a circular porch with shallow circular steps leading down. Lagana's desk has a lamp with a large round shade, and a unique curved horn-like stand. The horn is another circular shape. The desk chair has curved shapes in its back, and a large globe is in the corner of the room, often shown in the same frame with the mobsters. A later scene shows the curved fireplace screen, and a set of round decanters on a table in front of it: one of many sinister containers of liquid in the film.
Early in the film, Lagana is in bed, while his bodyguard George stands beside him. Lagana's bed has a round region in its headboard, and fills the left of the screen with its curvilinear shapes. By contrast, George is on the right side of the screen, in a region defined exclusively by rectilinear objects. It makes a pointed contrast between the two men, and their respective worlds. Lang cuts to this scene directly after a shot of the desk at Duncan's and its circular lamp, and shows another circular lamp here; this is perhaps an example of the associational montage found at its peak in M.
The commissioner's office has a long, oddly curved lamp on the desk, and a circular backed chair in which Ford sits - one of the few times Ford is against circular imagery in the film. Somehow, the chair seems to belong to the commissioner, and Ford is an alien presence in it, deeply uncomfortable. The commissioner also pours from another of the film's sinister circular pitchers.
Lee Marvin's apartment has a round hanging lantern, a semi-circular table in front of the mirror, a pair of lamps whose shiny stands are strangely curving pyramidal shapes, and that most sinister pitcher of all, the coffee pot. There is also an umbrella on the outdoor patio. Debby wears circular earrings, with hollow centers. By contrast, there is also an octagonal table in the apartment; such polygonal imagery is more often associated with Glenn Ford's hero in the film.
The auto-wrecking firm is full of tires, and circular shapes provided by the cars. There is also a round stool inside for the boss Mr. Atkins. This industrial area anticipates the railroad yard in Human Desire. Its chain link fence recalls the grill work in the window of Lt. Wilkes.
Larry's room has fans of cards in pictures on the wall. Lang also showed fans of cards in Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler and in M. The fans here have a nearly circular shape.
One use of circles in the film has nothing to do with corruption, although it is deeply sad and tragic. When Ford's house is being emptied out, the last objects taken from it are all circular: the lamps, the baby carriage with its round wheels, the phone on the floor. This scene is highly moving.
We see Ford in a series of three mirrors at Mrs. Duncan's. The mirrors are arranged at slight angles to each other, forming one of Lang's favorite polygonal shapes. Ford also moves near a bay window, one whose seat is a series of polygonal lines of alternating lengths. This is a geometrically complex window. We also see him with an octagonal table in front of the window. The teletype machine at the police station also has a non-90 degree arc on its surface; it provides information to Ford.
These are the only polygons linked to Ford, but his spaces also tend to form "complex rectilinear regions". Ford's office is an open region at the station, with many twists and turns in its outline, all strictly rectangular. His hotel room is also irregular in shape but rectilinear. Ford has two big scenes on the complex rectilinear staircase at his in-laws' apartment, a staircase also full of open space. There is also an outside staircase leading up to this typically urban building, which recalls Joan Bennett's apartment exterior in The Woman in the Window.
Ford's house has almost nothing circular in it, aside from a few glasses and some paper towels. It too is an open region of a complex rectilinear shape. The rectilinear purity of this house is striking. His daughter's bed, on which Ford sits, is a unique rectilinear blend of side walls with slats, an open area for sitting near the foot, and a flattened U baseboard. It is both complex and three dimensional, one of the film's unique shapes.
Just as Glenn Ford has a police assistant Hugo, so do the bad guys in the film also have assistants. The mob boss has a bodyguard George. George is always in control. In his own way, he is fairly professional. George is always very well dressed, and always oozes a sinister machismo. The actor who played him, Chris Alcaide, never became a star. This was one of his few crime film appearances. Instead, he had numerous roles in the 1950's and 1960's in Westerns, both film and TV.
Lee Marvin's henchman is a much more vicious figure, just as Marvin himself is far more disturbed than the mob boss. He wears bow ties, always a sign in late Lang that a character is emotionally immature and inadequate. Like all the bow tie characters, he mistreats women.
Uniformed police in the film are often seen guarding bad guys: Mrs. Duncan, the mob boss Lagana. This symbolizes the police corruption in the city. Only at the end, with Ford's assistant Hugo in uniform, do uniformed cops support the good guys and law and order.
Glenn Ford's hero lives in a modest but pleasant suburban house, together with his homemaker wife and their small daughter. Just about all commentators on the film note the similarity of this household with American social ideals of the 1950's. At the very least, this family is typical of millions of young American families who moved to the suburbs after World War II ended in 1945. Lang was deeply interested in society, and just as such a film as M gave in in-depth look at life in Berlin in 1931, so do these scenes reflect current trends in American life. What Lang's attitude towards this way of life is, has been far more controversial. My belief is that Lang is genuinely sympathetic and approving of the family in The Big Heat, and feels that they are genuinely happy in their life. I think these scenes also suggest that suburbia and family living at least offer a potential for happiness for people, from Lang's point of view.
One does not want to stretch this too far. In his next film, Human Desire (1954), Lang will show two more middle class families living in small houses, a happy one (Edgar Buchanan and family) and an unhappy one (Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford). Lang is hardly arguing that any social milieu automatically conveys happiness on all citizens. Also, Lang has repeatedly shown feminist sympathy with women's aspirations for careers in his films. The fact that Lang shows a woman with a small child who is happy as a full time mother, does not mean that he is opposed to jobs for women. The most sympathetic character in The Big Heat is the woman who works at the auto-wrecking firm, and who steps forward to help the hero in his investigation.
No one should suggest that these brief scenes in The Big Heat offer an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of suburban living. Nor should the idea that Lang feels pleasant towards such suburban living mean that suburbs must be good in real life. Still, I for one have had it with Marxist commentators who keep misinterpreting these scenes. Lang shows an American family here who love each other and who have a decent life together. This seems to drive Communist film critics crazy.
