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Hangman Also Die Analysis Essay

Hangmen Also Die (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is Fritz Lang’s fictionalized take on a real-life historical event: the only successful assassination of a major Nazi commander by the underground resistance in occupied Europe. Reinhard Heydrich, who earned the nickname “The Hangman” for his brutality as Reichsprotektor of Czechoslovakia, was attacked in 1942 and died of his injuries, an action that was met with terrible reprisals against the population.

For the film version, Brian Donlevy (one of the stiffest of Hollywood stars) is the assassin, a doctor working in the resistance who is forced to hide out with a Czech family when his getaway driver (Lionel Stander) is arrested and he is forced to find his own escape. The actual assassination takes place offscreen in the opening moments, which keeps the focus on the plight of the citizens under the boot of Nazi tyranny, and the message of the film follows in every scene: never inform, no matter how many die in reprisals. It’s a hard lesson for Nasha (Anna Lee), who misdirects the Gestapo soldiers during his escape and hides him when the area is cordoned off at curfew, then chooses to turn him in when her father (Walter Brennan), a scholar who clearly knows more about the resistance than he voices, is arrested as a hostage. Her very intention to go to Gestapo headquarters brings the boot down on her family and she watches one innocent after another sacrifice their own lives to protect the assassin’s identity. The lesson is clear: the only victory is in denying the Nazis any form of victory.

Lang fled Germany after equating a criminal mastermind and his organization of thugs with Hitler and the Nazis in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). When America went to war and Hollywood was given the word to twist its message to war propaganda, Lang sunk his teeth into the assignment with a conviction matched only by fellow European exiles. Hangmen Also Die was the second of Lang’s wartime trilogy of anti-Fascist—making a nice companion piece to Lang’s earlier Man Hunt (1941), released a couple of months ago in a beautiful Blu-ray edition by Twilight Time, and later Ministry of Fear (1944), which Criterion put out on a terrific Blu-ray edition last year and the most overtly political—and the most politically driven. Lang wrote the original script with Bertold Brecht (though John Wexley, who translated the script and rewrote the English version with Lang’s input, took screenwriting credit on the film) and pretty much took over shaping the film to his own desires once shooting began, which infuriated Brecht and led to his break with Lang.

Hangmen Also Die is, frankly, the least dramatically compelling of the three. It’s a sprawling story that leans heavily into the propaganda. The stolid Donlevy is a flat and uninspiring hero who barely changes expression and Anna Lee seems always on the verge of unraveling in panic. Where it’s most effective is when it plays the up to the heroism of everyday citizens, driven less by altruism than hatred for the enemy, and in the telling little touches strewn through the film, like the carefully sharpened pencils lined up like soldiers on the desk of a Gestapo officer, or the crates of beer from the collaborator’s brewery stacked up at Gestapo HQ. The mixture of patriotic drama, detective story and espionage thriller knits together in the second half and pays off in a climactic bit of poetic justice that is a fantasy, a kind of con caper played on the Gestapo, yet is oddly satisfying despite the terrific cost in innocent lives.

Though it’s been on disc before, this edition is mastered from a 2013 restoration, which uses numerous sources (including the original negative) to create a mostly beautiful and fully complete version of the film. There are a couple of rough patches from sequences taken from lesser source material but for the most part it is clean and clear, with sharp images and fine black and white contrasts.

Film historian Richard Pena provides the informed commentary and there is a 30-minute featurette with historian Robert Gerwath on the real life history of Reinhardt Heydrich and the differences between reality and the film’s portrait of events. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Peter Ellenbruch on the production of the film and the falling out between Lang and Brecht.

