Saturday, September 15, 2007

Two Films by Fritz Lang

Ministry of Fear


Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear is based on the Graham Greene novel of the same name. It is very entertaining and like many other films noir by Fritz Lang, visually ravishing, almost text-bookish in its style and look, but in the end I found it slightly disappointing. It is neither The Third Man, which was also written by Graham Greene, nor Scarlet Street or The Woman in the Window two films Lang would direct just after this. Still it is quite worthwhile overall.

The film is set in Britain during the early years of second world war. Ray Milland, who was extremely good in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend and Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, is just out of an asylum when the film starts. (We get to know why he was there only later in the film.) Eager and excited about the prospects of getting back to the regular life and society, he drifts into an innocent looking village fair near to the railway station. Before long and before he can realise what is happening, he has actually run into a deadly ring of war secrets, clandestine Nazis, double crosses and murders.

The basic Langian (and film noir) theme is present throughout - the malignant and hostile impersonal forces intent on crushing the will and spirit of the hero who tries to resist but is ultimately defeated. Only that in this case the ending is a happy one. A lot of other such films have happy endings too but in those cases the psychological trauma that the characters go through is always too much so that the happy ending is happy only nominally. Another reason why the film fails is that the central Ray Milland character remains quite shallow throughout, even with the subplot about the reason why he was admitted to the asylum. Still the film holds one's attention because of its visual design (as exemplified in the shot above). There is a bizarre seance scene which makes a really impressive use of chiaroscuro lighting. There is also a shootout scene in the dark where we see just the tiny hole in door through which the bullet has hit the intended victim. Pretty good overall. A more detailed appreciation from noir of the week here.

Fury

Unlike Ministry of Fear you can't accuse of Fritz Lang's Fury of getting all sweet and happy and entertaining in the end. It is harrowing and a harsh little tale of an innocent man trapped for a crime he never committed. (Again the idea of malignant impersonal forces scheming an innocent man's physical and spiritual downfall.) The hardworking, working class man played by Spencer Tracy is accused and imprisoned for a crime he never committed (the interrogation is truly Kafkaesque) just when he has saved enough money to get married to his long-suffering sweetheart. Before he can stand to trial in court a local mob attacks the police station and sets it to fire. He miraculously escapes but he is profoundly changed by the experience. He now wants vengeance himself. He pretends to be dead so that the townsmen who attacked the jail in order to kill him can be punished for murder. After some riveting melodrama he lets himself persuaded by the pleas of his fiancee and confesses in front of the court just before the court is about to give the final judgment. (Interestingly a documentary footage, which was actually the same scene we saw earlier in the film, is used as an evidence in the court to indict the defendants.)

In its subject and even the documentary-like style it anticipates Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man, which is similarly harrowing and very harsh. (The final scene with Vera Miles in the asylum is unforgettable.) There is a similar scene in this film in which Tracy wanders alone and aimlessly on the dark and desolate streets, which come to signify his own spiritual death. In this film Tracy and his fiancee do embrace in the court and walk off in the end but Lang leaves us in no doubt that they are both psychologically and emotionally scarred for life.

It is also worth noting that this the first film that Lang made in America. He had first hand experience of the mob-psychology and its far reaching moral and political significance and it is that experience that he brought from Germany that gives the film a feeling of authenticity and contributes to its overall effect. An interesting essay which compares it to Chaplin's Modern Times.

8 comments:

puccinio said...

''Fury'' is (pun-intended) the angriest film in the 1930's and his follow-up ''You Only Live Once'' with the great Henry Fonda is equally great, revealing a tender side to him you wouldn't think existed in him.

It's a pity he never worked with Spencer Tracy again, since Tracy's so electric in this film, indispensable...but then Lang shouldn't have behaved like a jerk to him on the set.

You know if you check out the wikipedia page for the film, you can read about the real-life incident which inspired this which is fascinating and also see a later film called ''Try and Get Me'' by Cy Endfield which dealt with the same incident.

Alok said...

I have read about You Only Live Once. It was one of the favourites of Godard too. About his own pierrot le fou he said he wanted to remake You Only Live Once, "a story about the last romantic couple on earth." Will see if I can find a dvd here. Bonnie and Clyde was supposed to be inspired by this film too.

Actually I meant to link to the wikipedia article but then forgot. Will do it perhaps. The film actually gets into real american history too with figures and data about the lynchings and a discussion of how dangerous this trend is for American politics. It is a great example of a socially conscious crime melodrama.

Agree about his attitude with the actors. Other fellow German emigres like Otto Preminger, Josef Von Sternberg and Erich von Stroheim also had to face a lot of problems in hollywood because they couldn't adapt to its star-system and couldn't change the authoritarian attitude they brought from Europe. As a result even with so much talent and genius none of their careers really took off in Hollywood.

puccinio said...

It's not the Hollywood star-system it's the fact that Lang(Preminger not as much as thought) behaved like a jerk to most if not all his actors. Poor Peter Lorre was reportedly flung down the stairs by Lang himself.

Tracy wasn't an actor with a star ego but he swore never to work with Lang again after that film. Hank Fonda swore never to work with him as well...twice.

