‘Hangmen Also Die’

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Accounts vary regarding Fritz Lang’s departure from his native Germany in 1933. His own tale of a hasty and secretive escape in the dark of night has been met with scrutiny, and documentation from the period seems to confirm a considerable amount of embellishment on Lang’s part. In any case, the bottom line is that Lang got out while the getting was good, first stopping over in France, where he directed Liliom (1934), then making his way to America, where his first Hollywood feature, Fury, was released in 1936. Lang never fully left his Germanic sensibilities though, nor did he deviate much from his established cinematic style, already so marvelously displayed in the earliest of his German films. It stands to reason, then, that when World War II began in full force, Lang felt compelled to delve into war-related films. His personal connection to his European homeland and his feelings about what had became of it found an outlet in his Hollywood moviemaking, first with Man Hunt (1941) then with Hangmen Also Die (1943), an excellent wartime thriller that exhibits a number of Lang’s defining narrative and formal characteristics, and clearly indicates where he stood politically and socially.

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After the Czechoslovakian resistance fighter Dr. Franticek Svoboda, AKA Karel Vanek (Brian Donlevy) shoots Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich, AKA “The Hangman” (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), he attempts to flee from the scene, which he does thanks to Nasha Novotny (Anna Lee). Nasha is a young Czech woman who lives in the area and quite innocently directs the Gestapo away from Svoboda. Such a seemingly innocuous decision, however, brings forth tragic and wide-ranging ramifications. Nasha’s father, Prof. Stephen Novotny (Walter Brennan), knows who Svoboda is when he comes to thank Nasha, and he is wise to what the stranger has done. The rest of her family, however, remains in the dark, as does her fiancé. Eventually, the Nazis round up anyone who may know the whereabouts of Heydrich’s assassin (including Prof. Novotny), planning to execute these hostages until the assailant reveals himself.

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The suspenseful pursuit that transpires gives Lang ample time and varying scenarios to convey the threatening reign of terror that envelops this Czechoslovakian region. Reminders of intimidation tactics and promises of punishment constantly haunt the townspeople. Yet their destitution and surface meekness conceal a rebellion that boils underneath. The shooting of “The Hangman” lights the spark, and no matter that restrictions are tightened and hostages are taken, the bottled up defiance is steadily brought to eruption. Is Hangmen Also Die a propaganda piece? Of course, in the best possible sense. Adamantly pro-Nazi, the film in turn must undoubtedly favor the other side, as it should. It is a testament to the resilience of the resistance.

But there is also a very human drama acted out against this backdrop. Svoboda’s attack of conscience as he struggles between his own survival and that of the hostages is a powerful predicament. When the Nazis begin their community assault, all in the name of seeking the assassin, Svoboda wonders if it’s all worth it. He is reassured that the underground needs him, that he, or more specifically, his actions, are representative of the whole of the opposing population. “Czech people have executed the hangman,” he is told. It’s more than just him. But the guilt of the punishment extended to the innocent weighs heavily. At the same time, Nasha knows who Svoboda is and what he did. Drop the dime and her father will possibly be returned, but at what cost to the resistance? Like in so many Lang films, from M (1931) to Fury to Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), moral dilemmas abound, all questioning simplistic divisions between the personal and the communal, between what is good for all and what is good for one.

Lang expertly shoots the tension with a stark, noirish treatment, where every word or suggestion potentially puts someone new in danger. Suspicion and impending betrayal sway actions and thoughts, and the hazards of traitorously playing both sides are shown to be quite dire. As in M, Lang’s interrogation scenes are taciturn and hostile, with little in the way of decorative visual or aural adornment to divert attention from the accusatory aggression. The questioning is cold, detached, and menacing. Likewise, as also in M or Fury for example, Lang’s depiction of a mob mentality, for better or worse, is powerful. When Nasha is questioned by her own people about her reasons for wanting to go to the Gestapo, the threat of their violently turning even on her becomes very real.

