When Fritz Lang cleared out of Nazi Germany, he shot a film in France, then moved to Hollywood in 1934. The director of Metropolis turned out 22 films in this country—his American pictures make up more than half his work; 15 are on view at BAM’s generous retro.
Lang never went into decline. Although his Hollywood films were not on the scale of his monumental German superproductions, there’s no break between his European and American work. His U.S. films are as clearly marked by rigorous logic, patterns of paranoia, and obsession with the structure of the trap. The creator of the sinister Dr. Mabuse proved himself fully capable of exploiting the genres then in fashion in America: Freudian thrillers and wartime espionage flicks, but also westerns and period melodramas. And with The Big Heat (1953), he would direct the most blistering and epochal film noir of the 1950s.
His first three American films—Fury (1936), You Only Live Once (1937), and You and Me (1938)—form a rough trilogy about victims of society’s errors; all of them co-star Sylvia Sidney, the archetypal working-class heroine of the Depression era. In Fury, an indictment of mob hysteria, Spencer Tracy is an innocent man accused of a crime, transformed and dehumanized by revenge into a malevolent force. You Only Live Once, one of Lang’s most bitter and moving works, corners Sidney with three-time loser Henry Fonda—the mother of all couples-on-the-run movies, it remains the finest of the genre. In the fascinating, oddball experiment You and Me, Sidney and George Raft team up as a pair of married ex-cons for a romantic comedy gangster musical. Unlike any other film by Lang, or anyone else for that matter, it features songs by Kurt Weill, including a brilliant opening number—a cautionary mini-cantata about the perils of consumerism.
Lang played an active role in anti-Nazi groups, and after two handsome Technicolor westerns, The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941), he completed three war-inspired productions: Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), a taut drama (co-scripted by Bertolt Brecht) about the 1942 assassination of the German “governor” of occupied Prague, and Ministry of Fear (1944), a Kafkaesque espionage yarn based on a Graham Greene novel.
The series highlight is a new print of Man Hunt, an underrated masterpiece not seen theatrically in far too long. In this visually stunning tall-tale thriller, Walter Pidgeon is an English big-game hunter arrested by the gestapo (after he takes a “practice shot” at Hitler); he escapes back to England, where he is trailed by a really nasty bunch of Nazis. Joan Bennett appears as Pidgeon’s sole ally, a waifish cockney streetwalker. The Hays office threw a conniption. The studio promptly satisfied the censors’ moral qualms by putting a sewing machine into Bennett’s room—the lady’s not a tramp, she’s a seamstress!