I love war movies made during the war they portray. They're usually unabashed propaganda, bold strokes painted with primary colors. The stories are the ones that matter today, and will sometimes be buried by history. The bad guys are ruthless, invincible, menacing without the benefit of hindsight. It's like Red Riding Hood meeting the wolf.
Fritz Lang's 1943 HANGMEN ALSO DIE is one such film. Based on a true story, it's a moving tale set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The Reichprotektor Heydrich has been assassinated and the Gestapo is conducting a massive investigation to apprehend the killer.
Frustrated in their search, and by the Czech resistance, the Gestapo rounds up 400 hostages and begin executing them at regular intervals until the assassin in apprehended. Brian Donlevy plays the killer, Dr. Franticek Svoboda, Anna Lee the young woman who inadvertently (at first) throws the authorities off his trail, and Walter Brennan plays Prof. Stephen Novotny, Anna Lee's father and one of the four hundred hostages.
The Nazis in HANGMEN ALSO DIE were played by Jewish actors, refugees from a hostile Europe. Whether brooding over a pimple on the cheek, annoyingly cracking knuckles while tormenting a poor old vegetable monger, or cavorting with naughty girls, Lang's Gestapo agents are animated and interesting. The Czechs, on the other hand, are all played by American actors and all, even Brennan, give stiff, dull, and wooden performances. Donlevy especially gives some of the flattest line readings of his career.
It's tempting to blame the actors, but in Lotte Eisner's admiring biography, Fritz Lang, she quotes an old interview in which Lang discussed the movie. "We didn't want," Lang said, "analyses of characters, we simply schematized into those who resist and those who organize, those who aspire to freedom but have not yet found or chosen the means of action, and finally the collaborators, the genuine enemy of the people....
"I don't think it is possible in such a plot to go far into the psychological development because the psychology does not change." In other words Lang got the performances he wanted, without any emotional window dressing. Well, he's a genius, I'm not, but Lordy it would have been nice if his heroes had had a little more panache, a little more brio.
I had a few problems with this film. The plot pivots on a shaky point or two - the unsmeared lipstick clue, two unarmed men bearing down on a man with a gun without being shot - that seem a little manufactured and more than a little implausible. Still, HANGMEN ALSO DIE was stylish and an interesting take on a little talked about, at least in America, incident in World War II.