The Killer Elite / Noon Wine (1966) (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – By even the most generous measure, The Killer Elite (1975) is one of Sam Peckinpah’s weakest film. Which, by Peckinpah standards, is still a cut above a great many films. He manages to get his own sensibility into the tale of black ops mercenaries in a culture of betrayal and retribution, with James Caan as the contract killer who returns from a crippling injury by sheer force of will and the desire for vengeance, and he stage some terrific set pieces to go with Caan’s brutal odyssey. It’s right in tune with the cinema of paranoia and conspiracy that bloomed in the seventies while also jumping on the martial arts craze with Caan taking on ninja warriors as well as his former partner (Robert Duvall). But it’s also a talky script and Peckinpah doesn’t really seem engaged in the stakes or the characters of this story, though Pack fans will appreciate appearances by Bo Hopkins and Gig Young.

What makes this disc essential is its very special supplements: the American home video debut of Peckinpah’s 1966 made-for-television drama Noon Wine, an intimate 52-minute production shot on a combination of film and videotape and broadcast on TV once. Adapted by Peckinpah from the short novel by Katherine Ann Porter, this is an intimate production shot in a stripped down style that puts the focus on character and language. Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland are the frontier couple who hire a Swedish drifter (Per Oscarsson) as a ranch hand and Theodore Bikel the traveler who tries to poison their minds with stories that the Swede is a dangerous madman. Robards plays one of Peckinpah’s most nuanced characters and de Havilland is a quiet force of moral backbone. Lovely and devastating.

The master 2-inch tape was destroyed by ABC decades ago and until recently the only surviving copies were poor quality B&W kinescope recordings. This edition is mastered from 1-inch videotape copy of the master recording. It shows its age and provenance—lo-fidelity image, electric color, the occasional tape glitch—but looks remarkably good considering.

Both programs feature commentary by film historians and Peckinpah experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and Nick Redman, which is very useful for both and frankly a labor of love when it comes to Noon Wine. What a treat. Also includes the featurettes “Passion and Poetry: Sam’s Killer Elite” and “Promoting The Killer Elite” and trailers and TV and radio spots. There may not be much interest for this disc outside of seventies action completists and devoted Peckinpah fans, but it is essential for anyone who loved Peckinpah’s movies. This double-feature shows two sides of Sam at their most extreme.

I think that the raw, jagged Salvador(Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is Olive Stone’s best work, an angry, aggressive film that fearlessly attacks the US government for their complicity in the crime against humanity in El Salvador. James Woods was Oscar nominated for his wild performance as the reckless, irresponsible photo-journalist Richard Boyle and Stone loves the contradictions that fly as his self-destructive, morally questionable Boyle rises to boil as he exposes the evils of government sanctioned murder. This carries over the Oliver Stone commentary track and the terrific in-depth documentary “Into the Valley of Death: The Makiing of Salvador” from filmmaker Charles Kiselyak from the previous DVD special edition. Woods’ clashes with Stone and stories of the madness of shooting seem appropriate to the madness of the situations they were exposing. Also features deleted scenes and Twilight Time’s signature isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

Star Trek: The Compendium (Star Trek / Star Trek Into Darkness) (Paramount, Blu-ray) collects the two films in the J.J. Abrams reboot of the franchise and the universe around it. In fact, it dares to rewrite Trek lore with an origin story that chronicles the first voyage of the Enterprise crew with a story that sends them into a whole Federation history. Call his first Star Trek “When Kirk Met Spock” with Chris Pine as an almost unbearably cocky Kirk, a two-fisted delinquent turned Starfleet maverick and Zachary Quinto channeling Leonard Nimoy’s deadpan commentary and raised eyebrow as Spock, in a modern space thriller of breathless action and colorful spectacle.Star Trek Into Darkness carries on the evolution of their relationship and the chemistry of the crew in a warp-speed adventure with action, humor, space opera spectacle, and colorful characters carved out by an attractive and engaging cast. It’s no longer the series that won over a federation of fans but that didn’t seem to bother the viewers that turned the two films into huge hits. This edition features the IMAX version of Star Trek: Into Darkness and new featurettes on the film along with previously released commentary tracks, featurettes and interviews. Also features bonus Digital HD copies of the films.

