The Fury: Fritz Lang in Hollywood

01/19/2011 4:00 AM |

Fritz Lang in Hollywood

January 28-February 10 at Film Forum

Speaking to his friend David Bradley, a retired Fritz Lang would often bark, “Why don’t you ever show my American films? Why do you always show the German?”Bradley invariably replied that Lang’s German films were better—that was long the critical and popular line on Lang, but the mammoth-scale glories of Metropolis (1926) and Spies (1928) and his career-best M (1931) should never obscure the serenely brutal, more focused intensity of Lang’s American work. Lang’s first two American films, Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937), are still unparalleled dissections of an odious society closing in on unlucky victims played by Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda, both of whom were never better and never angrier. Lang had a liking for pulp material that he could transfigure with stylized, Caligari-style visual nightmares, yet his imagery also has a deadly kind of symmetry, tight as a snare drum and cool as a python hovering in the air and ready to strike.

Lang floundered with his third film in America, You and Me (1938) a genuine curio that features some Kurt Weill songs, and he retreated to a few minor Westerns and the ill-cast, overlong Hangmen Also Die! (1943) before delivering another one-two punch to American dreams and romantic ideals, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), both of which feature Edward G. Robinson as a gentle man enraptured by the coarse sensuality of Joan Bennett. “If you fight scum, you become scum,”insists Gina (Lilli Palmer) in the underrated Cloak and Dagger (1946), speaking of the Nazis who forced Lang to leave Germany, and this is a position that Lang himself always insisted on as he remorselessly detailed the corruption of the better human beings by the worst. If you haven’t seen it, be sure to check out House by the River (1950), one of Lang’s least known and most carefully designed portrayals of lurid villainy spurred on by sick sexual desire (Hitchcock took a lot from Lang, and if I was to crassly generalize the difference between them, it would be that Lang got laid a lot while Hitch did not).

In the early 1950s, Lang made a fifth American masterpiece, The Big Heat (1953), a tale of revenge where moll Gloria Grahame gets a pot full of hot coffee in the face, and in this last period, faced with smaller budgets and less creative control, he began to simplify his visual style until it often resembled the grave, measured purity of the framing and editing in his earliest silent films. In the stark western Rancho Notorious(1952), another tale of revenge, he dissolves from the clenched hand of a raped and murdered woman to the hands of her killer splashing water on his face, and in that one dissolve, Lang’s anger is revealed in all its outraged depth and comprehension. This feeling ebbed away in the bare-bones tabloid films that ended his American career, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both 1956), which in cinematic terms have a kind of below-zero, negative number effect, as if he no longer wanted to fully deal with the bluff hypocrisy of his adopted country and instead left us with mere blueprints of our own twisted desire for a scapegoat to absolve us of our sins. Was Lang a pessimist or just a 

January 28-February 10 at Film Forum

One Comment

  • Some other attempts to pithily sum up the difference between Hitchcock and Lang:

    Hitchcock uses the sea in most of his films, Lang never does (Lang actually talks about this in his interviews on Clash By Night, saying how difficult it was for him to film the ocean)

    Lang’s films are typified by enormous numbers of insert shots; when Hitchcock shoots objects, they’re POV shots