Other "honest" couples in the film behave similarly. When Lt. Wilks finally stands up to the mob, it follows an off-screen discussion with his wife, where the two discuss the issue. The decision for Katie's sister and her husband to guard the little girl from the mob clearly has the informed consent of both. The two follow 1950's gender roles in this situation - the sister takes care of the kid, while the husband and his male friends stand armed guard - but both clearly understand and consent to the guarding.
Even the dead cop at the beginning first shared his corruption with his wife, then reformed under the influence of his girlfriend, as dialogue near the end of the movie makes clear.
These examples make clear that Dan Bannion is not a person with sole responsibility for the events of the film. Other people are sharing it. He has plenty of responsibility, and four people wind up dead after his crusade. Still, interpretations of The Big Heat that suggest he is solely responsible are not supported by the film.
Similarly, I cannot see that Dan Bannion is deliberately suggesting that Debbie take the actions she does at the finale of the film. He tells her about the actions he considered taking, but did not. She then rushes out and does what he considered doing, but decided not to do. Certainly, she would never have known about this situation, or gotten the idea, if he hadn't told her about this. Still, I cannot see any clear indication in the film that he is somehow "asking" her to do what she does, or "suggesting" it. A literal reading of the scene is that Dan is just telling Debbie what has happened.
Suggesting that Dan Bannion is solely responsible for all the disasters that overtake women in this film tends to cover up other meanings. The violence against women is all done by the mobsters. They actually have the power to get the police to cover up this violence: Lee Marvin orders the police commissioner to do this, in one of the film's most sinister scenes. There are hints about violence against women being a way of life in the mob.
The early scenes of Human Desire paint a vivid portrait of spousal abuse. But this is compromised by making the wife both a collaborator with her husband's schemes, and such an exploitative person in her own right. The whole effect is partly feminist, partly not.
Lang also included train sequences in The Return of Frank James (1940). As in Human Desire, they emphasize the straight line quality of the tracks, receding in the distance in both directions. Both films show the trains from the point of view of the railway workers themselves, and are knowledgeable about the operation of the trains.
Lang is especially interested in showing what can be seen from a moving train. Many of the shots in Human Desire depict the view from the engineer's front window. Others show the background landscape as seen from passenger's side windows. This emphasis on views from the train recalls The Spiders, and its scenes from the railroad observation car. These shots always have a deep focus effect. We see both the interior of the train, and often its passengers and crew, and the exterior landscape rushing past. Both interior and exteriors are crystal clear, with every detail of the landscape clearly visible. This paradigm of "the view from a train" has ties to the Expressionist tradition: see for example Murnau's Sunrise (1927), and the train ride in that film.
Lang's landscapes in Human Desire tend to be of man made architecture, not pristine nature. The forward shots are full of railroad tracks, bridges, and other human constructions. The side shots from the passenger windows tend to show buildings and towns, not wild nature. These buildings tend to be small, individual constructions: homes, gas stations, stores. They have a small town appearance. Many of the night shots show these buildings brilliantly lit up. They come across as virtual 3D constructions, with the lights emphasizing their geometric nature. The lighting effects anticipate those of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955), for example, the gas station at the beginning of that film.
Lang's shots of tracks in the film tend to emphasize their implacably straight line nature. Trains hurtle forward over these at great speeds, depicting powerful forces that are hard to resist. Also noteworthy: the beautiful shots showing the straight lines of a train car in motion behind Glenn Ford. This is one of the most beautiful images in the film. It is almost like a pure geometric abstraction. It would be hard to create such an effect outside of a train movie.
The film opens with the train hurtling down the track. Most of the shots show the view from the front of the train. These are quite beautiful and joyous. We also see good guys Ford and Buchanan. The mood of the film is upbeat and fun; nothing bad happens till Crawford enters the picture, much later.
Two of the most interesting shots show the train moving through a small town. First we see a town whose streets are parallel to the tracks; then streets at an angle. These angled yards remind one of the trapezoidal yards of Clash by Night. They have a striking geometry. They are perhaps the climax of the early train montage.
Another shot shows a side view from Buchanan's window. The window is a tilted region. The geometric structures outside the window are seen through this unusually shaped mask. The effect is geometrically complex.
Lang does use a series of hard to orient views of the back wall of the bedroom, where Crawford hides the stolen money. These shots do indeed show the sudden jumps and disorienting perspective changes of Lang's best work.
Another aspect that makes the house easy to understand: the small rooms, the kitchen, the vestibule leading outdoors and the bathroom off the bedroom, are all in a row at the front of the house. The rest of the house consists of two large rooms, the living area and the bedroom. This is an unusually regular architecture for Lang, whose apartments are often crazy quilts of rooms jutting off at all angles and directions. The vestibule here has curtains: Lang vestibules almost always have some such elaborate feature. I said the vestibule lead "outdoors". This is perhaps a misnomer. Lang vestibules tend to lead more into a house than out of it; we tend to see entrances into Lang's homes, not exits.
Lang gets much mileage out of the buildings at the rail yard. Their architecture is woven deeply into his compositions. This is true both for the exteriors and interiors.
Lang's offices tend to be places of social organization. The train office here is full of everybody's time cards, and controls all the schedules of the trains, as well as which engineers go on which run. Similarly, the assayer's office in Rancho Notorious tells how much money people get for their labor. Both of these offices look quite similar, with a front and back room that communicate by an open window. Lang includes such buildings nearly at the start of the films. It is as if he wants to outline the methods of social organization and control at once. Both places also serve as the central locus of socializing for their communities. They are where people meet, talk and exchange information, before going out on their jobs. All of these places are deeply public. They contain the public social and business life of a community.
The geometric patterns formed by the passengers in the court are also inventive. They recall the still lifes formed by massed objects in other Lang films. Only here, the "objects" are people, not the inanimate objects of other Lang movies. The people are in the same rectilinear, massed groupings of the objects in other films. The turning of people into objects to be measured and arranged has sinister implications. It recalls both the Taylorization of modern factories, where people become part of the machinery of the plants, and the control of totalitarian states, and their ability to itemize every human being. Here, it is the power of the state that is doing this, at the inquest.
Lang had earlier shown the managerial organization of the railway itself. We see both the unsmiling supervisor, who has no friendly welcome for Glenn Ford after his three years serving in Korea, and the powerful, lecherous head boss, with his big office. This is a chilling portrait of a heartless business, devoted to controlling its employees.
