The Spy Films Of Fritz Lang

Whilst writing for the longest running and most widely acclaimed film publication, Cahiers du cinema in the late 1970’s, François Truffaut voiced with cynical solemnity his scathing opinion of an industry, who, upon the death of filmmaker Fritz Lang in 1976, had, in his opinion, tragically undervalued the Austrian screenwriter, director and producer… most notably during his Hollywood years in the latter part of his career.

For Truffaut it was a moral blunder and severe oversight for the industry to:

‘…deny him (Lang) any genius when it came to spy movies, war movies or simple thrillers…’

Spies Fritz Lang

Arguably, Fascism in Europe and the 2nd World War provided some of the spy genre’s meatiest subject material. Audiences were swept headlong into bullet-paced and cyanide-laced tales of espionage, government agents and top-secret operations.

And by the late 1930’s most of the major Hollywood studios had cottoned-on to the phenomenon; producing such films as Michael Curtiz’s British Agent (1934, Warner Brothers) and Carol Reed’s Night Train To Munich (1940, 20th Century Fox).

The faces of British Agent, Kay Francis and Leslie Howard in a Warner Brothers production.

Alfred Hitchcock almost singlehandedly crafted the modern thriller from the volatile world of the wartime paranoiac. A string of classics, including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 & 1956), The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Saboteur (1942) and Notorious (1946) ushered the modern spy film into the spotlight, and further cemented Hitch’s reputation as a master of suspense.

But what can be said of the various important contributions to the spy movie from the great Fritz Lang?

Ring of terror. Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse trilogy comes highly recommended.

Although his early silent Expressionist films like Dr Mabuse, der Spieler Parts 1 & 2 (1922) contained elements of espionage and terror, it was undoubtably Lang’s seminal spy film Spione, or Spies (1928) that laid the blueprint for many a spy film that followed.

However, Lang’s filmmaking career in Germany was fast approaching a monumental roadblock… and all when the master director appeared to have the most wind in his sails.

As the looming cloud of Fascism began to cast it’s shadow over Europe, Fritz Lang grew more and more concerned for not only his creative endeavours, but for his own wellbeing. Under new Nuremberg Laws his Jewish heritage could make him a vilified target in the country that he had helped become a major player in the motion picture industry. And soon after Hitler seized power in 1933, Lang’s film DasTestament des Dr. Mabuse was banned in Nazi Germany, deemed as a flagrant incitement to public disorder.

Genius at work. Fritz Lang on set for Woman In The Moon.

So, in 1934 Fritz Lang emigrated to Paris and eventually Hollywood, where he would go on to direct 23 feature films, either under contract to major motion picture studios or independently. Dubbed ‘the master of darkness’ by the British Film Institute, Lang’s spy films of the 1940’s exemplify how the influx to Hollywood of European filmmakers after the war was inadvertently shaping what was to be known as noir; through their use of low-key chiaroscuro lighting of film sets, and seedy stories of crime, murder and betrayal.

But if Lang figured his days of censorship and creative constrictions were behind him, then he was dead wrong. At the time, his adopted US homeland was taking a stance of neutrality with regards to the war. And Lang’s anti-Nazi spy films were drawing unwanted attention from the regulatory bodies of the newly formed Hays Code… not to mention concerns from powerful studio bosses like Darryl F. Zanuck. Some went so far as to call them ‘hate films’, brimming with bias and wrongly misrepresenting all Germans as evil fascists. Lang soon found himself in an awkward position from a creative standpoint.

Fritz Lang on set for the German crime masterpiece in 1931.

Conclusively, he decided to continue on making films his way, even if it meant sitting in at production cutting rooms against executive orders, and personally ensuring nothing was censored from his work. In a five year period Fritz Lang produced four of the finest spy movies– from as many Hollywood studios, that remain politically and aesthetically significant to the movement.

Manhunt (20th Century Fox, 1941)

‘Somewhere in Germany… shortly before the war…’

When prized British game hunter Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) enters a highly fortified zone and mounts his long-range rifle atop a cliff in the hills, he locks his sights upon the biggest ‘sporting stalk’ in modern history (none other than the Führer himself). He is spotted just in time by an SS guard, the shot fires astray, and the hunter instantaneously becomes an unwitting pawn in the war games between Britain and Nazi Germany.

