Sunday, July 23, 2017

Don't Make a Scene (Sing-Along Edition): Once

The Story: Harmony (noun): 1.  agreement; accord; harmonious relations. 2. the simultaneous combination of tones, esp. when blended into chords pleasing to the ear; chordal structure, as distinguished from melody and rhythm.

One of the things missing in most modern movies these days (possibly because audiences might find it "corny") is "the sing-along," where a group of characters participate in a collective musical performance that shows they can work together as a group to a common purpose.  Corny?  Maybe.  But it's a great audio-visual short-hand for communicating a dramatic idea—the resolving of differences.  Just as an orchestra can combine rhythm, brass, and strings to a unified whole, so, too, can disparate personalities and talents come together to create a sum greater than the parts.  We see this work in music groups  all the time, and there's no more obvious example in the movies than the Beatles documentary Let It Be, where the four writer-musicians bicker and back-bite, but manage to put it all together in their final concert on the Apple Studio roof-top, a meshing performance that shows just how good they could be.

This month, in our "Don't Make a Scene" section, we'll present four sing-alongs from movies that display dramatically, through music, the putting-aside of differences in the creation of a unified effort—harmony.
And as music is the important element here, and really doesn't work one note at a time, we will temporarily dispense with the usual frame-by-frame breakdowns, and present the scenes in their full 24 frames per second vitality.

This one is the simplest of all.  Two people, just met, one a busker (Glen Hansard), the other, a street flower-seller (Markéta Irglová), both musicians, each interested in the other's music.  She's heard him play on the street and likes his songs.  He follows her, intrigued, when she says she plays piano, but only has the opportunity to at a local music shop.

So, hearing her play, and impressed, he wants to see what she can add to a song of his he likes.  It, "Falling Slowly," eventually won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Song.  But the scene, before you hear the song that would eventually become familiar, evolves.  She gets the music, he explains the chords (to which she replies, matter-of-factly, looking at his fingers on the guitar neck, "I can see"—my favorite line of the film), and they begin.  Simply quietly, following the chords first, but, eventually, together, exploring the song's possibilities on their own.

It is vulnerable, tentative, then courageous and beautiful.  They get swept up in it, both a little surprised at what they can accomplish together, on something and an arrangement so new.  It's the start of an unspoken love affair—not completely unspoken, the only declaration is in Czech, which he doesn't understand (and as it isn't sub-titled, neither do we—nice touch, that)—that will have an ending, but will not resolve.  It will be a brief moment in time, when things are special, and everything is good, like a good song performed, in memory an echo.

It is part and parcel of a nearly perfect little movie, with a single-word title that reflects the melancholy, transitory nature of the encounter, its uniqueness in time, and the special pleasure—and pain—of its pastness: Once.

Brilliant.





Thursday, July 20, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

With Great Power Comes Greeeeeat Flakiness
or
"You Say that a Lot. What Are You Sorry For THIS Time? ("...Previously on 'Peter Screws the Pooch'")

At one point in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter—Spider-Man—Parker (Tom Holland) says to Tony—Iron Man—Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) "I wanted to be just like you!" and Stark counters "...and I wanted you to be BETTER."

Precisely my feelings towards the Spider-Man 3.0 reboot, which I found a generally disappointing mess, with some very good things about it that did things differently...and refreshingly.

I like the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously—the Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield versions had their moments of mirth, but got mired down in the soap opera aspects of the character and the weight of the "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility" philosophy. This Spider-Man entry feels like a hyper-After-School Special that dispenses with the "Life with Archie" aspects of the traditional mythos ("Hmmm: Gwen or Mary Jane?") and features a cast far more diverse than merely blond and brunette. That's good. It plays around with the teen-hero aspect of Spidey—he's supposed to be 15 in the movie and Holland is 21 (McGuire started at age 27 and Garfield at age 29, the latter two abandoning High School for college) and sticks him in the very awkward high-school years of the character's origins in the early days of Spider-Man's history.


