The Big Heat (1953) Fritz Lang

By 1953, Fritz Lang’s career was a rocky road forced to make small studio or independent films one after another. He also spent the last few years clearing himself of accusations, made by the House of Un-American Activities, he was a communist. By the time he signed with second tier Columbia studio the commie accusations had been cleared and Lang was heading toward the final phase of his career in America before heading back to the homeland, Germany.

With Glenn Ford, a poor man’s James Stewart, in the lead, Lang was still floating in less than grade A film waters. At this point in his career Ford was mostly making programmers or second features, films like  “Plunder in the Sun,” “Time Bomb,” “The Redhead and the Cowboy,” “Framed” and “The Undercover Man” with the occasional more expensive production  added in (“Gilda”). Quality varied, some were good, some not, most as mentioned were not “big” pictures. Columbia did not consider, “The Big Heat,” a major motion picture.

“The Big Heat” is based on a serialized, in the Saturday Evening Post, novel by William P. McGivern, a novelist (Odds Against Tomorrow, Rogue Cop and Shield for Murder), screenwriter (The Wrecking Crew, Brannigan) and TV writer (Kojack, Adam-12, Banyon) with a screenplay by Sidney Bohem (Side Street, Union Station, Violent Saturday). Continue reading

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) Fritz Lang

“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” was Fritz Lang’s last film in America. Having fought with producers and studios over the years he decided to stop making movies (He actually moved back to Germany and made his final films in his homeland). At the center of this final Hollywood film is the always highly sensitive issue of capital punishment. Does man have the right to take another’s life? Is the law giving another man, the executioner, a legal right to kill? In the film’s opening scene, we see a convicted murderer walking the last mile to the electric chair. One of the witnesses is Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews), a former newspaper reporter and now a novelist engaged to Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), the daughter of Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), newspaper publisher, Garrett’s former boss and an anti-capital punishment advocate. While Garrett is sure, if a man is being put to death by the law he must be guilty…Spencer is not. When a young and beautiful stripper is found murdered, the two men concoct a plan; plant enough circumstantial evidence in the murder case, making it look like Garrett is a strong suspect, enough for him to be arrested and put on trial by the politically motivated D.A. Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf) who will push for the death penalty. The only proof of Tom’s innocence is photographs taken by Spencer of Garrett planting evidence that has incriminated him. Spencer keeps the “evidence” in his safe at his home. The two men do not even confide in Susan, Garrett’s fiancée, of their plot. It
all goes as planned; Garrett becomes suspected of the crime, is arrested and put on trail.

(SPOILERS AHEAD!)

With the jury in deliberation, Spencer takes the photographic evidence from his safe and is set to bring it to court to free Garrett. While driving to the courthouse he is struck by a truck, his vehicle bursting into a ball of fire killing him and destroying the only evidence of the plot he and Garrett conspired. Upon hearing the tragic news, Garrett desperately explains the entire charade to the court protesting his innocence but to no avail, he remains scheduled for execution.

Susan organizes a campaign to find enough evidence to clear Garrett of the murder. When she visits him in jail to tell him the good news of her findings, Garrett unexpectedly lets slip out a bit of information that only the murderer would know exposing himself at the real killer (it turns out the murder victim was Garrett’s ex-wife, a nightclub dancer, from a bad first marriage). With this unanticipated omission of guilt Susan walks out of the jail letting the execution take place.

Dana Andrews character makes for a strong victim. He is effective, if not necessarily a likable person. He is a writer in needs of a subject for his next book. The plan his future father-in-law and he cook up sounds intriguing and both men hope to prove their own point of view on the subject of capital punishment.  Of course, you may wonder why is he putting himself through this when he is on the verge of getting married to the beautiful Joan Fontaine who is left out in the cold on the plan and may be a little pissed eventually when it is all over that he and her father went through with this dangerous charade.

Lang’s final Hollywood production continues with one of his most consistent themes; an innocent man set on a course out of his control in a society that sucks individuals in like a vacuum. Along with “You Only Live Once” and “Fury”t his film suggest that individual’s have little power over their life, a lack of control in directing his or her own destiny. Outside forces, like the justice system, or in the case of “Fury,” mob violence and group thinking dominating one man’s fate.