Halloween: The Complete Collection (Anchor Bay / Scream Factory, Blu-ray) and Halloween: The Complete Collection – Deluxe Edition (Anchor Bay / Scream Factory, Blu-ray) is exactly that: John Carptenter’s original horror masterpiece, the seven sequels, and the Rob Zombie revival and subsequent sequel. The 10-disc set features all the films plus select supplements and the 15-disc Deluxe Edition adds the producer’s cut of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (never before on disc) along with the network TV cuts of the original Halloween and Halloween II and unrated versions of Rob Zombie’s Halloween and Halloween II, and an exclusive bonus disc with new and archival supplements.

Cinderella (1965) (Shout Factory, DVD) has been on DVD before but this edition of the made-for-TV version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is restored from original source material for disc. Lesley Ann Warren stars as the girl with the glass slipper, Broadway star Stuart Damon is the Prince, Walter Pidgeon and Ginger Rogers the King and Queen, Celeste Holm the fairy godmother, and Jo Van Fleet the wicked stepmother. Includes a retrospective featurette.

More from Twilight Time:

La Bamba (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is the natural follow-up to Twilight Time’s earlier release of The Buddy Holly Story. Lou Diamond Philips took his first leading role as Richie Valens, the first Mexican-American rock ’n’ roll star in America. No spoilers, but Valens dies in the same plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly (played in this film by Marshall Crenshaw) and The Big Bopper. Esai Morales, Elizabeth Peña and Joe Pantoliano co-star, Brian Setzer plays Eddie Cochran, and Los Lobos performs the music featured in the film. Features the two commentary tracks from the original DVD release: one by director Luis Valdez with actors Lou Diamond Philips and Esai Morales and producer Stuart Benjamin, the other by producers Taylor Hackford and Daniel Valdez.

The Dogs of War(Twilight Time, Blu-ray), adapted from the Frederick Forsyth novel, stars Christopher Walken as an American mercenary who is captured by the brutal dictator of a fictional African nation and escapes his torture to lead a revolution. Tom Berenger, Colin Blakely, Paul Freeman, and JoBeth Williams co-star and John Irvin directs. Features both the American and longer international cuts of the film.

Che!(Twilight Time, Blu-ray) stars Omar Sharif as Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara to Jack Palance’s Fidel Castro in this bizarre Hollywood take on his story. Richard Fleischer directs. Includes a vintage featurette.

All three feature Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

Also new and notable:

Criterion has two new releases: Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw with Deborah Kerr. Both with supplements and booklets.

The Slave (Mondo Macabro, Blu-ray+DVD Combo), an Italian erotic thriller of decadence and deviance from Pasquale Festa Campanile, arrives in a special edition newly remastered from a film negative and featuring interviews and deleted scenes. This is limited to 3500 copies.

Two cult horrors from the eighties get new special editions: Pumpkinhead (Shout Factory, Blu-ray), the 1988 cult horror film starring Lance Henriksen and the feature directorial debut of special effects legend Stan Winston, features new interviews in addition to commentary and featurettes carried over from the earlier DVD. Prom Night (Synapse, Blu-ray, DVD), with Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielsen, is newly remastered from the original camera negative and features commentary, featurettes, and bonus scenes shot for the television broadcast among the supplements.

The Exorcist: The Complete Anthology (Warner, Blu-ray) collects the original film (both original and extended versions) along with the sequels Exorcist II: The Heretic and The Exorcist III and the two different versions of the prequel Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist in a six-disc Blu-ray set.

Stage Fright (Blue Underground, Blu-ray) presents the directorial debut of Dario Argento protégé Michele Soavi on Blu-ray for the first time, along with five archival interviews, including one with director Soavi.

