1940s, 3/4, Drama, Fritz Lang, Review, War

Hangmen Also Die

#20 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

Fritz Lang revisited the procedural formula he had perfected in M while having to (and probably choosing to willingly) introduce elements that clash with that bedrock, making the unsentimental take on a hunt for an assassin more melodramatic than it should be while also bringing in a polemic about Nazi Germany. That final element, while making the film more timely than timeless, does create an interesting subtext unique to the time period that I wouldn’t want to deny the film, but calls to action against Nazi Germany don’t land seventy years later like they did in 1942.

Reinhard Heydrich, the German assigned leader of the Czech state, is assassinated, and the Gestapo is going to find his killer and punish him no matter how hard they must squeeze the population. There are key scenes early that show the Czech uniformity in low-level resistance to the Nazi occupation such as a loud-mouthed Nazi getting punched unconscious in a crowded theater and everyone simply leaving, meaning that there will be no witnesses to the unpremeditated crime. Another such incident is when Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) runs down an alley and comes across Mascha Novotny (Anna Lee) buying vegetables. Mascha watches him go one way, and when the Nazi footmen come running up and demanding where the man went, she, without a thought, points the Germans in the opposite direction.

Such a little act of resistance sets off a long chain of events and moral questions. This film is at its best when it’s doing one of two things: documenting the procedures around the Gestapo’s investigation and the underground navigating the moral murkiness of sacrificing innocent lives in the middle of a war. One of the Gestapo’s first acts is to take up four hundred men and hold them prisoner until the guilty party who shot Heydrich gives himself up, and the underground has to weigh the costs with the benefits. That mainly falls on Svoboda’s shoulders. He’s the one who killed Heydrich, and yet he wants to surrender to the authorities to save the lives of the four hundred men. The added wrinkle is that the night of the assassination, Svoboda was forced into finding shelter, and he found it with Mascha and her family, led by the professor Stephen Novotny (Walter Brennan), staying the night and implicating them as sheltering the assassin.

The more melodramatic elements that get introduced involve Svoboda, Mascha, and her fiancé Jan (Dennis O’Keefe). This manifests through rumors in the apartment complex that Mascha had a man who wasn’t her fiancé over for the night and becomes the alternate explanation for the Gestapo when they investigate Svoboda himself and his movements that evening. Stephen also ends up as one of the four-hundred men giving a personal reason for Mascha (and the audience) to get invested in the fates of the men scheduled to be executed. In a film where the procedure is so important and prominent, this ends up feeling like more naked manipulation than necessary.

The noose around Svoboda and the underground as a whole begins to tighten, and the underground decides to fight back. Their opportunity presents itself when one member of an underground cell, Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart) presents an idea of giving up too readily in a meeting. He’d been cleared of suspicion from an earlier crime, but this arouses more suspicion. They entrap him and then frame him for the murder of Heydrich. The process around this uses the solidarity of the Czech people against the Nazi regime to almost magical effect (dragging it down a bit), but it’s ultimately satisfying to watch the plan play out.

The use of the English language for the Czech characters, all using American accents, is a decision that I support. I find fake accents to make it sound like actors are speaking another language to be a distraction more than anything else, and I could easily imagine someone, somewhere in the process of making the film deciding that they should all have English accents. Instead, Lang took the approach that Kubrick would later take with Paths of Glory, and I find it far less distracting. The Germans still speak German to each other (never subtitled because the information is never completely vital or indecipherable, as was Hollywood’s wont at the time), creating a distance between the characters on both sides that Lang uses to much effect.

The agitprop side of the film is interesting. Where Man Hunt was more purely a call to action for a country not yet involved, Hangmen Also Die was made and released after the attack on Pearl Harbor. One of the best scenes in the film involves the men held by the Gestapo coming together to listen to the poem of a prisoner, a call to continue fighting despite the setbacks they see. It works in the context of the film, which is key, because these are men who are scheduled for execution needing to know that their sacrifices will mean something in the end. The fact that this was film sometime in late 1942 or early 1943 gives it an earnestness that something made after the war is over wouldn’t have. There’s no knowing how it will actually play out in the real world. It falls flat as rousing since the war is long over now, but it works for them in the scene.

