Review, 2.5/4, 1940s, Thriller, Fritz Lang

Cloak and Dagger

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

I’m not quite sure that Fritz Lang understood the spy genre. The best spy movie he ever made was the first third of Woman in the Moon, and he’d made several other outright spy adventures that never really grabbed my interest like the pair of films in the unnaturally shortened The Spiders serials and, of course, Spies. Cloak and Dagger falls into the tradition of his spy films in feeling too loose and unfocused to really thrill. It’s not a complete slog, it begins and ends quite well while there’s a secondary character that is so interesting and compelling that she should have been the main character, but it simply doesn’t come together like one might expect a Fritz Lang film would.

This also has the interesting honor of being one of the first atomic era films that dealt with atomic weapons in any capacity to the point where the studio was cowed into cutting, what Lang said was, an entire reel of footage that cast the atomic age as something to be feared. The absence of any real thematic or character attention to the idea is felt because the whole concept is largely dropped after the first act, only ever addressed again in oblique ways that advance the plot.

It’s the end of WWII and Professor Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) is approached any an old friend who works for the OSS to go to Europe and meet with a German physicist who has fled Germany to Switzerland. Dr. Katerin Lodor (Helene Thimig) is a great scientific mind and the reason Jesper decides to go on the mission, the OSS insisting that only a nuclear scientist would be able to…negotiate with a woman who wants to flee a nation. I get it, though I make fun. People in a highly specialized field looking to escape a fascist regime in the middle of the war might be more comfortable talking to someone in their own field rather than a spy, but the movie very quickly turns this taciturn college professor (something akin to Cooper’s Professor Bertram Potts in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire) into a rough and tumble, suave, seductive, and effective secret agent so fast as to feel like parody.

He goes from Lodor to find a scientist in Italy, requiring a secret deposit on the rocky Italian shores helped by some partisans led by Pinkie (Robert Alda) and including Gina (Lilli Palmer). The professor is Dr. Polda (Vladimir Sokooff), and Jesper’s status as a scientist is what gets Polda to allow him to remain in his office through their deception. That’s the reason that Jesper is written as a nuclear scientist, but much like Agent 326 in Spies, his actual profession doesn’t really matter. Rewrite the scenes with Lodor and Polda so that they are just happy to see an American willing to get them out, and they play pretty much the same way. It doesn’t help that Jesper doesn’t really seem driven by much beyond a vague sense of duty to scientism as some kind of ideal. No, the real motive is Gina.

Gina is introduced about halfway through the film, and she’s easily the most interesting character in the whole movie. You see, this is a movie with two ideas that never gel. The first is nuclear power (which seems to have been mostly cut out) that dominates the first twenty minutes or so. It takes us getting through Jesper’s little adventure in Switzerland (including a very nice, little scene with Lodor where she describes the anguish of working with Nazis under compulsion) and into Italy before we get a character with any staying power who seems driven by something other than vague spy-stuff. Gina is that character, and she was an innocent before the war, made hard by the life of a paisan and given a glimpse of a new life in the tall, handsome Professor Jesper. It’s actually really sweet, and the movie builds in a period where they have to simply remain together for a week for plot purposes where they come together (there’s a lot of thinly implied sex in this movie).

It’s almost entirely because of Gina that I think this movie very nearly works. It doesn’t, though. The adventure in Switzerland involves too much that doesn’t carry over to Italy (namely a female German spy who latches onto Jesper), making it feel like an isolated adventure instead of flowing naturally into the rest of the film. The nuclear power ideas get swamped out completely (supposedly because of studio interference), and Jesper is simply not that interesting of a character (I assume the meat of his character was more nuclear power based, which would coincide with what I have read is in the cut footage). That nuclear power stuff, even if complete, probably doesn’t gel well with the sense of nostalgia that Gina represents (though a conflict between the life that was and the new world facing everyone in a nuclear age could be interesting and where the contrast was going to go, but that feels like something that should be embedded in a single character).

There’s an interesting subtext to the film in that, while it was entirely filmed in Southern California, it was Fritz Lang’s first post-war film set on his former continent, so there’s a certain “coming home” feel to the whole affair. True, it only hits Switzerland and Italy (though the lost final reel did, apparently, end at a German concentration camp), but there’s something about Lang going back to the continent of his birth in film form that says something just under the surface, and that makes me wonder why the main character remains to be the very American Gary Cooper. That creates a certain distance with Jesper, who approaches the whole thing like any spy adventure, his hearing of the problems of those who stayed ends up feeling generically sympathetic instead of specific in a way that would be fed by Lang’s own feelings of leaving his home country at the rise of Nazism.

Still, with all of these issues and subtexts, the film is ultimately a spy adventure. It’s alright in that regard. It ends well with a solid shootout, has some decent spycraft, especially early, and functions well enough. It’s never going to be mistaken for a lost, proto-James Bond adventure, though.

There’s something interesting here, but the movie’s story is too fractured to come together to focus long enough to have an effect. Its brightest spot doesn’t appear until halfway through the film, and that bright spot doesn’t really seem to coalesce with the point the movie had from the beginning. That point has been rubbed out after the film was shot. It’s not great. It’s not really good. It’s sort of okay as a whole.