Olive had three more independent productions from the Paramount library. Gary Cooper stars in Distant Drums (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), a western directed by Raoul Walsh; Joel McCrea and Dorothy Malone star in South of St. Louis (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), a western set in the depths of the Civil War; and Mickey Rooney is The Big Operator (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), a Union boss who uses intimidation to build his power, in the Albert Zugmsith production;

More releases:

The Big Sleep (1978) (Timeless Media, DVD)
The Great Train Robbery (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Party (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Juggernaut (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Elmer Gantry (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Run Silent, Run Deep (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Young Savages (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Across 110th Street(Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Cotton Comes to Harlem (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Meteor (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Avalanche (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Taras Bulba (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Flesh + Blood (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Bloody Mama (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Bill Morrison: Collected Works (1996-2013) (Icarus, DVD, VOD)
Dreamcatcher (Warner, Blu-ray)
Congo (Warner, Blu-ray)
Ghostbusters / Ghostbusters II (Sony, Blu-ray)
Any Given Sunday (Warner, Blu-ray)
Graduation Day (1981) (Vinegar Syndrome, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Seizure (Scorpion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Short Eyes (Scorpion, DVD)
The Crow: Salvation (Lionsgate, DVD)
Eternals Motion Comic (Shout Factory, DVD)
Crazy Dog (One 7, DVD)
Prince of the Night(One 7, DVD)
Top Model (One 7, DVD)
Prisoner of Paradise (Vinegar Syndrome, DVD)
Peekarama: Cry For Cindy / Touch Me / Act of Confession (Vinegar Syndrome, DVD)
Peekarama: Mail Lin vs. Serena / Oriental Hawaii (Vinegar Syndrome, DVD)

Calendar of upcoming releases on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, and VOD

Tagged with →Blu-ray • Cohen • DVD • Fritz Lang • Hangmen Also Die • Noon Wine • Oliver Stone • Salvador • Sam Peckinpah • The Killer Elite • Twilight TIme 

Nothing in Fritz Lang’s cinema is more dangerous than a vast swath of righteous people hidden from or under the fabric of conventional law and order. For the filmmaker, subterranean law comprises a tangible, earthbound version of the principle of fate: If the heart of society turns on you, you’re finished regardless of your actions. Networks often assume an actively immoral context in his films (see, for instance, the Mabuse series), but in Hangmen Also Die, a hidden campaign serves a purpose of valor, as the film concerns the Czech resistance to the Nazi occupation during World War II. But that theoretically conventional distinction only intensifies the profound despair of Lang’s paranoia. By the end of the film, a universal fear of entrapment has been so expertly mined that you may be inspired, as in M, to almost inadvertently sympathize with one of the most noxious characters. The heroism itself is less the point than the specificities of the heroes’ ultimate wrath, which isn’t death (though that comes too), but social annihilation, which mirrors the annihilation writ large by the Third Reich, and which can befall anyone at any time.

Hangmen Also Die is ruthlessly precise even for Lang. The film doesn’t allow for the audience dawdling that many contemporary movies appear to actively encourage: Turn to your phone for just a moment and you’ve potentially missed a detail that’s key to deciphering the nesting conspiracies and deceptions that drive the plot. Characteristically, Lang makes no pretense of staging a “real” war-time thriller, as this is another of his super-charged, almost surreal expressionist mixtures of melodrama with propaganda that’s so intense and pointed that it works both as parody and as a legitimately terrifying representation of hatred. The film’s a nightmare of inadvertent translucence: All parties, particularly the Nazis, are able to see through at least the first layer of every intended con or self-preserving subterfuge, which leads to reversals upon reversals upon reversals, rendering a cheap joke of the concept of “safety.”

A particularly impressive round of this ever-widening game of espionage occurs near the end of the film. The Nazis in Czechoslovakia are searching for the killer of high-ranking German officer and prime Holocaust architect Reinhard Heyrich (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), an actual person killed just before the film’s conception, who, in Lang’s version, is assassinated by rebel fighter Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy). The Nazis have gone to great pains to expose the killer, and the resistance party has set about elaborately framing one of their traitorous own, Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart), a vividly piggish and self-satisfied brewer who we initially take for a stooge. But at a pivotal juncture, Czaka snaps his fingers in the middle of an “informal” testimony against him and seizes upon a failure of reasoning that pertains to a room not having a phone line, despite the fact that he was said to have made a phone call to another of the film’s villains while supposedly occupying that room. The story against Czaka momentarily crumbles, until his clever evasion is countered yet again.

