TCM Marathon: Two Fritz Lang Thrillers, etc.

Friday morning was It's Love I'm After (1937), a delightful little comedy starring Leslie Howard as famous stage star Basil Underwood, wooing fellow actor Joyce Arden (Bette Davis), only along the way young Henry (Patric Knowles) has asked Basil to drop by his fiancée Marcia (a very young Olivia de Havilland) and convince her she isn't in love with Basil. I've mostly known Howard opposite Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, an otherwise nice little movie that doesn't really do Howard any favors: he's too old for the role, and his character is basically a drip. The younger Howard in more, uh, 'civilized' roles was far funnier and livelier, and forceful enough to stand his own against the elemental nature of Bette Davis. De Havilland is also a delight, a pretty little ingénue with the amorous nature of an octopus (when Howard sneaks into her room to 'rape' her--hoping to scare her enough to reject him--she throws off his timing by wrapping her arms around his neck in a judo death grip). With the wonderful Eric Blore as Diggs, a very much put-upon Jeeves-type butler.

The rest of the morning was spent anesthetized. When I finally got to look at a TV set, it was evening, and all about cars, and Harold Lloyd and Babe Ruth in Ted Wilde's Speedy (1928)--not an easy comedy to watch, when your abdomen's got stitches ("Ha! Ha! Ha! Ow! Ow! Ow!"). Lloyd doesn't get as much adulation from auteurists, which is a pity, I think; Harry Langdon neither, come to think of it.

Midnight they screened The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which makes sense, when you think about it--in a way, it's about cars too. Possibly the loveliest car-accident sequence ever, when Tim Holt and Anne Baxter take a spill down a snow bank--but I forget, it was a horse carriage (but there was a car involved). Anyway, lovely, lovely sequence, all tinkling bells and sparkling snowfall and the chill, dead air of winter (I think Welles filming in a freezer set--I remember reading that somewhere--helped, plus as a radio man even the quality of the silences (in this case, as if the whole set had been encased in cotton) would have been important to him).

Foreign import was Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains (1967), which was a nice little comedy about how the Czechs showed their resistance to Nazi tyranny (and, by implication, Soviet tyranny) by living life as fully as possible. Vaclav Neckar as the hapless trainee embodies the film's conflict by doing what every good, Nazi-resisting Czech feels is impossible: he fails to get it up. He gets sympathetic looks and helpful suggestions from everyone except the Nazi officer of course, who looks at him as if from Mars (good sex is not in the Nazi program; absolute power should suffice).

Instructive to compare this to an earlier work in roughly the same time and milieu (but shot in Hollywood): Fritz Lang's great Hangmen Also Die (1943), based on the real-life hunt for the killer of Reichprotector Reinhard "Hangman" Heydrich (Hans Henreich von Twardowski). Menzel worked as an insider, from inside the Czech psyche; Lang worked as a fierce propagandist, and while his Czechs don't seem outlandishly false (other than their American accents--Lionel Stander for one really stood out), you can see a difference. But Lang's Nazis are perfect--have the right mix of martial bark and arrogance--and he captures the atmosphere of fugitive desperation (unlike Menzel, of course, he was completely free to do so). As the plot twists and turns, it's terrifying to watch the Nazis pursue the trail relentlessly, ruthlessly (Lang knows of the kind of swift thoroughness and ferocious intelligence they're capable of, great wolfhounds who never give up the scent): when a solution is finally offered, it comes at the end of a knot of facts and clues so tangled up (thanks to the Nazi's determined hunt and the Czech's equally determined evasions) as to be impossible to believe. Lang, with a thoroughness comparable to the Nazis, doesn't let this pass: he offers a conclusion that allows even for the improbability of that 'final solution.'

In between courses, a sherbet: Lloyd Bacon's Larceny, Inc. (1942) has Edward G. Robinson and his band of men buying a leather goods store besides a bank; his plan is to tunnel under the store's basement into the bank's vault, only customers and special holiday sales keep distracting the would-be criminals. Robinson's a wonderful comic, and his predicament reminds one of a situation in a Graham Greene novel, where the protagonist insists on heading for damnation, only redemption keeps getting in the way. It's a pity he didn't do more comedies ("Ow! Ow! Ha! Ha!").

Finally (and just in time, too) another Lang thriller: While the City Sleeps (1956) might be his remake of the classic M, only set in an American city, and instead of a microscope peering at the various strata of German society, the lenses zoom in on the inner workings of Kyne, Inc., a kind of multimedia empire based on Luce's Time, Inc., with shades of Charles Foster Kane thrown in (the great K emblem you see everywhere is like a continual reminder). Memorable performances from everyone concerned, from Dana Andrews as a smart reporter to Thomas Mitchell as a gruff news editor to George Sanders as the sleek head of a wire service to Vincent Price, especially wonderful as the media empire's weak-willed heir. If it doesn't quite reach the same level as M, that may be because the focus is tighter, on a corporation instead of a culture, and the allegory less evocative. Plus, John Drew Barrymore is excellent as Robert Manners--quiet, with an impudent sexuality--but he's no Peter Lorre.

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