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Tag Archives: Fritz Lang

Secret Beyond the Door (Dec. 29, 1947)

Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door takes the perennially popular Gothic theme, “Someone is trying to kill me, and I think it may be my husband,” throws in a liberal dose of psychological melodrama à la Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), and caps it off with a fiery finale that tips its hat to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

The first hour or so of the film is firmly in the mold of earlier Gothic “my husband might be a murderer” thrillers like Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946), and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Dragonwyck (1946). The last couple of reels veer off into such loony, faux-Freudian territory that I honestly didn’t know quite what to make of them.

But Lang is a consummate professional, no matter how weird or silly his material, and Secret Beyond the Door is always intriguing and occasionally a little spine-tingling.

The film stars Joan Bennett as Celia, a fashionable, bored young woman with a trust fund who meets a mysterious British architect while she’s on vacation in Mexico. His name is Mark Lamphere (played by Michael Redgrave), and he tells Celia that she is a “Twentieth-century sleeping beauty. Wealthy, American girl who’s lived her life wrapped in cotton wool, but she wants to wake. Maybe she can.”

They’re married after a whirlwind romance, despite Celia’s terrified feelings of apprehension as she walks toward the altar.

Unsurprisingly, her trepidation is well-founded. After they move into Mark’s sprawling home in Levender Falls, NY, she finds out that not only was Mark previously married, but he also has a teenage son and a creepy housekeeper named Miss Robey (Barbara O’Neil) who covers the burn scars on the side of her face with a flowing headscarf.

Most frightening of all, Mark’s first wife died under mysterious circumstances, and Celia learns at one of Mark’s fancy parties that he doesn’t have a sou to his name. His beautiful home is mortgaged to the hilt, and the architectural magazine he’s peddling around New York seems to be going nowhere fast. Celia is worth a lot … would she be worth more to Mark dead than alive?

Wait, did I say “most frightening of all”? Actually, the most frightening thing about Mark might be his bizarre hobby of recreating, piece by piece, rooms in which murders occurred, sort of like Frances Glessner Lee’s dollhouses, only at a 1:1 scale.

Six of his seven rooms are showcases that he’s happy to show off to his tony friends, but the seventh must always remain hidden. Even from his dear wife Celia.

As I said, Secret Beyond the Door gets into some pretty loony territory during its last two reels. While much of it is silly amateur psychology, it’s at least visually arresting. Joan Bennett runs for her life through the same dark forest sets on the Universal sound stages that Lon Chaney Jr. stalked in 1941 as The Wolf Man, and her journeys down dimly lit corridors are the stuff of beautiful nightmares.

Cloak and Dagger (Sept. 28, 1946)

Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger is the best espionage thriller I’ve seen since Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940). Like that film, it doesn’t have the over-the-top stunts or pyrotechnics of a modern action movie, but its pacing, plot, and music create a spectacle that is every bit as suspenseful and exciting.

Gary Cooper, who is best known for playing stoic men of action, gives a credible performance as bookish physicist Alvah Jesper, a man who finds himself in over his head, but is smart enough and tough enough to find a way out of one tight situation after another.

Professor Jesper is recruited by the O.S.S. (the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence agency formed during World War II that would eventually become the C.I.A.) and sent to Switzerland to bring his former colleague Dr. Katerin Lodor (Helen Thimig) back to the United States. Dr. Lodor, an elderly woman, escaped through the Alps from Germany, where she was being forced to work on an atomic bomb project for the Nazis. Switzerland is a neutral country, but it’s lousy with agents of the Gestapo, and Dr. Lodor’s life is in peril.

Immediately, there are two implausible aspects of the plot that you have to get over to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the picture. One is that the O.S.S. would recruit a college professor with no experience in the intelligence field to act as an undercover agent merely because he has a personal connection to their target and speaks conversational German. The other is that, by this point in 1946, it was common knowledge that any nuclear research being conducted by the Nazis was mostly smoke and mirrors, and the Third Reich was never close to developing an atomic bomb.

