Tuesday, June 29, 2010

#16: Fritz Lang

- "“Each picture has some sort of rhythm which only the director can give it. He has to be like the captain of a ship.”

Everyone reading this will likely agree that if Fritz Lang never came to the United States in 1936, his output in his native Germany alone would have still been strong enough to warrant placement in a countdown of this scope. Indeed, when you see my ranking of his films below, the top three all come from Lang’s pre-Hollywood days. But I am guessing that most people reading this are also similar to me in that they first came to Lang through his much more widely-available – and arguably more accessible – Hollywood films. Once I made my way through those that were easier to come by, it was inevitable to move on to his more critically acclaimed early days and see how the Lang legend was built. It was surprisingly difficult for me to try and compare and rank the films from these two distinct periods in Lang’s work, particularly when factoring in the fables and tales that have grown concerning the production of many of Lang’s early films. In terms of that hard-to-define quality of “greatness,” few if any of Lang’s American movies can trump those from Germany. Even so, I do love Lang’s American work, almost as much as his earlier German period, and in terms of favorites I place the best of his American work quite high.

These two separate phases make Lang’s complete body of work all the more fascinating, in my opinion, as it is interesting to observe the similarities and differences between them. In visual terms, there is no question that the more experimental and interesting work was done in Germany, as the cinematography and camera work in masterpieces like Metropolis and Destiny are still a marvel to behold almost a century later. His pictures of the 1920s display flair and style that almost immediately identify them as Fritz Lang films. I acknowledge that Metropolis is the greater and better film, but I have recently fallen in love with Destiny and am amazed at how beautifully eerie the cinematography is in that one. It is absolutely brilliant.

His best work on the western side of the Atlantic unquestionably centered on highly skilled crime dramas. Focusing less on technical artistry and experimentation, dark narratives and storytelling characterize these films. Taking a cue from what I consider the best movie he ever made – 1931’s M – Lang became a master at tackling dark subject matter, and even more impressively dark characters. The leading men and women in Lang movies like Fury, You Only Live Once, Scarlet Street, The Big Heat, and others seem like people predestined to hardship and suffering. Even the most hardened, bitter characters are rendered at least somewhat sympathetic in the way that Lang and his collaborators portray them. This ability is a main reason why Lang is one of the few men of the era who can stake a legitimate claim to being the greatest director of film noir. I don’t quite personally give him that mantle, but he is very close.

The sheer number of outstanding films in his total filmography might be the most impressive thing. I have ranked 20, which is nowhere near his entire output, and there honestly is not a bad movie in the entire list. Not all of them are M or Metropolis, and not all of them would be considered favorites, but all are enjoyable and worth seeking out.

1. M (1931)
2. Metropolis (1927)
3. Destiny (1921)
4. Scarlet Street (1945)
5. The Big Heat (1953)
6. While the City Sleeps (1956)
7. Die Nibelungen (1924)
8. Spies (1928)
9. Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
10. Clash by Night (1952)
11. House by the River (1950)
12. Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922)
13. You Only Live Once (1937)
14. The Blue Gardenia (1953)
15. The Woman in the Window (1944)
16. Hangmen Also Die! (1943)
17. Fury (1936)
18. Western Union (1941)
19. Man Hunt (1941)
20. Secret Beyond the Door (1948)

Up next: We go BLIND! Now things will be like countdowns of the past. Folks making submitting their own lists will not suffer, as I am highly unlikely to roll out a director that people are completely unfamiliar with. Plus, with two days for each entry, there is plenty of time. So the tension mounts! (LOL)


  1. Lang's another of my top ten directors and, in my view, the best of the silent era. I associate him with powerful antagonistic personalities: schemers, avengers and pure maniacs. He mastered the visualization of the supervillain or antihero in a way that made him a natural for noir. Oddly, I've been approaching him from either end of his career while neglecting much of his middle period; I still have a lot to catch up with. For now:

    2.Die Nibelungen
    5.While the City Sleeps
    6.The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
    7.The Big Heat
    9.Dr. Mabuse the Gambler
    10.The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse
    11.Western Union
    12.Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
    13.Hangmen Also Die!
    14.The Indian Tomb/The Tiger of Eschnapur
    15.Man Hunt
    16.The Return of Frank James

  2. I still have some essential Lang films missing (Ministry of Fear, You and Me, Secret Beyond the Door, and the Mabuse films are some I can think of) but that said, Lang's work isindispensable. M and Metropolis are essential masterpieces. Scarlet Street and The Big Heat are sure close to that vaulted status.

    Scarlet Street
    The Big Heat
    You Only Live Once
    The Woman in the Window
    Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
    Clash By Night
    Human Desire
    The Return of Frank James
    Man Hunt
    You Only Live Once
    Western Union
    While The City Sleeps
    The Blue Gardennia
    Rancho Notorious

  3. 1. M (1931)
    2. The Big Heat (1953)
    3. Fury (1936)
    4. Man Hunt (1941)
    5. Metropolis (1927)
    6. Scarlet Street (1945)
    7. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
    8. You Only Live Once (1937)
    9. The Woman in the Window (1944)
    10. While the City Sleeps (1956)

    M, not because of reputation alone, but because it is beyond vivid in memory. (Yes, I saw the Losey remake when in my teens, but honestly remember little of it.)

    The Big Heat for a few reasons. It is the style of film that I grew up with, it is an excellent example of the style, and it is suited to Lang. It is harsh and the Fifties were harsh – don’t believe the myth of the innocent Fifties. I lived then. And The Big Heat also because of Lee Marvin and particularly Gloria Grahame. (Watch her when you are nineteen and her image on the screen is 30 feet high.) Talk about fury.