Fritz Lang was not a happy camper during the making of this film. Battles with producer Bert L. Friedlob left him drained. Friedlob forced Dana Andrews on Lang. A bad alcoholic, Andrews drank throughout the filming adding to Lang’s despair. Friedlob also battled Lang on the ending of the film, first saying he wanted to film the electrocution as graphic as possible (The Celluloid Muse – Higham and Greenberg), later denying this after a front office spy claimed Lang was shooting this explicit scene of his own accord. In the end, Lang filmed the ending as it is in the final film with Susan forsaking Garrett in his jail cell as he awaits his execution.   Lang was right. There was no need to show the execution, the audience is well aware of what fate awaits Garrett. The front office battles though had left Lang drained. The fight wasn’t in him anymore. He did not like the film which had left a bad taste in his mouth.

The element of an innocent man in prison was not new, James Cagney played a crusading newspaper reporter who is framed for murder in Warner’s 1939’s film, “Each Dawn I Die.” and Peter Breck got himself put into a mental institution to solve a murder in Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.”  The film is based on a story and screenplay by Douglas Morrow, a lawyer, who probably should know how foolish an attempt this would be to trick the court, undermining justice. Most likely all involved would find themselves behind bars. That said, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” is a taut thriller with a convincing twist of an ending, even if the legal premise is a bit shaky.  Like Lang himself at the time, the film is filled with acidity and disillusionment. The film was the second of two films Lang had on the screen in 1956. Earlier in the year came the tough, riveting, “While the City Sleeps” also produced by Friedlob.

Financially a minor success at the time, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” was a shattering harsh farewell note for Lang to have ended the Hollywood phase of his career.

Short Takes III: Groucho, Doris and Frank James

Horse Feathers (****1/2) The only thing wrong with this hilariously funny Marx Brothers film is the absene of Margaret Dumont from the cast. Other than that this film, the fourth of five for Universal the Brothers made is outstanding.  At this point in time the Marx Brothers were in the middle of a series of iconic films that still stand today as gems of absurdist comedy. The anarchistic arm of comedy rules right from the opening scene when Groucho, as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, performs, “Whatever It Is , I’m Against It,”   and that pretty much is the theme of this short 75 minute film.

There are so many great scenes it is difficult to highlight just a few. I love the row boat scene with Groucho romancing Thelma Todd while she is attempting to seduce the team’s plays out of him. The entire sequence has a risqué and somewhat surrealistic feel to it all. When Thelma fall overboard and screams to Groucho to throw her a life saver, heroically he does just that, a candy life saver. The final wedding scene ends in what could be termed a riotous orgy. The scene opens with Groucho, Harpo and Chico standing off to the side as newlywed Thelma and an unseen groom, presumably Zeppo, are receiving their wedding vows from  the preacher. As soon as he pronounces the couple man and wife and says to kiss the bride, Groucho, Harpo and Chico literally jump all over Thelma falling into one big pile to the ground.   Directed by Norman Z. McLeod.

My Dream Is Yours (***1/2) an odd little musical with a young Doris Day and second banana Jack Carson in the male lead role. Despite being a musical there are dark overtones of alcoholism and the death of a husband/father in the war. I am not much of a Doris Day fan (I’m diabetic and cannot take the sugar rush) generally avoiding her films like I would a hornets’ nest, but Martin Scorsese discusses this film in the new book, CONVERSATIONS WITH SCORSESE and liked it. Coincidently, it recently popped up on TCM and thought, with the Scorsese recommendation, I would give it a try. The film is a mixed bag, but  there is a wonderful dream sequence blending live action and animation featuring Bugs Bunny, along with Doris and Jack that is the highlight of the film. Location shots in Hollywood including Schwab’s Drugstore and The Brown Derby add a nice flavor. Directed by Michael Curtiz.

