Fritz Lang was a pulp maestro—perhaps the greatest in movie history. Lang’s official masterpiece M (1931) is the original portrait of a serial killer, but there is scarcely a popular genre—science- fiction, sword and sorcery, espionage, gangster, horror—that did not pass through his hands and does not bear his mark. And that was just in Germany. Fleeing the Nazis to America, Lang directed the first Bonnie and Clyde story, You Only Live Once (1937), and, doing what came naturally, helped invent that thing called film noir.
The Museum of the Moving Image’s four-weekend, all-35mm series, “Fritz Lang, King of Noir,”
focuses on Lang’s proto- as well as prototypical noir. The first weekend features both M and its 1933 follow-up, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse—a movie about a master criminal that, before the Nazis banned it, was scheduled to open the day that the Reichstag voted to give Hitler dictatorial powers. Although less methodical than M, The Testament is brisk and often brilliant filmmaking. (As a master of suspense, Lang is the bridge between Griffith and Hitchcock.)
Once in Hollywood, Lang directed a few social dramas—notably You Only Live Once and the anti-lynching film Fury (1936). Once war broke out, he made anti-fascist thrillers like the Graham Greene adaptation Ministry of Fear (1944). But mainly he did noirs that were fatalistic and paranoid even by noir standards. For some film historians, the entire tendency is defined by Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), the latter a grim remake of Jean Renoir’s early talkie La Chienne. Both of Lang’s movies star Joan Bennett as a femme fatale, with Edward G. Robinson playing her hapless victim. Bennett also appears in the self-consciously Hitchcockian Secret Beyond the Door (1948); the less well-known House by the River
(1950), made for pennies at a time when Lang was in partial eclipse, is a more successful domestic murder drama.
Lang ended his American career on a socially conscious note with a pair of newspaper films, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), both starring Dana Andrews. But he reached his post-Mabuse peak with The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire
(1954). The latter is a murder movie based on Zola’s La Bête Humaine; the former is the most corrosive of urban corruption films or perhaps the most Langian. Reviewing The Big Heat for Cahiers du Cinéma, François Truffaut considered it quintessential: “Moral solitude, Man struggling alone against a universe which is half-hostile, half-indifferent.” September 8 through 30, MOMI.