By contrast, Lang supports labor unions. Their forthcoming dance keeps returning in the film as a sign of hope. The union is referred to as a Brotherhood, and Lang suggests that such unions actually do promote the brotherhood of mankind.
There are also plot similarities between the two films:
Lang told Peter Bogdanovich that Moonfleet was full of romantic atmosphere. Much of the romantic atmosphere derives directly from approaches, subject matter and imagery that had first been used in Destiny.
Looked at from another perspective, Granger's character is another well-dressed Lang hero who is involved with organized crime, like the hero of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. When he impersonates the army officer, he has an undercover role, like the heroes of Spies and Rancho Notorious. Later, he becomes one of countless Lang characters who is the subject of a manhunt.
The minister's preaching against superstition recalls the many other attacks on superstition and the alleged supernatural in Lang, such as Ministry of Fear and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. Lang always insists on a rational universe, and he specialized in genres like mystery and science fiction, which depict the world as a place understandable by human reason. The church scene opens with a rare camera movement in Lang, moving down the aisle of the church, and revealing the members of the congregation. The minister himself is simply revealed standing in a corner. This rectilinear environment links him to other Lang Good Guys, such as Glenn Ford in The Big Heat. The lantern the minister gives the young boy is also largely rectilinear, although it has a pyramidal top. The back pack used to carry firewood by the old woman at the church is also made up of strong straight lines, although some seem to be connected in a V arrangement.
Both the minister and the congregation represent the honest people of the area. The minister is their leader, just as Granger is the leader of the smugglers. This too recalls Metropolis, in which Maria preached to the workers in their underground chapel. The minister is a more democratic leader than Granger, or the Master of Metropolis. He thunderously tells the congregation what they should think in his sermon, but he also allows them to stand up and speak their minds in church. And he does not order them around in their lives. In all of this, he is closer to a democratic leader like Dean Jagger in Western Union, who also makes speeches to the workers, but whose leadership exists within democratic institutions.
Carriages are as sinister in Moonfleet, as cars are in modern-day Lang films. They are involved in two sinister scenes, one the kidnapping of the boy, the second the disaster near the end of the film, which resembles the auto catastrophes of other Lang.
The magistrate virtually has Moonfleet under occupation, ruling it with government troops, giant military prisons and draconian punishments. He recalls the Nazis in Hangmen Also Die!, and their occupation of Czechoslovakia, whose used troops, prisons and punishments as well. He also recalls all the dictatorships in Destiny. It is significant that Lang (and the strict censors of the time) present as admirable the killing by Granger of this magistrate, whereas both would have condemned the killing of a policeman in a democratic society. This killing too reflects the climactic events in Hangmen Also Die!.
The gambling and risqué amusements at George Sanders' home recall Rancho Notorious, and its gambling wheel and obstacle course race.
The smugglers, the magistrate, George Sanders, the minister, the soldiers and the diamond all form a series of interlocking subplots. This is somewhat similar to the jigsaw construction of Lang's next film, While the City Sleeps.
The ruined summer house where the boy and girl talk looks similar to the one in House by the River. The dialogue talks about the old days, in which the mansion was full of fountains containing goldfish. This is similar to the actual fountains in Destiny, Manhunt and The Tiger of Eschnapur. The rocky coastlines recall Clash by Night. The rowboat in which Granger sets out at the end recalls the villain's boat trips in House by the River.
We also see songs, including the boy's song, and dances. And hymns sung in the church. The folk tales spread by word-of-mouth about Red Beard are also examples of popular communication, in this more technologically primitive period.
The mass media are often used to convey information that helps solve the mystery (the Y symbol, the cipher, the memorial statue, the coffin labels, the folk tales). They are also used to spread the rationalist point of view, that is a precondition for solving this or any other mystery (the minister's sermon, the church bells that summon people to the sermon).
The media also help create "the world", a social environment that is independent of the heroes and other characters, and which surrounds them. The Mohunes and their lives are spread everywhere through their Y crest and their memorial statue of Red Beard, as well as the folk tales about Red Beard. The young boy takes part in this through his Y-symbol ring, and his letter of introduction, both of which establish that he is a Mohune.
Granger's character is the opposite: he never sets forth anything through the mass media. He seems like an interloper in the world throughout his entire life. Although Granger owns the writing desk, it is mainly used by his mistress. When Granger does write a note to the boy at the end, he repents, comes back and destroys it before the boy sees it. Granger seems to be camping out in the Mohunes' ruined house, rather than actually living there. He is always slinking around in secret, trying to evade the authorities. From his early romance, sneaking into the summerhouse, through his career as a smuggler, to his final disappearance at sea, he is a character doomed never to have a fixed place on land, a real home, or a place in society.
Circles make their spectacular appearance in Moonfleet with the well. The well episode shows the heroes solving the mystery of the missing diamond. The well itself, its cylindrical bucket, and the rod above it are all cylindrical. There is also the huge circular well wheel, which contains a radially spoked polygon inside it. There are no large clocks in Moonfleet, but the wheeled well machinery forms a similar, large circular object.
Earlier, in the crypt scene, the hemispherical locket, the cylindrical barrels and the semicircular arches all are circular forms. There are also the strange curving plaques on the coffins. The crypt, like the well, is an underground world. Lang highlights both with circular forms. Lang shoots through a region silhouetted by one of the circular arches, a masking effect often associated with silent films in general, and Maurice Tourneur in particular. The crypt scene solves two different mysteries:
At George Sanders', there are circular card tables, and the dancers in a circle around the blindfolded woman in the game. The game involves a tiny mystery: the woman has to figure out who is kissing her.
There is also what seems to be a small circular clock dial sitting on the mantel in the room at Sanders' where the characters have their financial discussion. It is one of the few clocks anywhere in the film: perhaps because clocks were a luxury only owned by upper class people at the time. There is also a grandfather clock at the inn with the officers.
The telescope used in the scene at the beach is cylindrical, and produces circular images. It is also a device used to reveal truth.