The Return of Frank James (**1/2) Fictional version of Frank James pursuit of the Ford Brothers for the killing of his brother Jesse. As portrayed by Henry Fonda, Frank James is a gosh darn, soft spoken, man of the land kind of guy just out for good ol’ American revenge. I find Fonda such a likable actor, he could play a serial killer and you gosh darn want to like him. Henry Hull is entertainingly blustery as the newspaper editor/lawyer who defends Frank in court. The recently deceased Jackie Cooper’s death scene in the film has more corn than tears, and the film is also hurt by some serious stereotyping dialogue forced to be read by the black members of the cast. Nicely photographed by George Barnes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast includes Gene Tierney, John Carradine and Donald Meek.

Metropolis- The Restored Version (1927) Fritz Lang

Some things never change. “Metropolis” is 83 years old yet the storyline of the wealthy keeping the working class down seems to be timeless as is the desire of man to recreate himself in his own image. This past Sunday the classic Tampa Theater completed it Summer Film Festival with a showing of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, the recently restored version with approximately 25 minutes added. As most know this was not a case of just adding more footage but restoring the film back to its original length, at least as close as possible.   What made this extraordinary showing even more special was the live accompaniment by Dr. Steven Ball on the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ. As we were informed in some introductory remarks by Tara Schroeder, the Director of Programming of the Tampa Theater, this presentation was the North American premiere of this film with live organ accompaniment. The Tampa Theater was practically the home for the late organist Rosa Rio who passed away earlier this year at the age of 107!   

Prior to the film’s showing we had two guest speakers, first was Dr. Ball, the Senior Staff Organist at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, who spoke  about the score we were about to hear which was primarily the original score used way back in 1927 except for some minor changes here and there. The second speaker was Dr. Margit Grieb, an Associate Professor at the University of Florida who teaches courses in German film and literature, she spoke about the history of the film and its restoration with the recent discovery of the 25 additional minutes.  All fascinating stuff topped off by a sold out house (approximately 1,400 seats) with a wonderfully mixed crowd age wise that I personally found gratifying. 

Lang professed in interview after interview to have gotten the inspiration for this film after visiting New York City but this statement is challenged in Patrick MacGilligan biography “Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast” as Lang taking credit where it is not due, just as his claims that he used 26,000 male extras and 11,000 female extras in the film are questionable.

For those who are unaware, the original version of “Metropolis” that premiered in Berlin in 1927 ran approximately two and a half hours. A few months thereafter the film, the most expensive German production at the time, was withdrawn and cut down to two hours. When Paramount Pictures picked up the U.S. distribution rights to the film they trimmed it by approximately 13 minutes more. Additionally some characters names were changed, other characters were reduced to insignificant parts that lost all meaning. Additionally some sub plots were eliminated. For example Freder’s running a race early in the film was completely deleted as was any mention of Joh’s wife Hel.  In earlier versions of the film the ‘Thin Man’ seems to be nothing more than a butler to the rich Joh  Frederson while in the restored version he is a much darker figure following  Joh’s son Freder on orders from the father.

The restored footage was discovered in a film archive in Buenos Aires and is mainly due to the never ending determination of film archivist Fernando Pena.  The reels found were in 16 millimeter and very grainy, subsequently when viewing the film you can easily distinguish where the new found footage is in the restored version in addition to an obvious change in the film ratio.

“Metropolis” is not just a science fiction film but a work of class warfare, an allegorical attack on capitalism. The controlling rich symbolized by the greedy Joh Frederson and the lowly slave workers working down in the underground city. It is also a story of father/son struggles and the mad power of science to create mankind in its own image. It has religious overtones in the young Maria who acts as a savior guiding the workers to love one another offset by the evil robot Maria who lures the workers to revolt by destroying the Heart Machine, the life blood of the underground city. 

“Metropolis” has influence films and filmmakers from “Frankenstein” to “Blade Runner.” It is one of the grandest and last examples of this great period in German cinema, filled with Expressionist patterns, architectural wonders of beauty, strength and design stretching cinema’s boundaries in new directions. Yet the film does have it odd moments that verge on ridiculous absurdity that cause some modern day audience members to laugh out loud (the robot Maria’s seductive  wink for example). But these few moments do not distract from the brilliance the mad Lang created.

*****

Below are some photos I snapped at the Tampa Theater presentation.