Neither of these issues proved a stumbling block for me. Every spy thriller needs a plot hook, and plenty of these hooks prove either factually inaccurate or completely ridiculous after five or ten years have passed. Also, the O.S.S. was a young organization, and they did some pretty wild stuff during the war. Recruiting a college professor in his mid-40s for dangerous undercover work doesn’t seem completely outside the realm of possibility. (Cooper’s role is loosely inspired by the exploits of Michael Burke, president of the N.Y. Yankees from 1966 to 1973, who briefly played with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1941 before leaving to serve with the O.S.S., where he worked behind the lines in Italy and later in France, where he helped the Resistance prepare for D-Day.)

There are some great touches, too. When Jesper disembarks in Switzerland, he thinks he’s being smart by casually covering his face with his hand when he walks by a photographer, but it is precisely this action that alerts the Gestapo to the fact that he might be a man worth watching.

After Jesper makes contact with Dr. Lodor, she leads him to Dr. Giovanni Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), another physicist who is being forced by the Nazis to work on their atomic bomb program. Jesper travels to Italy, where he is aided by Italian partisans led by Pinkie (Robert Alda) and the beautiful Gina (Lilli Palmer).

Luckily, Jesper is able to pose as a German doctor because the Italian fascist thugs keeping Dr. Polda prisoner in a beautiful villa clearly don’t recognize American-accented German when they hear it. Viewers with an ear for languages probably will.

The Italian baddies are led by a man named Luigi, who is played by veteran character actor Marc Lawrence, who had a very long career playing gangsters in Hollywood. His first film role was an uncredited part as a henchman in If I Had a Million (1932), and one of his last was playing Carlo Gambino in the 1996 TV movie Gotti.

Toward the end of the movie, Cooper and Lawrence square off in the most brutal and realistic fight I’ve seen in a movie from the 1940s. The James Cagney thriller Blood on the Sun (1945) features a great judo fight that was way ahead of its time, but the combat between Jesper and Luigi is a desperate fight to the death, pure and simple. There’s nothing flashy about it, and it’s not overly choreographed. The two men hold each other close, clawing at each other’s faces, choking each other, kicking at weak points, and twisting back fingers and arms. It’s over in less than 90 seconds, but its impact lasts for the rest of the movie.

The screenplay for Cloak and Dagger was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr., based on a story by Boris Ingster and John Larkin, and “suggested” by the 1946 nonfiction book Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of O.S.S., by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain.

Director Lang is best known for the films he made when he still lived in Germany, such as the silent science fiction opus Metropolis (1927), the chilling portrait of a child killer M (1931), and the crime thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), but Lang was a master craftsman at every stage of his career, even when doing for-hire work like this.

Scarlet Street (Dec. 28, 1945)

Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street immediately draws comparisons to Lang’s 1944 film The Woman in the Window. Released just a year apart, both films star Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. Both films feature Bennett as a femme fatale, Robinson as a milquetoast man approaching old age who is desperate for some kind of excitement, and Duryea as a hustler and a punk who’s only out for himself. The two films share motifs; murder with sharp objects, city streets at night, painted portraits, and foolish old men ensnared by mysterious young women.

In terms of tone and plot, however, the two films are quite different. The Woman in the Window is a well-crafted tale of mystery and suspense in which a murder occurs early on, and the protagonist spends the rest of the film dealing with the consequences. It’s a good picture, but its impact is undercut by a cop-out ending (possibly necessitated by the Hays Code) that castrates the grim dénouement and breaks the most basic rule of maintaining audience engagement with a narrative. Scarlet Street, on the other hand, is grim and fatalistic, and its single, horrific murder doesn’t occur until near the end of the picture. Robinson’s character in Scarlet Street isn’t drawn into a suspenseful adventure in which he has to hide evidence and protect a woman’s honor, he’s drawn into a doomed romance with a heartless and conniving young woman, and he only realizes the trap he’s walked into until long after its jaws have clamped shut around him.

