For most students of film, the name Fritz Lang is inextricably linked to his 1927 German Expressionist, dystopic epic Metropolis. The fixation on Metropolis is not without some merit. It is a stunning visual landmark that towers over the silent era and casts an inescapable shadow over every “vision of the future” film that follows. Yet, Fritz Lang made over forty films in his long career as a director, a career that spanned three eras of filmmaking: the silent era of German Expressionism, Weimar cinema, and classic Hollywood cinema. He was one of the originators of Film Noir and a prolific contributor to the genre with these noir-inflected films and classic noirs: Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), M (1931), Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933), You Only Live Once (1937), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) Secret beyond the Door… (1948), The Big Heat (1953), The Blue Gardenia (1953), While the City Sleeps (1956), and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). This essay will focus on M and Scarlet Street, the former being an incalculable influence on Film Noir and the latter a concrete example of Lang’s mature noir style.
If any film were to be considered the bridge between German Expressionism and Film Noir, it would be M, Lang’s surprisingly modern crime thriller about a child serial killer on the loose in Berlin. M is also the bridge between silent and sound film, at least in the context of German film history. Lang’s use of sound is innovative and dynamic: “Lang was the first to realize that, unlike the theatre, the sound film did not have to limit itself to a straight-forward narrative of events.” (Eisner 321) For instance, as the police chief describes the difficulties of the manhunt, we see the images pursuant to his descriptions. This may be considered a primitive ancestor of the first-person narrative technique that evolved and reached its apogee in the works of Wilder. Here is an even more shocking example. We hear the voice of Elsie’s mother crying out in vain for her daughter, the shots of empty spaces illustrating Elsie’s disappearance. Finally, in a brief series of shocking images, Elsie’s ball rolls from behind a bush, and then we see an anthropomorphic balloon trapped in telegraph wires.
M is expressionistic in its use of low-key lighting, discomfiting angles, and exaggerated spatial dimensions and relationships. Lang’s use of sound is also expressionistic at times: “Lang, immediately impressed by the expressive possibilities of sound, very naturally turned his hand to contrasts between sound and the image.” (Eisner 320) Here we see such a contrast, the shadow of the killer appearing before the little girl Elsie. He begins to speak, but the camera remains fixed on his shadow. Indeed, the scene ends in a chilling fade to black without the audience ever actually seeing the killer. M is not simply a work of German Expressionism, however, as it anticipates several traits of the nascent noir cycle. In particular, the concept of the city as an angst-ridden, alienating force is self-evident: “Lang’s relentlessly mobile camera charts the varied social spaces of Berlin from the crowded intimacy of its tenement rooms and staircases to the commercial modernity of its shops and offices.” (Hillier and Phillips 172) The murderer himself seems to be a representation of the danger and uncertainty of the modern city: “His bulging, anxious eyes and contorted, fearful, self-absorbed body language create a unique impression of existential terror.” (Hillier and Phillips 173)
Fourteen years later, with Lang now working under the auspices of the Hollywood studio system, the director made Scarlet Street, the story of a meek cashier named Christopher Cross (Chris Cross) who dreams of being a great painter, played by Edward G. Robinson, driven to murder and then to madness by his lust for a femme fatale, Kitty March, with no intention of reciprocating his affection. With assistance and firm pressure from her implied pimp and confirmed lover, Johnny, she passes off Chris’s paintings as her own and achieves wealth and fame essentially overnight. At first, Chris is delighted that the art world has embraced his work, but he is unaware of Johnny’s involvement. Chris proposes marriage to Kitty, but she laughs in his face, and Chris realizes that he has been crossed. He does the only thing a reasonable man could do in this situation. He stabs her to death with an ice pick. Scarlet Street demonstrates the consequences of unrestrained desire, showing “the implications of noir narrative as a structure in which fantasy (or wish fulfillment), obsession, guilt, and entrapment may be visually stated and in that statement validated as actions with moral gravity.” (Dickos 27)
The work of Fritz Lang, especially Scarlett Street, bears some similarity to the work of Billy Wilder, his fellow émigré. As Hillier and Phillips describe Scarlet Street, “As an American film noir directed by a prominent European exile, like Double Indemnity (1944), it brings a skeptical and satirical eye to the foibles of a central protagonist at sea in the serial modernity of America’s advanced urban capitalism.” (Hillier and Phillips 230) Materialism, greed, and the modern world—all these meet in the central image of noir, the city. The city of Scarlet Street is no more congenial than M’s Berlin. It is harsh, dangerous, duplicitous, and unforgiving. Chris meets Kitty in the street. He believes he saves her from an attack by some loathsome creature of the night—in reality, it is her lover and pimp Johnny. Chris imagines himself the valiant defender of innocent maidenhood against the cruelty and licentiousness of the city. As it turns out, Kitty is merely an extension or representation of the city’s inhumanity, and it is her indecent, impure lust for Johnny that motivates much of her awful behavior towards Chris.
In M and Scarlett Street, Fritz Lang offers two of the darkest, most disturbing, and most cynical glimpses into the human psyche played out on the stage of the dark and forbidding city. Lang presents us the picture of a bleak world whose cinematic representation is truly deserving of the moniker Film Noir.
by Jesse Lapin