Human Desire (1954) Fritz Lang

dŽsirs humains

The bad rap against “Human Desire” is that it’s not as good as Renoir’s “La Bete Humaine” (released in the U.S. as The Human Beast), the French film it was based on, nor it is not as good as the earlier Lang, Ford, Grahame, collaboration, “The Big Heat.” Still, on its own terms “Human Desire” is a well-paced engrossing film noir. The biggest problem with the film is Glenn Ford’s flat performance which lacks the dark mood required for this tale of seduction, passion and murder. His nice guy personality almost derails the film; however, it’s saved only by Lang’s camera and the enticing nuanced performance of Gloria Grahame.

Based on a novel by Emile Zola, the plot revolves around Jeff Warren (Ford), a recently discharged Korean War veteran returning back to his job as a train engineer. Here he meets the sexy Vicki (Grahame), the young tantalizing wife of Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford), a railroad stationmaster.  Carl is soon fired when he gets into an argument with his senior manager. Distressed, he wants Vicki to go to old family friend, and influential businessman John Owens, asking him to help get Carl his job back. Vicki is reluctant to do so; however, Carl, an alcoholic and wife abuser, forces her to go see him. Though Carl never flatly comes out and states it, he implies Vicki should do whatever it takes to entice Owens to help him get his job back. Upon her return, she flatly tells Carl he got back his job; however, he is now more concerned with why she was away so long and what happened between her and Owens. His out of control jealousy escalates into his physically beating Vicki up, forcing her to admit something went on between them.

dŽsirs humains     Carl’s jealousy continues to haunt him, pressuring Vicki to write a letter to Owens saying she would like to meet him at the train. At the arranged time, Carl drags Vicki to the station and directly to Owens compartment, where he stabs him to death in front of her. Escaping from the compartment turns out not to be so easy with a train conductor at one end and Jeff, off duty, at the other end of the car. Carl pushes Vicky to distract Jeff by flirting with him. They strike up a conversation becoming quickly attracted to each other. Before you can finish a cigarette, they are passionately lip locked.

Interviewed during the inquisition of the Owens murder, Jeff covers up for Vicki denying he saw her anywhere need the scene of the crime. They soon begin having an affair. Jeff sinks deeper and deeper into her alluring maze. He had a way out of Vicki’s web, if he wanted it. There is a nice girl Vera (Diane DeLaire), daughter of co-worker and friend Alec Simmons (Edgar Buchanan), who is attracted to him and tries to draw him into nice decent relationship; however, Jeff is already too deeply entwined in Vicki’s web of sex and deceit. Vicki will eventually attempt to charm Jeff into killing her good for nothing pig of a husband. She rationalizes Jeff, a former Korean War veteran, has already killed plenty of men so what’s one more, especially for a seductive beauty like her.

-Human Desire-gloria    Lang films are filled with outsiders, Hans Beckert in “M”, Eddie Graham in “You Only Live Once”, Christopher Cross in “Scarlet Street” and here you can add Jeff Warren and Vicki to the group. One wonders if Lang’s compassionate viewpoint for outsiders stems from his own background coming from troubled Europe to America?

Unfortunately, Glenn Ford is not an actor with much depth. He’s unable to convey any sense of tragedy. He is bland and comes across as too much the average nice guy. A more conflicted, morose actor, (Robert Mitchum?) would have added an extra layer that is lacking here. In Renoir’s “La Bete Humaine” Lantier (Jean Gabin), is certainly a more conflicted character than his American counterpart. He suffers with a family history of mental behavior driving him to murder. In Renoir’s film, there are no likeable people unlike Lang’s remake. On the other hand, Grahame give us one of the boldest performances in her career, a definite improvement over Simone Simon in Renoir’s film. Sexy, vulnerable, desperate and brassy, she is more damaged goods here than femme fatale, with hints that sometime in her past she may have been sexually abused. Grahame’s sexiness shines right from the first scene in the film where we first see her lying down on her bed, her legs up in the air, sexy and inviting. Watching her, you can’t really blame any man for getting weak in the knees. Broderick Crawford is down right nasty as the overly jealous husband and while he is good, his performance is a bit one noted.

dŽsirs humains    Renoir’s “La Bette Humane” was doubtlessly too dark and verboten for American audiences addicted to happy endings, which I believe to be the reason for the changes made between the leading character (Warren/Lantier) in the two versions. Besides the male protagonists, it is also significant how differently Vicki and Serverine meet their respective deaths. Vicki by her jealous husband and Serverine stabbed to death by Lantier.  “Human Desire” was also damaged by restrictions forced upon it by the production code. Zola’s novel and Renoir’s film contain bleaker more naturalistic endings than the unsatisfying ending Lang leaves us with.

