Fritz Goes West

October 19, 2013

vlcsnap-2013-10-19-11h00m05s137

1940, and in color, Fritz Lang takes on The Western, in The Return of Frank James.  What do you get when the master of M and Metropolis goes west?  A pretty good show, with Henry Fonda being particularly fine.

Lang plays it straight with the genre – how could he do otherwise then?  But at times, he seems to be slipping in some playful self-referential material.  Frank James is the brother of Jesse James, the famous outlaw gunned down by the Ford brothers, supposedly in a cowardly manner in return for their pardons.  When Frank hears they are off the hook for the killing, he vows to get them.

Frank concocts a bit of theater to make it easier to spring a trap on the Fords.  He checks into a fancy hotel and spreads the story by way of his young sidekick that Frank James was actually shot dead in a gunfight in Mexico.  Nobody knows their faces, so the ruse is quite successful.  It attracts the interest of a young, ambitious female reporter, Eleanor, played by Gene Tierney in her first starring role, who is completely taken by the tale.  In the shot below, Clem acts out his “eye witness” account of Frank’s “heroic” death for the benefit of Eleanor and Frank.  He seems to be spoofing the western genre itself as he does so.

vlcsnap-2013-10-19-10h58m07s116

Seems that the Fords are making hay out of their killing of Jesse, reenacting it in another bit of theater.  Frank goes in to take a look at the show, Earlier in the film, there is a bit of dialog in which Frank relates another theatrical experience of his, seeing a great performance by an actor named Booth.   Frank sits in a box  above the stage, but he doesn’t kill anyone at the show, unlike John Wilkes.  When Ford recognizes him from the stage, and hurls a lamp at him, Frank, like John Wilkes Booth, leaps from his box onto the stage, but he doesn’t break his arm…

vlcsnap-2013-10-19-10h58m38s68 vlcsnap-2013-10-19-10h59m28s42

Eventually, Frank turns himself in to prevent his farmhand “darky,” innocent of any crime, from being hanged for taking part in one of Frank’s robberies.  The subsequent trial is filled with Civil War politics that results in Frank’s acquittal.  I wonder what Fritz made of it all.

Say, what was the name of that theater, Mrs. Lincoln..?


Sacrifice of the Sun

September 9, 2013

click to animate

From the first part of Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (1919).  It’s an Indiana Jones kind of tale.

I find it incredible that I can watch moving figures captured almost 100 years ago.


Society’s Children

September 5, 2013

Is not each one us a society’s child?  Society made Eddie a killer, and then crucified him for it.

You Only Live Once (1937) is the second film by Fritz Lang after he came to America, and a pretty bleak job it is.  Yes, I’d call it early noir, but it is also drenched with religious imagery.  Henry Fonda plays Eddie Taylor (E. T. – that’s important in the film) and Sylvia Sydney looks gorgeous playing his faithful, too faithful, wife, Jo.  He’s a good guy who’s gone wrong, and paid for it.  Now, he wants to go straight, Jo waited for him during his three-year stretch in the joint, but society won’t give an ex-con a break. They’re doomed, and you know it.

Jo’s friend is a good-hearted lawyer who gets Eddie a job as a trucker when he’s freed, and he also carries a torch for Jo.  In the film, he seems to be a direct mouthpiece for Lang’s views, sometimes lambasting the authorities for their brutishness and prejudice.  He hopes for the best for Jo, when she and Eddie tie the knot on his release.

Eddie is a romantic, and of course that will screw him up good, but first he and she have a delightful honeymoon at a cozy motel, which has a lovely garden.

1b

The lovebirds are watched over by two frogs who don’t appear to be mating themselves.  At one point in the story, when Jo believes Eddie is on his way to the chair for a crime he did not commit, she sends him a message – “I still remember the frogs.”  Only Fritz!

1d

Those impassive guardians of the night watch as Eddie picks her up, kisses her, and mounts the steps to Calvary…oops, I mean their bedroom.  It’s a foreshadowing of the final sequence when he carries Jo through the woods, both of them riddled with bullets, to their final rest.  Pietas come to mind, as well as the finale of Farewell to Arms.

1c

Eddie is late on a truck run because he makes a detour to take Jo to look at a house, a real fixer-up-er, that he and Jo can live in now that they are married.  Naturally, his boss is not understanding, and he humiliates him with insults when he begs for another chance, telling the boss that his friends tempt him with easy money from safe bank heists, but he wants no more of that. No dice – the boss fires him, after forcing him to wait while he has trivial phone conversations with his wife about social arrangements.  “Straight society sucks,” is the message.  Eddie delivers a knock-out blow to the boss’ chin and says, “And I wanted to go straight!…

That scene is the set-up for one of the most outrageous plots twists I can remember, at least of those that work!  Eddie appears to have caved in, returned to the life of crime because society just won’t give him a break.  Once a con, always a con…  He’s arrested for a deadly bank job in which six men died from poison gas used to incapacitate the armored car guards.  His hat, with his initials, was found on the scene, and was used to identify him since the robber wore a full gas mask.  He is sent up, and sentenced to die.