There are times when the overriding message of the film gets somewhat pedantic, but the intentions are admirable and the emotion is strong. And though the film gets slightly sluggish toward the end, with some needlessly prolonged digressions, these same scenes occasionally boast moments of brilliance (the way in which the traitor is revealed, for instance).

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With cinematography by the renowned James Wong Howe, Hangmen Also Die looks great, even if it’s not quite as ornamental as his work on Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) before, or Sweet Smell of Success (1957) years later. Donlevy gives a decent performance, though it’s largely a one-note turn. Lee’s frightful Nasha fluctuates more notably, between timidity and stubborn strength. Brennan, not at all as most people know the actor, is generally responsible for the film’s didactic speeches, as given by the endearingly wise Prof. Novotny. They are brief appearances, but the performances of Lionel Stander as a pivotal everyman cab driver and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski as the creepy “Hangman,” an embodiment of pure evil, are also memorable. (Interestingly, the German von Twardowski’s credits range from work on the seminal The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) to a string of almost comically typecast roles in films such as Hitler’s Madman (1943), The Strange Death of Adolf Hiter (1943), The Hitler Gang (1944) — you get the idea.)

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That Hangmen Also Die came together as well as it did and holds up as well as it does is something of a surprise given its tumultuous road to production and release. Accompanying the newly released Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray is a commentary by Richard Peña, a featurette with historian Robert Gerwarth, and an essay by Prof. Peter Ellenbruch, all of which detail the film’s complex backstory and its true-life source. Bertolt Brecht and Lang were friendly, and Lang did a good deal to secure the author’s arrival in America and his subsequent Hollywood employment, but each approached storytelling from drastically different methodologies, and their ultimate aims for the film were not always in sync. What followed also included contested screenwriting credit (hence John Wexley’s name), issues with studio requirements (more romance) and, years later, a “subversive” label at the hand of the HUAC. Whatever it took though, Hangmen Also Die works. With M, it is a film Lang considered among his most important.Coming out in 1943, it also must have been frighteningly dramatic for contemporary audiences, and it remains a chilling and captivating window into the personalities and emotions of WW II’s victims, their struggles, their small victories, and the sweeping human toll of the whole era.


‘The Dance of Reality’

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If Alejandro Jodorowsky’s name has been in the news as of late, it’s largely thanks to Frank Pavich’s excellent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. While this is a fascinating and tantalizing examination of what might have been a stunning feature in the filmmaker’s rather limited body of work, it should not distract from the films Jodorowsky actually made since the Dune debacle. This includes the 85-year-old’s latest feature (which is teased at the end of the documentary), the autobiographical The Dance of Reality, out now on blu-ray. This Felliniesque chronicle of occasionally inflated childhood reminisces and the sociopolitical factors that form one’s identity is a beautiful film, lovingly crafted, episodic though at times meandering, and certainly a passion project for its director.

We first see Jodorowsky himself in the present day, directly addressing the camera and speaking somewhat cryptically about the perils of money (obviously for those who saw the Dune documentary, financial backing was a frequent struggle for Jodorowsky). From there, the real Jodorowsky occasionally reappears, inserted into the narrative, providing words of comfort and wisdom to his fictional childhood self, played by Jeremias Herskovits. Joining young Alejandro is his mother, Sara (Pamela Flores), a pleasant and quite curvaceous woman who operatically sings her dialogue (Jodorowsky’s mother always wanted to be an opera singer), and his father, Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s oldest son), an obnoxious, Stalin-loving brute. Jaime is frequently condemning his timid boy, with accusations of everything from being too quiet, to being too effeminate (especially with his locks of golden hair), to being a homosexual. For Jaime, his crude notions of assertive masculinity depend on his son’s ability to tolerate pain. Adding to the child’s bewildered upbringing is the fact that his mother refers to the boy as her father, apparently because she was (still is?) under the impression that he is her dad reincarnated.