Rating: 2.5/4

10 thoughts on “Cloak and Dagger”

    1. Once you get to Italy, you get Gina, you get real story and character level stuff that’s worthwhile. Without her, this movie would be far worse overall.

      She’s not enough to save the whole thing, but she’s a real bright spot. Still, it takes half the movie just to get to her. Everything up to that point is largely just competent spy stuff without much tension or real interest.

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  1. Any movie with Gary Cooper in it is going to be worth a watch, but I won’t be rushing back to pour over this one again.

    I’ll say this for Coop: I believed him as a scientist, I believed him as a hard man blackmailing a Nazi agent, I believed him as an American flirting with an Italian hottie. In isolation, I believed each performance. Coop does so much, so subtly it looks like he’s not acting at all. It’s when you combine all that together that the character is unbelievable.

    This feels like two movies, a wartime spy story and a romance and the two don’t gel. In fact, if you cut 10 minutes out of the romance, the story would have moved along fast enough that maybe the plot holes wouldn’t be as noticeable. But as much as you liked Gina, her introduction grinds the plot to a halt. We should have gone from the first apartment scene with the cat (because I can’t bear to lose that great dialog there) to a one week time skip of them under a bridge, with Gary Cooper looking rough and unshaven and the message in the newspaper being discovered.

    Likewise, starting the movie with random spies being killed over the pitchblende shipments is a mistake. A better opening would have been with watching Dr. Katerin Lodor struggling to make it to the Swiss border. That would have personalized her struggle and make her death even more impactful. Because, as you said, there’s literally no scene where being a nuclear scientist was important to this plot. His scientific expertise resolves no story conflicts, it imparts no specific useful advantage. A German and Italian speaking spy could have done everything better.

    Mostly soundstages this time, but some nice shot staging and lighting. I’m frequently delighted by the way mirrors are used in Lang’s films to keep characters in shot and to reveal information that might be hidden to the other character in the scene. Just great stuff to look at.

    The Nazis are back to being efficient and dangerous, I was particularly taken by the twist where Dr. Lodor’s rescue is bungled and she’s shot to death by an elderly German woman. That was not expected in a 1946 film. Likewise when Gina flat out murders an unarmed woman in the final twist, that jarred me. But Gina is shown being quick to kill, in her introduction.

    Much of the cut footage improves the story, what with the communist writers (again!) trying to slide in a message of ‘American can’t keep the atomic bomb secret to itself’ and an attempt to rewrite history to show the Nazi’s being closer to getting a-bombs than they actually were. By 1946, the public was aware of these facts, mostly due to us trumpeting our victory, so adding those elements in would have probably alienated audiences even more.

    Mostly the movie doesn’t work, but if you like Gary Cooper or Lilli Palmer, it’s worth watching.

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    1. Mirrors are big throughout his body of work. So much so that I find it jarring when he doesn’t use them. I don’t think he has an overriding single meaning for its use, though there’s definitely a “double sided” reflection of a character portion that comes up repeatedly. This was probably most apparent in both The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, especially how Joan Bennett’s bed was positioned with mirrors all around the head of it in the latter. His main intention, though, seems to be interesting framing, and in a cinematic world where irises are considered old-fashioned, the mirror is a good way to get a similar effect without being quite so obviously formalistic.

      I’ve never cottoned to Gary Cooper that much, and I’ve always wondered at his star power. He seems so distant and awkward to me. I’ve read that Capra using him in Mr. Deeds changed his image, robbing him of his sexual appeal, but that was ten years before this. He seems kind of boyish in his interactions with women here, not manly. That’s how I see it, at least.

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  2. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve seen Robert Alda (Alan’s dad I believe) in something, and one of the worst performances I can remember. I still feel somewhat traumatized from having watched it. And unlike pretty much everyone, I’m not a big fan of Gary Cooper either. I guess he’s adequate, but always seems a little stiff or unnatural to me. So that would be two problem actors in one movie for me, maybe too much to overcome.

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    1. I don’t actively dislike Cooper, but I find his fame to be a little inexplicable. He does seem so stiff most of the time, but maybe that’s just the roles I’ve seen him in. The one role I’ve probably fully liked him in was as Alvin York in Sergeant York.

      I remember reading about this nearly blink and you’ll miss it role in Wings, the silent film that won the first Best Picture Oscar. Apparently crowds went wild at seeing him, but he’s in the movie for something like three minutes, if that.

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  3. Gary Cooper is one of those actors who really grows on you the more you study him.

    I suppose this is my college/community theater acting past but…Coop was really good. So good that most of the time you couldn’t catch him acting or performing. He does little things, easy to overlook. Spencer Tracy was the same way. Most of the time, maybe not in the end of Fury…but everyone has bad days.

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    1. I can imagine that happening. I’ve just never really seen much of his early work, and everything is colored by his later work.

      Although, I did look back through some of my Hawks reviews over the weekend (I was bored), and I realized that I had really liked him in Today We Live in addition to Sergeant York (where he was supposed to be stiff, especially regarding the ladies).

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