Fritz Lang (1890–1976) may not be Hollywood’s greatest genre director—I’d nominate Don Siegel—but, as the mad genius of juvenile trash, Lang stands alone as a genre inventor. His mainly silent Weimar films established the crime epic, the sword and sorcery spectacle, the spy movie, the serial-killer policier, and two types of science fiction. When he came to Hollywood in the mid-’30s, he created the popular-front melodrama—Fury, You Only Live Once (the original Bonnie and Clyde)—and the unique Kurt Weill–scored gangster musical, You and Me; during World War II, Lang contributed mightily to what came to be known as film noir.
Film Forum’s two-week series, showing all 22 of Lang’s American movies, opens with an explosive double bill: the brutal rogue cop revenge tale The Big Heat (1953) and its equally sensational follow-up, the adultery-murder story Human Desire (1954), both featuring morally dubious Glenn Ford and (never better) bad girl Gloria Grahame. The follow-up bill, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), features a classic s/m triangle in both films: fatal woman Joan Bennett, mercenary creep Dan Duryea, and bourgeois victim Edward G. Robinson. Stark, unsentimental tales of victimization and self-delusion, Lang’s noirs—which also include Secret Beyond the Door (1948), House by the River (1950), Clash by Night (1952), The Blue Gardenia (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)—are in some ways more expressionist than his Weimar films.
Praising Lang’s American movies in Cahiers du cinéma, Jacques Rivette called him “the cinéaste of the concept,” while Godard spoke of his “rational frenzy.” Lang carried this cold, diagrammatic quality even into his Westerns, The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941), and particularly the Marlene Dietrich vehicle Rancho Notorious (1952). His most passionately felt, if not his best, Hollywood movies were his contribution to the war effort: Hangmen Also Die! (co-scripted by Bertolt Brecht), Ministry of Fear (1944), and the truncated Cloak and Dagger (1946), with Gary Cooper as a two-fisted Robert Oppenheimer. There’s surprising commitment here: More than most Hollywood directors, émigré Lang understood what Nazism actually felt like.