I went to a Hollywood party in the early 1970s, held in honour of François Truffaut, one of the few French directors that Hollywood had heard of at the time. There were a lot of high-rollers there congratulating each other on their careers but I was curious about the old man with an eyepatch sitting alone in a corner.
When I asked who he was, someone said: “Oh, that’s some old Hollywood director.” It was, in fact, Fritz Lang who, apart from his German classics, made a number of the very best American films of the 1940s and 1950s. He had been invited largely because of Truffaut’s long-held admiration for him.
He seemed surprised that I knew most of his films and asked me which I liked best. I cited M (1931) as the German example and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) as the American, although it could have been half a dozen others.
Born in Vienna in 1890, Lang had an extraordinary mastery of European expressionism that allowed him to illustrate the state of a continent that gave rise to fascism, and to make an implicit critique of the “freedom” of American capitalism. Perhaps he was a pessimist for whom life itself appeared to be some kind of trap. But he was indisputably a great director.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, in which Dana Andrews gives one of his most effective performances, illustrates that greatness perfectly. It is a film of great economy and precision (it lasts only 80 minutes), with the terrifying inevitability of Greek tragedy and a pervading sense that man is his own worst enemy.
Andrews plays a reporter who agrees to incriminate himself in a murder case because his editor (Sidney Blackmer) is pursuing a campaign against capital punishment. They plant a lighter that was given to the reporter by his fiancee (Joan Fontaine) and the reporter then poses for the photographs that will prove his innocence. Almost immediately Lang’s long shot of the scene seems to suggest that things may go badly wrong.
They do. He seduces a stripper who was the murdered girl’s friend, infuriating his own girlfriend although he is sure that she’ll understand when all is explained. But when the only man who can exonerate him is killed in a car accident, she fights to establish his innocence – only to find that he is, in fact, guilty.
This story is so tautly directed and skilful in its manipulation of our sympathies that, several times during the film, one changes sides, for and against the man who tempted fate and the woman whose righteousness may be impeccable but is also rather irritating.
The reason the film deserves its accolades is partly that Lang makes a simple format beautifully complicated. The form is one thing, the content another in most movies. Here they are indivisible.
Lang’s career is ample evidence that while most European directors who went to America were hampered by the system, not all of them were destroyed by it. Europe itself did its share of destruction.
Lang’s The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933) was banned by the Nazis, after which Lang was summoned to the office of Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, and apologetically asked to supervise Nazi film production.
Fearing his Jewish background would be discovered, he fled Germany. But it is only fair to add that he also fled Hollywood in 1956, citing disputes with producers.
Nevertheless Lang made great films in two continents – in three if you agree that The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959), made in India, is a successful mixture of his German and American styles. That’s an extraordinary record.