I like the fact that we don't have to go through the motions of seeing his origin story—bitten by a radio-active spider and suddenly finding himself with out-sized strength, sticky appendages, and the acrobatic skills and balanced of a headlining Cirque du Soleil performer. Here, Spider-man simply is. Doesn't matter how, and that he's young, eager, and learning is part and parcel of the origin, anyway. So, I'm glad we don't have to watch Krypton explode again...or his parent get shot in an alley...again. Let him be...in media res.

I like the fact that—like the recent Wonder Woman—there is no revenge plot. He's not trying to avenge the murder of his Uncle Ben (portrayed earlier by Cliff Robertson and Martin Sheen) or even girl-friend Gwen Stacy. He wants to be Spider-Man because being Spider-Man is cool! He also wants to be just like his hero Tony Stark—who has provided him with a too-gadgety Spider-Man suit (which gets very tiresome after awhile, more on that later).

But, the best part about it has little to do with Spider-Man or the new guy who's portraying him—it's the "villain." The best part of Spider-Man: Homecoming is Michael Keaton (former Bat-man, former "Bird-Man"). His Adrian Toomes aka "The Vulture" starts out as a blue-collar guy (actually he remains a blue-collar guy although he starts sporting a full collar later on—a neat touch) who's salvage company is in charge of cleaning up Stark Tower after the big dust-up The Avengers had with the Chitauri in downtown New York. "The world had changed," he opines to one of his grunts as they pick through the rubble, finding all sorts of neat other-worldly tech.

While he's ruminating on that and instructing his crew how they should use the alien gadgets to take other alien gadgets apart, they are interrupted by a police-escorted group from Stark Industries (including Tyne Daly!) telling them to cease and desist. Stark Industries has used their political clout to take over the salvage operation—Toomes and his crew are out of a job. "Times are changing," says Toomes as he pockets a couple items in secret. "We need to change, too."
It's curious. The focus of the Spider-Man movies should be Peter Parker, but here, with the puerile adventures of kid Parker and his High School buddies not providing anything of depth and his general dorkiness, you gravitate to Toomes, whose character is at least competent. He's not unbalanced, he's opportunistic, entrepreneurial and he's got a well thought-out defense for doing everything's he's doing. Yes, his "crew" is selling alien and extra-dimensional tech to criminals, but to hear Toomes tell it (to Parker), he's no different than Parker's hero, Tony Stark, who started out—and, for all intents and purposes, still is—an arms-dealer. But, Toomes sees a difference: "People like Stark—they're not like us—you and me. We build their roads, fight their wars, eat their table-scraps..."
He thinks he's doing what he has to do to survive and to keep his family afloat and solvent. He's seen people go off the path and do well, and, for his family...why not?

Keaton is at the top of his game here. Laconic, thoughtful, dangerous, he has a lot of every-man bonhomie and you're drawn to him. But, the best scene in the film (which would be a crime if I spoiled by revealing it in any way) is his. And, it is played mostly silently with looks and deflecting casual dialog. Then, he delivers terms of engagement and he threatens, his eyebrows arched, a smile on his face. What Keaton is doing is a bit reminiscent of what his co-star Jack Nicholson did playing The Joker opposite his Batman—there is a theatricality to it, but tamped down, malevolent but smoldering, and stated not as threat, but as fact. It's no wonder Tom Holland looks scared shit-less during the scene—Keaton is the villain and has stolen his movie.
So, that's the good parts: some good casting, some clever dialog here and there. Peter has an interesting story-arc—he begins wanting to be an Avenger like he was in Captain America: Civil War (Peter has done a selfie-video of his adventure in the other movie—from another studio) and realizes, eventually through the course of the movie, that he shouldn't be an Avenger, but can do the most good just by being "your friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man" (as the saying goes). And to have that arc, Spidey 3.0 has inserted itself into the tangled web of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so, yes, there's a lot of the MCU poster-boy, Tony Stark—some of which is necessary (Toomes' motivation is squarely on the shoulders of Stark), but a lot of which is Robert Downey, Jr. collecting a pay-check. Chris Evans shows up in a running gag as Captain America keeps turning up in Public Service Announcements "for the kids"*P

Here's the issue—it's all for a gag—it's tied to the Marvel movies, sure, but it also undercuts one of its major characters, doesn't respect him. I'm not sure what the internal logic of having Captain America be a role-model/spokes-hero "for the kids," since, after Civil War he's now considered an "outlaw" in the Marvel movies. But, hey, it's for a gag and another tie-in to the popular movies, right, so what's the harm? That it makes no sense probably shouldn't matter, as it's a "Spider-Man" movie, which should be it's own "thing," a Universe in a bottle...but for marketing purposes—to make sure there aren't any entries like the third Tobey McGuire and the second Andrew Garfield movies that have a slight down-tick in revenues to make studio executives nervous—they bring in popular characters from other Marvel movies...and...diminish them. Curious strategy, that.

