Fritz Lang’s 1943 American film noir Hangmen Also Die may be his best, most expressionistic work during his entire American period, often reaching the heights of pure cinema of earlier German-era works like Mabuse, der Spieler and M. The film is visually dynamic, and constantly so, using all of the trademarks of the expressionistic-noir idiom he helped to develop in the late 20s and early 30s in Germany: dutch angles, dramatic lighting, deep focus, chiaroscuro, bold framings, claustrophobic-paranoiac sets, and high contrast.
He achieved the look of the film together with one of American film noir’s greatest cinematographers: a Chinese-born American man named James Wong Howe. Howe began his career in the late teens and early twenties silent cinema, and as such, had developed a sense of how to create visually compelling cinema that tells a story without the need for dialogue. He was a pioneer in his field who used bold and brisk lighting developed through the influence of German expressionist and agit-prop staging, was a master of deep shadows, and was one of the first individuals to ever use deep focus cinematography, where both the foreground and the background are fully in focus and the items therein can be discerned as clear and not fuzzy, and all of this more than a full ten years before Greg Toland’s so-called revolutionary ‘discovery’ of these techniques on Citizen Kane in 1940.
Howe also invented one of the first camera dolly operating systems he called the crab dolly, as well as one of the first hand-held camera units. Both of which he used in major films well before their popularization in the late 50s and 60s by the New American cinema crowd. He tutored another great American cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, and together the two pulled off some of the first helicopter shots for use in a major motion picture. In the 1920s, Howe developed a system for use on orthochromatic film stock, which was notorious for picking up the shadows under actor’s eyes and making the film unusable thereby through the complete obfuscation of one of the most important parts of an actor’s look in silent cinema. He placed black velvet around the lens of the camera, just out of frame, which dampened the available light on the film’s edges, took in less light, and thereby exposed the eyes of actors without also underexposing their surroundings. Finally, Howe was one of the first cameramen to shoot film stock using only candlelight as the available light source: a technique that wouldn’t be used effectively again until Stanley Kubrick’s use of the technique on Barry Lyndon decades later using an impossibly large .7 Zeiss lens.
Howe was nominated for ten Academy Awards during his lifetime. He won two: once in 1955 for The Rose Tattoo and once in 1963 for Hud. His presence on Hangmen Also Die was surreptitious to say the least as the film is one of Fritz Lang’s most visually compelling, and that’s saying something within a career like Lang’s.
Another interesting element of the film, which prompts one to almost call it a pure expressionist film with roots reaching back more firmly to that epoch than into the burgeoning film noir one, is the collaboration on the film of two other German emigres, escaped from Nazi Germany. The first of these is Bertolt Brecht, the great German playwright whose theatre works heavily influenced the dramatic stagings of expressionism as well as the themes of the early works within the movement like M and Asphalt that were heavily politically and socially conscious. Brecht developed the story for the film alongside Fritz Lang, and the two developed the treatment and much of the screenplay for the work. The second man is the composer for the film: Hanns Eisner. Eisner was not a film composer first and foremost, and as far as I can tell, this was the only time he committed a piece to the medium. His interests lay in compositions of pieces for performance and for pieces to accompany plays, and more often than not, the productions of Brecht. Having three German emigres with strong histories and footholds in the expressionist movement surely had a strong influence on the film.
Finally, the film itself. The film is about a uniquely German sort of topic of interest at the time. The war was raging in Europe at the time and as such, Lang and Brecht decided to adapt an agit-prop piece about the recent assassination of the SS’s #2 man Reinhard Heydrich by Czech resistance fighters. The film was very topical, but also leant itself well to a growing sense of film noir conventions as it involves revolutionary forces fighting against an oppressor, clandestinely and always with an air of paranoia and suspicion in the air. Information is the name of the game in this struggle as the resistance tries to hide the identity of the assassin, regular Czech’s choose not to rat on their countrymen, the gestapo hold certain pieces of information but not the whole puzzle, and law-abiding citizens who would normally just keep their heads down find themselves in a world-historical conflict in which their action, or inaction, is made necessary for the very fate of their friends, their family, and their homeland.
Unlike film noir, there are no private detectives, the police do not signify justice or the force of the law closing in but instead the complete opposite of oppressive imperialistic power in a state of exception and near-total hegemony, there is no femme fatale, wrong man, charming villain, or MacGuffin. The Underground isn’t an evil force, but a force of good, of justice, of the people, by the people, and for the people working to fight oppression and restore proper order to their country. And the end result is not the base renunciation of wholesome values and belief in the law, in society, and in other people in favor of nihilism, opportunism, and a morally bankrupt world of suckers and the ruthless on the up and up. No, instead the end result is an affirmation of democracy, of rule by the people, of the notion that foreign peoples have no business in Czechoslovakia telling Czechs what to do, and that Nazism and Fascism are not true evental encounters, not true world-historical periods, but aberrations that would one day be vanquished. And in this opportunism, Lang and his collaborators were prescient, and thankfully so.
