Monday, August 11, 2014

CLOAK AND DAGGER (1946)

Fritz Lang, 1946
Starring: Gary Cooper, Lilli Palmer, Robert Alda, Vladimir Sokoloff

An American physicist, Professor Alvah Jesper, is sent to Germany to help rescue a defected German scientist, Katerin Lodor, who is at an asylum in Switzerland. The OSS hopes to prevent the Nazis from building an atomic bomb, but unfortunately Lodor is kidnapped and murdered before Jesper can save her. He makes a new plan and goes to Italy to work with Resistance members, including the lovely Gina, and rescue a key scientist. Jesper learns that the man, Polda, is only working with the German because they have kidnapped his beloved daughter. Jesper and the agents plan to rescue Polda and his daughter, but first they must deter the malicious intentions of Gestapo agents hot on their trail.

This is the fourth of director Fritz Lang’s American war-time espionage thrillers, along with Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die!, and Ministry of Fear. It is also the last and has the most troubling production history. A tribute to the Office of Strategic Services (also known as the OSS), a precursor to the CIA, this was based on the book Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of O.S.S. by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain. The film’s anti-nuclear, pacifist message got the two screenwriters, Albert Maltz and Robert Lardner Jr., targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and later imprisoned for Communism and banned from working in Hollywood. Oddly, a similar fate was experienced by Lang’s writers on Hangmen Also Die!, though was curiously never visited upon Lang himself.

Lang’s original ending was also given the kibosh by Hollywood. He allegedly intended for Jesper and the Resistance agents to discover an empty munitions plant where the Nazis had clearly just fled with their atomic work, a hidden Nazi bunker, and a concentration camp full of corpses. As with the majority of Lang’s early films, this deeply cynical conclusion provided no hope or relief, and implied that Nazis agents were still at work in Fascist Spain or South America even after the war was over. While this was regarded with a mix of horror and skepticism at the time, it turns out that more than 9,000 Nazis did actually escape to South America (these files were discovered in 2012) and Nazis remaining hidden in West Germany attempted to organize a clandestine army (these files were made public in May of 2014!).

This original ending also emphasized Lang’s theme that atomic weapons – regardless of who had them – would lead to the destruction of all. As with a number of his other films, Cloak and Dagger was certainly ahead of its time. The ending that replaced Lang’s original feels rushed – Jesper and Gina part, determined to be reunited after the war – and this is an unsatisfying, saccharine conclusion that borrows a little from the ending of Casablanca.

Like Casablanca, but unlike many other spy thrillers, the romance plot that somewhat spoils the ending is the film’s heart and soul, something that humanizes the cruel, ruthless actions of Gestapo and Resistance alike. Lilli Palmer is perhaps the most memorable thing about this film and saves it from lagging around the halfway point. The German-Jewish Palmer fled to Paris in 1933 to escape Nazism and eventually made her way to Hollywood with husband Rex Harrison. Later in life, Palmer would again play an anti-Nazi agent in films like The Counterfeit Traitor (1962). Few of Lang’s characters are presented as wholly good or moral and Palmer’s Gina is no exception. As with Scarlet Street, Lang states that his main female character is a prostitute without directly using these words in the script. Part of Gina’s value to the Resistance is her youth and beauty, which she is often forced to use either in flirtation or seduction. It’s clear that this behavior is beginning to destroy her. Lang’s portrayal of her inherent innocence despite the need to act tough and cynical is one of his sweetest.

She utterly steals the film from Gary Cooper, who gives a solid performance, but is perhaps miscast. He isn’t particularly believable as Jesper and his character makes the nearly impossible transition from scientist to professional spy with seemingly no training and no time passing. His mistakes, though, are memorable, as when he is nearly seduced by a Gestapo agent and is easily spotted by the Nazis after he refuses to have his picture taken. The script is confused about who or what he should be, but Cooper makes the best of it. Finally, he feels out of place as a Lang hero simply because he is heroic, self-sacrificing, and courageous; nearly all of Lang’s other heroes are guilty, troubled, and make questionable moral decisions. In addition to Cooper, Robert Alda, Vladimir Sokoloff, J. Edward Bomberg, and Ludwig Stössel all make appearances, though a lot of people seem to be phoning this one in. 

Though overall this is a mediocre effort from Lang, there are some brilliant and enjoyable moments that make the film well worth seeing. It will also be of interest to fans of Hitchcock, as much about Cloak and Dagger prefigures Hitchcock’s flawed Cold War espionage thriller, Torn Curtain. The latter borrows the central plot of scientists behind enemy lines trying to rescue a deadly scientific formula. The best scene of Cloak and Dagger, where Jesper silently fights to the death with a Gestapo agent and must casually hide the body is also mirrored directly in Torn Curtain. Cloak and Dagger is available as an Olive Films’ Blu-ray and comes recommended to fans of Lang, Hitchcock, and espionage thrillers. Though it’s not his best suspense film, it would be a mistake to write this one off altogether.

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