#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.