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Once this much is established, The Dance of Reality has no real driving narrative path to speak of. The early portions of the film follow young Alejandro as he goes about his daily business in the small seaside town of Tocopilla, Chile, circa the late 1930s. Whether or not it truly was this way, Jodorowsky’s recreation of his hometown is one of vibrancy and vitality, in the literal color of its buildings and houses and in its colorful cast of frequently exaggerated characters. The strongest moments of The Dance of Reality come in these early sequences, where we steadily see the factors that shape the man Jodorowsky would become, with elements of new age spiritualism and reactions to politics, art, family, religion, sex, money, and death. It is not all gloom though. We also see the joys of young Jodorowsky: new red shoes (which he quickly gives away) and his role of mascot for the local fire brigade (a position he assumes once the old mascot, a dog, dies). But there are the bad times, the times when he is verbally and physically mistreated by his father or ostracized by other children for being a circumcised Jew.

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For much of the film’s latter half, the focus shifts to Jaime and his conflicted and complicated political ideology. His initial disdain for dictator Carlos Ibáñez gives way to a resentment that turns Jaime the lingerie salesman into a would-be assassin. Through this portion of the film, The Dance of Reality, while hitting on more substantial political themes, nevertheless loses some of it amusing charm. Ultimately though, this section is itself redeemed by redemption as the initially bellicose Jaime endures a number of trials and tribulations, including some extremely unpleasant torture, only to wind up a comparatively weak and humbled figure. His trajectory is tragic yet finally constructive.

Every film should be judged on its own merits, not necessarily on what came before it. But given Jodorowsky’s stunning surrealism of the late 1960s and early ’70s, and given the intensely personal nature of The Dance of Reality, one can’t help but draw comparisons to his prior works. In this regard, while this latest feature may not have the wall-to-wall brilliant weirdness of El Topo or The Holy Mountain, there are still more than a few moments of classic Jodorowsky imagery, albeit less shocking and provocative: hundreds of sardines washed ashore, Jaime pissing on the radio, a small army of scarred amputees. And there are multiple scenarios and single images of metaphoric significance; like in the works of the late great Hungarian Miklós Jancsó and Greek Theodoros Angelopoulos, however, many of the regional and historical references will likely go missed by those not familiar with the material. Nevertheless, also like in the films of these other two directors, this lack of knowledge does not in any way diminish the impact of the film at hand.

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On the technical side of things, the new ABKCO blu-ray is a stunning release, with extremely sharp picture and a few brief, though insightful, interviews. Some have decried Jodorowsky’s decision to shoot on digital rather than film, and while the budgetary benefits were likely imperative, the results, in any case, are superb. Some of the special effects falter and some of the interiors have a noticeable hollow, soap opera-like quality, but by and large, this is a great looking movie.

Jodorowsky calls The Dance of Reality “A picture made with soul. My soul.” And he was not alone. Accompanying him in the creation of this special work was his wife, Pascale, who did the costumes, and his two other sons, Adan and Axel, appear in the film as well; Adan also worked on the score. For anyone who has seen Jodorowsky speak passionately (like in Jodorowsky’s Dune), it is clear that when he has great enthusiasm for something the results can be extraordinary. The Dance of Reality may not exactly be extraordinary, but for a filmmaker like Alejandro Jodorowsky, even a less than perfect movie is going to be unique and always at least worth watching.

‘Out of the Past’

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Director Jacques Tourneur knew how to make the most out of a little, particularly when he was working in collaboration with producer Val Lewton (see Cat People, 1942, I Walked with a Zombie, 1943, and The Leopard Man, 1943). So when RKO gave this master of the low-budget picture a comparatively larger budget and a top-notch screenplay (by Daniel Mainwaring—as Geoffrey Homes—based on his own novel, “Build My Gallows High”) the result was one of the finest of all film noir.