Also, the presence of Stark contributes to something I find just annoying, but it's annoying for a significant amount of running time in the film: Spidey's suit. Looks good, okay. But, over the course of the movie, you find that there are so many goo-gah's and other gizmo's in it that you could imagine that given a good remote control, you don't even need a person in it.** The eye-holes respond to emotions (a trait picked up from Deadpool) and the mask has a "heads-up display" like Iron Man, they can control the types of webs he shoots, and, most egregiously, he has a "Siri" voice in his suit (voiced by Jennifer Connelly), who gives him so much information that there is no need for him to think. But, it does give him plenty of time to talk, which he does incessantly while he's trapped overnight in a weapons warehouse. Guess it beats trying to find an exit somewhere.
Need a lot less of this.
The thing is, it's not the suit that people like—it's the character inside it—although Marvel Studios tried to make him as much like Iron Man as possible, it will all be for naught if audiences don't respond to Holland and the character they've written. The movie makes the point, itself; after a botched confrontation with "The Vulture" on a Staten Island ferry, Stark's Iron man comes to save the day and dresses Spider-Man down...by taking away his tech-suit. "I'm nothing without the suit," bleats Peter. "If you're nothing without the suit, then you shouldn't have it!" Stark replies. Hopefully, when he gets it back, they'll have dialed down the tech. The character is fun enough when he has to improvise a get-up in the third act. And more competent.

But, the thing that really disappointed me is a problem that past Spider-man films have had—a needlessly frenetic pace and editing by a cuisinart. It's happened in Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (the ones fewer people saw and caused the respective re-boots). The timing is off on a few things because there seems to be an attempt to shoe-horn as many bits of business and details as possible, but not to dwell on them (one isn't given enough time to notice them!). Look at that fight gif above. See how things don't seem very smooth and jerk around a bit. That's because the director—or it could be 2nd, even 3rd unit-director—didn't have a basic design strategy that would make the fight work. They basically took bits and pieces of sequences, added some inserts and just thought it would come out looking good in the editing room. It didn't, and it doesn't. 
"See? Superman isn't the only hero who's a Christ-allegory!"
And once we get into the big battle set-pieces, the action (which is now more CGI than practical stage work) just becomes nearly incomprehensible and hard to follow—you can't see who's where and what spatial relationship they have with each other to determine the sequence of danger. It's just individual shots that are supposed to give you a sense of action highlights, but not how they relate to each other. Combine that with the tendency to have the Spider-Man fight sequences run a little too fast, especially in the swooping-and-dodging departments (which I suspect has more to do with trying to make the CGI pass scrutiny than anything else—come to think of it, the worst fight sequences of the previous "Spider-Man" films also occurred at night as this one does, and it makes you wonder if all the various FX houses go into a room to actually coordinate what the sequences will look like, as opposed to individual shots. They might be technically brilliant, but do they share the same framework to make the collection of shots legible? Not very. In fact, the last time, they had really good action sequences was way back in Spider-Man 2 (Series 1.0).

So, there's less doom-and-gloom in this Spider-Man movie. But, I can't say things have noticeably improved. In fact, the character seems even less important in his own series than when he started to be crowded out by villains. Maybe someday there'll be another good one along the lines of Spider-Man 2—still one of the best movies in the super-hero genre—but this one isn't it. The third time has some charm, but it's not enough to keep it off the bargain racks at your friendly neighborhood supermarket.





** The punch-line of which is Cap showing up in the completely superfluous Final Credits Teaser that completely nerd-bashes the idea of sitting through the Credits to watch to the teaser: "Hi, I'm Captain America. Here to talk to you about one of the most valuable traits a student or soldier can have. Patience. Sometimes, patience is the key to victory. Sometimes, it leads to very little, and it seems like it's not worth it, and you wonder why you waited so long for something so disappointing... How many more of these?"

