© 2013 William Ahearn
‘“Moonfleet’ opens,” writes Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang, “with a highly Langian scene, which was in fact in the original script.” Critics and biographers love to toss around the notion of “Langian” about Lang’s Hollywood films and rarely do the scenes they describe as “Langian” begin with Lang. When Lang got this script it was just two weeks before principal shooting began and when Lang suggested a montage, MGM rejected it. Lang was back at MGM – the studio that produced “Fury” – and much had changed. Louis B Mayer who swore that Lang would never work at the studio again was gone and so were the good times. MGM was struggling and as a contract director Lang was far more affordable than anyone on the A list. To tempt the audience back to the movie palaces and away from their TVs, the studios were experimenting with 3D and wide-screen projections such as Cinemascope.
“Cinemascope,” Fritz Lang famously lamented in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Les Mépris,” “is only good for funerals and snakes.” Lang was utterly frustrated by Cinemascope and explained to Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang In America, “For example, it was very hard to show somebody standing at a table, because either you couldn’t show the table or the person had to be back too far. And you had empty space on both sides that you had to fill with something. When you have two people you can fill it up with walking around, taking something someplace, so on. But when you have only one person, there’s a big head and right and left you have nothing.”
If you watch the films of Fritz Lang in Hollywood, what becomes Langian isn’t merely the scene where the dead guy’s hat rolls under the chair or the handkerchief that settles near a fallen man’s hand – although that is part of it – it’s a combination of framing, composition, pacing and an indescribable tension that comes across – in his better films – as a form of intimacy. Part of that intimacy is achieved through close-ups and the use of mirrors and inserts and Cinemascope didn’t allow for that. “If you think about famous paintings,” Lang told Bogdanovich, “there is only one I know of that has this [Cinemascope] format and that’s [Leonardo da Vinci’s] The Last Supper.”
“The power of the screen,” Lang said in an interview cited by Frederick Ott in The Films of Fritz Lang, “has always been its intimacy. On the old screen . . . the director could command the audience to see only what he regarded as dramatically important. He used the close-up to say something without distractions. He excluded everything that seemed extraneous, that might take your attention off what he wanted you to see.”
Producer John Houseman had already assembled the cast and crew and the budget of $1.9 million – the biggest Lang would work with in Hollywood. Houseman described the film as “a whole slew of eighteenth century clichés.” At first, Houseman and Lang got along although that didn’t last very long. Typically, Lang didn’t get along with anyone in the cast and Stewart Granger remembered Lang as a “once brilliant” director who was now “out of his depth.” Viveca Lindfors lament was typical of actors who had worked with Lang in Hollywood saying, “[Lang] had everything worked out exactly how he wanted it. He might as well have had puppets to play with. He really didn’t like actors. He only told us to look this way, or look that way. It was very stylized, and you could say, in a way, that I was too inexperienced to fill in and make it interesting for myself. I hated it.”
The wrath of Lang didn’t fall on Granger or Lindfors; it was saved for the child actor, Jon Whiteley who Lang drove to tears and constantly berated and blamed for the production schedule being late.
The ending of the film remains a sore point for Lang. Bogdanovich asked Lang if the ending is “a recreation of the Flying Dutchman legend.” “It was something else,” Lang replied. “The little boy loves and admires the hero, Stewart Granger, who says when he leaves, ‘I will come back to you.’ He is dying and I wanted to show that ‘I will come back to you’ is the last thing this man can do for the boy. He sails away and the boy stands at the shore, and we see Granger dies in the boat, but that it still goes on anyway because his dead hand still holds the sail. That was my ending.”
The confusion about the Flying Dutchman arose with Andrew Sarris who wrote in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, that “The last sea image of ‘Moonfleet’ is Lang’s chilling reconstruction of the legend of the Flying Dutchman.” Here Sarris is confusing the ghostly galleon with a phantom crew of the Flying Dutchman with the stiff in a skiff of “Moonfleet” and it is typical of his usual overstatement.
That scene with the dead hero in the small boat doesn’t end the film, although it did in what Lang turned in as his final cut. “Behind my back,” said Lang, “and certainly without my consent,” the film's ending was re-shot and the rest of the film was re-edited. “Producer’s cuts,” Lang said in an interview, “not only reduced Viveca Lindfors’ part, but rendered certain sequences almost unintelligible.”
Interestingly, Eisner wrote in 1976, “the man who was once the lover of John’s [Jon Whiteley] mother still retains the remnant of a conscience despite the years’ accumulated cynicism; and it is the boy’s trusting nature that has succeeded in reactivating it. It is achieved without conformism or sentimentality. As in ‘Clash by Night’ and ‘Human Desire’ Lang’s logic perceives that resolutions which tend toward happy endings are the only possible solutions.” If Lang had a hand in any of those “resolutions,” the observation might have some credibility.
What changed, according to Eisner, is that “Lang was initially angry that this ending was added to the film after the previews against his will.” Lang story seems to change with the wind and some have suggested that his “forgetting” specifics of his films and the conditions under which they were made is the result of a bad memory.
In 1972, Peter von Bagh asked Lang, “Isn’t it a fact that at least some of your later films, such as ‘Moonfleet,’ were taken away from you before the final version was completed?” “What makes you think that?” responded Lang. Peter von Bagh said, “Because I have read it.” “Do you believe everything you read?” asked Lang.
Many Lang fans – especially those who limit their viewing to Lang’s last two German films and his Hollywood crime films – find “Moonfleet” to be an odd choice for Lang. Although Lang didn’t choose the film as much as he was offered it, it’s is the type of adventure film that Lang was well acquainted with and isn’t far off from Lang’s script for the “Spiders” series that Lang directed and those two “Spiders” films are the earliest existing examples of his work.
What also exists and offers a different insight into Lang and his work are the scripts and treatments that he tried to get produced. In addition to the examples provided in chronological order in these essays, biographer Patrick McGilligan in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast lists a series of proposals that Lang made to Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures: “Scandal in Vienna” was a musical intended to star Ritz Hayworth, “The Law and the Fly” was a comedy about a fourteen-year-old boy who accidentally smashes a racketeering ring. “Here Speaks LB2” is a whimsical spy story set in the postwar years and features a mysterious voice that claims to be Adolf Hitler. Lang insisted it was a comedy.
Had Cohn green-lighted any of these proposals, critics and biographers would be hard-pressed to find anything Langian in them. (Maybe the tagline for “Scandal in Vienna” could be “Kriemhild Sings!”) As with Tom Gunning’s study, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity, there are always legitimate reasons to ignore “Moonfleet” or “Rancho Notorious,” or some other film when Lang’s career interferes with the unsupportable critical notions about that career, such as “Woman in the Moon.”
The film opened, closed and disappeared from US movie theaters quickly. In Europe it would have a better reception five years later where it won – according to McGilligan – the Prix de la Nouvelle Critique in competition with films such as Ingmar Bergman’s “The Magician” and Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket.” Lang said he never understood why Europeans “adored” this film and whether Lang associated the film with his bad feelings about the ending isn’t clear since he has an on-again, off-again record of accepting and rejecting happy endings.Even more so than “Rancho Notorious” – that is “saved” for some by the presence of Marlene Dietrich – “Moonfleet” is rarely seen these days because of the image of Fritz Lang that has been falsely created by the fedora squad of film noir enthusiasts and those that still see Lang as an “expressionistic” film director.