You can recognize a Fritz Lang film as soon as you see it," says New Jersey Film Festival curator and Rutgers film professor Albert Nigrin. One of the most striking characteristics of the legendary German filmmaker’s work, he says, is that "every scene is a painting."
The New Jersey Film Festival is preparing to take a close look at Fritz Lang’s contribution to film with a four-part retrospective, part of the programming of the fall festival, set to open Friday, September 5. The Lang tribute begins on September 11 with a screening of "M," Lang’s cinematic calling card, created in 1931, and starring the incomparable Peter Lorre.
The ironic (but unintended, according to Nigrin) juxtaposition of film and that notorious date in history is notable. This eerie drama, which stars Peter Lorre as a pedophilic serial killer, captured the fear and paranoia of a society scrambling to find an insidious enemy who melts in and out of the shadows. Culminating in a chilling trial scene, the film strikes a primal nerve, raising questions about justice, mob rule and the human potential for atrocity.
Born Friedrich Christian Anton Lang in Vienna, Austria, in 1890, Fritz Lang came of age in the same manner as his future fan — Adolph Hitler — soldiering in the dark trenches of World War I. Lang began his film career after the war as a screenwriter and moved on to directing in the 1920s with "The Spiders." He quickly found an audience with 1922’s "Doktor Mabuse der Spieler," a film that employs the striking austerity of German Expressionism and offering a bleak vision of humanity. Yet it was "M" that brought Lang to the attention of Hitler.
Lang’s science fiction masterpiece "Metropolis" had already become one of Hitler’s favorite movies. With "M," Lang was asked to direct Nazi propaganda films. He refused (unbeknownst to Hitler, Lang was a Jew) and fled Germany in 1933 for Hollywood. There he added his signature style to a string of "noir" crime dramas, thrillers, and a handful of American westerns.
On Thursday, September 18, the retrospective continues with Lang’s second Hollywood turn, "You Only Live Once." The 1937 movie features Henry Fonda in, as Al Nigrin contends, "one of his greatest roles" as a fugitive from justice. Much like Lang’s first American film, "The Fury" of 1936, "You Only Live Once" concentrates on a man wrongly accused of a crime — in this case murder. He escapes from prison hours before his execution and the film culminates into a heart-pounding chase scene.
In the following week’s offering, Lang takes on the work of playwright Clifford Odets in "Clash By Night," a steamy melodrama, brought to film in 1951, and starring Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, and a young starlet by the name of Marilyn Monroe. A bored fisherman’s wife (Stanwyck) strikes up an affair with a film projectionist (Ryan); needless to say, somebody pays in the end.
The retrospective concludes on Thursday, October 9, with "The Big Heat" of 1953. While the origins of film noir have never quite been identified — or rather, they have been inaccurately attributed to just about anyone who ever directed a brooding melodrama or crime story — "The Big Heat" film proves that Lang was one of the great inspirations for the genre. His consistent probing into the murkiness of human compulsions, desires, and fallibilities is evident here in what is considered his best American film. "The Big Heat" boasts a cast tailor-made for such an exploration. Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Lee Marvin star in this thriller about a detective who investigates the suicide of another cop.
Lang’s contribution to film noir manifests itself in the work of other great filmmakers, notably Alfred Hitchcock. The marriage of Lang’s stark German imagery and sharp Hollywood dialogue notoriously loaded with subtext proved successful until the late 1950s when the director became disenchanted with the industry and drifted in and out of filmmaking until his death in 1976.
Audiences, however, remain enchanted with his work as well as with the work of film noir in general, particularly Hollywood’s impressive inventory from the 1940s and ’50s. Nothing could be more satisfying on a rainy Saturday than sinking into a chair and tuning in to the somber black-and-white images, crackling dialogue, and smoke curling around the angelic face of a she-devil. In nearly every case, however, the best of these films were spawned by the storytelling of some great fiction writers including Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain.
Just published and tailored to film-noir enthusiasts is a collection of James M. Cain’s most famous works. The book, "The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce and Selected Stories" (Knopf, 560 pages; $23) might be considered a primer for viewing the films that each story inspired. The volume includes an introduction by Robert Polito, and five previously out of print stories: "Pastorale," "The Baby in the Icebox," "Dead Man," "Brush Fire," and "The Girl in the Storm."
Cain’s efficient and vivid writing style simultaneously conjures up a matter-of-fact world fraught with mysteries. Like Chandler and Hammett, he employed a rhythm as lethally efficient as American-made gunmetal. Yet his stories of California drifters and hustlers attracted the attention of writers including Albert Camus, who, it has been suggested, was inspired to write "The Stranger" after having read "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
Born in Baltimore in 1892, James Mallahan Cain, like the German-born auteur Lang, served in World War I, working as a reporter with the American Expeditionary Force and writing for the Cross of Lorraine, the newspaper of the 79th Division. After a stint as a teacher and a few staff positions, including one at the New Yorker, Cain moved to Hollywood.
