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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Cloak and Dagger (1946)
(Blu-ray & DVD Dual Format)


Starring: Gary Cooper and Lilli Palmer
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £19.95 (Blu-Ray & DVD Dual Format)
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 27 January 2020

In the exact middle of Fritz Lang’s remarkable twenty year Hollywood run beginning with Fury (1936) to Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956) is… Cloak and Dagger. On paper the concept must have looked sure fire: Gary Cooper a seamless, ivy league nuclear scientist, Professor Alvah Jesper, drafted into the pre CIA OSS and the gentle magnetically beautiful Lilli Palmer, Gina the efficient expert in do or die espionage behind the lines. Naturally they fall in love. And the love scenes are good.

I dare anyone to try and stop watching Lilli Palmer whenever she’s on screen. The soft inviting skin, those irresistible limpid eyes, flowing locks framing her face, ever inviting sincere connection. Audiences had been falling in love with her on stage and in European films for a decade and now it was America’s chance, in this her Hollywood debut. Lang introduces her as she dives atop a sentry, knocking him flat to hack him in the back with a foot-long blade. Twice, for good measure. This take down has enabled Professor Jesper to come safely ashore and begin his search for a nuclear scientist held captive who can confirm Nazi progress on their own A-bomb. When Gina unmasks herself moments after killing the sentry, Jesper begins falling in love with her. This is Fritz Lang after all.

Everything here is Rolls Royce Warner Brothers resourcing for the first effort of producer Milton Sperling’s United States Pictures which would banner other productions for the next twenty years. The package here was Warner finance, behemoth studio sets, a protean Max Steiner score and Bette Davis’s favourite Director of Photography Sol Polito, (Now Voyager [1942], Old Acquaintances [1943], The Corn Is Green [1945] plus the Cooper classic Sergeant York [1941]) to provide a platform for Lang to squint through his monocle at Cooper and Palmer in a love story punctuated by close calls, fierce gun battles and hand to hand combat to the death, with unaware pedestrian traffic only a few feet away.

What appears to be outdoor sets with forests and trucks on roads are all in reality indoors, in those wonderfully cavernous Burbank sound stages with ballistic fusillades and their unmistakable wonderfully unique Warner Brothers manifold timbre. Lang harnesses it all to evoke tension, dread and darkness rising. It could be SS hunters coming up the stairs to kill spies or a last moment reveal of a Nazi woman concierge jerking out her revolver to dash in and perforate Jesper’s bedridden all important contact (Helene Thimig) before he can save her.

The Eureka end product in 1080p from a high definition digital transfer does epic justice to Lang the visualist, the aesthetic crown prince of Berlin’s UFA studio, who Goebbels wanted for his Third Reich film boss but had to settle for Leni Riefenstahl instead. Lang was the director Hitchcock, Buñuel and Welles all said taught them the facts of film life: composition, action, exposure, light and shadow, the art of tension, in short everything.

Lang’s command of the Warner Brothers sprawl, (“The best electric train set a boy could ever have…” Orson Welles called a movie studio) deserves to be seen and heard in its classic perfection, its ‘Langian self-realization’. Eureka’s Dual Format edition does justice to the monocle-wearing perfectionist. I’m sure he would not curse them, as he was well known for doing to his technicians, crews and casts.

There are fulsome extra features that lend context and perspective to the place in time where the film resides. Spycraft , a video essay by David Cairns is especially informative as is the detail-laden audio commentary by film scholar and critic Alexandra Helier-Nicholas. These help but don’t quite make up for the existential experience of Cloak and Dagger itself. It is what it is. I can’t praise it for what it isn’t.

All this said, is this the best of Fritz Lang? No. It is nowhere near the duet of fatalistic noir classics he did just before Cloak and Dagger. Five generations later the conversation still persists about the quantum entanglement of The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) as well it should.

And before that, Ministry of Fear (1944) and Hangmen Also Die (1943) with its script by Bertolt Brecht, are more compelling in every way. After Cloak and Dagger, Lang’s legacy will reward us with Odets’ Clash By Night (1952); then the Glenn Ford crime classic (and my all time favourite)The Big Heat (1953) with searing pots of boiling coffee in the face for Gloria Graham and Lee Marvin; Human Desire (1954); again Graham and Glenn Ford on an express train to destruction with Broderick Crawford.

While the City Sleeps (1956) where Lang ordered the great John Drew Barrymore: “I vant you to play ev-rey scene vit a hard-on!!”— regarding which, the actor would confide to this abject fan forty years later, “Most scenes I did it but sometimes I fooled him and did one without the hard-on.” And topping off his double decade of triumph with one of darkest twist pictures of all time, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (also 1956) simultaneously cementing forever Dana Andrews’ reputation for dramatic range.

Cooper’s acting is wooden. Lang seems curiously disenfranchised despite his army of Warner Brothers super pros. The studio stable of character actors is monochromatic. The Max Steiner score is disappointingly derivative of well… Max Steiner. Lang must have thought the growing love affair between Cooper and Palmer in the midst of war was going to be an alchemical apposition to the pursuit of the Nazi nuke calling for sacrifice. But Cooper… through it all seems sadly uninvested. Palmer is the only believer but her fidelity isn’t enough to sell the movie. She seems to sense this problem in a quote that surfaced afterward: “Naturally I never took my eyes off him (the charismatic Cooper) during the first few weeks of shooting. He was the ideal movie actor. There was something unassailable about him, a dignity which he never lost even in the most commonplace pictures.” - Like the one she was doing with him right here. Cooper’s disconnection from challenging roles would beleaguer his career until High Noon and then resume for the rest of his life.

Eureka is to be thanked for loyalty to Lang completists. This isn’t a “re-watcher” for the filmic pleasure of it all, I’m sorry to say. It’s good Lang but not great.


John Huff

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