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Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Later Lang (originally published 3/03)

The history of the cinema includes a number of lost treasures. Some are films that have disappeared without a trace, known to whole generations only as rumors of greatness, like Lon Chaney Sr.'s famous turn as a vampire in "London After Midnight" (1927). Even more tantalizing, however, are those films that do still exist, but in drastically truncated form, like German filmmaker Fritz Lang's seminal science fiction masterpiece, "Metropolis" (1927). It is known to have premiered in Germany at a length of 153 minutes, but by the time it reached the United States, it had been shortened by some 40 minutes. Since that time, this truncated version has been all that remains extant.

A number of attempts at restoring "Metropolis" have been undertaken through the years, including the well-intentioned but misguided attempt to set it to a pop music score by Giorgio Moroder some years ago, but all have been frustrated by the sheer bulk of missing footage. Recently, however, the F.W. Murnau Foundation undertook the task of creating a best available restoration of the film, using script materials to fill in missing plot information with explanatory titles. It still isn't Lang's "Metropolis," but it's the best approximation we're ever likely to have. Best of all, in selected venues it can be seen on film, in 35mm, although a video version is also available from

Fortunately, Lang's later films, particularly the ones he made after fleeing Hitler's Germany to work in the United States, can be seen in their entirety. For a sampling of what this cinematic maestro created after "Metropolis," look for these titles on home video.

"Fury" (1936). Spencer Tracy stars as a man who is falsely arrested on a kidnapping charge. As the circumstantial evidence mounts against him, he finds himself facing a lynch mob. When they can't get at him any other way, the mob resorts to burning down the jailhouse where he is imprisoned. But although he is presumed dead, he has in fact escaped. Consumed by a desire for vengeance, he allows the authorities to go on believing that he is dead so that he can engineer the trial of the mob's ringleaders for his murder. He gets his revenge, but ultimately he must confront the ugly truth that he has become what the mob itself was: an unreasoning slave to blind hatred.

"Rancho Notorious" (1952). It might seem odd for a German filmmaker to make an American Western (he made three of them), but he regarded it as perfectly natural. Back in Germany he had made two films based on the myth of the Nibelungs, the same myth on which Richard Wagner based his "Ring Cycle" of operas. The stories of the Western frontier, Lang said, are the American counterpart of such European mythology. The story of "Rancho Notorious" involves Marlene Dietrich as the proprietor of a hideaway for outlaws. In return for a percentage of their loot, she provides them with a place to lay low. Arthur Kennedy plays a cowboy who is searching for the murderers of his fiancee. He infiltrates the hideout and seduces Dietrich's character, using her to get the information he's after. Lang subverts the standard movie "code of the West" by presenting the outlaw roost as a stable, functioning society and the cowboy as an intruder who uses deceit and trickery.

"Scarlet Street" (1945). Edward G. Robinson plays a mousey little bank clerk, saddled with a shrewish wife, who escapes his miserable life by painting a little on the side. Joan Bennett plays the attractive young woman who reawakens his long abandoned dream of knowing true love. Unfortunately, we know what he doesn't - that she's only stringing him along because he's allowed her to believe that he is a wealthy and important artist whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars. He embezzles money from the bank to set her up in a studio apartment, where she regularly entertains her slimy boyfriend, played almost too well by Dan Duryea. And when Robinson's character finds them together, the descent into the pit begins in earnest.

Someday, perhaps, some or all of the missing footage from "Metropolis" may be discovered, opening the door to even better restorations. Until that time, we will have to be content with the complete Lang works that we do have, including the rich legacy of his American productions.

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