Early Nothing

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A conversation with a friend years ago comes back to me. We debated the strange blandness of the interiors in Fritz lang’s American films. Strange because his German films were known for their elaborate, stylised and striking production design. When he returned to his homeland in the fifties, his Indian duology and to some extent his final Mabuse movie returned to the elaborate sets of the pre-war era. He had trained to be an architect, and gave us the first city of the future. But those American films have a distinct, flat, bleak quality to their look. In THE BIG HEAT, Gloria Graham even comes up with an aperçu to describe the decor: “Early nothing.”

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Looking more closely — frame-grabbing, in fact (a new critical weapon which not much has been written about) — I find that, firstly, you have to make an exception for the films with period or foreign settings, where the art direction works hard to create the required exoticism. Secondly, the design isn’t really all that flat. Even a film like WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, which has a kind of pulpy, comic-book quality to it anyway, isn’t afraid of letting the sets make a splashy statement from time to time.

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I think it has more to do with Lang’s shooting style. The distance between the actors is one factor. Lang’s readiness to shoot actors from behind, which you see again and again. His willingness to pull way back and show the characters frozen in longshot, those aforementioned gulfs between them. It turns out Cinemascope isn’t just good for snakes and funerals, it can suck the warmth out of a scene and turn movie stars into distant planetoids signalling to each other in Jodrell Bank bleeps. There are quite a few shots, especially in SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, which just show empty rooms, abandoned by any visible characters. Lang will flatten the set by shooting it straight on, or creating a crisp geometry even when the angle is more oblique. The very care of his composition, which certainly hasn’t slackened off from the German films, has a cold, clinical quality. The sense of America as a frosty, unwelcoming place, makes the country feel as it might to an exile.

As if al that weren’t enough (it IS enough — it’s too much — STOP!) Lang subdivides the frame, using architectural features, doors, windows, corners, to box his characters into their own little cubicles. Like prisoners in adjacent cells (for obvious genre reasons, cells recur) they can talk to each other but they’re still in solitary. The world is in solitary.

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(Lang’s German films were opulent, and so was his home — African masks on the walls, modern art, and all kinds of glamorous, slightly decadent stuff. No wonder he didn’t want to leave, and supposedly hung around almost long enough to be adopted by the Nazis as an official filmmaker — though Lang’s well-practiced anecdote about that may be a convenient fiction.)

Scorsese speaks of the way Lang’s tracking shots make his characters seem fated, in lock-step with their destinies — as if the very nature of the means by which the camera moved made existence a train track towards death. Meanwhile, Lang plotted out the actors’ movements like dance steps, measuring out their paces himself, though Lilli Palmer complained he made no allowance for their difference in stride. So with minute care the figures in his puppet theatre are slid from mark to mark, framed and reframed, staring at each other with longing as they are shuffled like playing cards.

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The classic Lang space is the corridor or stairway. All his rooms aspire to the status of interstitial spaces. Comfortless, more empty than full, propitious rooms for murders to happen in. Crime scenes in waiting.

Pics: THE BIG HEAT, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, MINISTRY OF FEAR, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR.

 

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16 Responses to “Early Nothing”

  1. They’re not just bland interiors. They’re dead, like the films themselves. Something creeps into Lang’s American films a sententious sense of superiority. I remember seeing the opening shot of that pistol on a desk. “Fake” popped into my head unbidden. And the Freud for Dummies thing… and his crap politics. Fury is strictly junk.

  2. Dead is a good word here. Lang wanted to deal with race in Fury but the studio of course forbade it. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is a classic example of a plot twist utterly undermining any political point in favour of narrative novelty.

  3. Paul Clipson Says:

    What seeps into Lang’s American films is detachment. It was always there in his German films (for instance in the opening of Testament of Dr, Mabuse, within the bowels of the vibrating, throbbing factory, with the shot of the hiding Hofmeister’s leg, as seen by one of Mabuse’s henchmen- a terrifying perspective of drab, dusty existential entrapment), it only becomes more pronounced and clear throughout his 40’s and 50’s work. I always got the feeling that the American films were being shot by no one- no director, no mind, no eye, just an ambivalent hollow camera’s gaze. (…and I like this….)

  4. I always enjoy dollarbook Freud, so that doesn’t put me off, it charms me. More of it in Siodmak anyway, and I adore Siodmak.

    Superiority, maybe. Lang recognized that German films had been about supermen and Americans preffered Regular Joes, but his view of the Joes is rather lofty.

    He does seem to like Ray Milland’s sympathetic wife-killer in Ministry of Fear, I think. There may have been personal reasons.

  5. henryholland666 Says:

    I like all the movies you mention, but I love “Secret Beyond the Door” and “The Big Heat”. I’m also glad that TCM has taken to showing the 149-minute version of “Metropolis”.

    From what I’ve read, Lang treated the extras in the end scenes of “Metropolis” like cattle –that might be a bit generous even– it doesn’t surprise that a certain “coldness” can be detected in the films you mention.

  6. Well, he nearly cremated Brigitte Helm, and she was his “virgin star” (Curt Siodmak plunged into the pyre to save her, by his account), so one can’t imagine the background artists being treated too elegantly. And those flood scenes look hairy.

  7. chris schneider Says:

    According to a cheap-but-readable biography of Gloria Grahame, title SUICIDE BLONDE, that “early nothing” line was written by her then-husband, comedy writer Cy Howard. You’ll notice that whenever Debbie comes onscreen the dialogue becomes notably more epigrammatic.

  8. She was always going to be more expressive than Glenn Ford, anyway!

  9. henryholland666 Says:

    Hahaha, Glenn Ford is a favorite but then I like non-emotive, non-Method, taciturn types like him, Alan Ladd, Randolph Scott and Sterling Hayden. It was kind of shocking to see Ford in “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” a few months ago, he *gasp* actually showed some overt emotion on screen. What a fantastic child actor Ron Howard was too.

  10. Fury is a cliche — the crowd as a capricious and dangerous entity, a deeply, smugly liberal idea: “Trust in the system.” Maybe Lang should be less “detached,” less glib where humanism’s concerned. Give me Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road. There, the crowd has a moral sense — it’s an anarchic and visually surprising film. Lang’s “detachment” amounts to tired moralizing, and, yes, I agree that the German films suffer from a hovering, sententious tone as well. But the American films take on a Cold War politics that meshes nicely with their dried up husk of a visual style — no wonder he’s so beloved. It’s like watching bad television. Lang and that hack Alfred Hitchcock… Ugh.

  11. Siodmak doesn’t hate women, and his films benefit from that. When I first saw Uncle Charlie, I thought: “Hitchcock only…. GOOD!” Later, I learned about the connections between the two directors. David: I LOVE “Freud Movies” too — but not when their reputations are wildly distorted and every mother’s son decides they’re unassailable works of genius. Lang is part of a zero-sum game.

  12. Lang: Moralizing over actual morality. Blech.

  13. He condescends to American taste.

  14. I prefer the “detachment” of Rod Serling.

  15. […] Heat, Gloria Graham even comes up with an aperçu to describe the decor: ‘Early nothing.’” David Cairns offers some ideas on why Lang’s American sets seem flatter and plainer than his European ones, even as all of them […]

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