The smuggler's inn contains circular pans and baskets on the wall, along with kegs, tankards and other circular objects on the floor and shelves. When the man picks up the giant halberd to fight Granger, he whirls it round and round his head in a circular motion. The halberd blade has a curved edge.
Other costumes show Walter Plunkett's gift for color. Two smugglers wear a mixture of brown and a luminous green; the young girl wears a brilliant light purple. Later, Granger will be in gold waistcoat and breeches for his duel at the inn. Plunkett and Granger were both under long-term contract to MGM, where Moonfleet was made, and Plunkett had done Granger's spectacular clothes for The Prisoner of Zenda (Richard Thorpe, 1952). Granger's costumes are by no means as numerous here, but they are still remarkably rich.
The K symbol that is everywhere in While the City Sleeps recalls the Y symbol in Lang's previous film, Moonfleet (1955). In that film it was on a gate, tomb and ring, as part of a family's crest. Here it is the logo of a media empire. One is reminded that in real life, the CBS eye created by graphic artist William Golden in 1951 was part of the first successful corporate logo and corporate identity campaign of any modern corporation. Golden created uniform design approaches that made all aspects of CBS business instantly identifiable: stationary, offices, buildings, corporate documents, advertisements and broadcasts. Such corporate identity plans have been much sought after by other companies ever since. It is interesting that Lang, with his eye always peeled for media innovations, would give the media empire in his film such a corporate identity. Photographs of the real CBS offices look considerably glitzier than the grungy headquarters of the media in Lang's film.
The media show up in other, more hidden ways, as well. The bar is filled with photographs, apparently of celebrities who've visited it. The photo-viewer manipulated by Ida Lupino shows Lang's fascination with new media. Even the car chase at the end of the film involves a car knocking over a mailbox. The mailbox is part of the communication grid of modern society. Putting it out of commission recalls the cutting of the telegraph lines in The Return of Frank James and the end of radio broadcasting in American Guerrilla in the Philippines. Lang always viewed such attacks on communication as tragic.
Lang was generous with science fiction magazines in Woman in the Moon (1929), treating them sympathetically. But he ignores science fiction comic books here, altogether. Frank Tashlin satirized sf comic books in Artists and Models (1955).
Ironically, there are two comic book tales written before Lang's film using the title "While the City Sleeps". One is written by Bill Finger and drawn by Dick Sprang (Batman #30, August-September 1945); the other is written by Stan Lee and drawn by Russ Heath (Uncanny Tales #1, 6/1/1952). Before any of these, there was a silent film, While the City Sleeps (Jack Conway, 1928), a detective movie starring Lon Chaney. It does not seem to have any relationship to Lang's film.
The banister is full of rounded newel knobs. These knobs occur at each corner of the banister, at points where the line segments making up the banister join. The knobs are at the top of long wooden posts. The posts and knobs form vivid phallic symbols. The front most banister knob is parallel to the killer, echoing the straight line of his body. Soon, the killer reaches out and grabs the top of the knob, using it to support his final climb. This is the first of many phallic symbols in the film associated with the killer.
Soon, we see another shot of the killer. He hangs from a different knob by one hand, letting his body tilt out over the staircase. He hangs and tilts at an angle to the vertical. Eventually, his body reaches an angle exactly perpendicular to the rising line of the staircase banister. The rising banister and the tilted killer form a pair of perpendicular straight lines. They form a new coordinate system, and are at tilted angle to the main coordinates of the apartment floors and walls. Lang underscores these original coordinates by having the killer's head framed by a window, set in the wall beyond him. The window is aligned with the apartment building's axes; the killer and the staircase form a new set of axes on an angle to these. It is a striking geometric idea. It also extends the phallic symbolism of the opening shot: the killer is once again grabbing one of the knobs by his hand. Here his whole body is supported by this knob.
When the janitor Pops goes down the staircase, he stays away from the newel knobs. The knobs are associated only with the killer. Lang in fact has Pops stay towards the left side of the staircase, as far away as possible from the knobs. Pops never touches the banister.
Other phallic symbols associated with the killer are the push buttons of the door lock allowing him access to the victim's apartment, and the chair whose rising back he sits astride during the TV broadcast. There is a picture of a ship's captain on the killer's bedroom wall, steering a ship with a wheel: another phallic symbol.
Dana Andrews' character is often linked to the killer's. Andrews is also often shot in a way that expresses phallic symbolism. Hero Dana Andrews is shot at one point so that the phone on his desk top is rising up right in the middle of his lower body. The suggestion is that the phone is a phallic symbol, and Andrews' character's ability to use it is tantamount to his masculinity. This is a very direct equivalencing between modern communications and personal virility. Other shots of Andrews also use such symbolism. At one point, he is depicted in the office so that a wall pillar rises directly behind where he is seated. Also, when he is talking with Amos Kyne in the opening scenes, he is shot so that a line boundary in the wall rises up right near his head.
Most disturbingly, Andrews uses the same push button trick that the killer uses, to gain access to his girlfriend's apartment. In Andrews' case, this leads to his engagement with his girl friend. Andrews' character uses the same predatory, unfair tactics with women as the killer. This is a creepy and disturbing concept.
As in Rancho Notorious, some of the sets here have staircases rather than doors for the characters to make their entrances and exits. These include the underground bar, the hallway of the apartment where the women live, and, most spectacularly, the subway tunnel, with its spiral staircase exit to the manhole on the street above. Two of these staircases are set in alcoves, recalling Lang's fondness for alcoves in Scarlet Street.
Lang's trademark images of mirrors and clocks also appear in this film, mainly linked to the killer. At one point, he stops and hides behind a store window filled with clocks. He discovers one of his victims when he sees her in a mirror.
When George Sanders' character is pushing his girlfriend to prostitute herself to advance his career, they are seated in a lavish restaurant, filled with large leafy plants. Lang associated houseplants with harassers of women - see the greenery filled hearth in The Blue Gardenia where the attack on the heroine takes place. The plants even seem similar - both are members of the plant family Araceae. Both scenes are also set in over-decorated, fancy, monied locales. Lang is drawing a picture of the habitats of the exploiters of women. There is a pseudo-sophistication to both the locales and the men.