Jo believes in him, and she carries a heavy load because she urged Eddie to turn himself in, believing he would get off with a fair trial. We figure she is just taken in by Eddie’s lies because she loves him:  so taken by love, that she agrees to smuggle in a gun to him. The plot is foiled by a crude metal detector, but the good Father takes the blame to get Jo off the hook.  He takes her aside and chides her:  that arch looks like it’s ready to crush them with its institutional weight.

We too are taken in, but by Lang’s audacious plot twist that makes us complicit in society’s unfair pre-judgement.  Until it’s too late, we believe Eddie did it.  By then, Eddie, caged like an animal for slaughter, has lost all ability to judge the odds, let alone right and wrong.

1f

With the aid of a friendly con, he makes a daring escape, using the fog and the all-too-bourgeois prison doctor as a shield.

1g

Eddie reunites with Jo, who, this time, won’t urge him to turn himself in, not when she learns he shot Father Dolan on the way out.  She figures she’s as guilty as he is because it was she who urged him to surrender in the first place, when he wasn’t guilty! They run for it, like those Gun Crazy kids, like Bonnie and Clyde, and even, maybe, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.

1h

They have a brief rest, before journey’s end.  Idyllic…

1i

Eddie knows they’re doomed.  How could it be otherwise?  He’s serene, and she loves him.  They’ll go together.

1j

They hit a roadblock, take some heavy fire from Tommy guns, and crash.  Eddie stumbles into the woods, carrying Jo in his arms.  The trooper lines up his gun with the two in his sights…  Is it just me, or is that not the cross I see there, completed by Eddie?  He is the sacrificial lamb for our social sins.

1k

Jo, dying, tells him she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

1l

He knows what he must do.  He must kiss her dead lips, and then he will be free.

1m

1n

He sees the gates to freedom opening before him, and he hears the voice of Father Dolan repeating what he said during the breakout, when Eddie shot him – “You’re free!  The gates are open!”

The title of this post is a reference, of course, to Society’s Child, a hit song from 1965 written by Janis Ian when she was fourteen (!!) and performed live on TV when she was sixteen.  It’s the story of a white girl in love with a black boy, forced to break off with him because of her parents’ disapproval and peer pressure.  She knows it’s all wrong but what can she do? She’s just society’s child.


Ver Sacrum, 1903

December 30, 2012


Three woodcuts from the Secession art magazine, Ver Sacrum, 1903.  You can page through the entire year’s issues  here.  This endless Vienna Werkstatte design fest in The Nibelungen better not last much longer, or I will be tempted to run through the available stock on ebay…

venice


Fritz Lang’s Long-Lived Frauen

December 28, 2012

m_15b_c_B_Helm

All three of these German actresses who starred in Fritz Lang’s silent-era masterpieces lived to be ninety years old!  Schon and Helm managed to live through WWII in Berlin without being blown to bits.  Above, Brigitte Helm as the false Maria in Metropolis, and a publicity shot:  1906-1996

vlcsnap-321736

Margarete Schon as Kriemhild in The Nibelungen, and a publicity photo:  1895 – 1985

brunhildHanna

Hannah Ralph as Brunhild in The Nibelungen, and a publicity photo:  1888 – 1978


Kriemhild, Attila, c. 450 A.D. by Fritz Lang

December 26, 2012

vlcsnap-321736vlcsnap-326230

From Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen:  Siegfried is dead, murdered at the behest of Gunther, King of Burgundy.  The widow, Kriemhild, Gunther’s sister, resolves to leave the court and seek revenge.  An offer of marriage comes to her from Attila (aka the Hun), and she accepts.  See the animated GIF below.

As she rides away, her escort asks if she doesn’t want to hail her family once more.  The answer is “No.”  Her mother cries; the court poet smashes his instrument in anguish.  She arrives at the court of the Huns, taken aback by the crude barbarism of it.  Attila is transfixed by his bride to be.

vlcsnap-320805

Click to Animate

[Anthony Burgess wrote a great story about Attila the Hun, simply titled Hun, that describes his anxieties and preoccupations as he ravages the Roman Empire.  It was published in a collection, The Devil's Mode.]


Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen

December 23, 2012

kiss1Gustav_Klimt_016

Before Metropolis, before M, there was the Nibelungen (1925), a five-hour Nordic-medieval-romance-fantasy like nothing I have ever seen.  The primal storytelling impulse that drives this magnificent set of moving images has petered out today in computer generated extravaganzas of ersatz mythologies dreamed up by an English university professor.