Scarlet Street (1945) Fritz Lang

scarlet-poster

“They’ll be masterpieces!”

 

Kitty March (Joan Bennett) is not one of the brightest femme fatales to grace the screen though she certainly ranks up there as one of the nastiest. She would even give Ann Savage in “Detour” a run for her money. When her milquetoast admirer Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) finds out she has been selling his paintings under her own name, instead of being upset, he seems actually glad. He has only one demand, that she allows him to paint her portrait, to which she replies, “sure, and you can start right now,” as she hands him a bottle of nail polish so he can paint her toenails.  “They’ll be masterpieces” she slyly sneers as the scene fades. 

This is just one of many masterful scenes in what is arguably Fritz Lang’s greatest American film and one of his finest overall. Based on the French novel “La Chienne” (The Bitch) with a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, “Scarlet Street” is a brilliant, dark tale of an emasculated husband who naively yet willingly subjects himself to humiliation and being made the fool when he falls in love with a beautiful heartless streetwalker. The novel was previously filmed in 1931 by French master Jean Renoir. “Scarlet Street” has been available for years in cheap low grade public domain copies until KINO, in 2005, released a solid pristine newly mastered print preserved by the Library of Congress.

ss-0n-sidewalkChris Cross (Robinson), a mild mannered cashier and Sunday afternoon artist, is being honored at a dinner in a Greenwich Village restaurant for twenty-five years of loyal service to his company. Later that night, on his way to the subway to go back to his Brooklyn apartment, he sees a woman being smacked around by a man. He comes to her rescue, surprisingly knocking the man down with his umbrella. When he goes to calls out to the police for help, the man runs off. The woman is Kitty March, who Chris becomes quickly captivated by. After walking her home, he ask to see her again.

Chris’ home life is lonely, dominated by his tyrannical wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), who brow beats and criticizes him every minute of the day. Chris’ only pleasure is his painting which he is forecd to do in their tiny bathroom.  If that is not enough, Adele keeps a large painting of her first husband (he supposedly drown trying to save a woman) hanging on the wall looking down on everyone who enters the apartment.

 scarlett-streetKitty gets the impression that Chris is a rich and well-known artist, a notion he hopes impresses her, and does nothing to dispel. Her “boyfriend” Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), the guy who was slapping her around earlier, convinces Kitty that this old man is a goldmine and she should continue to pursue a relationship with him even start asking him for money.  This dirty scenario sets in motion events that will lead to everyone’s eventual demise.

Chris soon sets Kitty up in a fancy studio apartment in Greenwich Village. Unbeknownst to both Kitty and Johnny the only way Chris can afford all this is by stealing from his company, also by cashing in an insurance policy of his wife’s (from her first husband, policies she was saving for her old age). Johnny’s next scheme is to sell Chris’ paintings, over Kitty’s half-hearted objections. When an influential art critic and gallery owner praises the paintings and offers to sell them, Johnny convinces the two art experts that Kitty is the artist going by the name of Katherine March.

Shopping one day, Adele passes by the art gallery now displaying “Katherine’s artwork.” At home, Chris is cutting up some freshly purchased liver when Adele arrives back home furious. She demands to know how long Chris has known Katherine March. Chris, believing Adele discovered his secret passion for Kitty, is visibly shaken but denies knowing the woman. As the scene evolves with Adele demanding to know about this Katherine March, Chris begins approaching his wife with the knife in his hand. We and Chris soon discover Adele mistakenly thinks Chris has been copying her artwork and that his “lousy” paintings are not even originals. Denigrating him for being nothing more than a copycat, she stalks off to another room. Chris drops the knife; its point sticking into the floor.   scarletstreet1

When Chris confronts Kitty about the paintings being sold, he is surprisingly happy to let her sell them under her name. His one demand is he wants to do a portrait of her.  Soon after, Adele’s first husband shows up alive which frees up Chris now to  propose marriage to Kitty who laughs in his face at the proposal, telling him he is “old and ugly and I’m sick of you, sick, sick, sick!” In a fit of sexually frustrated rage, Chris, using a handy ice pick stabs Kitty multiple times to death.

