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“My Favorite” Strife December 28, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, General Film, Fritz Lang , 2 comments

Everyone knows that the end of the calendar year has become a time to blink and reflect at the past twelve months, tidily summed up in list format despite the undeniably ridiculous and simplistic process of choosing an arbitrary number of “important” candidates. I’m not complaining though. I actually like these little exercises, whether it’s just a top 10 or even if it involves a full-blown trophy ceremony. I recognize the absurdity and I revel just the same. When the staff at DVD Times put together separate lists for top 10 films and DVDs of the year, I carefully considered my choices and picked what I felt were deserving selections among everything I’ve seen, even if, regrettably, I know there are some things I didn’t manage to view that would probably nudge ahead of things I did include.

Around the same time, I supported the idea that the reviewers at DVD Times should put together individual top 10’s of their all-time favorite films. My thinking was twofold. First, it lets readers associate the reviewer with certain films that mean a lot to that writer. It’s not a situation where noses should be upturned because this person really loves any particular film so much as an opportunity for likeminded readers to possibly give more weight to a review (and therefore seek out or avoid the DVD) based on what specific films the reviewer holds near and dear. Second, it will hopefully serve as an alternative to an upcoming feature on the site. This feature isn’t really a secret, I don’t think, but I probably should refrain from discussing it all the same.

So this left me with the task of compiling a top 10 list. I quickly settled on 8 films. Here’s where the arbitrariness of the number 10 comes in to play. It seems, after considerable thought, that I really have a bedrock list of 8 films that stand head and shoulders above the rest, not 10. Still, I needed 2 more, if for no other reason than to appease the unnamed goddess of neat and tidy listmaking. For better or worse, there are probably half a dozen films or more that could vie for those last couple of slots. I’m reminded of why people claim to hate top 10 lists. In some way, I’m going to be defined by what’s included and what’s omitted (just as I am on the Top 50’s by decade here). Too obscure, too popular, too old, too new. It’s silly, but I don’t like any of those labels. That somehow turns the 10 films into avatars of something more. If you’re only including 1 film per director then automatically that establishes said film as your pick for that filmmaker’s best.

I had a variation of that problem with Martin Scorsese. He’s one of my favorite directors by a wide margin, but I can’t say there’s any one film I think is most deserving. Raging Bull may very well be his best, but it’s not my favorite for many reasons. Goodfellas is another one right up there, and I enjoy it immensely every time I give it a watch, but it’s not top 10 material for me. Neither is Taxi Driver or the less lauded but equally enthralling After Hours. In many ways, Mean Streets is my favorite Scorsese (to be reflected by my 1970s list in a few months), though I hesitate to move it up above some more deserving films. In the end, I can’t put any of these on my list despite my affection for Scorsese. Similar issues arise with Robert Altman and Ernst Lubitsch, two more directors I adore but can’t single out just one of their films as obviously superior. There’s Nashville, but my home state allegiance prevents me from fully loving Altman’s epic. Is Trouble in Paradise better than Design for Living or The Shop Around the Corner ? I don’t know and I really don’t want to decide.

I think I’ve settled on a 9th film and now I’m left scrambling for the final selection. Some of the ones in the mix are The Godfather (too popular and overanalyzed?), In the Mood for Love (too recent and in need of another viewing?), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (damn near perfect, but I put it below several others in my 1940s list and maybe it’s not hardly at this level), The Palm Beach Story (represents Sturges, but possibly a little out of its league in this range also) and Fritz Lang’s M. Leaning in favor of M, I decided to give it a fresh watch.

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M was Lang’s penultimate film in Germany, sandwiched between Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and his first experiment with sound. He’d flee for America three years later, in 1934. Watching M with a reasonably extensive knowledge of Lang’s career before and after, the film seems like a culmination of the themes explored over and over in the director’s filmography. Guilt, paranoia, hypocrisy, the criminal process, social change, and the evolution of a turbulent society. Those things are all here, well explored and without easy answers. A master filmmaker like Lang was able to repeatedly turn to these issues, either individually or collectively, with enormous success and without becoming dull or repetitive. It’s easy to see everything from Spione and Fury to Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and The Big Heat in M, but it’s the 1931 film that brings it all together and mesmerizes you in the process.

