Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) leaves his third stretch in prison and walks straight into the arms of his wife to be, Joan (Sylvia Sidney). He vows to leave his criminal ways behind him and make a new life with Joan, but it proves hard to go straight. No-one trusts him and when he appears to have become involved in a deadly bank job, no-one will believe in his innocence (apart from the doting Joan). Eventually they go on the run together, but the odds seem stacked against them.
Director Fritz Lang has a nigh-on peerless resumé. Metropolis, M, The Big Heat, Scarlet Street and this, only his second film made following his move to Hollywood from an increasingly problematic 1930’s National Socialist-dominated Germany. Film Noir, Expressionism and big themes of determinism, human nature and destiny – all seemlessly woven through his oeuvre and all very much present in this excellent crime drama.
Henry Fonda didn’t often play against type (that type being essentially noble and good natured – see The Grapes of Wrath, The Wrong Man, Young Mr Lincoln, Twelve Angry Men et al), but when he did, most notably here and in Sergio Leone’s imperious Once Upon A Time In The West, he did it exceedingly well. Behind that pleasant, affable veneer lurked a deep, dark core and it brings a welcome ambiguity and unpredictability to his character here. We’re not sure if we believe him, making it all the more convincing and engaging that no-one else will either.
At a sprightly 85 minutes, the film moves along at a commendable pace, helping to keep us hooked and simultaneously papering over some of the narrative cracks. Sidney is believably sincere and blinkered as the love-struck wife who will do anything for her beloved, while Fonda goes from care-free and reformed to bleakly cynical and fatalistic with all of the ease you would expect of an actor of his reputation and ability.
The highest praise here though must be reserved for Lang. Every scene drips with atmosphere and portent, whether through torrential rain, impenetrable fog, or Expressionistic angles, shadows and lines. As Eddie awaits his fate in an isolated cell, the light cuts through the bars, casting vivid shadows on the floor. It draws attention to just how much of a difference it makes when a film has craftsmanship, effort, a keen eye and top-drawer directorial ability to commend it. Yes, the film is not as technically accomplished as some modern films and the DVD transfer is nowhere near as polished as it could and should be, but this a really strong film noir and another demonstration by Lang of just how consistently impressive a film-maker he was. You can buy it from 4th June and you probably should.
Extras: An interesting and varied selection. First up is a fascinating 80 minute interview/Q&A with Fritz Lang at the NFT in 1962. He discusses the themes of his films, what it has been like working in Germany both sides of WWII, film violence and working with/competing against television. Great, insightful stuff. After that, we have 20-odd minutes in the company of college professor and author George Wilson, who talks about and offers a certain perspective on particular scenes from the film. After that, we get 10 minutes of raw, unedited takes from the film, which make interesting viewing as historical artefacts if nothing else. All in all, a good package.