Chris believes his crimes are discovered when two cops show up at the office where he works. Believing they are about to arrest him for Kitty’s murder he is stunned they are there only to charge him with the embezzlement of $1,200 previously stolen from the company. His boss fires him but decides to not press charges.

The police find enough circumstantial evidence to charge Johnny for Kitty’s murder. At the trial, Chris denies knowing anything about the paintings, sealing Johnny’s faith to the electric chair. Though his revenge is complete, Chris’ guilt is only beginning. Haunted by Kitty and Johnny’s voices, Chris attempts suicide by hanging himself. Six years later, still haunted by voices, Chris is living on the streets. Two policemen, kick him off a park bench where he was sleeping, telling him to go down to the bowery where he belongs. We next see him as he passes by an art gallery that just sold the portrait of Kitty for $10,000. Chris walks by the gallery, unknown, curled up, hunched over still tortured by the voices of Kitty and Johnny. No one get away with murder.

Edward G. Robinson has played mild meek men before (The Whole Town’s Talkin’) but nothing prepares you for Eddie G. in a frilly apron with his over bearing wife constantly pouncing on him to wash the dishes. Lang, with sly humor, arranged several scenes where he puts Robinson in an apron. Robinson’s Chris Cross has lived a life of dull repetition and constant submission consisting of a nine to five job as a cashier, a loyal employee for twenty-five years, and a nagging wife at home. His only pleasure is his art work which he can only do on Sunday’s in between the constant complaining from Adele that he does not make enough money for them to even afford a radio. For Chris, Kitty is a breath of fresh air, a chance to have a life. Edward G. Robinson has never given a bad performance and he is terrific here. The final part of the film as we watch his decent into hell is especially noteworthy.

For Kitty and her slap happy boyfriend Johnny, Chris is an instrument to be used for ill gotten financial rewards. Chris is a sap to Kitty. He believes anything, she says. Johnny convinces Kitty to lead him on and she does. Sure, she tells Chris, she would marry him, but hey, he’s married, so what can you do. They’re both using Chris to extract as much money as they can, though Johnny seems to be the one who ends up with every dollar that comes Kitty’s way. No matter what Johnny does, nor how he treats her, Kitty stills love him.

 Though it is never clearly stated, due to the restrictions of the production code, Kitty is a streetwalker (she doesn’t seem to have any other job) and Johnny’s her pimp, which make clearer his actions on how he is constantly treating her, more as a commodity than a girlfriend. Joan Bennett, in her third of four films she would make with Fritz Lang is a convincingly nasty piece of work, beautiful, seductive and evil. Dan Duryea is credibly slimy as dirt bag Johnny Prince.

There are no likable characters in the film, everyone is corrupt, Chris who only married his battle-axe wife out of loneliness admits he has never seen a woman naked, which you could interpret to mean his marriage to Adele has never been consummated. His wife doesn’t disagree and comments, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I should hope not.” Kitty and Johnny are two bottom feeders, ready to snatch every dollar they can from Chris. Chris’ wife is a nagging, demanding, complaining, unhappy individual. Returning from the dead, Adele’s first husband whom she treasured (he was a police officer!) turns out to have been a thief and actually was on the run faking his own death. Chris’ boss who eventually fires him for embezzlement, left Chris’ party early because he has a beautiful young lady waiting patiently for him out in his limo and she is not his wife!

