cloak and dagger

© 2013 William Ahearn

The usual quip about this film is that if you can buy Gary Cooper as a nuclear physicist – and an OSS secret agent – then the rest of the film is pretty easy to swallow. Hollywood was in a frenzy to produce films about the daring-do of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and two other films on the subject – “OSS” and “13 Rue Madeleine” – were also released in 1946.

“Cloak and Dagger” had its genesis in Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain’s Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of OSS whose film rights were bought up by Milton Sperling who wanted to move up from screenwriter to independent producer. The script went through numerous writers before Lang was hired including Ben Maddow and John Gates and then Boris Ingster and John Larkin. When Lang arrived, Ring Lardner Jr was hired as well as Albert Maltz and a deadline due to a slated production start hung over their heads. Former OSS officers Michael Burke and Andries Dienum added tradecraft to the script and during production Silvia Richards worked uncredited on the dialog

According to Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, at a dinner party at Lang’s house, Dienum and Burke demonstrated lethal hand-to-hand combat that became the basis for the fight scene with Gary Cooper that took – according to some sources – six days to shoot and it is shot without dialog and uses ambient music, as did “M” and the addition of the bouncing ball seems to imply that Lang is stealing from his own films. Lang also had input into the script and that lead to his ending being shot, cut and then lost.

The film opens without dialog and with the brooding music of Max Steiner to set the tone that counterpoints some classic Lang shots of trains and the spy who counts certain hopper cars and then meets the telegraph coders of the French resistance upstairs – complete with secret knocks on the door – at a bistro. The Gestapo has been waiting and there the film switches to Washington DC where the information about the hopper car contents – material that could be used to produce an atom bomb – leads the OSS to Professor Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) who is currently working on the Manhattan Project. Jesper is immediately recruited into the OSS to find out what he can about the Nazi atomic bomb project and sets out to meet with Katerin Lodor (Helene Thimig, widow of Max Reinhart and one of the highlights of the film). After that adventure, he’s off to exfiltrate the scientist Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff) from Italy and falls in love with a resistance fighter, Gina (Lilli Palmer). At the end of the film, Jasper and Gina make plans for a postwar reunion and the Hollywood happy ending once again raises its trite head.

Lang was so abusive to Lilli Palmer that when she walked off the set, three production unions went with her and shooting was suspended for three days. That Lang abused actors on the set is an oft-told tale and there might be more to the Palmer story than the usual stories of Lang’s abuse. Palmer was German and her Jewish family fled to Paris in 1933 where a British talent agent “discovered” her while she working as a cabaret performer (although she also appeared in Serge de Poligny’s “Rivaux de la piste” in 1933). She was offered a contract and went to England where she made numerous films including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Secret Agent” and then came to Hollywood with her husband Rex Harrison – who Lang banned from the set – to be “introduced” to US audiences in “Cloak and Dagger.” In her autobiography – Change Lobsters — and Dance – Palmer explains how she tried to win Lang over, “One day during a break, my chair happened to be next to his, so I tried German on him. I told him of the unforgettable impression his film ‘The Nibelungs’ had made on me and my classmates and of my first role as Siegfried and the dragon . . . To prove it, I sang the still unforgotten Siegfried motif from the silent film, and when he didn’t react, the Hagen motif [and then I] began the Volker motif.”

Lang rudely interrupted the recital by saying, “None of that interests me anymore.” Lang micro-directed Palmer to the point of re-shooting scenes because she started her walk with the left foot instead of the right, in one case. Palmer recalled, ‘“Cloak and Dagger’ should have been a success: Gary Cooper, directed by Fritz Lang, a decent script. It wasn’t. The critics were lukewarm about the picture and Cooper. They praised me, the newcomer, all right, but without the exuberance I’d been hoping for.”

The script was rushed and according to McGilligan, Ring Lardner Jr thought the script was “modest but competent,” Andries Dienum and Michael Burke described it as “earnest hooey” and Albert Maltz said in an oral history for UCLA that “I had been led to believe that both Sperling and Lang wanted to make an important film out of this material, but after a few weeks I realized that what they wanted to make was a melodrama with a patina of importance.”

Maltz may have been referring to Lang’s ending as the “patina of importance” and it was the removal of the ending that bothered Lang. “This ending,” writes Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang, “a warning against the new-born terror of the spread of the destructive capabilities of atomic power, was Lang’s central purpose in making the film.” Patrick McGilligan in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast suggests a more complex situation. McGilligan writes, “the jobs were drying up as Hollywood personnel flooded back from wartime service” and quotes Lang’s assistant and confidant, Andries Dienum, as saying that “Fritz took ‘Cloak and Dagger’ because nothing else was available.”

Frederick Ott in The Films of Fritz Lang, quotes from the screenplay of the film, dated March 16, 1946. After describing the death of Dr Polda and determining the location of the Nazi laboratory as Gruenbach, Jasper and the others listen to a speech by Hitler that threatens to “unleash the most frightful of all weapons . . . capable of destroying the world.” Jasper convinces OSS to stage a paratrooper raid on Gruenbach and “they discover that the Nazis have dismantled the atomic plant and presumably moved [it] to Argentina or Spain.” One of the British military officers says “It’s year one of the Atomic Age and God have mercy on us all!” Jasper replies, “No . . . no . . . God have mercy on us only if we’re fools. God have mercy on us if we ever thought we could really keep science a secret – or ever wanted to.” Then says, “God have mercy on us if we think we can wage other wars without destroying ourselves.” And then continues with “And God have mercy on us if we haven’t the sense to keep the world at peace.” Jasper then talks with a soldier and makes an oblique reference to seeing Gina again.

In an interview from The Celluloid Muse, Lang adds another detail that at the end of the film, at Gruenbach, they “found – and this is historically correct – the bodies of sixty thousand dead slave workers. And that was the reason I made the picture.” Lang may be referring to the 60,000 slave laborers at the V-2 rocket testing area at Peenemünde. Since the Nazis abandoned atomic bomb study, there were no dead slave laborers at Gruenbach.

Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang in America asked Lang why the scene was cut. Lang replied, “You must ask Warner [Bros], I don’t know. Maybe because it was after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Hollywood was hard-pressed to deal with making films about the atomic bombings and most postwar films dealt with spies trying to steal atomic secrets. “The Beginning or the End” (1947) was a dramatization of the Manhattan Project and the dropping of the bomb that was intentionally inaccurate so as to not inadvertently reveal any secrets. Script approval – and casting – went as high as President Harry S Truman. 

It’s easy to attribute the cutting of the final scene to atomic-era paranoia or even the suppressing of anti-nuke sentiments. There is, however, another side to the story and that objection resides – no matter what Lang considers historical correct – in the fact that the Nazis hadn’t pursued an atomic bomb option and that fact was common knowledge immediately after the war. It wasn’t only Sperling that opposed the fairy tale of Nazi nuclear weapons. Willy Ley – who was a science advisor on Lang’s “Die Frau im Mond” in 1929 – and Burke and Dienum also were against the final scene.

Which raises the question of whether the entire film is as “dubious” historically as the ending that was cut. “OSS” and “13 Rue Madeleine” were based on far more credible espionage stories and Lang has said that the character of Alvah Jesper was based on scientist J Robert Oppenheimer although the story is closer to that of professional baseball player and OSS spy Moe Berg who was sent to Zurich to attend a lecture by Werner Heisenberg and if convinced that Heisenberg was capable of manufacturing an atomic bomb, to kill him. Berg – who spoke several languages, including Japanese – determined that atomic weapons were a “distant” hope for the Nazis and the Allies focused on other concerns.

Secret Beyond the Door.