Posted by David Kalat on April 19, 2014
There is a secret conspiracy that rules the world.
This hidden power can make or break a fortune at a moment’s whim. It decrees the rise and fall of nations. It chooses who lives, and who dies.
There are some—like the heroic British spy with a number for a name, or the alluring Mata Hari-like international woman of mystery he keeps running into—who think they can use the tools of surveillance, cryptography, and overall spookcraft to expose this obscure force and save the world.
Wanna know a secret? This secret power—he’s a banker. You can Occupy Wall Street all you want: the Great Banker is the spider at the heart of this massive web, and he will outlast you all.
So, yeah, for a silent movie made in Germany in 1928, there’s a lot going on here. You can play along at home if you want when TCM runs this later tonight.
Spies is in some ways Fritz Lang’s “forgotten classic.” It’s not Metropolis, it’s not M, it’s not Dr. Mabuse or The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, it isn’t The Nibelungen—and when you’re the kind of prolific genius who can generate masterpieces at that volume during just the first phase of your storied career, then reboot and start all over again somewhere else, it can be hard for all the masterpieces to get their due.
But in just 3 hours (Spies is a trifle on the long side), Lang invented James Bond and created a template that Alfred Hitchcock would stripmine for years to come.
Oh yeah, Hitchcock.
There was a professional rivalry between Lang and Hitchcock that in hindsight seems awfully silly. When Fritz Lang came to Hollywood in the early 1930s, he arrived with an outstanding pedigree of accomplishments that put him in the first tier of cinematic pioneers and artists, but nearly all of the films for which history would revere him were already in his past. He bounced around from studio to studio, trying to earn his creative freedom, and pined for the glory days of the past.
When Alfred Hitchcock came to Hollywood in 1940, he arrived with an outstanding pedigree of box office success and proven popular appeal. Although his 1930s British films include some genuine blockbuster hits in their own context, the fact is his best days lay ahead—and the films for which he would be best remembered would be made in Hollywood, with his unchallenged creative control.
That’s enough to make anyone jealous—but since the jealous party here happened to be the misanthropic paranoiac Fritz Lang, he became fixated on the ways in which (he believed) Hitchcock’s success came from poaching Lang’s best bits.
For example, the siege and shootout that climaxes the original Man Who Knew Too Much closely mirrors the siege and shootout that climaxes both Dr. Mabuse and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The scene in The 39 Steps where the hero is spared from a potentially fatal gunshot because the bullet lodged in the Bible in his breast pocket, first appeared in Spies. Almost the entirety of Secret Agent feels like a Lang film (doubt me? Tune in tomorrow—I’m filling in for Pablo on Sunday and we’ll be Hitchcocking our way through Secret Agent). The phenomenon wasn’t limited to Hitchcock’s British period, either—one of these days I’ll do a side-by-side comparison of Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain with Lang’s Cloak and Dagger. Go on, Charlie Tabesh—run those two as a double feature and I’ll write it up!
When asked directly about these parallels by Francois Truffaut (a man who knew his film history and didn’t let such details pass by him unnoticed), Hitchcock demurred that he didn’t really remember seeing Lang’s films in question. Meanwhile, Lang tried to cook up his own PR handle to counter Hitchcock’s Master of Suspense brand name—how’s about “The Father of the Thriller?”
If Lang’s goal was to compete head to head against Hitchcock on his own turf, it was a losing proposition. Hitchcock came of movie age a decade later than Lang, and it made all the difference. He was the beneficiary of a variety of improvements in film technology, distribution, and marketing practices that made his success both easier to achieve and bigger when it was achieved. Lang was never the beneficiary of any developments in the film industry—the road is always rougher for the bloke who has to go first.
But let’s ignore original context. We’re in 2014 now. Massive numbers of movies both old and new now coexist in the same ecosystem—Lang’s and Hitchcock’s films need no longer compete. They can sit side by side on the same DVD shelf, be streamed by the same service, or even shown back-to-back by the same classic movie cable channel (Mr. Tabesh, are you listening?)
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