The story is of a novelist, Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews), who conspires with a rich newspaper editor, Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer) – whose daughter, Susan (Joan Fontaine), is engaged to Garrett – to frame Garrett for murder to show the shortcomings of circumstantial evidence and the death penalty by presenting the real and exculpatory evidence after the trial finds Garrett guilty. The men pick a recent murder case where a showgirl has been strangled to build their false suspicions about Garrett. Garrett starts dating a showgirl to show he has an attraction for that type of women and to bolster the false case against him. Garrett is arrested based on the planted evidence and convicted and then Austin Spencer is killed in a traffic accident and all the exculpatory information is destroyed. Susan believes in Garrett and she begins to rally on his behalf and when the executor of Spencer’s will opens his safety deposit box he finds a letter explaining the whole charade and the governor is going to grant a pardon. Susan meets with Garrett in the warden’s office and she shares the good news. During the conversation, Garrett mentions something only the real killer would know and Susan challenges him and Garrett confesses that the murdered showgirl was a woman who tricked him into marriage and never divorced him and she was blackmailing him due to his planned marriage to Susan. Susan is torn and confides in Bob Hale (Arthur Franz) – who works in the DA’s office – and not a journalist as cited by Eisner and Lang – and who is in love with her – who calls the governor who refuses to sign the pardon ensuring Garrett’s execution.
Once again – as with Brian Donlevy in “Hangman Also Die” – the protagonist is played far blander than usual in a Lang film. This may have been due to Andrews’ drinking problem or with Lang having less confidence in the gimmick than usual. “I was very afraid of the ending,” Lang told Bogdanovich. “I showed Dana Andrews for an hour and forty minutes as a wonderful, clean-cut-man – and in two minutes, I show that he is a son-of-a-bitch. I was very scared.”
What is interesting about this film isn’t the film itself. It’s in how biographers and critics position the film and its interior workings. There was an argument between Lang and the producer about showing Garret’s execution. In Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Patrick McGilligan states: “So Lang filmed it his way – not an execution but Garrett at the moment of reckoning, collapsing in terror, being dragged toward his fate . . . Lang didn’t buckle under [to Friedlob’s protestations] . . . so it was Lang’s victory.” Except that scene is not in the film. Not even close. Garrett is lead meekly out of the room by a prison guard in the film.
McGilligan goes even further to try and infuse this film with some kind of “Langian” meaning. “Considering Lang’s personal history,” writes McGilligan, “it would be interesting to know who planted the final turn of the plot: At the eleventh hour, when the reporter is revealed as the true killer, the victim is revealed as his wife from a secret marriage. She is a nightclub dancer, which may have been the calling of the first Frau Lang – who also died under mysterious circumstances.” McGilligan – of all people – should know that information about Lisa Rosenthal – “the first Frau Lang” – is scant indeed and there is no record of what she did for a living before she met Lang. While it’s a safe bet to rule out astronaut and gangsta rapper, the idea of her being a nightclub dancer is pure fantasy on McGilligan’s part and continues his notion that Lang apparently murdered Rosenthal and his films are a series of confessions even though McGilligan also states that Lang’s films are also full of suicides. However McGilligan frames it, the allusion to Lisa Rosenthal attempts to infuse into the film nonsensical references intended to add a layer of meaning that is based on no more than unsubstantiated speculation. To boot, the woman killed in the film doesn’t die mysteriously. Garrett murdered her.
Lotte Eisner, in Fritz Lang, doesn’t even attempt to elevate the film in terms of its cinematic qualities, trying instead to explain Lang’s intentions. Lang states “Social themes, such as the exposure of corruption and similar subjects seemed passé to me” in an extended interview with Eisner, and “a ‘social’ film serves no other purpose but that of killing time. It was an unconscious escape from monotonous daily routine of work and life into the unreality of daydreaming.” Lang also rants about “the cause or reason of people’s increasing alienation” and “the double standards of our society” as well as “Laws against homosexuality, abortion, discussions on the ‘morals’ of judges or policemen . . . and so on, ad infinitum!”
In dealing specifically with the film, Lang said, “I began to wonder who was the worse human being – the murderer or the unscrupulous blackmailer who is after his money with egotistical single-mindedness and without a moment’s thought for the possibility that she is ruining his whole career and future life?” There was also a question of the motives of the district attorney and his building his career on the bodies of executed men, although the newspaper editor in his quest for ending the death penalty has equally questionable motives. Those questions of guilt soon dropped away and by the time Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Lang, the question became: “Wasn’t [Susan Austin’s] betrayal of [Tom Garrett] at that point far more reprehensible than anything [Garrett] had done?”
“Again, we could talk about that for a long time,” replied Lang. Let’s forget her character for a moment – I think you are right in what you think – but let’s assume she’s a sweet, wonderful, understanding girl, and suddenly she finds out that the man she loves is the greatest son-of-a-bitch. Wouldn’t she desert him?”