Lang uses technical tricks, including but not limited to some of the best utilization of sound in film history, and a great performance from Peter Lorre to tell the story of a compulsive child murderer unable to stop or be caught while committing heinous and disgusting acts of violence. Lang doesn’t want his audience to merely focus on Lorre’s pedophile though. The investigation process, told mostly through Otto Wernicke’s Det. Karl Lohmann, is the backbone of the picture. Lang seemed fascinated by procedural sagas and here he uses Lohmann as a fat cat alternative to Lorre’s Beckert even though the murderer is identified and caught by more sinister forces. Those forces have lynch mob written across their angry faces and his first American film, Fury, seems to clarify how Lang felt about those out of control vigilantes.

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But here, in M, the private citizens are the ones who almost bring Beckert to “justice” and give the film’s final 20 minutes an incredibly foreboding energy that nearly sputters out in the last few frames. I think the ending asks the audience an uncomfortable question of what exactly we want to happen to Beckert. Are we rooting for the mob to take justice into their own hands and completely subvert due process, or are we hoping for the eventual police intervention? Do viewers require resolution, regardless of how lawless, or can we accept that the legal system will distribute justice? Michael Haneke would be proud.

Ultimately, the power of Lang’s film won me over and cemented its position. I’m not sure it’s really one of my favorite top 10 films ever made, but it’s a nearly flawless movie and Lang is one my very favorite directors. I love The Big Heat and Scarlet Street, but M seems somehow more perfect and absolutely essential. It’s a remarkably modern film that has aged as well as anything put on celluloid and it laid a significant portion of the foundation for the crime film, my favorite genre. I’d never assign importance of a movie based solely on its influence and I think M probably works as well now as it did decades ago. In deciding my list, it comes down to the thought of hating the idea that someone could only watch one Fritz Lang film, but knowing that M would be the choice in such an unlikely and unfortunate situation.

The Big Heat April 9, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s, Fritz Lang, Gloria Grahame , 1 comment so far

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What’s the best director-actor-actress triumverate that made at least two non-sequel pictures together? A good choice might be John Ford, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, who made The Quiet Man, Rio Grande and The Wings of Eagles together. There’s also Howard Hawks, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who did To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Otto Preminger, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney followed up Laura with Where the Sidewalk Ends six years later. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman paired Liv Ullmann with Max von Sydow three times and Erland Josephson a total of eight times. My personal favorite, though, might be Fritz Lang’s two films with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame - The Big Heat and Human Desire, released in 1953 and 1954, respectively. Lang had pulled a similar trick before, teaming Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea for The Woman in the Window in 1944 and Scarlet Street the following year.

At the risk of repeating myself, I find Fritz Lang’s films, both from his days in Germany and after working in America, remarkably timeless and entertaining. Each time I watch a film he directed, with very few exceptions, I refuse to believe Lang isn’t one of the top five or ten filmmakers of all time. You could isolate his output in either language and his legend is still secured. When combining the two periods, it becomes apparent that he had a career to rival most anyone, in longevity, quality and quantity. His ability to evolve from silents to sound films is equally impressive. Only a handful of other directors were successful in both, and arguably none as much so as Lang. If there’s any knock against him, it would seem to be that he never reached the heights of films like Metropolis and M after fleeing Germany Obviously unfair, this criticism fails to take into account the creative and monetary limitations he faced in Hollywood. Perhaps it also undervalues how impressive his English language work often was.

I previously touted Scarlet Street as a good candidate for the honor of Lang’s best English language film, an irrelevant title only important for discussion purposes anyway. Though I’m not exactly wavering on my suggestion since it is a vital and essential piece of cinema’s darker side, maybe I wasn’t being completely fair to The Big Heat, a film that typifies everything great about movies before they became modernized with foul language, nudity and blood-soaked violence. Those three additions to movie screens all have a time and place and have been used brilliantly by scores of filmmakers, but wouldn’t films have been a lot less interesting if taboos had never existed so that creative filmmakers could circumvent them? I see classic movies as fascinating precisely because they don’t have those forbidden elements out in the open.