Rhonda Fleming's character is associated with round, circular images, in both of the apartments in which she lives. These circles are focused in the foreground of compositions, like the circular cake and platter in Ministry of Fear. Lang loved to include circles in his compositions. One scene shows the circular table, which is surrounded by an equally curving sofa. The table has a still life on it of several circular ashtrays, and in its middle, is a round, circular bottle. Such still-lifes in Lang are always carefully composed, to make interesting geometric patterns. Fleming walks over to one side of the room, where she starts rotating the circular shade of a lamp sitting on a table. The revolving motion of the lamp adds a sense of pure circular motion to the image.
Equally striking is a patio scene in her home, where she is sunbathing in a circular sandbox, while her husband tries to hit spherical golf balls into a cylindrical glass.
When Nancy is told by her boyfriend that he expects her to be bait for the killer, the four players are seated at a circular table in a restaurant. A booth along one half of the table offers a square frame around the circular table. Such "circles in squares" previously occurred in M, at the scene in the bar where the men quarrel at dinner; and magnificently, in the séance, cake guessing, and other scenes in Ministry of Fear. In all of these films, the "circle in square" scenes have a false surface of conviviality, that eventually erupts into menace and terror. The four characters here are all set exactly at 90 degree angles from each other around the table, and at a 45 degree angle to the rectilinear coordinates of the square booth. This gives additional geometric fascination to their arrangement.
Rhonda Fleming is silhouetted on a polygonal screen, one that shows Lang's fondness for walls that meet at other than 90 degree angles.
The characters played by Dana Andrews and Howard Duff have been friends since childhood, and went to school together. Both of these handsome leading men dress alike, in similar suits, and look and act alike. They are a rare example in Lang of male bonding, among two similar looking men. One also recalls the brotherhood ceremony in Siegfried, and the friendship between the architect and the Maharajah in The Tiger of Eschnapur.
Dana Andrews resembles the romantic heroes of earlier Lang films, in being duded up to the max at all times. There are two scenes of his appearance being polished, right at his office desk. Both of these are in preparation for his TV appearances. In the first, a make up man is getting him ready for his broadcast; in the second, Andrews is shaving himself at his desk. This recalls the way the hero of Spies cleans up his appearance after his early impersonation of a bum, and the way Tom Kent's appearance improves after he joins the gang in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Similarly, Dana Andrews' television commentary matches up in uncanny ways with images in the killer's bedroom, while he is watching the broadcast. When Andrews talks about comic books, the killer drops the comic book he is holding, for example. This dropping of a phallic symbol also recalls the shot in M, where Inspector Lohmann drops his cigarette. In both cases, a character is surprised into dropping something they are carrying, by a shocking revelation.
The faking of a crime case against a man, also recalls Hangmen Also Die!.
In several Lang films, reality is "reorganized logically" by the investigation of the police and the authorities. In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, this logical transformation of reality is effected by the hero and the newspaper publisher, just two men, and private citizens. Their many staged photos show the effect their thoughts and plans have in transforming the world. Both men invade and transform the crime scene - just as the police do in The Woman in the Window.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt perhaps influenced later stories attacking capital punishment. In the comic book tale "The Murder of Lana Lang" (Lois Lane #44, October 1963), Lois Lane and Lana Lang fake Lana's murder to show how easy it is to make circumstantial evidence frame an innocent person.
The women are the opposite: they tend to have feelings and are lively. When they show up, the picture always becomes more enjoyable. The strippers are mainly comic characters, and add some welcome humor. Joan Fontaine gives a good performance in a "serious dramatic" role. Her two most famous performances, in Hitchcock's Suspicion (1942) and Max Ophuls' Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), paired her as the faithful, deeply emotional lover of an unworthy man. She is playing a similar role here, and does very well.
The film makes it clear what is wrong with the men: they are willing to sacrifice their personal lives and everyone around them for their careers. Even before the main plot of the film begins, Dana Andrews is postponing his engagement to Joan Fontaine so he can concentrate on his career as a novelist. She is appalled, and suggests that he do both. He refuses. The main plot of the film underlines this theme all the more. The DA has no feelings either, other than a cold desire to see his political career move forward. The dull, lifeless men in the film have no focus but these careers. We see a despairing portrait of modern men. Even when they applaud the strippers, their response seems tepid and lifeless - a bare release from their work day. This sort of sordid vice connection was also at the heart of The Big Heat. It suggests that even sexual passion has become mechanical and lifeless in the modern world.
The three strippers recall the three women roommates in The Blue Gardenia. Both groups have a working class feel.
The fiancée is heir to a major newspaper corporation; we see some of its power and operation, although less elaborately than in previous Lang films.
Newspapers are often used to tell the story in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Both photos and text appear in everything from newpaper crime reporting to gossip columns.
There is a speaker phone in the publisher's office: perhaps fairly advanced technology in that era.
Bob's office has an intercom, that allows him to talk with his boss the DA.
We see both a record player, and later a jukebox.
A radio plays in the father's car, covering the trial. It persists right through disaster, giving an indication of the penetration of modern media.
We witness the new technology of instant photographs. Lang shows many photographic sessions in the film, and we watch as much labor goes into the construction of painstakingly detailed photos. Then the photos appear instantly in the camera. We are at a new level here of technology's ability to monitor our lives.
Later in the film, we see charred remains of the photographs, ruined after a fire. The death of a technology seems mournful. It reminds one of the end of radio broadcasting in American Guerrilla in the Philippines. Both scenes have a strong quality of pathos. The charred photos are arranged under glass slides. They have the still life quality of massed objects one regularly sees in Lang films. We also see windows and a cityscape through the slides as they are moved around: this scene has some of the richest composition in the movie.
One photographic session shows Andrews being photographed at a men's store, buying a coat. He suggests that the editor get himself into the photograph, in the mirror. Lang films are full of mirror scenes; here one is being "constructed" before our eyes.
Later, there are similar vertical ovals in the swinging doors of the burlesque club.