[Next up: They Made Me a Criminal]
(Check out my previous film noir essay here: Foreign Correspondent)
Howard Hawks’ 1944 film noir is a milestone of sorts for a number of reasons. It was the first film Lauren Bacall acted in and her on-screen charm developed her initially small role in the screenplay into that of a central place within the film. She and Humphrey Bogart became closer to the film, which led Bogart to finally end his previous 20-year marriage that had been loveless and move on to Bacall with whom he would spend the rest of his life until his death in 1957. To Have And Have Not established this romantic relationship while also establishing their working relationship as screen icons with overwhelming chemistry both individually and between one another.
Hawks, who was close friends with Ernest Hemingway, decided to adapt what he saw as Hem’s weakest work. to this end, he hired a proficient screenwriter to re-work the material. The first hand was able to switch the setting from Cuba to Vichy-controlled Martinique in a turn that pleased Roosevelt and the White House who had an interest in keeping relations good between America and its South and Central American neighbors in an attempt to prevent their conversion to the axis wing in the war. However, this first screenwriter did little else of note in the adaptation and as such, the Hawks’ friend, and quite possibly the greatest southern author of all time, William Faulkner, took up the mantle and adapted the otherwise weak source material into a script for what would become a classic film. This was also the first such meeting of minds and material between two of the most muscular American writers of the 20th century (the others being Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, John Fante, and Charles Bukowski) who would butt heads many times throughout their careers.
The story of the film begins on the coast of Martinique at Fort de France where Bogart plays one Harry Morgan. Morgan owns a small speedboat and a deep sea fishing rig, which he rents out to Americans looking for good Marlin fishing, alongside himself and his crew onboard of course. His fishing expert is a Martiniquois and his deckhand is, who is relatively useless, is his friend Eddie (character actor and one of only three men to ever receive three Academy Awards, Walter Brennan): an old drunk and the film’s comic relief. Morgan’s current client is an American going by the name of Johnson who has hired out the crew for 16 days of fishing and is so bad at it that he loses an expensive fishing rig to a Marlin that wrenches it squarely from his hands. The total cost of the expedition is $825 (that’s almost $12,000 dollars in 2018).
Johnson promises to pay the money in the morning when he visits the bank, but his wallet is picked up by a cannon-femme fatale in the hotel bar. That woman is one Marie Browning (Bacall). Luckily, Morgan is there to see it happen. He confronts her about it later and she, enamored by the man’s good looks and swarthy charms, hands over the wallet to him. Morgan inspects its contents and finds that the man already had over $1,400 in traveler’s checks on him, which he could have signed over to Morgan, and that the man has a plane ticket for the following morning, at 6:30 am, before the banks even open. Johnson was planning on running out on Morgan. Morgan responds by finding Johnson in the hotel bar and returning the wallet to him, telling him what he has found out, and forcing the man to sign over the $825 to him then and there.
At the same time, the hotel’s owner, Gerard, who is a member of the French Resistance and fights in his own way for the future of a Free France, has a group of resistance fighters coming to his hotel for a secret mission. They need the help of a boatman to smuggle Paul de Bursac and his wife into the area to transmit some information (the macguffin of the picture if you will). Morgan has been courted as their man, but is in no way a patriot before and above his duty to the preservation of his life and livelihood. He declines to help the group. When he goes to confront Johnson, the French Resistance fighters outside of the hotel are identified by local Vichy gestapo and a shootout commences. As stray bullet hits and kills Johnson, who has just signed over his check to Morgan.
This makes Morgan suspicious to the Vichy gestapo who have won the gunfight and inspect the body of Johnson. Morgan is taken in for questioning along with Marie Browning. His passport and all of his money is confiscated as well as the traveler’s check until he can provide them with information about what happened in the bar and what connection he has, if any, withe the French Resistance. Morgan leaves the interrogation unscathed, but worse for the wear as he cannot leave Martinique without his passport and has very little in the way of money tucked away elsewhere. He decides to take the job working for the French Resistance as a way to earn some money with which to escape Martinique, but eventually comes around to the importance of the cause and aids them both for the money and for the opportunity to thwart fascists.
The entire exercise of the film takes place within the hotel, with only a very few street shots on a sound stage made to look like the streets of Fort de France outside of the hotel and a few scenes on the ocean surrounding the island territory. In this way, the tensions are heightened as the Vichy gestapo are always right around the corner from the centre of the French Resistance on the island at the hotel. Other times, when the wounded French Resistance man de Bursac is hiding in the cellar of the hotel, the Vichy gestapo are literally right above them. The paranoia grows through the condensation of space in the film. Likewise, the one-set nature of the film makes it something akin to a chamber drama where events unfold in one place. A more arthouse cinematographic style incorporating longer takes could have taken advantage of this situation, but as it is the film is fine in its current form.
Although a classic of the genre, this is not one of my favorite noirs, nor even a particularly effective one as it lacks much in the way of expressionistic stagings and camera effects, in oddball elements and pulp sensibility, and in a feeling of constriction. I can dig it, but probably won’t be returning to the film for some time.