In The Big Heat, we see shocking moments of violence that make much more of an impact than the climactic hail of bullets exchanged between Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin. Ford’s character, Dave Bannion, is a respected police sergeant with a loving wife (played by Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s older sister) and young daughter. He seems to have a happy marriage and a blossoming career, stunted only by corruption in the upper ranks. There’s no hint of a dark or sadistic side and Bannion appears to be the rare noir cop protagonist without an obvious fatal flaw (the violent tendencies of Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground and Dana Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends are two examples that immediately spring to mind). Then he perceives his family being threatened and Bannion becomes possessed by the struggle to protect them.

The wallop he gives George, a goon of the syndicate boss Mike Lagana, is unexpectedly vicious and forceful. Ford transforms from stand-up police officer to live wire in an instant. After tragedy strikes home and he’s forced to go on leave, Bannion’s hair-trigger violence begins to parallel the sadistic Vince Stone (Marvin), never more so than when he throws a conniving police widow against the wall and begins choking her. His savagery, interrupted by a couple of uniformed officers barging in, had progressed from an earlier altercation with Larry Gordon, the man who planted dynamite in his car. Bannion had just set up Gordon for a certain death at the hands of his mobster buddies, grinning almost uncontrollably as he tells the thug his plan. There’s never any indication that Bannion feels a twinge of conflict that this guy will be in the river in a few hours.

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I’m not saying I disagree with Bannion’s actions, but the lack of emotion from Ford (who’s really superb throughout), that he’s giving Gordon a fate much worse than if Bannion just shot him at that moment, is downright startling for a film from 1953. This is Death Wish territory in the decade of Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie & Harriet. Lang was able to defy the more conservative audience’s expectations by peeling away at what was generally considered acceptable at the time. By showing such unexpectedly violent behavior from the good guy of the story, with whom we empathize, The Big Heat provokes the viewer to take notice at what’s being shown. This type of audience stimulant is an exhilarating and effective use of violence in film. If a character did the same thing in a film or television show today though, it would barely register at all.

The more famous scene of violence from The Big Heat, and one that actually might still prompt quite a reaction if it were done today, is when Lee Marvin’s character Stone scalds his girlfriend Debby’s face with a pot of steaming hot coffee. The act is not shown on camera, but we see the aftermath in the form of the scarred left side of her face just before Debby gets her own revenge against Stone. The scene is reminiscent of Cagney shoving a grapefruit into his lady friend’s face at the breakfast table in The Public Enemy, 22 years earlier but prior to the implementation of the production code. A big difference between the two is that Cagney’s fit seems more humiliating and degrading than the sadistic rage that comes from Marvin. A little grapefruit juice is nothing compared to a half-scarred face.

The java-burned victim is played by Gloria Grahame, who, in full disclosure, I think I may be in love with. Grahame has long been one of my favorite actresses and, despite popping up in classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and winning an Academy Award for The Bad and the Beautiful, deserved a better film career. The talented beauty had perhaps her best role as the female lead in Nicholas Ray’s brilliant In a Lonely Place, my favorite of Ray’s films and one I try to mention here as often as possible. After Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959, she pretty much stopped acting in films, instead taking television and stage work before dying from cancer at the age of 57. She also had the odd distinction of marrying both Nicholas Ray and his son (her stepson) Anthony Ray, star of the John Cassavetes film Shadows, and having children with both men.

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Grahame’s character in The Big Heat knows the type of guy she’s involved with in Stone, but accepts his volatility as part of the price of living a financially charmed existence. She hints at a sadness from a poverty-filled past she never wants to revisit, even if it means being with crooks like Stone. Unlike so many gangster molls and femmes fatale, Debby is refreshingly honest with Bannion, never hiding her motives or betraying his loyalty. Her initial seductive interest in him, probably as a result of seeing Stone cower away from the suspended cop like a retreating puppy, changes when Debby takes refuge with Bannion following the coffee scalding. The sensitive, almost domestic kindness she shows Bannion seems to help him find redemption from his spiraling violent streak. Grahame is memorable and compelling in her performance, showing us a woman much brighter than she initially seems.