But in the end Lang was able to do pretty well in America. Most of his films were hits, his only problems were with producers not actors or the public as such. And he worked with the biggest stars like Stanwyck, Dietrich, Monroe, Joan Bennet, Robinson and so on. But he did better I think with lesser stars(but good actors) like Gloria Grahame, Glenn Ford and Dana Andrews.

Stroheim isn't on the same page since he worked in a different Hollywood and his fall is 60% due to his own self-destructive impulses.

Preminger on the other hand is on his own since he never had to worry about financing, starcasts and as such through the 50's and early 60's was able to make the movies he wanted. He started out as a producer so that helped him out immensely.

Of the German emigres though the greatest success was Ernst Lubitsch and the one with the greatest problems was Edgar G. Ulmer. Murnau comes close I suppose but then he had major problems after ''Sunrise'' tanked. ''Tabu'' though was a hit so if he didn't die he might have lasted.

Alok said...

Haha, yes I have read about that Peter Lorre anecdote. Actually most of these stories were circulated by Lang himself in part to build his self-aggrandizing image. Other such story is him meeting with Goebbels and being offered the responsibility of the entire Reich film industry... No body has been able to verify these claims.

Actually in one of his interview Lang said it was difficult for him initially to adapt to hollywood because in Germany he had full control over everything and the actors themselves were more professional and in hollywood he was just another professional.

Also these films were never presige pictures for the studios and as a result never got Lang the serious critical recognition that he deserved. As always the french film critics were the first to identify the genius of these films and accord classic status on them.

puccinio said...

The Goebbels story is true though. The only mythifying that he did was saying that he left that very night from Germany. He left many months later with all his bank accounts cleared and affairs settled. So by the time he came to France, and later America he was in a better position than the other Jews who had to flee Germany.

I wouldn't trust Lang's interviews that much since the man had a huge ego and probably the most self-righteous man in the movie business.

----------------------------
Actually in one of his interview Lang said it was difficult for him initially to adapt to hollywood because in Germany he had full control over everything and the actors themselves were more professional and in hollywood he was just another professional.
------------------------------

Read his interview with Peter Bogdanovich where he says that working conditions in Hollywood were more ideal in that actors, tech guys, art directors and so on were professional and most-of-the-time(exceptions left aside) did get the job done.

The problem was chiefly in him trying to do the films he wanted to do and him being typed as a thriller director and him being another professional in Hollywood as you said. Mostly for his own ego.

But I don't think it's necessarily true that Lang's American films are inferior to his German films, leaving aside ''M'' and the two Mabuses as well as Spione and Nibelungen his other silents weren't as great. ''Metropolis'' is visually brilliant but compared to the other films mentioned above not that visionary. And of course Lang was appalled when he found out that it was one of Hitler's favourites.

Alok said...

actually Clash by Night DVD had a wonderful commentary by Bogdanovich, who also stressed at many places that Lang was a gentle and charming fellow, very unlike the image he had created for himself. He also rued that his American films haven't got as much attention as those of say Wilder's and Hitchcock's. I will check if i can get the interview book somewhere also some serious studies.

puccinio said...

------------------------------
actually Clash by Night DVD had a wonderful commentary by Bogdanovich, who also stressed at many places that Lang was a gentle and charming fellow, very unlike the image he had created for himself.
-------------------------------

Well it's hard for a moralist like Lang to be all bad!!! But then if you ever do academic research read his diaries...if they aren't the most self-righteous memoirs you ever read, then I'm waiting to read number one.

-------------------------------
He also rued that his American films haven't got as much attention as those of say Wilder's and Hitchcock's. I will check if i can get the interview book somewhere also some serious studies.
-------------------------------

The book I was referring to is...

''Who The Devil Made It'' by Peter Bogdanovich. It's a book of interviews with several Golden Age directors like Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, George Cukor, Alfred Hitchcock and of course Fritz Lang. It's a huge book and if you get it hardbound it'll be $20 at the very least.

It's to my knowledge part of film studies syllabus, or at the very least standard reference work. Bogdanovich is one of America's finest film writers and also a very good director(might have been better if well...). The questions he asks are very intelligent.

'Course even then he can't do much interviewing a perfect *beep* like Von Sternberg.

Lang was definitely very influential in America. It's just that people had this perception(both America and Europe) that working within the Hollywood system(the old one that is) meant you were selling out somehow. But at the same time it gave you plenty of chances.

Highly professional technicians and equipment, good financing and since so many movies were made then, you weren't too obsessed with box-office as people are nowadays.

And one thing people forget about Lang is that he was always a popular film-maker. He wanted his films to have the widest possible audience. His german films like his 'Dr. Mabuse' diptych was a huge hit and he got financing for its sequel(the first anti-Nazi film) on the basis of that. ''Metropolis'' was a big flop but mostly because of costs of production, it was one of the highest grossing of it's year.

If he had better people skills or better adaptability he might have been able to carve a niche for himself like Hitchcock did. But then Hitch had natural charisma that he knew how to exploit. But then they were two entirely different film-makers. Lang was a political moralist while Hitchcock was a moralist.

Alok said...

Will see if I can find that Bogdanovich book.

He was instrumental in rehabilitating Orson Welles' reputation in America too. He is also ubiquitous on dvd features sections of classic Hollywood films, specially those of Welles, Hitchcock and Lang...