One element of the art design that struck me was that it was like watching the Vienna Succession brought to life.  The sets, costumes, and even the direction often look as if they are lifted right from Gustave Klimt (see the cropped images above) and his contemporaries.  The cinematic results are magnificent, and, strangely, it sheds new, backwards directed light on the sensibility of that fin de siècle art movement.

vlcsnap-3757505

vlcsnap-3757190


Drainage Made Him Do It!

December 4, 2012

house8
Laid low by some sort of virus, Fritz Lang’s House on the River (1950) is just the sort of relatively light-weight confection I needed to keep boredom away.  A low-budget gem to be sure, this gothic-noir features a rich author, Steven Byrne, who is having a bit of writer’s block.  We learn that he has a not-too-healthy relationship with his co-dependent brother, who complains about the thousands of scrapes he’s helped his literary brother escape.  He even lives modestly as a bookkeeper so his brother can have the luxury due to an artiste, all on their joint inheritance.

Steven has a pretty wife and a wandering eye.  He is delightfully twisted, and always speaks with an upper crust calm and suavity, even when he is responding to his wife’s charges that he stays out at night, comes home drunk and smelling of cheap perfume.  “The smell of cheap perfume can be quite exciting, my dear…”  he replies.  Honest to a fault, that Steven.

The plot is set in motion by his desire for the fresh-faced young girl who is the housemaid.  She tells him that the servant’s quarters bath is not yet fixed, and he graciously allows her to use the upstairs one, his wife’s, who is away with friends.  The sound of the bath water sluicing down the pipe is too much for the imaginative Steven – he must have her.  (Pipes in those days were often mounted outside of the walls, as shown here.  The film takes place in the early 20th century.)

Drainage made him do it

click to animate – drainage!

His romantic advances are spurned, they struggle, he kills her, quite by accident of course.  He enlists his mush-brained brother to help him cover it up by dumping the body in the river.  His brother will do anything to avoid disgrace or discomfort for Steven’s wife, whom he secretly loves.

All seems to go well as they dump the body, but then a leaping fish breaks the calm of the night, terrifying Steven.  The image of the leaping fish will come back to haunt him, called up by the sparkles of light on the vanity mirror in his house.

house7

When Steven’s brother confronts him, the author admits that he feels he gained something from the murder; his writing is so much better now.  His brother tells him he must be very ill to think that way.  Steven (top image) replies, “Ill…?”  Well, it’s a thin line.  

His relationship with his pretty wife seems rather cool, but here, they are in quite a passionate clutch.  Of course, he’s just about to start strangling her.

That’s Fritz all over.
house9


M for Metropolis!

December 3, 2012

Fritz Lang, who made that fabulous Ur-noir, M, made Metropolis (1927) as well, but until the last few years, it was never seen in its original form. The restored version, including lost footage retrieved from a full print found in Argentina, is available on Netflix, and it is glorious.  A sci-fi fairy tale with ominous Art Deco sets and art production, a full-on tale from the Germanic medieval Apocalyptic tradition, and an Expressionist masterpiece, it awakens in me a deep understanding of the older name for movies, motion pictures.  The images, each one, are fabulous, and they are given life through the technology of cinema.

Lang expressed distaste for his masterpiece later in his life.  He felt that it was politically naïve and simplistic.  His feelings may have had something to do with the fact that his collaborator on the work, his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, went on to embrace the Nazis, leading to their divorce soon after, and to his exile to Hollywood where he made several excellent film noirs, including Human Desire, Scarlett Street, The Big Heat.  It’s hard for me to watch this film and not think about the conflagration to come to Germany, and Europe, ten years later.

The melodramatic plot concerns Joh Fredersen, The Master of Metropolis, the city that he built on the backs of his workers.  The city is a brilliant aerial extravaganza: the workers live underground in dismal blocks of flats that look like the work of a dropout from the Bauhaus architecture school.  His magnificent brain produces the ideas and directives that keep the city humming, and his every word, utterance, and gesture is attended to with slavish awe by his subordinates.

m00_c_

m1_c_m0_c_

The children of the rich frolic in pleasure domes at the top of the city towers that look like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, if he had gone to Hollywood.  Maria, a teacher from the worker’s world, brings some of her charges up on a field trip.  One wonders what were the guards who let her in thinking?  That begins the ruin of all of them.

m2_c_m3_c_

m3aa_c_m3a_c_

Freder, The Master’s son, is transfixed by the sight of Maria, and decides he must go down to the depths of the worker’s city to find her. She is regarded as a spiritual leader by the workers, and restrains their violent tendencies, telling them that a Mediator will come, to join together the Head (The Master) and the The Hands (the Workers.) The allusions and similarities to New and Old Testament language and imagery are deliberate and consistent.