Likewise, Glenn Ford embodies Bannion with an everyman quality that separates him from so many main characters associated with film noir. He’s neither a ticking time bomb, ready to explode when given the littlest opportunity, nor an emotionally wounded shell who’s unable to function in society. Bannion is the seemingly reasonable man, an ordinary citizen who could be any one of us. For me, what makes The Big Heat fascinating is its exploration of the depths a man can plummet to avenge wrongs committed against his family. Unlike many of the articles I’ve read, I really don’t see the film as primarily about one man against a city of corruption. The focus instead seems to be on the riveting transformation of Bannion as his family life disintegrates and he becomes bent on exacting revenge. His motivating factor is the vengeance he craves, not a noble fight against corruption.

There’s another interpretation I’ve read about The Big Heat, most notably by Roger Ebert in his “The Great Movies” essay, that places Bannion as an oblivious angel of death for the female characters he encounters. I disagree with this take as well, and would argue that each death is more a result of circumstance than Bannion’s actions. Lucy Chapman, the mistress of the dead police officer, is murdered shortly after contacting Bannion, but his involvement is completely tangential to her death. Chapman’s demise comes as a result of her own actions, with Bannion’s role merely as a dutiful police officer doing what he’s been instructed to do. Their meeting and her death subsequently get Bannion involved with Lagana, escalated by the threatening phone call to his house. It’s also unlikely Bannion could have foreseen his car being loaded with explosives based solely on his visit to Lagana’s house since the murder of a police sergeant would logically raise several eyebrows, even in a city plagued by corruption.

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The death of Mrs. Duncan, the police officer’s widow, comes the closest to being caused by Bannion because it came as a direct result of telling Debby the consequences for Stone if she were dead. However, by this point, Debby began to serve as a substitute for Bannion’s wife and he was telling her about his work (now being done without the aid of his police credentials) just as he had his wife at the beginning of the movie. There’s little reason to think, based on what we’re shown, that Bannion was intending for Debby to kill Mrs. Duncan. Debby’s own death, an inevitable conclusion given her circumstances and her actions, comes as a result of her quest for revenge against Stone for scarring her face. Bannion is present, but far from directly responsible. The idea that his encounters with women lead to their deaths is certainly an interesting one, but any theory as to his culpability, whether implicit or direct, seems flawed.

The three principals of The Big Heat re-teamed the next year for Human Desire, based on an Emile Zola novel and previously filmed by Jean Renoir as La bête humaine. The plot involves Ford’s Korean War vet returning to his old railroad job and becoming involved with Grahame, whose husband (played by Broderick Crawford) is Ford’s co-worker. It’s probably second-tier Lang, but it makes a nice companion piece to the earlier film. Grahame gets more time on screen and her character’s ambiguous actions give the film an interesting spin on what at times appears to be another variation of the Double Indemnity/The Postman Always Rings Twice kind of story. Even if it’s just to watch Ford and Grahame again, I’d imagine strong admirers of The Big Heat would also enjoy Human Desire quite a bit.

While The Big Heat can be found on DVD in a good (if overpriced) edition from Sony/Columbia, Human Desire is still unreleased from the same studio. The disc for the earlier title has only a re-release trailer and an advertising gallery, but the picture quality, after the first few minutes of frequent dust and debris spots, is especially impressive for a DVD that came out in 2001. The Columbia Pictures library was well-represented in the earlier days of DVD, with strong transfers and occasional featurettes, but Sony has more recently been content on mostly re-packaging a few titles here and there in sets without turning their attention to the unreleased films still waiting for their digital debuts. That’s rather disappointing for consumers anxious to get their hands on deserving titles like Human Desire, though there is a Japanese release that appears to be of good quality in the DVD Beaver review (here) and is enhanced in anamorphic widescreen. Both of the Lang-Ford-Grahame films are excellent and worth owning, but The Big Heat is an essential, a borderline masterpiece of raw, visceral violence and man’s animalistic need for revenge.