At age 42, Cain made a literary name for himself with his debut novel, "The Postman Always Rings Twice." This benchmark crime story, which stirred controversy and was even deemed obscene by a Boston court, was adapted onto the big screen in 1946 and starred John Garfield and Lana Turner. With his unflinching spotlight on human weakness, and his ability to turn the notion of American optimism and innocence on its ear, Cain’s other stories — including the classics "Mildred Pierce" and "Double Indemnity" — also went on to become critically-acclaimed films.
While still one of the most popular film genres, the great irony of film noir is that its appeal to audiences seems to be based on a highly stylized manner of storytelling. Its characteristics include lurid dialogue and archetypical characters who allow us to safely observe their explication of our own inner demons. Yet if anything is to be learned from the creators of this literary and cinematic style, it is the very absence of style that provides the inspiration. It is the weak, the abnormal, and the marginalized — the altogether invisible of society — who find themselves memorialized in these book pages and on screen.
"I make no conscious effort to be tough, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called," Cain wrote in his preface to the first edition of "Double Indemnity." "I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent."
Fritz Lang Retrospective , NJ Film Festival, Loree Hall 024, Douglass Campus, New Brunswick, 732-932-8482. M, September 11. "You Only Live Once," September 18. "Clash By Night," September 25. "The Big Heat," October 9. Screenings at 7 p.m. $6.
Confirm titles with theaters.
American Wedding . American Pie crowd is back. AMC, Destinta, Loews, MarketFair, Multiplex.
Bad Boys II . Will Smith sequel. AMC, Destinta, Loews, Multiplex.
Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle . Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu return in a blaze of special effects. AMC.
Dirty Pretty Things . Criminal thriller directed by Stephen Frears. AMC, Montgomery, Multiplex.
Finding Nemo . Computer-animated fish hit with voices of Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, and William Dafoe. AMC, Loews.
Freaky Friday . Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Loahn trade places. AMC, Destinta, Loews, MarketFair, Multiplex.
Freddy vs. Jason . Robert Englund and Ken Kirzinger star as the gruesome guys. AMC, Destinta, Loews, MarketFair, Multiplex.
Grind . Skateboarding. AMC, Loews, MarketFair, Multiplex.
I Capture the Castle . Romantic comedy set in an English castle in the 1930s. Montgomery.
The Italian Job . Mark Wahlberg and Edward Norton in an L.A. heist. AMC.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life . Angelina Jolie stars in action film. AMC, Loews.
Le Divorce . Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson in a film based on Diane Johnson’s novel of the same title. AMC, Garden, Montgomery.
Marci X . Lisa Kudrow, Damon Wayans, and Richard Benjamin. AMC, Destinta, Loews.
The Medallion . Jackie Chan. AMC, Destinta, Loews, MarketFair, Multiplex.
My Boss’s Daughter . Ashton Kutcher, Tara Reid, and Carmen Electra. AMC, Destinta, Loews, MarketFair, Multiplex.
Open Range . Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, and Annette Benning in a western. AMC, Destinta, Loews, Market ‘Fair, Multiplex.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl . Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush star. AMC, Destinta, Loews, MarketFair, Multiplex.
Seabiscuit . Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges star in the true story of the 1930s racehorse. AMC, Destinta, Garden, Loews, MarketFair, Multiplex.
The Secret Lives of Dentists . Campbell Scott in a movie based on Jane Smiley’s novella "The Age of Grief." Montgomery.
Spellbound . Jeffrey Blitz film is a documentary about eight kids working their way to the national spelling bee. Multiplex.
Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over . Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega. AMC, Destinta, Loews, Multiplex.
S.W.A.T. Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell star in film based on ’70s TV show. AMC, Destinta, Loews, MarketFair, Multiplex.
Swimming Pool . Charlotte Rampling, a British author, finds herself living her own mystery story. Montgomery, Multiplex.
Uptown Girls . Brittany Murphy plays the daughter of a legendary rock star. AMC, Destinta, Loews, MarketFair, Multiplex.
Whale Rider . Story about young love written and directed by Niki Caro. Montgomery, .
AMC Hamilton 24, Sloan Avenue, I-295 Exit 65-A, 609-890-8307. Stadium-seating 24-screen. $8; $6 matinees; $5 twilight.
Destinta, Independence Plaza, 264 South Broad Street, Hamilton, 609-888-4500. Stadium-seating 12-screen. $7.50; $5.50 students; $5 matinees & Tuesday nights.
Garden Theater, 160 Nassau Street, 609-683-7595. $8; $5 for shows before 6 p.m.
Loews Theaters, Route 1 South, New Brunswick, 732-846-9200. Multiplex. $8.50; $5.25 matinees.
MarketFair-UA, Route 1 South, 609-520-8700. $8; $5.25 matinees, students, and seniors.
Montgomery Center Theater, Routes 206 and 518, 609-924-7444. $8 adults; $5 matinees.
Multiplex Cinemas Town Center, 319 Route 130 North, East Windsor, 609-371-8473. 15 screens. $7.50; $5.25 matinees.