Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Five Best Fritz Lang Films

In listing director Fritz Lang's best films, I struggled with whether to consider his entire career or differentiate between his work in German and American cinema. He was probably the most successful European (non-British) filmmaker to relocate to Hollywood during World War II. In the end, I opted to consider his full filmography--but solely because I didn't want to set a precedent.

Lorre as the killer.
1. M (1931) - A visual and thematic masterpiece, M tells the story of a child murderer sought by both the police and the underworld. Like Hitchcock, Lang cherished multi-layered villains and M doesn't disappoint on that level. Peter Lorre, in a star-making performance, creates a quiet, unassuming, genuinely disturbing killer. Equally interesting are the city's other criminals, who revile Lorre's killer as much as the public; they may commit horrible crimes, but they do not murder children. M also features one of the most chilling murder scenes in cinema history--although Lang shows nothing but a rolling ball that the victim had been playing with--leaving the rest to the viewer's imagination. 

2. Metropolis (1927) - A film that virtually defined science fiction cinema, Metropolis continues to thrill audiences today with its fabulous sets. However, its reputation rests equally on Lang's fully-realized vision of a future ruled by a privileged class. Thea Von Harbou, Lang's then-wife and frequent collaborator deserves some of the credit, too. In his Movie Home Companion, Roger Ebert called Metropolis "one of the great achievements of the silent era, a work so audacious in its vision and so angry in its message that it is, if anything, more powerful today than when it was made."

Marlene Dietrich, Mel Ferrer, and
Arthur Kennedy.
3. Rancho Notorious (1952) - This complex tale of “hate, murder, and revenge” played a key role in the development of the “adult Western” in the 1950s. Like many of Lang's films, Rancho Notorious depicts an honest man who, through the intervention of events beyond his control, becomes morally ambiguous. In his quest for vengeance, Vern (Arthur Kennedy) helps an outlaw escape justice, participates in a bank robbery, and shows a willingness to kill in cold blood. In some Lang films, his protagonists suffer retribution or somehow reestablish their faith in humanity. In Fury (1936) and The Big Heat (1953), the vengeance-minded characters played by Spencer Tracy and Glenn Ford pull back from the brink of a meaningless world. However, Lang wasn't afraid to portray what happens when good men lose their moral compass, as in Scarlet Street and Rancho Notorious.

4. Ministry of Fear (1944) - I'm sure I'll take some heat for including this highly-entertaining film over more celebrated Lang film noirs such as The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954). However, Ministry of Fear is a tense, atmospheric espionage tale loosely adapted from a Graham Greene novel. There are several brilliant scenes: Ray Milland winning the cake at the village fair; the "blind" man on the train; the bomb in the suitcase; and the rooftop shoot-out. However, the film's strongest element is how Lang conveys the uncertainly and fear felt by Milland's protagonist, who has just been released from an asylum. I've often thought Ministry of Fear would make a fascinating double-feature with Hitchcock's Spellbound, which was released the following year.

Robinson--his face says it all.
5. Scarlet Street (1944) - Its lapse in the public domain has probably made Scarlet Street the most viewed Fritz Lang film--and thats a good thing. In a career filled with fine performances, Edward G. Robinson gives perhaps his best one as Chris Cross, a lonely, meek cashier that falls prey to a femme fatale (Joan Bennett) and her scuzzy boyfriend. They lead him down a dark road filled with deception, larceny, and ultimately murder. However, despite the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, Chris gets away with murder (but only in a Fritz Lang kind of way). Though it's a textbook film noir, there are elements of dark comedy in Scarlet Street (e.g., Chris achieves artistic fame only when Kitty takes credit for his paintings). It's a complex film that work on several levels and improves with multiple viewings.

Honorable Mentions:  Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (the first of Lang's supervillain series); Spies (think of it as a silent 007 film); the mythic Die Nibelungen (both parts); Fury (the word is "memento"); and Hangmen Also Die! (in which one of the villains squeezes a pimple--a scene not easily forgotten).


  1. Not a big fan of "Rancho Notorious" and not as big a fan as some of "Ministry of Fear." I'd choose "The Woman in the Window" or maybe "Fury" and "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" instead.

  2. I'll gladly give you "Ministry of Fear" which enlivened many a late night in my childhood. I recently gave "Rancho Notorious" a third try and it still leaves me cold. Something about the pacing or an odd perspective on characters keeps it from wrapping me up in its story.

  3. I'd like to disagree. M is great, but Metropolis really blew my mind. I also enjoyed Woman on the Moon recently, although the first our and a half is beyond tedious.
    I already tweeted my blogathon text to you, but just in case I'll let the link here (I can't access my e-mail right now):


  4. M and Metropolis -- definitely my choices for the top as well! I've never seen Rancho Notorious.Good picks, Rick!

  5. A fine list with "M" being a personal favorite for leaving horrendous scenes to the viewer's mind. I wish some current filmmakers would understand that concept. I also really like "Human Desire" because Gloria Grahame can be such a bad girl. Well done!

  6. "Spies" was terrific, his next big one after Metropolis.

  7. I love "While the City Sleeps" and "The Blue Gardenia." Hitchcock, Lang & Fellini are my three favorites.