Scarlet Street January 24, 2007

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s, Fritz Lang , 2 comments

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Scarlet Street, like other movie titles derived from names of roads both fictional and real, such as Sunset Blvd. and Mulholland Dr., is not the type of area most people would want to call home. In Fritz Lang’s film, sympathy and goodness are lurking elsewhere, leaving us instead with characters like Edward G. Robinson’s Chris Cross, Joan Bennett’s Kitty, and Dan Duryea’s Johnny. Chris is a sap who married a woman so condescending that her first husband, immortalized in a portrait at home, took the easy way out by dying. His loneliness and desperation lead Chris to do whatever she says. Hints at an unconsummated marriage and Chris wearing a humiliating floral pattern apron allow the viewer to infer that any hint of his remaining masculinity has been destroyed. Presumably, that’s why he’s so reinvigorated by his late-night encounter with Kitty.

Stumbling home from a dinner with his co-workers, Chris musters up enough courage to smack a man appearing to rob an innocent woman. Even his seemingly heroic action is actually done with cowardice, as Chris fearfully raises his umbrella in defense without looking at Johnny, the attacker. His eyes light up when he realizes it’s a beautiful young woman he’s “saved” and happily walks her home. Even though he only paints as a hobby, he boastfully claims to be a successful artist instead of a lowly bank clerk, 25 years at the same job. Chris is smitten and Kitty thinks she’s found a sugar daddy. As Chris abandons any ethics he may have had in the name of lust and Kitty and Johnny devise plan after plan to bilk their new benefactor, Lang warns us to not get too attached to any of them.

All three characters ultimately receive the fate they probably deserve. Chris first seems like a simple loser unable to catch a break, but when given the opportunity, his true colors are revealed to be as unflattering as they are dark. His years of service to his job appear to be less out of loyalty than routine and stability. When he visits Kitty, he’s unwilling to see the silent mocking with which she greets him. The idea that the younger, attractive woman might have less than true intentions would spoil his fantasy. Even after several encounters with Johnny, Chris is reluctant to realize there’s more going on than mere coincidence. When he finally realizes Kitty is not only playing him, but repulsed as well, Chris comes unhinged as his embarassment turns into rage. The final, haunting scenes of Chris, doomed to perpetual ridicule, are exceptional.

joan-bennett.jpgKitty’s contempt for Chris is only mildly hidden throughout the film, but he’s so desperate and enamored with the idea that she could be romantically interested in him that he suppresses any doubts and continues giving her anything she wants. There’s really no denying Kitty’s wickedness. In a film full of rotten characters, she’s the nastiest. While Chris is betrayed by his own ego and desire and Johnny is simply amoral, Kitty is well aware of the damage she’s doing to Chris and absolutely doesn’t care. Her manipulation of Chris is unceasing and we never see the two together unless Kitty is weaseling something out of him. She even finds Johnny’s despicable qualities endearing and seems to almost enjoy him roughing her up.

Each of the three actors delivers a memorable performance, in parts that could have turned the film into more typical genre fare had they been played less skillfully. Robinson’s impressive characterization strays from his tough guy image and makes Chris an easy target for Kitty’s femme fatale. Along with his supporting role in Double Indemnity, this is Robinson’s finest work in proving his versatility. Duryea was the perfect actor for his role - tall, lanky and untrustworthy enough to make you believe he’d steal a sucker from a little kid if given the chance. But it’s Bennett who perhaps makes the biggest impression, contrasting the stereotype of the helpless female who’s actually good-hearted that was prevalent in films of the era. Kitty’s neither and Bennett, who starred for Lang in three other pictures also, uses her innocent looks for shocking effect.

Interestingly, Bennett was married to the film’s producer Walter Wanger for 25 years including the production of Scarlet Street. In 1951, Wanger believed Bennett was having an affair with her agent and, after catching the two of them together, shot him twice in the groin. Wanger’s attorney used a defense of temporary insanity and he served only 98 days, at an “honor farm” in California, of a four-month sentence. Wanger’s suspicions had proven true, but he remained married to Bennett until 1965. His producing career continued after being released, but it couldn’t overcome the disaster of Cleopatra, his final film.