“To desert him is one thing,” pointed out Bogdanovich, “to betray him is another.”
“You want her to be an accomplice?” asked Lang. “Then he goes out and kills again? As I said, we could talk about this for a long time,”
Lang also questions the motives of Bob Hale (Arthur Franz) – who Lang identifies as a journalist – but who actually works in the district attorney’s office. Lang told Eisner, “Or out of all four, if we include the journalist who is in love with Susan, since he removes a rival for her affections simply by telephoning the warden.”
Lang spoke to Bogdanovich in 1967 and by 1974 in an interview in Dialogue On Film: Fritz Lang, Lang went even further as to the motives of the characters. “When Dana Andrews,” Lang said, “in desperation has killed the girl who made his life unhappy, it was a crime out of despair. When the woman he loves . . . in the end turns him over to the law, she does it out of selfish reasons because she wants to marry another guy.”
This is film is a perfect example of Bogdanovich’s notion that memory “sets the values” of film history. Between McGilligan misremembering how Dana Andrews reacts to the news that he’s going to be executed and Lang’s reinventing his directing after the fact, what gets distorted is the viewing of the film. The films don’t lie and what Lang sees as Susan Austin’s motivation is not supported by how Lang directed the film. Susan Austin is torn over making the phone call and – in fact – doesn’t turn Tom Garrett “over to the law” because she can’t bring herself to speak to the warden. Whether Bob Hale – who does tell the warden that Garrett confessed – is in love with Susan Austin is irrelevant and – in the way it plays on screen – has nothing to do with Susan Austin at all. Hale works for the DA and he has to tell the warden that Garrett confessed. The entire Hale angle is an over-the-horizon happy ending that would – according to how Hollywood sees these things – act as a potentially positive aspect.
If Susan Austin needed a motive, her love for Hale – should it exist – would be eclipsed by the fact that Garrett not only used her to weasel his way into money and power – since she and Garrett would inherit the newspaper and Austin’s father’s wealth after his death – and went so far as to murder his secret wife to advance his plans. That she hesitated and failed to bring herself to tell the warden the truth says far more about her misplaced loyalty than some fuzzy romance off in the future.
The film is quite clear in who did what and why they did it. That these events become a subject for a question of who is the most immoral is disturbing and when one nominee is a greedy, lying, murderer who says he did for Susan’s happiness and the other nominee is the used woman who admits that he confessed to her, my dough – every time – is on the greedy, lying, murderer. Maybe I’m just too traditional in this case. Bogdanovich seems to think that because Susan telling Hale that Garrett did it and because Garrett was then executed then, ergo, Susan Austin killed Garrett as if this was some replay of “Scarlet Street.” That these arguments are based on questionable motives on the part of Susan Austin and Bob Hale – that do not appear in the film – appear more “reprehensible” than what Tom Garrett admittedly did – murder, for one – seems to be one of the most misogynistic interpretation of a film that I’m aware of.
The films don’t lie and everything that McGilligan, Bogdanovich and Lang bring to this film after the fact is a desperation that leaves a disturbing smell.
It was a horror show of a shoot for Lang, and after numerous arguments with the ailing Friedlob, Lang was finished. “You son of a bitch,” Lang said to the producer, “I don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore or the American motion picture industry.”
Lang walked leaving Gene Fowler, Jr to edit the film on his own. Lang would never direct in the US again.
© 2013 William Ahearn
Fritz Lang’s last dance in Hollywood is a dull and drab affair that lacks any of the sparkle or magic that Lang used to save many a mediocre script in some of his previous films. Several reviews remarked about the pedestrian production values. Frederick Ott in The Films of Fritz Lang notes the film was “flawed by a poor screenplay and indifferent photography.” Arthur Knight wrote in Saturday Review that the film “reveals the growing tendency to adapt to the movie medium television’s low-budget production techniques.”
Working again with producer Bert E. Friedlob – who had cancer and died shortly after the film was released – wasn’t a pleasant experience for anyone involved. Lang and Friedlob fought about everything and most specifically the ending. Instead of a happy ending Friedlob wanted a “really gruesome” execution scene and Lang fought him and what remains is an implied finality: The audience knows what is going to happen.
Joan Fontaine who stars as Susan Austin found Lang – contrary to his usual behavior – “obsequious” and “false” and she also found Andrews to be “false” although according to accounts by the editor, Gene Fowler, Jr, Andrews – who was a raging alcoholic – was more than likely hungover. Fontaine’s performance lacks any hint of chemistry with Andrews or anyone else. Even the special effects of an auto accident went bad only to be adjusted by Fowler in the editing room although it still doesn’t look remotely convincing.