Starring Robert Mitchum as Jeff and Jane Greer as Kathie, Out of the Past is built on a premise that is one of the defining characteristics of noir: the inevitability of an inescapable past. Such a device was often integral, with the repercussions of one’s recent deeds coming back to haunt them, but relatively rare was the film that was built purely around this convention, and even more unusual was the gap in time between one’s transgressions and their current life.

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When Jeff Bailey is first seen, he is an unassuming gas station owner with a mysterious background that doesn’t at all concern Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), the pleasant small-town girl he loves. The town is Bridgeport, California, a quiet, peaceful place, an ideal place to be and never leave, an ideal place to go when you don’t want to be found. Such are Jeff’s motivations. But when former acquaintance Joe (Paul Valentine) shows up, Jeff’s state of calm is upended. Bailey is revealed to be Markham and Jeff’s dark past comes to light.

Jeff is instructed to travel to Lake Tahoe to meet criminal boss Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). With Ann in tow, Jeff finally tells her who is he, where he came from, where they’re heading, and why it might not be a good thing. “You sure are a secretive man,” Ann tells Jeff earlier (she has no idea), but now he’s going to come clean. Ominously he warns her, “Some of it’s gonna hurt you,” and he proceeds.

Via voice-over and flashback (noir through and through), Jeff goes back three years prior, to when Whit hired him to find Kathie, Whit’s girl who made off with 40 grand of his money only after plugging him in the chest. Jeff is competent, so of course, he finds her, but he is also a man, and this is noir, and she is a quintessential femme fatale. They fall for each other and Jeff quickly disregards his obligation to Whit, knowing full well what will probably happen to Kathie if she is returned. Predictably, this brief liaison doesn’t end happily and the now murderous Kathie disappears. Cut to present day and Jeff is back with Whit at his Tahoe mansion. And so is Kathie. Whit again employs Jeff, but this time, Jeff is wiser and knows the game, and the name of the game is frame. Jeff knows he is being set up, but by playing dumb, he emerges smarter than everyone thinks, and he attempts to use incessant double crossing and dirty dealing to his favor. The past may have caught up with Jeff—his past partner, past deals, the past of his former associates—but he is convinced a future remains in reach.

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There are multiple reasons why Out of the Past is such an exemplary work in the world of noir, and part has to do with just how faithfully and inventively it adheres to the form. Ambiguous motives leave nearly everyone under suspicion, and when someone’s personal faults don’t trip them up, chance usually does. Mainwaring’s screenplay (with uncredited assistance from James M. Cain and Frank Fenton) has some of the snappiest quips of any noir, where everyone is witty and cracks wise at an unbelievable rate. For his part, Tourneur keeps Out of the Past visually appealing with imaginative camera angles and lighting that is deep and dark in the best noir tradition. Diverse settings in New York, Mexico, and California illustrate that no matter where one goes, the seamy and threatening look of noir, just like one’s past, is sure to follow. Locations also serve the purpose of reflecting Jeff’s dual nature and his conflicted desires, with Kathie and Ann personifying their respective backdrops of shadowy urban peril and secure rural tranquility; in other words, who Jeff was and what he hopes to be.

Robert Mitchum owns Out of the Past. After bit parts throughout the early 1940s, Mitchum paid his dues to earn more substantial roles, including his first and only Oscar nomination for Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and his turn in the excellent Crossfire, also from 1947. But here, we see the fleshing out of his characteristic cool, calm, seemingly detached bad-boy sensuality, just barely shrouding a capacity for wicked violence. This film would then serve as the catalyst for a career full of memorable performances: The Lusty Men (1952), River of No Return (1954), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Cape Fear (1962), El Dorado (1966), and so on, all the way up to Dead Man in 1995. Such a legendary acting career cannot, however, be applied to Huston or Greer, though Greer would amusingly appear in Taylor Hackford’s 1984 Out of the Past remake, Against All Odds. As for Kirk Douglas, this being only his second film role, it’s obviously safe to say he had much more ahead of him, including his first Oscar nomination for Champion just two years later.