** There's an antecedent in the comics for this: Spider-man has an enemy named "Venom"—he was briefly in Spider-Man 3 (the only #3 there has been), which is essentially a Spider-Man costume that possesses people (yeah, don't even ask...)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Ministry of Fear

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944) So, here's the joke: a man walks out of an insane asylum and finds the world is crazier than he is.  

But, then, it usually is in Lang's films. The forces of evil or nature are such that we don't stand a chance unless our own better natures or our just plain "stick-to-it-ive-ness" allows us to survive and move through. And in Lang's directorial vision, the film frame is as much a trap as anything else, one that can be violated by unseen dangers that will drop into frame as if materialized by a malicious God out of nowhere to threaten those within it.


Ministry of Fear, based on a Graham Greene novel published the previous year, follows the dogged tracks of Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) as, having been released from Lembridge Asylum, he awaits a train to London and decides to pass the time at a charity fête supporting "The Mothers of Free Nations" where there is a booth for guessing the weights of cakes. After dropping a shilling on a wrong guess, his next stop is a fortune teller's booth, where he's astonished to find the woman giving him the exact weight of one of the cakes at the booth across the way. Neale can't resist using his knowledge (and testing the medium's prediction) and is astonished to find that he's guessed correctly and won.  

Everything's a little off-kilter in Fritz Lang's world.

Off to his train he goes, not knowing that his taking the cake has caused a commotion back at the tents and exhibits. The cake has "gone" to the wrong man, intended for another (Dan Duryea). On the train, Neale's cabin-mate is a blind man to whom he offers a slice. But, Neale is astonished to find that instead of eating his portion, he's crumbling it in his hands. The blind man is no blind man, and he attacks Neale, steals the cake and jumps off the train, pursued by Neale. But it is the time of the Blitz, and as the two chase through a field in the night, bombs begin dropping, targetting their train.

Okay. We'll stop there. But, already, things are not what they seem, people are not who they say they are, and nobody can be trusted...not even a damn pastry. It's not a cake, at all. It's a MacGuffin, the movie-making slang for the object that the players in a movie seek (and has a sliding scale of relevance and importance*). 

The subsequent fandango has Neale involved with "The Mothers of Free Nations," a seance, dodging bullets with the police and secret service, and all sorts who pretend to be something they're not. It's enough to drive a sane man crazy—if one hadn't already left an asylum.  That time in crazy-land might actually have steeled Neale for his subsequent adventure, which is no piece of cake. Lang was the master of the paranoid thriller (at least until Alan J. Pakula teamed up with Gordon Willis in the post-Watergate 70's) and his ordinary man caught in the extraordinary is the very DNA of a Hitchcock thriller—in fact, Ministry of Fear might have been one of those that "got away" from The Master of Suspense. With its seances, wolves in bureaucratic clothing and things that go boom in the night, all it needs is a national monument to be pure Hitchcock. It's a fun, terrible ride, well worth seeking out.

*






Sunday, July 16, 2017

Don't Make a Scene (Sing-Along Month Edition): Moulin Rouge!


The Story: Harmony (noun): 1.  agreement; accord; harmonious relations. 2. the simultaneous combination of tones, esp. when blended into chords pleasing to the ear; chordal structure, as distinguished from melody and rhythm.

One of the things missing in most modern movies these days (possibly because audiences might find it "corny") is "the sing-along," where a group of characters participate in a collective musical performance that shows they can work together as a group to a common purpose.  Corny?  Maybe.  But it's a great audio-visual short-hand for communicating a dramatic idea—the resolving of differences.  Just as an orchestra can combine rhythm, brass, and strings to a unified whole, so, too, can disparate personalities and talents come together to create a sum greater than the parts.  We see this work in music groups  all the time, and there's no more obvious example in the movies than the Beatles documentary Let It Be, where the four writer-musicians bicker and back-bite, but manage to put it all together in their final concert on the Apple Studio roof-top, a meshing performance that shows just how good they could be.