The table in the bar where the initial meetings take place, is of an unusual shape. It is partly trapezoidal, partly with rounded corners and sections. Behind the table, is a dramatic grid. The table is also in a curved booth. The bar is vaguely Art Deco in style, and definitely seems like the refined hang-out of proper upper class men. I like the transparent overhead sign that says "Check Room". It seems to have slightly round corners.
The publisher's office has a visitor's chair with a cylindrical back - or perhaps it is slightly angled, forming a slice of a cone. There is also a long thin tube structure on his desk. The publisher's prestige office also has a slightly Art Deco tone. It has a curved valence on the ceiling, making another curved shape.
The strippers' photos at the club are rectangles inside circles. The circles are themselves arranged into geometric patterns. There are two such collections of photos. In the first, the rectangles are vertically aligned; in the second, they are tilted. Lang had previously used "squares within circles" in Spies, with the square boxing arena inside the circular dance floor at the night club. As in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, this is a place of extravagant entertainment.
The drummer near the stage at the club, has a large circular drum. It contains an F logo in front. It is one of several "logos made up of a few straight lines" that run through Lang. The arrow in the news photo can also be seen as such a logo.
The bar, in the restaurant across the street from the club, is circular.
In the Miami theater near the end, a circular fan has a circular tray in front. A block of ice is placed on it.
A diamond lozenge pattern is on the back of the hero's cigarette lighter.
The overhead view of a (different) road when the police are trailing the hero and the stripper, is also fascinatingly geometric. It has an S-shaped curve, coming around a hill. It also has a right-angled turn-off. Lang shows all this from an overhead map-like shot.
There is also an outdoor staircase, in the alley leading to the stage door of the strip joint.
The huge switch mechanism on the wall, resembles a bit the elaborate standing machines in other Lang, such as the odd constructions in the office of the Master of Metropolis. It is in an elaborate alcove.
The chair itself, with its numerous horizontal ribs, recalls the telegraph pole on which the balloon gets stuck in M.
Later, the father's garage has a similar wall box and tube. It also has a switch controling a mechanism: the automatically opening door. This makes for a parallel between the garage and the exceution chamber.
In general, it is hard to think of any positive scenes involving automobiles in Lang. He is not an On The Road type. Lang's characters tend to walk everywhere. If they need to go far, they take trains or a subway. Cars also threaten Lang's studio enclosed mise-en-scène. Lang likes to keep his actors within a fixed studio set, one in which he can create brilliant compositions. Cars allow his characters a mobility that destroys all this. It is also hard to shoot a car scene with creative style: one is almost forced to show two people talking in their seats: a visual dull spot in most films.
The garage is one of the few places associated with men in the film, that is neither an office nor a bland living room. The strippers have a series of lively areas that reflect their work. The garage is one of the few male places that suggest any fun or zest in the men's lives. It contrasts with their offices, which are horribly formal, and seem relentlessly functional for their work.
The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) reminds one of several previous Lang films. Like Siegfried (1924), it involves romantic intrigue and jealousy at a visually splendid royal court, and both films have a hero who battles a sinister animal and whose physical strength and courage are emphasized. In both films, the hero shows up at a royal court after battling the animal, and forms a romantic rival with the court's king for the same woman. The two films have essentially the same overall structure and plan. Both films have elaborate and somewhat similar looking spectacle scenes, showing the hero's arrival at the court. The key scene in the beginning, referring to water being obtained by the servant and then by the hero, recalls the wedding and brotherhood ceremonies in Siegfried, which center on offers of cups. However, The Tiger of Eschnapur is much more light-hearted than Siegfried.
Like American Guerrilla in the Philippines, it is a non-mystery movie, shot on location in rich outdoor locations in Asia - both films containing some of Lang's rare genuine exteriors. The sequence in which men attack the feet of the servant at the well with branches recalls the dance in American Guerrilla in the Philippines, in which the dancer's feet avoid moving sticks near the ground. The overhead shots of the hero and heroine moving on paths through the forest on their journey to the city, also recall people traveling in forest paths in American Guerrilla in the Philippines.
The temple sequences remind one of Metropolis: the underground passages beneath the court recall the catacombs underneath Metropolis, the giant statue that of Moloch in the earlier film, and the heroine's sensual dance recalls the nightclub dance of the robot Maria. Later on, the sequence in which doors close automatically behind the hero, on his way to fight the tiger, recalls the passage in Metropolis where the hero is trapped in the scientist's house. Asagara, the Indian architect who works with the hero, is sympathetically middle class and constructive in his behavior and politics, like the foreman in Metropolis.
The best part of The Tiger of Eschnapur is the first half hour or so. After this, the film runs out of story ideas. The film's first half also contains its best spectacle. The second half is far more static, concentrating on Chandra's jealousy over the hero and heroine's love. This is a bit like the second and lesser half of Clash by Night, which focuses on adultery. There is no adultery here - the heroine has never actually promised herself to Chandra - but the film has something of the same feel. In both films, the subject matter of their second halves is less pleasing to watch.
Another silent film that might have influenced Lang's The Tiger of Eschnapur is The Young Rajah (1922), directed by the now forgotten Philip Rosen. Some spectacle scenes of the throne room and its crowd of attendants anticipate Lang's film somewhat, in their visual style. Both films have a temple with a giant statue; both have a noble Indian mystic as a prominent character. The Young Rajah starred Rudolph Valentino, and we have argued that another Valentino vehicle, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), influenced Metropolis. One might note that The Young Rajah contains powerful pleas for racial and religious tolerance, somewhat pioneering and unusual for its 1922 era.
The scene in The Tiger of Eschnapur in which the hero and heroine discover that the native heroine is really of European descent has a long history in books and movies. Such scenes were already being spoofed by the comics satirist Ed Wheelan in "Fingers of Fate" (Comic Cavalcade #1, Winter 1942). One can interpret such scenes in two ways. On the one hand, it can be argued that this is implicitly racist: the heroine is discovered to be a suitable marriage partner for the hero, because she is European. On the other hand, one can also argue that such scenes are anti-racist: the hero is not a European interested in exploiting women of a colonial society for sex, unlike the ugly tradition of colonialism. Lang does not really endorse either such interpretation here: the scene is simply played without comment. And it is never mentioned again throughout the films.
