Director: Fritz Lang
Writer:Corey Ford, Alastair MacBain (book), Boris Ingster, John Larkin (story), Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz
Cinematographer: Sol Polito
Producer: Milton Sperling
by Jon Cvack
The second to last film I saw from Lang was Spies (1928), which while a bit too long, blew my mind with how many genre conventions the film contained, having been in 1928. While Cloak and Dagger didn’t necessarily advance film language and structure with the same magnitude, it provided a competitive addition to the WWII spy thrillers per the likes of Notorious ('46), The Third Man ('49), and Night Train to Munich ('40), blowing the latter out of the water by offering an engaging and thrilling tale of the nuclear arms race; a topic that given the film’s release in 1946 and being based off the nonfiction book of the same name and published in the same year, was logically underway prior to America dropping its first Atomic bomb on Japan. As with most of Fritz Lang’s movies, the film balances commentary with engagement, serving as a harbinger of where the nuclear arms race could go.
The story follows scientist and Professor Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) who’s recruited by the OSS to go behind Nazi enemy lines in order to retrieve Dr. Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff) who’s being held by the Nazis in order to expedite the nuclear development. Immediately we get a taste of Jesper’s philosophy toward the weapons, wondering when the world governments will see the value of pouring billions of dollars into research and development toward curing polio rather than creating weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the government’s demands are what they are and in order to prevent the Nazis from getting the weapon first, Jesper needs to head behind enemy lines. The premise is simple enough, and yet Lang is able to miraculously combine Hitchcockian suspense with Orwellian grammar, providing a strikingly modern take.
For instance, when Jesper arrives in Switzerland, there’s a photographer that looks to be not so subtly taking pictures of certain individuals. Aware of the play, Jesper holds up his briefcase to block his face. Later we learn that it was this exact move that pinged him, as only someone who didn’t want to be photographed would have anything worth investigating. Jesper quickly gets in contact with Polda, learning that his daughter has also been captured under threat of execution if Polda doesn’t continue the research. Jesper gets into contact with Katerin Lodor (Helen Thimig) who’s part of the resistance and helping to get Jesper behind enemy lines. However, we soon learn that she’s a American double agent and Nazi, which Jesper catches whiff of, cornering Katerin, threatening to turn her over to the OSS unless she tells him precisely where Polda’s daughter is, leading him to narrowly escape to Italy, with Lodor getting killed, where he meets the gorgeous resistance fighter Gina (Lilli Palmer).
Robert Zemeckis’ Allied (2016) was the most recent example of the genre, and it’s insanity to think that the film would hang so far below Cloak and Dagger both in craft and substance. While Zemeckis focused far too much on the romance, Fritz Lang, while still having Gina fully made up and attractive, never lets the romance pull focus. When they’re first introduced to each other, we get what is now a classic scene of a the resistance fighters hiding in the back of the truck, stopped at a Nazi checkpoint, given the go ahead, only for the truck to stall and the Nazis begin checking the load. It’s moments like this that you understand how fast such scenes go nowadays, as although there is no grand shootout, Lang take his time building the tension as the Jesper, Gina, and the fighters have the Nazis’ flashlight slowly pan across the back of the truck, with the brilliant detail of never having the light catch their faces (as movies often do, leaving you to wonder how the person using the flashlight doesn’t see them).
With Gary Cooper’s offering his classic quiet-cool, every man performance, we also see a more human side as he can’t help his attraction to Gina, making pass after pass, unable to keep his eyes off her. Her morale has been completely destroyed by the war, abandoning the common insolent behavior that’s masking obvious attraction and instead offering a slow burn that culminates in a lengthy scene (what had to be about fifteen minutes) when the two share a hovel while a cat screams outside the door and the pair try their best to contain their feelings and urges.
While I’m often left wondering how marriage declarations could be so easily and quickly offered when the onscreen couples only knew each other for a few days (as is so common in pre-1980s cinema), in this case Jesper’s love made perfect sense. He’s aware of humankind's frailty in the nuclear age, never offering overt cynicism (aside from his intro), though sprinkling it into the role. For Jesper, a mix of Gina's beauty and passion to fight, represents all that’s good in the world.
The troupe heads behind enemy lines, providing all of the gun fights and furtive assassinations that the best of the genre offers. Lang is able to find tension in the smallest moments, such as when Gina and him head out into the Italian streets, discovering their being followed, with Gina using her nice legs to distract the man, allowing Jesper to come from behind with a gun and lead the tail into a room. In an absolutely brutal fight sequence, the man turns around, grabbing Jesper’s face and digs his nails in, with Lang holding the camera enough to make me squirm, all while the Italian street music continues to play outside. Jesper breaks free, fighting equally dirty and bending the man’s fingers back in another squirmy moment. The gun is dropped and knowing they can’t fire and attract more attention, Jesper fights as quietly as possible, eventually strangling the man to death.
It’s easy to watch the scene and think that you’ve seen it all before (down to the man kicking the gun away to prevent Jesper from getting it back), though it’s understanding how few films from the period provided such a devastating fight sequence, often relying on large theatrics and bad choreography to reach the same end. Thus, when the film ends in a shoot out between the resistance fighters and the approaching Nazis, resulting in a - per usual - narrow escape, again it’s not so much that it’s the most original sequence so much as being one of the earliest of these types of sequences that would go on to impact every film from the subgenre from there on out; complete with another brutal conclusion when the Italian resistance fighters use grenades to sacrifice their lives in order to save Jesper and Gina.
Perhaps the most popular piece of trivia associated with the film (wikipedia doesn’t even include a synopsis) is that there was another reel remaining in the original cut - in which after the escape Jesper led a group of paratroopers behind German lines to a factory operated with concentration camp labor, with dead bodies everywhere, leading Jesper to declare, “This is the Year One of the Atomic Age and God help us if we think we can keep this secret from the World” and offering a deeply pessimistic conclusion to a relative popcorn action thriller. While I’m not surprised that the scene was cut, once again Lang’s work falls into the stuff of legend. I recall when Metropolis ('27) still contained missing reels until the full cut was discovered in 2008 in Argentina. Hearing that such a gruesome scene was actually filmed and included leaves me hoping that it one day turns up and we see Lang’s original vision. To think that Gary Cooper and his All American persona had a role in its creation makes it all the more incredible.
I can only think of a few films that come close to matching Lang’s level of quality - Spellbound ('45), Saboteur ('42), Notorious, The Third Man, and Odd Man Out ('47). And while the latter two remain better pictures, the fact that Cloak and Dagger was made before them makes me wonder how much Carol Reed was influenced by the film. In terms of spy-action-thrillers, this is one of the best from the period.
BELOW: One of the most intense murder scenes I can recall from the period
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