#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.