Lang constructed films that functioned as emotional puzzle traps that alternately tighten and loosen (a modulation often signaled with fast, sharp physical gestures, such as the aforementioned snapping of the fingers or the comic-menacing bursting of a sausage). There isn’t an ounce of fat on the script that the director famously co-authored with playwright Bertolt Brecht. Necessary information is sometimes elided too, so as to complicate the audience’s efforts to read the house’s hand, so to speak, which fosters a profound impression of scrambling, of being forever exposed and on the spot. Curt dialogue is delivered by the actors at a rapid clip that’s more traditionally associated with screwball comedy than with spy thrillers, and it intermingles with James Wong Howe’s deliberate deep-focus cinematography to create a double effect, as the film seems to be moving at two speeds at once. Some images are amusingly obvious, such as when a Nazi is framed in shadow to resemble Dr. Mabuse, but dozens of other shots deepen your understanding of the film almost subliminally. Most memorable are the hauntingly symbolic embodiments of interrogatory torture (Lang gets more out of a canted angle and a silhouette of a bullwhip than most directors can squeeze from 100 million dollars’ worth of squibs), and the stunning composition that shows an inspector looking into a mirror, creating a triangle that literalizes a dialogue between two forms of himself and a deliverer of game-changing information.

There’s a moral concern behind this rigorous stylization and craftsmanship—assuming you require such a thing. Lang’s dense formal construction and ferocious pace simulate (the little that films admittedly can) the uncertainty of life in a country that’s occupied by a foreign enemy, proving yet again that melodrama is a far more effective tool for engendering empathy than earnest platitude. The plot evolves so fast that you never know where anything stands, and neither do the characters, who live with the constant threat of execution for reasons that are arbitrary and barbaric. The film’s inventions shake history free of distancing conjecture and cut straight to the do-or-die urgency of essentially unfathomable atrocity. Hangmen Also Die is another of Lang’s obsessive considerations of the more obviously dubious aspects of the grand social contract. Namely, that it can be revoked at a moment’s notice.

There are a number of obvious flaws with the image. Frames skip, grain has been awkwardly and unevenly cleaned up, and a mild form of washout persists in certain passages. But this is still a notable restoration, as the featurette included shows, particularly in terms of reinstating the blacks to their former majesty. The interplay of the blacks and whites, even in portions of the film that are otherwise not entirely up to snuff, offers dynamic testimony to the virtuosity of Fritz Lang and James Wong Howe’s visual construction. The shadows of Lang’s shadow world have been allowed to return. The English LPCM 2.0 mix is clean, but a mite shallow, as certain small diegetic effects lack nuance and the score’s a little tinny.

Richard Peña’s audio commentary offers fascinating context pertaining to Lang’s collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, which eventually led to a falling out between the friends over what the latter perceived to be the former’s determination to make a bleak, decidedly American melodrama, at the expense of a more openly political tribute to populist might. Also addressed is Lang’s shrewd casting of real German actors in the German roles while using Americans as Czechs in a strategy that offers American audiences an implicative simulation of their own country’s invasion. There’s good stuff here, though the commentary is poorly mixed in relation to the film’s own sound effects, which compete with Peña for your attention. The 30-minute featurette with historian and author Robert Gerwarth succinctly and intelligently outlines the story of the real Reinhard Heyrich, a chillingly soft-spoken aesthete who Lang (purposefully) exaggerated into a cartoon sadist. Rounding out the package is a supplement on the film’s restoration, a 1942 German newsreel, the trailer for the film’s re-release, and an essay by Peter Ellenbruch, a professor at Germany’s University of Duisberg-Essen.

Time has revealed Hangmen Also Die, once derided for being both too soft and too tough (depending on who you spoke to), to be one of Fritz Lang’s sharpest, bleakest, and most dizzyingly inventive American thrillers. Cohen Film Collection has afforded cinephiles an opportunity to make up their own minds.