Scarlet Street opens on a scene of a party. It’s the kind of party we don’t see very often in the movies anymore. There are no women, and all of the men are dressed in tuxedos. Christopher Cross (Robinson) is receiving a gold pocket watch for his 25 years of service as a cashier in a bank. When Cross’s employer, J.J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks), stands up, he is clearly the man in charge; tall, commanding, and about to leave the party for a date with a blonde. Cross sits on the opposite side of the table and appears diminutive and meek. When Cross reads the engraved message on the watch, “To my friend, Christopher Cross, in token of twenty-five years of faithful service, from J.J. Hogarth, 1909-1934,” he seems genuinely touched by the line, “To my friend,” and pauses briefly after reading the words to smile. He is clearly a man with few friends.

He is also a man locked in a loveless marriage. We later learn that he married his landlady just a few years earlier, after her police detective husband died while trying to save a woman from drowning. Her late husband’s ridiculously large portrait hangs above the mantle in their living room, and Adele Cross (Rosalind Ivan) never misses an opportunity to unfavorably compare Chris with her “heroic” first husband.

On his way home from the party, Cross meanders through the rain-slicked streets of Greenwich Village. He sees a young man beating up a young woman under elevated train tracks, and he impetuously runs to her aid. His rescue attempt can barely be called heroic (he covers his eyes as he jabs her assailant with his umbrella), but it is still an act of courage, which makes what comes next so tragic.

Scarlet Street is based on the novel La Chienne (The Bitch), by Georges de La Fouchardière, which was adapted as a play by André Mouëzy-Éon, and as a film in 1931 by Jean Renoir. The French title pretty much sums up Kitty March (Bennett). She and her “boyfriend” Johnny Prince (Duryea) only care about money and the objects money can buy. As soon as Chris tells Kitty that he paints, she gets the idea in her head that he’s famous and rich, and that she’ll be able to squeeze him for all he’s worth. Of course, he only paints on Sundays as a hobby, but he initially lets her believe that he’s a painter, just as he lets himself believe her claim that she works as an actress.

This being a film from the ’40s, the words “pimp” and “prostitute” are never spoken, but if the viewer infers that Kitty is a prostitute and Johnny is her pimp, absolutely nothing in the film contradicts the idea. (And this was indeed their relationship in La Chienne.) It is clear that Kitty has no regular job, but she regularly ponies up money to give to Johnny. Johnny also has no visible means of support except the money she gives him. He hustles a little here and there, but it seems as if his main source of income is Kitty. At one point in the film she even states that she’s given him a total of $900 over a course of time, and that she’s still waiting for him to buy her a ring with that money. That’s an incredible amount of money for a woman with no job or inheritance to produce in 1945, unless she was tricking. Also, the fact that she’s giving him money that she then asks him to possibly spend on her implies a pimp-prostitute relationship.

The one-way exchanges of money and Johnny’s casual mention of various men from whom Kitty could get $50 for the night isn’t the only thing that marks Johnny as a pimp and Kitty as his whore. The casual way he slaps her around several times over the course of the film implies this, as well as the fact that he constantly refers to her as “Lazylegs.” Later in the film we even learn that Johnny was beating her up in the street at the beginning of the film because she showed up at the end of the night with less money than he expected.

The callousness of Johnny and Kitty and their pimp-prostitute relationship isn’t the only taboo this film breaks. Scarlet Street may very well be the first film made after Hollywood began enforcing the Hays Code that shows a character committing a murder that goes unpunished. Scarlet Street was distributed by Universal Pictures, but it was independently produced by Fritz Lang Productions, which may have given Lang more leeway in the way he presented his conclusion. On the other hand, the end of the film isn’t really about “getting away with murder,” since the hell the murderer is trapped in is worse than any earthly prison. It’s a bleak, existential ending, and one of the most tragic I have ever seen.

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