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Friday, June 6, 2008

HANGMEN ALSO DIE (1943)

This Fritz Lang indie production about civilian resistance to the Nazi occupation in Czechoslovakia was the sole Hollywood credit his fellow German emigre, playwright Berthold Brecht achieved during his Hollywood sojourn. The result is terribly uneven with Lang cleverly camouflaging the film's slim budget, but having less success with the wildly fluctuating tone. A lot of unintentional dramatic gaffes vie with stirring nationalistic melodrama in Brecht’s cleverly braided plot. Another wartime emigre, French master Jean Renoir hit similar landmines in his contemporaneous WWII resistance drama, THIS LAND IS MINE. And if Renoir’s work is ultimately more moving, you can’t take your eyes off either of them. Brian Donlevy is fine as the assassin-on-the-run, but Anna Lee is overparted as the confused young woman whose patriotic sentiments are sorely tested. (You keep mentally replacing her with Claudette Colbert or Margaret Sullavan.) But most of the supporting cast is indelible, especially those inspired by Brecht to let ‘er rip, naturalism be damned. Just the idea of the ultra-right-wing 'John Bircher' Walter Brennan spouting Brecht’s didactic left-leaning anthems makes this one unmissable.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: For an exceptional account of the European intellectuals who found a curious sort of creative self-imprisonment during their WWII Hollywood days in and around Hollywood (the list includes Lang, Brecht & this film's composer Hanns Eisler, among many others), check out Otto Friedrich's wonderfully readable & mordantly funny CITY OF NETS. And for a recent book on the real Reinhard Heydrich, whose assasination is central to this story, try Laurent Binet's well-reviewed HHhH.

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