Friday, January 28, 2011

Fritz Blitz!

Werth: Hello Wise!

Wise: Hello Werth!

Werth: I am so excited that Film Forum here in New York is presenting a two week retrospective of the American films of one of my favorite directors—Fritz Lang!

Wise: Is he your favorite because he wore a monocle?

Werth: Only partly. Lang was a true cinematic visionary who crossed over from industry-standard-setting German silent films in the 1920’s to make some outstanding films for the Hollywood machine through the 1950’s.

Wise: It looks like Film Forum has lots of Lang goodies on tap: Scarlet Street (1945) with Edward G. Robinson, Ministry of Fear (1944) with Ray Milland, Clash By Night (1952)  with Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Monroe, Rancho Notorious (1952) with Marlene Dietrich, and You Only Live Once (1937) with Henry Fonda.

Werth: The other star of You Only Live Once, saucer-eyed beauty Sylvia Sidney, is also in Lang’s first American flick, which finishes up the Film Forum series, 1936’s Fury.

 Wise: That’s a title that screams for an exclamation point.

Werth: Subtler punctuation prevailed. Fury stars Spencer Tracy as the co-owner of a gas station who is driving cross-country to collect his fiancee (Sidney) after he makes a success of his business. Unfortunately their romantic reunion is interrupted when a country cop pulls Tracy over mistaking him for a fugitive kidnapper.

Wise: I hate when that happens.

Werth: Tracy plays it cool, expecting that justice will prevail when, unfortunately, word spreads through the small town that the notorious kidnapper’s been captured. The townspeople go hog-wild, turning into a frothy-mouthed mob out for vengeance, and even the sheriff can’t stop them. They light the prison on fire and watch it burn down as Tracy cries out from his cell window, the flames engulfing him.

Wise: Um, that’s not a very happy ending, even for Lang.

Werth: Oh it’s not over—cause through a small miracle, Tracy survives and escapes allowing the town and the news reporters to think he’s dead. From the safety of another town, singed and keeping his identity a secret, he proceeds to put the entire town on trial for murder.

Wise: You don’t see that on Law & Order.

Werth: You sure don’t. Lang was really ahead of his time in his depiction of crime and morality. Much like his German classic M (1931), Lang explored the grey areas between right and wrong with intelligence and depth. In M, Peter Lorre is a child killer pursued by a mob of low-life criminals who think he deserves to be executed—by them.
In Fury, Tracy starts off innocent, but due to the wholly undeserved retribution of the mob, he turns vengeful. His hunger for payback turns him, in essence, into a one-man mob. Lang asks the question, if mob rule exists, is there such a thing as innocence? Considering half-Jewish Lang (his mother converted to Catholicism) got out of Germany in 1933 after his film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was banned by the Nazis, it was a subject that he could speak to with some authority. And Tracy really transforms from a typical everyman into a madman driven by rage, anger—

Wise: —and fury.

Werth: Yet he does it with his typical grasp of how emotions best play on the screen—coming  from within—not through wild gestures and temper tantrums. It’s an early film from him, but the man who would evolve into one of the cinema’s best actors shows hints of that future greatness. 
And Sidney’s turn as the anguished lover is a perfect example of this unique actress’s performance abilities—which sadly have been forgotten—until you remind people she’s the old, afterlife paper-pusher with the slit throat in Tim Burton’s Beeteljuice.

Wise: She does make me want to have a cigarette. My favorite Lang film sadly, isn’t on the docket because it’s not one of his American films. It’s Metropolis which made a lot of headlines last year when twenty-five minutes of footage, which had been hacked from the film during distribution and without Lang’s permission, was discovered in an archive in Buenos Aires.  

Werth: I love it when they find missing footage.  

Wise: Metropolis is perhaps the most famous example of movies that were hailed as masterpieces immediately after premiering only to be butchered by distributors in the name of making bigger profits by having more frequent screenings.  Erich von Stroheim’s Greed is perhaps the most prominent American example. 

Werth: I’m surprised you didn’t mention Judy Garland’s A Star is Born (1954).

Wise: You beat me to it. But Metropolis is unusual in that it has continued to be so influential even in its incomplete form.  Films like Blade Runner and Star Wars owe an obvious debt to Lang’s vision, but small nods to the movie’s brilliance occur throughout the history of cinema—

Werth: —like Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video.

Wise: The design of Metropolis is highly influenced by German expressionism and the sets and costumes aren’t mere window dressing, but instead become an integral part of the emotional landscape of the movie.  Thus, a factory entrance isn’t just a door, but a gaping mouth swallowing the miserable workers whole; the country club where the wealthy idle is a gilded Eden; and the titular city looms overhead like a sparking dream only to descend into twisted chaos below. 

Werth: And statues of the Seven Deadly Sins aren’t just statues—well they are just statues—but they move!

Wise: Metropolis isn’t all spectacle, even though Lang does stage those set pieces brilliantly.  At its heart, Metropolis is a story of aspirations and failed dreams told through the lens of a son’s relationship to his father.  Joh Fredersen founded and runs the city with a mirthless efficiency.  His son Freder, raised in rich indolence, catches a glimpse of a beautiful worker Maria, and follows her to the depths of the underground city where the downtrodden labor thanklessly to provide luxuries to those who live in the opulent towers above.  

But amid the factory disasters, the riots, the floods, the disguises, the mistaken identities, attempted murders, subterfuge, the mad scientist, and a machine man masquerading as Freder’s love Maria, there are some tender moments.  Joh Fredersen confronts the tragic death of his wife while his son finds purpose and love while fighting for the rights of workers.  

Werth: Father vs. son, proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie, man vs. sexy woman robot—it’s got it all!

Wise: But Lang’s brilliance transforms these human dilemmas into grandiose extravaganzas.  He can afford to have the most spectacular, over-the-top pageantry because he always ties it directly to the motives of his characters.  

Werth: And that’s what separates his films from the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Lang is concerned with the people caught in extraordinary events instead of selling special effects.  

Wise: So, do yourself a favor and spend an evening at Film Forum catching up with a true cinematic genius.  

Werth: And wear a monocle! See you next week for more Film Gab.  

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