Freder is appalled by what he finds underground.  He witnesses an explosion at the main machine that kills many workers, and he has a vision of the infernal engine as a Moloch devouring the people. From then on, he refers to his father’s city as The Tower of Babel.

m5_c_
m5a_c_
m6_c_

He goes in search of other knowledge, and comes upon a man killing himself with the effort of manning his post.  He is part of a crude feedback mechanism, and he must manually move the arms of the machine to point to the lights on the outer circle as they blink.  They change often, and he is worn out with keeping up, but if he does not, disaster will ensue:  He looks like a man crucified. Freder relieves him and takes his place and his worker’s clothes. He sends the man up to the city and to wait for him at a friend’s apartment, but the worker ends up spending his type at the city’s casino, a decadent fleshpot.  So much for the virtuous proles!

m7_c_m8_c_

In another part of the city, in the only building that retains a pre-modern appearance, a tall, ancient mansion, lives Rotwang, the mad scientist- inventor.  It is obvious from his artificial hand that Dr. Strangelove owes something to this movie, as do so many others!

Rotwang's House

m9_c_

There’s a back story here:  Frederson’s wife, Hel, is dead, but it seems that both Master and Madman loved her.  The inventor maintains a shrine to her memory that Frederson  contemplates when he pays a visit to his main technological adviser and mentor. (These images are from restored footage, and they are grainy, and cropped differently.)

m11_c_m11aa_c_

Rotwang reveals that he has been developing a mechanical man to reincarnate Hel, and Frederson is horrified, but intrigued.

m13_c_

Knowing that his workers are being roused to rebellion by Maria, he commands Rotwang to fashion her in the image of Maria, and send her among the workers to sow chaos and discord.  Instead of Maria’s message of peace and reconciliation, the mechanical-Maria will preach insurrection and violence.  Joh Frederson will have a perfect excuse for retaliating brutally and teaching the proles their proper place.

m11a_c_m10_c_

Rotwang kidnaps Maria and uses her in his deranged experiment…

m14b_c_

…which ends up being rather successful.

m14_c_      m14a_c_

The transformed Maria is presented to Frederson, and he sets his awful plan in motion, not knowing that his son is in love with the real woman, and is living among the workers.  The guys on the top just don’t know what’s going down…

m_duo_c_

Freder sees his father with the false Maria and is stunned and horrified.  He swoons, and is put to bed, where he has an extended  vision along the lines of Revelation, ending with his cry, “Death come to the city!”  I have created an animated GIF of his vision, below, that you can click to activate.

dance_

click to animate and view in full

Meanwhile, the false Maria carries out her mission of evil among the workers.

m15_c_

Freder tries to unmask her as the impostor he knows she must be, but the workers turn on him as a member of the ruling class.
m_15a_c_

Talk about a femme fatale!

m_15b_c_

Roused by her calls to violence, the workers storm the engine rooms, and overcome the foreman, who occupies a rather difficult position in the class hierarchy.  He is a worker, but he is at the top of the class, a sort of craft-union type, and he knows the mob is wreaking destruction on itself!  He shuts the gates to hold off the mob, but The Master, with his own long game in play, orders him to raise them.  He obeys, the engines are smashed, the pumps stop, and the workers city begins to flood.

m_17_c_m_18a_c_

m_17a_c_

m_16_c_

The workers do an infernal dance around the smoldering ruin of the main engine, but the foreman breaks the spell, demanding of them, “Where are your children?”  Indeed, they gave no thought to them as they went on their rampage, and the foreman makes clear to them their utter dependence on the machines that they have smashed.  Luddite he ain’t.

m_foreman_c_

mq1_c_mq2_c_

mq3_c_

The real Maria comes to the rescue, herding the children left behind to the alarm station where she is ringing the bell.

m_21_c_m_20_c_

Meanwhile, the false Maria declares, “Let’s watch the city go to the devil!!” an parties with the city élite.

m22_c_

Like Hugo’s novel Notre dame de Paris, the center of the city, even of the godless machine-metropolis, is the cathedral.  It symbolizes the mediating heart between head and hands.  And as in that novel, a climactic struggle between Good and Evil takes place on the roof as Freder fights with Rotwang.

M23_c_M24b_c_

Down in the square, the foreman leads the action, roping the false Maria to a stake for burning in the good old fashioned way.

m22a_c_

m22b_c_

With purifying flame comes the revelation of her true nature.

M21_c_

Finally, Freder emerges with Maria and his father, and mediates an uneasy reconciliation between the foreman, speaking for the masses, and his father.  Happy ending for ruler and ruled!

m24_c_


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 172 other followers