Monday, December 22, 2014
Reeling Backward: "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943)
I was fairly disappointed with "Hangmen Also Die!", a noir war drama from 1943. Its pedigree is impressive: directed by the great Fritz Lang, it starred favorite character actor Brian Donlevy and featured a script by revered playwright Bertolt Brecht, his only official screenwriting credit (though he was known to do plenty of script-doctoring in his day).
The film recently received a loving restoration and Blu-ray edition, which looks and sounds fantastic. So I held out high hopes that here was a forgotten World War II picture that I might adore, much in the vein of Battleground!
Alas and alack. Donlevy is actually quite flat and apathetic, in a role so small it's ridiculous that he's billed as the star. Lang is always good for a few haunting frames and clever use of shadow, but compared to "Metropolis" or any other of his seminal work it's not terribly imaginative.
And Brecht's story is just a complete jumbled mess. Its emotional high points arrive at odd points, so there's less of a feeling of a building crescendo than just some stirring speeches that randomly arrive and disappear. The most interesting character is a Gestapo inspector, and the last act is a nigh-incomprehensible patchwork in which a local Nazi collaborator is framed for the murder of a high German official.
The movie is loosely based on the real 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, who was the Reich Protector of German-occupied Prague. The film is essentially a paean to the Czech people and their brave resistance to the Nazis.
Donlevy plays Dr. Svoboda, a local surgeon who carries out the shooting of Heydrich, who lingers for a few days while the Nazis seek the assassin(s). While being chased by soldiers, he's helped by a young woman on the street who points the Germans in the opposite direction, but then the Gestapo tracks her down and starts raking her and her family over the coals.
She is Mascha Novotny, played by Anna Lee, and really she is the main character. Everything else revolves around her. She and Svoboda strike up a faux romance to throw the Germans off the hunt, which doesn't do much for the affections of her real fiance, Jan (Dennis O'Keefe), an upstanding type.
The Nazis are mostly fooled except for Gestapo inspector Gruber, deliciously played by Alexander Granach. Short, burly with a Cheetos mustache and odd shaved-sides haircut that resembles a proto-mohawk, Gruber supplies much of the middle section's energy. Granach was actually a German Jew who fled his homeland shortly after Hitler's rise to power, and made himself a healthy film career playing both Nazis and heroes.
Gruber is suspicious of everyone and everything, and unlike his more heavy-handed counterparts who are quick to resort to mental and physical torture, he mostly gets things done by out-thinking those around him. He's also capable of being quite the party boy when the mood strikes, and he gets to canoodle with an appropriately matronly German floozy.
Shoehorned in is a mostly parallel story about Anna' father, Professor Novotny, played by the great character actor Walter Brennan. The professor is a noted academic figure who has eschewed politics for the past 15 years, but then he and a bunch of other intellectuals are snatched up and held hostage in retaliation for the assassination attempt. Soon the Nazis are executing them a bunch at a time until the real shooter gives himself up.
Brennan gets to do that whole "quiet nobility" thing, and he's quite good at it, but these scenes don't fit with the rest of the story. It almost becomes a POW film, with the professor and his fellows bonding and writing revolutionary poems while waiting for the axe to fall.
The most interesting thing about "Hangmen" is its depiction of how people deal with an occupying force -- both in their regards to the enemy and how they relate with those of their number who cooperate.
Anna soon learns that Svoboda is the assassin, and insists that he give himself up to save the life of her father and the other hostages. Svoboda -- under pressure from other members of the resistance -- demurs, pointing out that his act is essential to their movement to overthrow the Germans. At one point she actually gets in a carriage to Gestapo headquarters to spill the beans, and is nearly assaulted when a mob finds out her plan.
Eventually she comes around to the right side of things, and assists Svoboda and the other resistance leaders in concocting an elaborate frame job to convince the Nazis that one of their Czech collaborators, a rich beer baron named Czaka (Gene Lockhart), was actually the assassin. This involves getting dozens of witnesses to lie about Czaka's whereabouts, and seems highly implausible.
"Hangmen Also Die!" exists now mostly as an artifact of its time, a pot-boiling bit of propaganda designed to whip up the masses. As a piece of filmmaking, though, it leaves much to be desired.