[Next up: Key Largo and Bogart as another seaman]
(Check out my previous film noir essay here: Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent)
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 thriller, Foreign Correspondent, was his second American film, but his first truly Hitchcockian film for that market. He arrived in the U.S. in 1939 at the request of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick and almost immediately jumped into work adapting Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca. Also released in 1940, the two films battled it out at the 1940 Academy Awards with Rebecca receiving 11 nods to Foreign Correspondent‘s 6. Between the two pictures, only Rebecca won any, Best Picture (then known as ‘Outstanding Production’) and Best Cinematography Black and White, both of which it won by beating stiff competition (Foreign Correspondent among that competition on both counts).
The cinematography in Rebecca was definitely deserving of the best cinematography nod as George Barnes’ work on that film was ethereal and gothic, and supremely affecting artistically and viscerally. However, the cinematography on Foreign Correspondent is top-form as well, with an even tone throughout what seems to span dozens of locations or sets. The cinematographer of that film, Rudolph Mate, was to become a film noir staple in the coming years though he began his career in Europe working on the classical films of Carl Dreyer like Vampyr and Le Passion de Jean d’Arc, and Fritz Lang’s fantasy film Liliom, before making his way to the American scene where he would direct the classics Gilda and The Lady From Shanghai before moving on to direct his own picture, including the film noir staple D.O.A. Mate’s Academy nod would be the first in a five-year run of five consecutive years for work on films by both Korda’s King Vidor, and one Sam Wood (with who I am unfamiliar).
In the film, Joel McCrea plays our American Everyman John Jones, a rough and tumble crime reporter in New York known for altercations with cops and the Underworld crowd alike. His boss has too many academics and soothsayers in his employ in Europe and Great Britain in a crucial time when war seems eminent. They find it difficult to find the facts and send them back to HQ, so the boss decides to send an average Joe (or John) type to do the job and settles on John after finding that he actually assaulted a cop the previous week (Hitchcock never liked cops and was always afraid of them throughout his life after a curious incident in his youth when his father sent him with a note to the local police station. There they followed the note and put the young boy in a prison cell for five minutes and left him there, making certain he knew the real potential downfall of committing crimes and stepping away from the straight and narrow.). John Jones gets his effects together, his tickets and passport, has a going away party, and arrives in Great Britain to begin work as a foreign correspondent, soon to turn war correspondent.
Once there, Jones goes to press meetings for Peace Organizations, one of which is headed by Stephen Fisher and his daughter Carol Fisher. Jones and Fisher develop a rapport and her friend Scott ffolliott (yes, I spelled it correctly) and Jones develop a working relationship as well. When Jones goes on his first assignment to the Netherlands, the Dutch politician and peace advocate Mr. Van Meer is Jones’ next assignment. But before he can get an interview with the man, he is assassinated by a photographer with a gun on the steps outside of the meeting hall. Jones, Carol Fisher, and ffolliott track the killer and discover a network of spies, eventually connecting the event to Carol’s father.
War is announced as Germany begins air raids above British soil and London, and the principal characters depart for America aboard a light passenger jet. Stephen Fisher and his daughter Carol make amends, and even Jones and ffolliott are admirably well-disposed to the man they will have to arrest for treason once they touch down. But as they fly over the Atlantic, an American warship mistakes them as a German bomber and shoots them down, only learning too late in the process that they are Brits and Americans onboard a commercial airplane (how they screwed that up I have no clue, but in some things on celluloid we must suspend our disbelief). Lives are lost and sacrifices made, but eventually the ship picks them up and brings them back to London (they had traveled less than two hundred miles across the Ocean thus far) where John Jones becomes a real war correspondent, and in the film’s final moments gives a great propaganda oration, ala Edward R. Murrow, on radio as the city is bombarded by enemy incendiaries.
The film is an extremely effective spy and political thriller, as well as being a powerful piece of propaganda for the war effort. Even Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called it a great work of propaganda that will likely boost the esteem and strengthen the wills of his own regime’s enemies. Besides being a powerful political document of sorts, it an auteur work of at least three great artists within the medium of cinema, including the greatest maker of thrillers who has ever graced the screen in Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest cameramen and cinematographers of the period in Rudolph Mate, and production design work from the great art director William Cameron Menzies (whose other works include designs on The Wizard of Oz, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Things To Come, The Thief of Baghdad, and Duel in the Sun).
It was Hitchcock’s first true Hitchcock film in the states as Rebecca was a gothic affair with thriller elements, but with few of the elements that constitute a the Hitchcock brand: spies, the wrong man, doubles, the macguffin, and humor alongside drama. Foreign Correspondent by contrast is about spies and political intrigue, the man who is assassinated as Van Meer turns out to have been a double of Van Meer killed to make it appear as if Van Meer were dead, the peace treaty secret clause (Clause 27) is the macguffin, and the characteristic humor is sprinkled effectively throughout but especially in the scenes when Carol and John first meet, as well as in the moments when he first escapes his would-be murderers in the Hotel Europe. And in the sense that it is the first characteristically Hitchcockian film in Hollywood (as opposed to the much more Clouzotian Rebecca) it is an achievement worth celebrating and looking back upon fondly.
[Next up: To Have and Have Not]
[And a later Hitchcock film essay here: Strangers on a Train]
“So, let us be alert–alert in a twofold sense:
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake”
~ Viktor E. Frankl