This month, in our "Don't Make a Scene" section, we'll present four sing-alongs from movies that display dramatically, through music, the putting-aside of differences in the creation of a unified effort—harmony.
And as music is the important element here, and really doesn't work one note at a time, we will temporarily dispense with the usual frame-by-frame breakdowns, and present the scenes in their full 24 frames per second vitality.

The past two weeks (with -Only Angels Have Wings and Rio Bravo), we looked at how the director Howard Hawks used group sing-alongs as a dramatic to show the mending of differences to get everyone "on the same page"—ebven if it is sheet music.

It doesn't happen so often anymore.  Audiences don't have the patience for it, or don't "buy" it, although Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe may perform string instruments together in Master and Commander, or it may show up, inevitably in musicals, like the Broadway adaptations or Disney.

Or Moulin Rouge!

A lot of people don't like this one (with that hysterical "hate, hate hate" kind of dislike), and it's semi-understandable: it's silly, and high-flung, operatic in tone with the lowliest of song-forms, the rock-song. It's edited much too fussily and extravagantly (with attention paid to rhythm more than continuity) and it borrows from so many plots ("La bohème," hello!) and eviscerates so many rock songs that purists of any stripe yank out hanks of hair at the glee with which Baz Luhrmann and company pay no respect in this giddy kaleidoscopic romp of a movie-musical.

Yeah..."whatever."  The artists got paid...and the result sure is fun.

What I'm looking at this week is the very complicated sequence that is known as the "Elephant Love Medley," which features Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman singing full-bore into each other's faces bits and pieces of songs from sources diverse as The Beatles (and Paul McCartney), Phil Collins, Elton John, David Bowie, Kiss, Dolly Parton, U2, Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.  It's the classic call-and-response of rock numbers where the romantic and the cynic parry back and forth, and the two only come together to sing a song unchanged and unexpurgated at Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs."  I remember rolling my eyes when that one came up, but its usage is fairly brilliant because it has both the romantic and cynical arguments built into it, then the two come to a meeting of hearts and minds (with a burst of heart-shaped CGI sparkle at the down-beat) to sing together in harmony.  It works, both in the foreground presentation and the background drama, and spectacularly well. 







Next week: The same thing, but quieter, sweeter and simpler.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

He Walked By Night

"He Walked By Night (Alfred L. Werker, 1948) It's funny the things you find. You go down the twisted, dark corridors of the film noir genre and once in a while you find a gem shining in the black, one that has many facets and goes beyond its origins and haunts.

He Walked By Night is one of those. Picked up at the Socialist Book Collective (Your Public Library) for free, it looked to be a modest little film. It starred Richard Basehart and Scott Brady, an actor so anonymous they had to bill him with a past movie as a middle name—Scott "Canon City" Brady.* It's a low, low budget film that looks like a million bucks because it was photographed by one of the great cinematographers in Hollywood history, John Alton. Alton painted in black and white and his intricate screens of shadow are works of art, made quickly and with little money. He worked often with director Anthony Mann who is rumored to have directed parts of this film (and sections of it look like Mann's T-Men, one of the best film-noirs). But credit goes to Alfred L. Werker, a director who toiled in the "B" and "C" strata of movies, working with such talents as Laurel and Hardy, even Disney, and directed the second (and I think best) of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939).


But He Walked By Night is a different detective story entirely. Based on a "true" LAPD investigation, ** it's a police procedural that details the work the force went into to capture a cop-killer and criminal who "seemed to be one step ahead of" them, all the way. The case drags on for months, and its only the dogged determination of one dedicated cop that leads to the case being solved. It boasts that beautifulAlton cinematography, L.A. locations, and a sense of realism that even precludes the use of a musical score. The film begins with a city-wide dragnet and ends with an incredibly well-done chase and fire-fight in the cavernous drainage system, the gun-fire echoing endlessly through the concrete corridors.

Performances are stalwart throughout, with Richard Basehart given the chance to shine through as the creepy killer, and slate-voiced B-actor Whit Bissell as the best lead witness who gets more than he bargained for.