This is a lesser form of M, marred by some unnecessary melodramatic elements at some handwaving in the final act regarding how all the Czechs, after having been shown to be splitting apart because of the assassin in their midst, suddenly come together, but the package overall works despite these limited problems. I don’t know if it was studio mandates or Lang just being Americanized into the studio system he’d been working in for more than five years, but the film still works despite it all. It’s not his top-tiered work, but it’s a strong procedural that uses its timeliness well enough.

Rating: 3/4

4 thoughts on “Hangmen Also Die”

  1. What an improvement over Man Hunt. The script may have been written by a commie bastard but it was written by someone who knew Nazi’s first hand and not an Englishman imagining what a Nazi was.

    Here we see Nazi ruthlessness and efficiency both. Competent bad guys who are a legitimate threat and not some pulp spy fluff. Hans Heinrich von Twardowski doesn’t get much screen time but he embodies Heydrich’s arrogance and power perfectly. Ludwig Doanth portrayal of debauched, but brilliant, Inspector Schirmer was also good. Here you see Nazi’s beating the hell out of someone throwing a bicycle at them. This feels much more real compared to the highly mannered Man Hunt.

    Photography and lighting is again good, with the few flourishes (Lang doesn’t seem to be overly enamored with Expressionism but he does have some shots that are beautiful and stylized in each of his films) catching the eye but not dominating the movie.

    It’s not all good, though. Donlevy is wooden and boring, his voice is almost grating. At no point did I believe he’d killed Heydrich, let alone survived the massive furball and near-catastrophe the assassination really was. (perhaps at the time, not a lot of details were known) The German actors work well, especially using their native tongue, but many of the American accents are jarring. The taxi driver sounding like he’s from the Bronx is particularly out of place. Walter Brenan is a mixed bag here. His non-verbal acting is truly top notch. The man could act and this movie really proves it, but his voice is too distinctive and it takes me out of his character when I hear it. It’s like Schwarzenegger going Shakespeare, if that makes any sense.

    You’re right, it’s a little too smooth in places, though we do see Czech’s not interested in the resistance. I had hopes actually of conflict from Anna Lee’s character, but she goes from being ready to cuss out Donlevy for bring doom upon her father to being fully on board with him and schemes in a heartbeat. THAT was jarring too and it killed most of her drama. Then her being super willing to betray her fiance (or let him feel betrayed) jarred me again. It’s like she feels conflict only when the screenplays tells her to. She doesn’t feel real, she feels like what she is: an British/American actress cast in a role. The final plot of everyone lying to frame Czaka doesn’t work for me, too much could and should go wrong for it to work. But the scene when Czaka’s German bodyguards rescue him and nab several conspirators was a good twist and surprise to me.

    The movie ‘Anthropoid’ does a better job portraying history. (and it’s a better thriller and action movie). But this is a better movie than Man Hunt and a better time. Screenplays matter, writing matters.

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    1. This is much more of a procedural than Man Hunt was. Man Hunt was much more Hollywood, while this is a procedural with Hollywood elements.

      I was curious, because of the connection between Greene and Lang through Ministry of Fear, what Graham Greene thought of both movies. I have The Graham Greene Film Reader, and only Man Hunt is mentioned. It’s brought up a single time in a lecture where he says, “Now we are waiting impatiently for what America considers to be [Lang’s] best film.” One day I actually need to dig into this book deeply to see if Greene was the kind of critic I would give my attention contemporaneously, but it’s interesting that the apparent consensus was that Man Hunt was great. I would assume that he’s referring to it as Lang’s best American film, because even in the fervor of increasing war in Europe, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would consider Man Hunt better than M (but, then again, Cahiers du Cinema listed Moonfleet as the #32 best movie ever made, and I am confused). I was hoping Greene would have written something about Hangmen Must Die, but, alas, it seems to be unmentioned completely.

      If Lang had been operating outside of the studio system, I think he would have leaned more on the procedural elements than he ended up doing. This is the period where Lang feels least in control of his work, the most like a studio director for hire. I think that would have improved the film.

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