    Lang’s Fury is at 3. I have heard the arguments over the years that the film would have been more significant if the Tracy character actually committed the original crime. But I prefer to judge the film as it was shown on the screen. Stunning to the eye, real to the ear, and close to the heart.

    This is a favorites list and I am comfortable with Metropolis at 5.

    Now to Joan Bennett. If she had appeared in twelve to fifteen of Fritz Lang’s American films, she might replace Bette Davis as my number one favorite of all time. But like the love in Manhunt that was never to be -- for so many reasons -- such did not occur. Whenever I think about Manhunt, it is neither the third rail nor the cave that come to mind. It is always Jerry walking across the bridge never again to see the man she loves. A marvelous performance that elevates a Geoffrey Household thriller to heights I suspect nobody imagined.

    Manhunt higher than Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window? 4, 6 and 9 fit nicely for me. After Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett, I had best move on. I never saw Mabuse in a theatre – would very much like that. Thank you Dave (this was done before reading your post – I have business away from home).


  4. Dave, have you seen Rancho Notorious? It's completely insane, and Lang's best western; there's a theme song that run through it in which the singer repeats "hate, murder and revenge," which really sums up Lang's preoccupations in his American films I think. My favorite film of his is probably Die Nibelungen or Spies, though he made many great ones.

  5. Well, there's little question as to Lang's greatness and influence on the cinematic landscape, and his filmography does contain masterpieces crafted on both sides of the Atlantic and in both the silent and talkie era. Much of his work of course defines darkness in its rawest form and he is a titan of the crime drama as you note in another terrific lead-in essay. Few would contest your placement. His M, rightfully the top choice, is probably the greatest German film of all-time, and METROPOLIS is as celebrated as any film ever made.

    1 M
    2 Die Niebelungen
    3 Testament of Dr. Mabuse
    4 The Big Heat
    5 Metropolis
    6 Man Hunt
    7 Scarlet Street
    8 Spione
    9 Woman in the Window
    10 You Only Live Once
    11 While the City Sleeps
    12 Fury
    13 The Return of Frank James
    14 The Indian Tomb
    15 Destiny
    16 The 1,000 Eyes of Doctor Mabuse
    17 Clash by Night
    18 Western Union
    19 Secret Beyond the Door
    20 House by the River

  6. We did a top ten for Lang in your film noir countdown. My list would probably be the same except for a few minor changes. "Testament" moves to number 2 as I watched it recently and it feels like a great companion piece to M. Scarlet Street drops slightly as my third viewing exposed some minor problems I have with the pace of the film and some plot contrivances that I couldn't seem to shake this time (dead husbands for one).

    1. M
    2. The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse
    3. The Big Heat
    4. Metropolis
    5. Scarlet Street
    6. Destiny
    7. Die Niebelungen
    8. The Woman In The Window
    9. While The City Sleeps
    10. Dr. Mabuse The Gambler

    Wondering if anyone will be bold enough to not place M at the top position......M.Roca

  7. Samuel - I specifically remember you mentioning being a fan of While the City Sleeps during the noir countdown. I didn't get to it in time to be included there, but I'm glad that I finally did watch. I also like seeing it listed so high on your list. I don't know if I can quite name him my favorite of the silent era, but he's at least in the discussion.

    John - You sum it up perfectly. His best films from both Germany and the United States are essential.

    Gerald - Wonderful thoughts on these films. I don't quite share your passion of either Fury or Man Hunt, but I love hearing the responses that you had when watching each film.

    Doniphon - I haven't seen Rancho Notorious but want to. I know that it is now available through the Warner Brothers Archive and might have to see about getting a copy.

    Sam - You're right on every point here and I still am buzzing from the wonderful version of Metropolis that you sent me a few months back. It was a great experience to watch it. It doesn't really challenge M, but that is only because I rank M so high.

    Maurizio - I am somewhat surprised myself that not a single person has gone with Metropolis in the top spot. But M really is a masterpiece, so I guess it shouldn't be too great of a surprise.

  8. Dave:

    You sent me to “Destiny” on Netflix this morning and I was quite taken with it. First thoughts only, a few moments after watching it. “Destiny” seems almost two films in two styles – the very German, very European framing story and the so different, imaginative three episodes. I know that my favorite English director, Michael Powell, revered Lang and was influenced by him. One can detect evidence here of that which was carried over to Powell’s films.

    Thank you for steering me down this byway. I lived in Germany for a few years but have only a rudimentary knowledge of its film history – and that more from the perspective of the impact of its history on our film industry. One wonders if Lang had that image of death lurking in the shadows of his mind when he left Germany in 1934. Best.


  9. Lang is a top-tenner for me, too...and the more of his work I see (from both sides of the Atlantic) the more I am impressed.

    This a very hard list to do and there is so much I still need to see of his, but here we go:

    1. M
    2. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (love the parallels to Nolan's The Dark Knight in this one)
    3. Fury
    4. Metropolis
    5. The Big Heat
    6. Scarlet Street
    7. The Woman in the Window
    8. Ministry of Fear

    Didn't really care much for the original Mabuse film or Spies.

  10. After seeing the newest second restoration of Metropolis from Kino (dvd coming out on Nov 16, 2010)....I'm going to say Metropolis is Lang's magnum opus and greatest film.

    A shame we've had to wait until 2010 to see it in its fully-realized form.

  11. Metropolis's ranking needs to be re-evaluated by Lang fans, because only now is its 99% complete version being seen here in 2010.