Then down the credits is a thin, odd little actor who plays the CSI expert—or as it would become known "One of the Lab-Boys"—with a perverse sense of humor: Jack Webb. If He Walked By Night comes off as seeming a little familiar, that's the reason. Although having only a minor memorable role, Webb managed to strike up a relationship with technical adviser Marty Wynn, who suggested a radio series based on the crime-files of the LAPD. Webb ran with the idea and debuted the radio series "Dragnet" four weeks after this film premiered. The blue-print is here: the no-nonsense narration with the city as character and even the well-worn phrase "the names have been changed to protect the innocent." It's not exactly "Dragnet"—Webb drained the emotion out of it and did it on an even more thread-bare scale, but it's the facts, ma'am. This is where "Dragnet" started.

Why not look for yourself? He Walked By Night has slipped into the Public Domain, and you can watch it for free here.





* Not so anonymous, really. Brady was one of those crusty dependable actors who could do just about everything and did, playing spokesmen, governments agents, cops, people in authority, but strictly blue-collar. You'd know his face if you saw him. He had a rough-hewn authenticity and credibility that was used to its full advantage as the nuclear plant worker who vindicates Jack Lemmon in The China Syndrome. He was also the more successful brother of actor Lawrence Tierney. There's a resemblance.

** Well, that's stretching it. A lot. Some of the particulars are used--the electronics genius, the use of the L.A. storm drain system for escapes, the meticulousness, the murders. But the truth is far stranger, and not so neat and tidy.

The story is based on the career of Erwin "Machine Gun" Walker, who returned from WWII slightly unhinged by survivor's guilt and the death of a friend at Leyte Island—a death he felt responsible for. He began a series of robberies to fund--I kid you not--a project to create an electronic "death-ray." This led to the murder of Officer Loren Roosevelt, who was gunned down attempting to question Walker after seeing him casing a store.

Instead of technologically-savvy, dogged police work, Walker's undoing was bragging about his crimes to his catholic girl-friend, who mentioned the story in confession, and the priest informed police—there goes the story of sanctity of the confessional.

Walker pleaded insanity for his crimes—he wasn't tracked down in the drainage system and killed—but was captured in a raid on his home (like the one depicted in the film) and wounded in the arrest. Citing insanity in his family and his war trauma, he made his plea, but was found competent and sentenced to death. 36 hours before his execution, he was found nearly strangled with an electrical cord, a suicide attempt—his father had killed himself six months earlier.

The suicide attempt led to Walker being declared insane and his execution postponed for 12 years, while he was remanded to various mental health facilities. In 1959, he was deemed "cured," but, reasoning that it might provoke another suicide attempt, his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Then, he was granted a re-trial, and because it ruled his initial confession at the time of his arrest was coerced, he was set free.

Rather than being cut-down in a melodramatic blaze of gun-fire as in the film, Erwin "Machine Gun" Walker walked.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Hangmen Also Die!

Hangmen Also Die! (Fritz Lang, 1943)  We've talked about Anthropoid and Hitler's Madman, but another film is inspired by the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and its subsequent murderous reprisals. It is an original story written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht (he of "The Threepenny Opera" and "The Ballad of Mack the Knife") and another German expatriate, director Fritz Lang. 

The Czech plot to kill Heydrich makes up a very small part of Hangmen Also Die! and the destruction of Lidice isn't even mentioned, the ramifications of the assassination cast in miniature with the murder of 400 souls as reprisals for keeping the identity of the gunman (only one in Brecht and Lang's screenplay, not the group of four  who carried out the actual killing) a secret from Nazi investigators. The plot hews closer to Lang's world of spies, secret societies, and hiding in plain sight.

Heydrich (played by an overwrought Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), appears in only one opening scene and rides out of the small studio representation of a Czech street never to be seen again*; the attack happens off-camera, in the style of other Lang films where danger lurks just outside the film frame (most of the murders happen out of sight except for the penultimate ones that close the film on a cautionary, mournful note).

The only things the film has in common with the real events is that there was a Heydrich, he was killed by Czech partisans, and the Nazi's started a man-hunt that resulted in the execution of civilians in retribution. There is no organized murder and destruction of an entire city in revenge.