Lang's India is a dream world, one having little relationship with the real country. I do not think this is any sort of political statement on his part. Rather, it simply comes out of a tradition in which writers and filmmakers were encouraged to make up stories out of their own heads. The divergence becomes extreme when it comes to music and dancing. The music here more often recalls Indonesian gamelan music than anything Indian. And the dance has nothing to do with Indian classical dance, but everything to do with the dancing in Lang's Metropolis.
The hero assembles an elaborate scale model of the place he plans to build. This scene recalls Lang's use of scale models of the sets of films he directed. Lang would arrange figures of the actors within them, planning camera angles for his shoots. Similarly, his hero fusses over the model here, moving around it and arranging pieces of buildings. One also recalls in Woman in the Moon, the rocketship model; M, the scale model of the crime scene sitting on the map; and in The Big Heat, the hero and his daughter making a building out of blocks. Many of the special effects in Metropolis were also created by making giant scale models of the city. Such a practice was fairly common in its era: photos exist of similar giant models of Paris streets used in Sous les toits de Paris (René Clair, 1930).
The models of the hospitals and schools the hero plans to build are in a modernist architectural style, perhaps similar to the campus of the Bauhaus. Once again, this harks back to the modernist architecture in Metropolis and M. There are signs throughout this film that Lang is recovering the tradition of his youth, and his early German films.
The outdoor staircase is perhaps the biggest in all Lang. It is used for a spectacular procession shot, complete with a lovable elephant. It recalls the smaller, but still large, stairs of the palace in the Persian episode of Destiny. The heroine also makes her entrance in the temple scene, atop a tall staircase with a giant gong at its peak. One suspects that Lang would have enjoyed underlining every staircase in his films with a ringing gong, as he does here!
There are repeated shots in the film, of people high up looking down on huge rooms or areas below.
One of the most spectacular shots involves the water maze in which Chandra walks. I do not know if this was invented for the movie, or whether Lang found it in India. Its apostrophe shaped patterns are unique in Lang. Later, there are sets with maze-like plantings of low flower borders.
Animals are everywhere in this film: the tiger of the title, horses, elephants, a monkey, camels, the bird in the heroine's room.
I could detect no sign of any interest in the media here. This is atypical of Lang. Unlike Siegfried, there is no storytelling at this court, no myths and legends, and few forms of communication other than people talking in person, public proclamations, and letters. We do get an Irish folk song, played on the guitar, as well as a look at three Indian musicians and their instruments, rehearsing with the heroine. We also see bells and gongs used to communicate with people, reminiscent of the whistle blown by the hero to summon the police in the street below, starting the bank raid in Spies.
Fire is associated with the hero here. He holds a phallic brand to scare the tiger, a bit reminiscent of the phallic soft drink bottle held by the hero at the end of American Guerrilla in the Philippines. This is one of the most positive images of fire anywhere in Lang. It is usually a far more destructive force.
There is only one clock in the film, on some buildings. The dialogue contrasts Europeans, described as obsessed with time, with Indians, who take a mystical attitude of indifference to time. I am not sure whether this is sociologically accurate - it sounds like something that was made up for the movie! Yet here Lang is clearly sympathetic to the purported Indian attitude. Lang has always shown clocks as a sinister force, used to control men's lives. This religiously inspired freedom from the control of time is intended to be liberating.
The two wells at the beginning are composed of circles, both in their stone walls on the ground, and the wheels used to raise the buckets. They recall the well in Moonfleet.
The film is notable for its riotous use of color. Much of the film concentrates on a huge variety of shades of red and green. It is as if Lang remembered the red-green two-color Technicolor of the silent era, and made a film with a similar emphasis in its palette. Gold is also prominent throughout the film.
The hero is never associated with color. His clothes are either khaki, or elegantly white with touches of black. His buildings are pure white as well. All of the costumes here except Debra Paget's were designed by Claudia Herberg. Herberg mainly worked on German language pictures; she also did the British Black Beauty (1971). The spectacular men's costumes she creates here, with their brilliant color and ornate detail, add much to the visual style of the picture.
The Indian Tomb (1959) is a direct continuation of The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959). It is watchable throughout, but lacks the brilliance found in the opening sections of its predecessor. It largely recycles the sets and story elements of the previous film, offering us only a little that is new. The film is visually fascinating, however.
This film has much material on religion, and some on politics. It seems like a didactic work, at times. Lang provides a reverent view of the Moslem caravan riders and the Hindu villagers, willing to risk their lives for the sake of hospitality and moral decency. And an equally reverent view of a Buddhist holy man, who upbraids the Maharajah in a memorable scene.
The villagers are threatened with death here, by corrupt dictators, just as in Lang's anti-Nazi film about occupied Czechoslovakia, Hangmen Also Die! (1943). Both the Maharajah, and the powerful men who revolt against him, seem like corrupt, anti-democratic forces. Unfortunately, at the end of The Indian Tomb, we do not see what the final form of government is in Eschnapur.
One scene often ends with a piece of dialogue given an ironic new meaning in the next scene. It recalls the associational montage of the phone narration and cross-cutting between the underworld and police in M, the interrogation in Hangmen Also Die!, the phone conversation and TV commentary in While the City Sleeps.
The brother-in-law draws a circle on the map with a compass, just like the police in M. Later, he shows two circles superimposed over the map of the tunnels underneath the palace and temple. The pure circles drawn over the chaotic tunnel map, seems like an attempt to impose order on a chaotic world. Such imposition of order through detection is sometimes done by sinister state power, in such films as The Woman in the Window and Human Desire. Once again, the sister and brother-in-law get powers and approaches that tend to be used by unsympathetic organized groups in other Lang films.
The democratic marriage of the sister and brother-in-law recalls those in The Big Heat. A similar marriage is planned by the hero and heroine here, who talk about the modest house the hero will build for them. It reminds one of the suburban house owned by the hero and his wife in The Big Heat.
The sister testifies that the hero here had NOT had numerous affairs with women, and that his affection for the heroine is probably a deep love. This distinguishes the hero here from both the bad guys and alleged good guys of The Blue Gardenia and While the City Sleeps, most of whom are predatory on women. By contrast, Chandra here is a predator, and one of the most vicious in Lang.