 

 If the film has a weak spot, it is the return of Adele’s first husband from the dead. It is totally contrived and unbelievable. The only reason for his return seems like a forced plot device that will get Chris single so he will go to Kitty and propose marriage, setting up her laughing fit and vicious verbal tirade that will result in his ultimate violent revenge.   

 joan-bennett-fritz-lang-scarletstreet   I’d be remiss if I did not mention Lang’s use of the song “Melancholy Baby” throughout the film. The song is as bleak and dark as the characters that fill the screen. Finally, the amazing cinematography of Milton Krasner who made the dark and damp wet-filled back lot version of Greenwich Village glisten in the early part of the film as he does for the rest of the film.

    “Scarlet Street” opened to mostly positive reviews. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, if you are familiar with his work, New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers (1) missed the boat on this film giving it a mixed review calling it a “sluggish and manufactured tale”….“an average thriller job.” As for Robinson’s performance, he “performs monotonously and with little illumination of an adventurous spirit seeking air.”  For Joan Bennett, she was “static and colorless.” He only had good word for Dan Duryea who “hits a proper and credible stride, making a vicious and serpentine creature out of a cheap, chiseling tinhorn off the streets.”  Most other critics of the time liked the film and more importantly, the film was a hit with the public. The previous year, Lang and the three actors made an almost equally as good noir with “The Woman in the Window.”     

    “Scarlet Street” was the first film for Diana Productions, a production company consisting of Walter Wagner, Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang.  For those who are not aware, the relation between the three was more than professional. Wagner was Joan Bennett’s husband and Lang was her lover, so the relationship, business and professional was “complicated, to say the least. In the early 1950,’s Wagner shot and wounded by then agent Jennings’s Lang, Bennett’s alleged lover at the time. Wagner spent four months in jail and Bennett’s film career was effectively ended. She did managed to make a few more films though most of her future work would be in television.   

 4280-scarlet-streetIn talking to Peter Bogdanovich (2), Lang mentions that he had no trouble with the film from the censors. Lang must have been forgetful or his memory of events has been distorted over the years. Depending on the state you lived in, the feverish stabbing of Kitty consisted of one to seven stabs (3). The film was banned by three state censor boards, New York, Atlanta and Milwaukee. The New York censors held up the release of the film until February of 1946. However, it was in Atlanta where the film was delayed for ten months! All this notoriety surely contributed of the film’s financial success, making it one of Universal’s biggest grossing film’s of the decade.

   

 

  

Sources:   (1) The New York Times Feb 16, 1946

                (2) Fritz Lang in America – Peter Bogdanovich

                (3) The Rough Guide to Film Noir – Alexander Ballinger & Danny Graydon

             

 

M (1931) Fritz Lang

M must have been pretty shocking to audiences in the early 1930’s when it was made. The story of a serial child murderer, played to perfection by a young Peter Lorre. The film documents the hunt and capture of Hans Beckert, the murderer, by both the police and criminal gangs. The criminal gangs are in on the hunt because of the intense presence of the police making it hard for them to conduct their “business.”

German Expressionism begat Film Noir and Lang, a master of German Expressionism, uses shadows and light to define the landscape. There’s an excellent shot of young Elsie Beckman on her way home where she stops in front of a poster of a missing girl. Suddenly the shadow of the killer is reflected on the poster as he tells young Elsie what a nice ball she has. Lang excels at with brilliant camera work in this film. The opening shots where Lang’s camera is shooting from high up above  pointing downward toward the children playing; then there is amazing shot of  Elsie Beckmann’s mother looking down the flights of stairs to see if her daughter is coming home.

Upon the capture of Hans Beckert by the mob they begin a mock trial fearing that if they hand him over to the police the courts will allow Hans to pled insanity and end up in a hospital and eventually free. The mob wants their kind of justice. Kill Hans so he will never kill another child again. For those familiar with Lang’s work you will know that mob hysteria or mob rule is a common thread in some Lang’s films including Metropolis and  Fury. What is very interesting is how Lang make Hans plead his case to the mob who have captured him telling them how he cannot control himself and that his actions are like he is addicted.  As he goes on you find yourself sympathizing more with the killer as the mob’s actions gets uglier and uglier. This partially may have to do with Lorre’s magnificent acting.

M is a great movie which has lost very little of its power since it was made. Do not miss this film.