Just after Heydrich's assassination a lone figure calling himself Karel Vanek (Brian Donlevy, looking very "chalant"**) runs into the busy city street looking for his getaway vehicle—it (driven by Lionel Stander) has been directed to Gestapo headquarters for leaving the engine running and wasting precious commodities. He asks a woman, Masha Novotny (Anna Lee), if she's seen the vehicle and she tells him the driver was arrested. Vanek scurries off when news of Heydrich's attack hits the streets, steps ahead of Nazi agents looking for him. Masha mis-directs them and he is able to escape. 

But, he finds no shelter after the attack, and in desperation, shows up at the Novotny apartment, where, with only the slimmest of cover-stories, he is invited for dinner and given a bed for the night. Masha's father (Walter Brennan), a history professor recently dismissed from the University for his political views and now tutoring his former students, suspects Vanek of killing Heydrich, yet provides him accommodations in sympathy.
"Someone at the door?"
Before long, the Nazi's come calling, and Novotny is arrested as a suspect in the murder, as well as 400 others to be held in detention until the murderer is found. As an added incentive for the killer to turn himself in (or his whereabouts revealed) the Nazis will kill 40 of the hostages at a time until the case is closed. In desperation, Masha seeks out the man she's deduced has posed as Karel Vanek—distinguished Prague surgeon Dr. Franz Svoboda—and begs him to turn himself in and save her father, something the partisans have forbidden him to do.
You have it all nicely worked out, haven't you? If I tell them, 
then all my family will be shot! If I keep silent only my father 
will be shot! In other words, your "simple statement of fact" is 
we're all lost because we were generous enough to save your life! 
You're just a cold-blooded coward! You're no better than Heydrich himself! 
Even the Gestapo couldn't be as inhuman as you are!
It's a moral quandary and Brecht and Lang increase it by making the assassin a doctor, betraying his hippocratic oath even when doing nothing still does harm. Meanwhile, Gestapo inspector Gruber (Alexander Granach) pursues all leads trying to piece together who the culprit is, particularly Masha, who knows that at any time, her father might be killed.

The partisans, meanwhile are working to pin the assassination on another party, a businessman and Nazi partisan who drew up the list of the 400 Czech's to be taken prisoner, Czech partisans seeming to have a overarching sense of irony. But, can they convince the Nazi's in time to prevent the slaughter?

Lang's concern here is in the conspiracy—it frequently is in his films—and how background forces, hiding in plain sight, can influence the orbits of people's lives. The main gist is that the Germans have taken over Czechoslovakia as an occupying force, but the occupied, in turn, can disrupt any machinery, no matter how precise, given enough will and organization. You fight power with power. You fight those seeking information with disinformation, and any search for a lone individual can be neutered by unfocusing it. The Germans do things with uniforms and ceremony. The partisans are masked—even surgeons' masks— and are at their most powerful when they are unknown, ordinary and a part of the landscape—nobodies.

This is not a history lesson, and, if so, only in the broadest strokes. It takes one incident and brings to light the Lang world-view: that the work of collective, coordinated individuals can disrupt the machinery of despots, technology, corporate interests and political systems that oppress them and threaten to crush them in the clock-work gears of their seemingly perpetual motion. But to derail those gears takes resistant bones and iron wills to make them seize up.

There's a telling shot in Hangmen Also Die! where word of Heydrich's assassination begins to be whispered in a darkened theater and applause starts to ripple through the audience. A Nazi lackey calls a halt to the movie and, flush with a power he only thinks he has, demands to know who applauded. "No one applauded." says a voice in the crowd, belying the obvious truth. And before one of the audience members decks the Nazi for being too pushy with his wife, there is a shot that must have been very powerful in the movie theaters—it's a shot of the theater movie-screen, an extension of OUR view of OUR movie screen, like an optical illusion where we see farther than just the projected image into the movie's world. And the movie crowd of Hangmen Also Die! look back at us, safe in our seats, defiantly, almost accusingly, as if to ask "What are YOU going to do?"

It's chilling: that one image unites us with the plight of the Czech movie-goers and challenges us, making us a participant in their situation in a way no 3-D image ever could.

There's genius there.
"Nobody applauded."
The movie stares back at its audience.




* Except for one surreal hospital scene comprised of this shot:

** The opposite of nonchalant.