Walter Pidgeon as Capt. Thorndike in Fritz Lang’s Manhunt

Based upon the story Rogue Male that first appeared in 1939 as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly Magazine, Manhunt was the first of Fritz Lang’s Hollywood spy films. Filmed not long after war had broken out across Europe, the film starred such actors as Roddy McDowall, who had just been evacuated from the London blitz.

By today’s standards, it seems whimsical and absurd that Lang’s anti-Nazi message would have stirred so much controversy amongst studio executives and motion picture censors at the time. Nevertheless, censorship regulators like Joseph Breen pushed to have large segments of Manhunt omitted from the final edit. Lang didn’t budge, even editing the film in secret with his associate Gene Fowler Jr.

Manhunt Poster

And the film certainly doesn’t fall short on explosive dialogue, like Walter Pidgeon’s monologue finale that takes aim at Hitler himself:

‘He’s guilty against me and against humanity! Against every decent, peaceful person in the world! He’s guilty of hatred, intolerance and murder!’

Hangmen Also Die! (United Artists, 1943)

Following the assassination of a Gestapo agent in occupied Czechoslovakia, the Nazi’s attempt to tighten the noose around the culprit through the mass-execution of hostages.

Loosely base on historical events surrounding the 1942 assassination of a high ranking Nazi official dubbed ‘the hangman of Prague’, Fritz Lang’s second Hollywood spy film was co-written by John Wexley, from a story by Bertolt Brecht.

Hangmen credits
A number of working titles were initially considered for the film, including Never Surrender, Unconquered and We Killed Hitler’s Hangman.

The film was Brecht’s only screen credit for a Hollywood film, leaving the United States shortly after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Commission. Wexley was also targeted by the HUAC and blacklisted for accusations of communist subversion.

A collaboration between three creative exiles from Nazi Germany: Lang, Brecht and Hanns Eisler (Eisler was nominated for an Academy Award for his musical score), Hangmen Also Die! bares exemplary proof the sort of talent that was finding a new home in Hollywood, after persecution in their respective homelands.

1943 Hangman also die (ing) (wc)

Ministry of Fear (Paramount Pictures, 1944)

‘A quiet life from here on…’

From an establishing shot of a clock pendulum swinging from the walls of the Lembridge Asylum, the frame pulls out to reveal our protagonist (Ray Milland) watching eagerly from the shadows, as the hands tick past the top of the hour.

Co-stars Marjorie Reynolds and Ray Milland in Ministry of Fear.

Based upon author Graham Greene’s lesser known, 1943 novel of the same name, Ministry of Fear still wields as much postwar punch as his other tale The Third Man. With strong elements of noir, Lang’s third Hollywood spy movie is perhaps his darkest, and certainly his most psychological of the four films.

Similar to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, the film follows familiar lines: innocent man becomes inadvertently embroiled in ring of terror, innocent man fights to see justice in the end. But unlike Hitch’s film, the world of Ministry of Fear boasts insane asylums, séances, enemies of state posing as innocent aged charity workers, and military secrets concealed in the sponge of a Victorian cake.

Ministry of fear
Sinister clairvoyant. A psychological thriller, Fritz Lang style.

The end result is a bullet-paced, neurotic thrill ride through the paranoid world of wartime espionage.

Cloak and Dagger (Warner Brothers, 1946)

Loosely based on the wartime efforts of the Office of Strategic Services, posted in occupied Europe during the 2nd World War. Lang drew inspiration from the title of the 1946 non-fiction book Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of O.S.S written by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain.

Cloak and Dagger
Gary Cooper and Lilli Palmer look over their shoulder in the spy classic Cloak and Dagger.

To ensure the film’s authenticity, he also appointed former OSS agent E. Michael Burke as a technical advisor on set.

A layered social commentary, with a strong anti-nuclear message, at times Cloak and Dagger bares similar traits to that of Neorealism. Fritz Lang’s fourth and final spy movie of the 1940’s boasts an outstanding cast, with dynamo performances from Gary Cooper and Lilli Palmer in leading roles.

In the end, screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Albert Maltz were both eventually brought before the courts of The House Committee on Un-American Activities. Such films as Cloak and Dagger were put forward to the court as evidence that the accused were incorporating communist ideology into their screenplays. The two became part of the Hollywood Ten, and were eventually jailed and blacklisted.

Cloak and Dagger lobby card


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