With the release of Scarlet Street in 1945, Fritz Lang once again delivered a shining example of a well-plotted film noir and further proved himself to be a master of pacing. He managed to move the plot along seamlessly in his best films, typified in America by Scarlet Street and the fascinating, but lengthy Hangmen Also Die which somehow never lags. The prolific German filmmaker was responsible for a dozen or more films categorizable as noir in the 1940s and 1950s, most unfortunately unavailable on DVD. While Scarlet Street suffered from numerous unwatchable DVD releases due to falling into the public domain, Kino released a revelatory version taken from a 35mm negative preserved by the Library of Congress in 2005. Though it’s not progressively transferred, the image is still very good and incredible when compared to other versions. Lang scholar David Kalat also provides a knowledgeable commentary on the Kino release.

While the qualifications that comprise the film noir label may be increasingly widening, there’s no doubt that Scarlet Street would fit under even the tightest restrictions. Its dark, cynical world is easily recognizable to noir devotees. The somewhat exaggerated characterizations of bad and worse, the shadowy lighting familiar from Lang’s German films, and the general sense of gloom and despair are all here. It’s a fairly uncompromising film and perhaps the best of Lang’s output in the United States. While the film was already well-regarded, the transfer from the Library of Congress negative proves it to be near the very top of Lang’s filmography.

(To read my review of The Woman in the Window for DVD Times click here)

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The Testament of Dr. Mabuse April 8, 2006

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s, Fritz Lang , add a comment

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The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse) was Fritz Lang’s last film before fleeing Nazi Germany. It was banned in Germany and not shown there until after World War II. Regardless of Lang’s foresight into Hitler’s dictatorship, the film can be viewed as a strong rebuke of the Nazi regime and anti-propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels refused to allow German audiences to see it. The great thing about the film, though, is that it plays beautifully even if you don’t take into account that it was completed in 1933 Nazi Germany. It’s a compelling story that, like many of Lang’s other German films, holds up remarkably well today.

The basic plot is that Dr. Mabuse (pronounced Mah-boo-sah), an evil genius who has refused to speak and is locked up in an insane asylum, has begun scribbling elaborate criminal plans from his bed. Somehow, an “empire of crime” has formed and they are carrying out these horrific crimes. Even after Dr. Mabuse dies, the crimes continue and the crafty Inspector Lohmann must try to solve the elaborate puzzle. There’s also a romantic subplot involving one of the men in Dr. Mabuse’s gang who becomes frustrated when he is unable to find honest work and reluctantly returns to a life of crime. He finds redemption in a woman he meets at the employment office and wants to get out of the gang and settle down with her. Eventually, he becomes vital in Inspector Lohmann’s investigation.

It was only Lang’s second sound film (following M), but the director manages to keenly employ everyday noises to achieve a realistic result. The first few minutes of the film are mostly silent until we hear various street noises. This immediately allows the viewer to build an interest and sweeps us into Lang’s film. I was also struck by the image of Dr. Mabuse’s “ghost” conversing and hypnotizing the psychiatrist. It’s an eerie scene and gives the film some elements of horror.

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Interestingly, Lang simultaneously filmed a French language version of the film starring mostly different actors. Criterion’s two-disc special edition has included this version, albeit in a much more damaged transfer than the German version, which looks remarkably good for a movie over seventy years old. There is also a useful comparison between the two versions, as as the American dubbed version released several years later, after World War II. The American version changes dialogue and attempts to make more direct connections to Hitler and the Nazis. It appears, not surprisingly, that Lang always intended the German version to be the definitive film and his opinion of the American release is unclear.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is its continued relevance. It has aged very well and may even play better today, when people are more informed as to terrorists and organized crime, than when it was first made. The idea of a criminal mastermind pulling strings from an undisclosed location and having people who’ve never seen or met him carrying out his crimes is a timely and always fascinating story. I’m not sure if Fritz Lang was simply a gifted filmmaker with incredible foresight or if possibly Hollywood used his template to craft their studio crime films and maybe that’s why Lang’s German movies still seem so fresh today. Either way, Lang was certainly on to something and seeing his films restored onto DVD today is a real treat.

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