The hero, so clean cut and glamorous in the previous film, grows a stubbly beard during his ordeal, and his clothes become tatters. This is the opposite of the transition from scruffy to cleaned-up of early Lang heroes in Spies and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
Later, after the general is attacked, he will try to make his way towards a circular gong for help. There is also a circular table in the room where the heroine is held prisoner. And circular bowls of candles in many of the rooms in the village at the beginning, as well as circular household and kitchen items. These recall the table still-life in While the City Sleeps.
During the early scene in the garden of fountains, Chandra's tunic is embroidered with what seems to be a maze-pattern in black and white. The garden itself is one of the film's most striking geometric images, with its mix of the square platform and the rounded fountain pool. In earlier Lang films, circles were often contained within squares. Throughout The Indian Tomb, round areas instead tend to be side by side with rectilinear ones. In the village scenes at the beginning, the round candles tend to be in the background, while rectangular beds or shelves are in the foreground - the same arrangement as in the fountain scene, with the square platform in front, and the round fountain in back.
The scenes of the characters lost in the maze-like tunnels recall the scenes of the hero under the mad scientist's house in Metropolis. In both cases, the characters are puzzled by multiple doors or corridors.
The chalk arrows drawn on the walls by the sister, recall the M sign in chalk put on Peter Lorre in M. They also recall such symbols as the Y in Moonfleet and the K in While the City Sleeps. All are simple visual patterns made out of a few straight line segments.
The door in the architecture room is in two parts. It is first half-opened for Asagara, then both halves are fully opened for the Maharajah. This use of half-opened double doors was a trademark of Feuillade; Lang also used it in Spies.
Several striking shots show processions going by in backgrounds, viewed through gaps in stone walls. We see people going by the cave through the spider web. Later, while the brother-in-law discusses dynamite in the foreground, two steady processions of laborers go by Asagara in the background. Those moving in one direction carry logs, those moving in the opposite direction do not. And finally we see conspirators going by through an arch. There is something about the steady rhythms of such progressions that is fascinating. These recall walking shots in Spies, and the gallery scene in Scarlet Street.
The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) is Lang's last movie. It is in German, one of his few German language talkies, and its original title is Die 1,000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse. Lang reportedly refused the chance to make more Dr. Mabuse thrillers; this is too bad, because this is a good picture.
Like many of Lang's silent German films, this one does not have a German hero. Instead, his hero is a wealthy, glamorous and courageous American here, just as in The Spiders. This hero is not too Americanized, however. He is played by an obviously German actor, and he has no obvious American mannerisms. Lang had lived and worked in the United States for twenty years, and he could have made this hero far more American in style, had he wished. Lang's hero is 100 percent incorruptible. Unlike some Lang protagonists, who get involved with crime or dubious activities, Lang's hero is a pure good guy here. Lang's film shows nothing but admiration, respect and friendship for Americans. By contrast, the villains seem to be all German, and they have explicit links to what the dialogue calls the horror of the Nazi years.
The police inspector is also close to those in Lang's earlier German films. He especially reminds one of Inspector Lohmann, the policeman in Lang's two early German talkies, M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Like Lohmann, the policeman here is low key, a methodical plodder, moderately capable, but no Superman. He seems like an ordinary human, someone less intense and high-powered than either the hero or the villain.
The villain also recalls some of Lang's early bad guys, especially Haghi in Spies (1928). Like Haghi, he turns out to have multiple identities and appearances. Some of these personas have similar features in both movies, although one does not want to "spoil" the film by giving away its secrets. Similar approaches are found in Louis Feuillade's films, such as Judex (1916).
If Lang's characters follow tradition dating back to the 1920's or 1930's, his situations are unexpectedly modern. The video version's notes compare this to a James Bond film, and one can see why. High tech devices and weapons of all sorts, villains who plan to use atomic power to take over the world, ultra-modern settings with jet set characters: all of these anticipate the Bond films to come. Lang has clearly kept up with the zeitgeist here. In fact, he might have helped to set it. This movie is earlier than any of the Bond films, which began with Dr. No (1963). It is also earlier than any other spy films in the Bond style. Many of Ian Fleming's original Bond novels had already been published by the time Lang made his movie. It is possible that Lang has once more turned to British spy fiction for his paradigm, just as he did on Spione (1928) when he apparently used William Le Queux, or during the 1940's, when he adapted both Geoffrey Household and Graham Greene to the screen. Lang's purely crime-oriented movies are often based on American prose fiction, but his spy pictures tend to have a British feel.
The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is more of an adventure movie than are many of Lang's American movies. In this, it hearkens back to such early German films as The Spiders and Spies. The final shoot out and chase is especially well done. It is a rare outdoor adventure sequence in Lang. Lang had been drifting towards the adventure genre in the late 1950's, with Moonfleet (1955) being a historical adventure film.
The reporter who is murdered in the car at the beginning shows Lang's distrust of car travel. People are always dying in horrible ways in cars in Lang's films.
The eyes in the sky in the opening credit sequence anticipate similar effects in Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1964). They occur in its second episode, "Woman of Snow". Once again, Lang has associated TV cameras with eyes. This recalls the CBS eye logo that perhaps inspired the symbolism in While the City Sleeps (1956). Lang also used a superimposition of many eyes in a shot in Metropolis.
Lang's mirror imagery reaches new heights of complexity here.
The mirror consists of three parts that open and close. This reminds one of the geometrically complex, multiple mirrors in The Woman in the Window and The Blue Gardenia. As in those films, the mirrors are in expensive looking rooms, here a luxury hotel. The rooms in all three movies are associated with the sexual exploitation of women, by the villains. In both The Blue Gardenia and this film, the mirror winds up shattered, by a good person, as part of a violent protest against the exploitation. The shattering of the mirror is the climax of each scene. In The Blue Gardenia, the heroine shatters the mirror; here it is done by the hero.
The mirror segments open at obtuse angles to each other. They remind one of Lang's fondness for polygonal rooms with odd angled corners, as in Scarlet Street.