I approached this film with some trepidation. I’m generally a Fritz Lang fan, but I know that he struggled in Hollywood with some of his 1940s pictures. I generally find the Hollywood ‘undercover’/’spy’ pictures made during the Second World War (that I’ve seen) to be unconvincing next to their British equivalents. I’m also wary of Gary Cooper as a star, though I know he has many supporters. I like some of the films in which he starred (Ball of Fire, Man of the West) but not the ones he is most famous for like the Capra films and High Noon. Given these three potential strikes I was intrigued to see if Lang could overcome the odds. A brace of Blu-ray releases in the US and the UK suggest that this is a film to be re-appraised.
Cloak and Dagger is both a topical secret agent film, focusing on the race to be first to produce the atomic bomb (and to stop the other side getting there at all), and a celebration of the US involvement through the OSS in occupied Europe. The OSS was a similar initiative to the British SOE, sending agents into Europe to gather intelligence, help the resistance and generally to disrupt the enemy’s war effort. The narrative begins with American agents discovering shipments of materials from Spain to Germany which could be part of a nuclear programme. Unfortunately, however, none of the available agents has enough scientific knowledge to compile really useful intelligence on the ground in Europe. OSS decides to try to recruit a nuclear scientist to travel incognito to neutral Switzerland in an attempt to find out more about German plans. Cooper plays Prof. Alvah Jesper, a nuclear scientist from a Mid-Western university who is eventually despatched to Europe. He is a novice agent and makes mistakes, losing his first contact but is then taken secretly to Italy to meet a scientist who is thought to be someone who could be ‘turned’ from working for the Nazis. Jesper may be a novice agent but he has an international reputation in his field and other scientists will talk to him.
I did find that the film moved up a gear with Jesper’s arrival in Italy, partly because of the introduction of Gina, an Italian partisan played by Lilli Palmer. A German Jewish actor who left Germany in 1933, Palmer had been effective in a range of British films since her arrival in the country via Paris, including a small part in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1935). In 1943 she had married Rex Harrison and accompanied him to Hollywood in 1945. She signed a contract with Warner Bros. and Cloak and Dagger became her first Hollywood film. Her introduction scene is striking. When Jesper arrives secretly in Italy Gina, played by Lilli Palmer is one of the partisans who meets him in the back of a truck to go through a German checkpoint. Taking off her disguise, Jesper is taken aback to see this beautiful young woman, almost glowing in the gloom because of her simple white chemise.
Jesper’s aim in Italy is to speak to a scientist named Polda who might be prepared to be ‘evacuated’ to the US. The partisans in Italy will be able to arrange for a night-time air pick-up. I thought the whole Italian adventure was quite well-planned and, of course, it gives Jesper and Gina time to get to know each other since Jesper can’t survive out in the open and Gina is meant to keep him safe. As several reviews point out there are occasional Langian touches. The most striking references come in a fight that Jesper is forced to have with a Fascist agent in a stairwell. It is a gruesome struggle with hands attempting to gouge eyes and some sickening sounds as joints are dislocated. I was intrigued to discover that the term ‘cloak and dagger’ actually describes a form of combat dating as far back as the 15th century in Europe. Lang references this when Jesper’s assailant approaches him with a flick-knife and Jesper tries to use his coat to blind his assailant. Finally, when the German goes limp, a child’s ball comes bouncing down the stairs to land by the man’s feet, reminding us of a similar scene in M (1931). Also referencing M, during the fight a trio of street musicians is playing a tune (which sounded at times like the British music hall song ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’!). I’m also reminded of the viciousness of Lee Marvin’s character who scalds Gloria Grahame’s face in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). The horror of this encounter undermines those comments about how this film is ‘hokum’ and only ‘generic spy stuff’.
There are some interesting responses to the film. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, one of the leading newspaper critics in America at the time, goes down the ‘cloak and dagger spy cliché’ route but he confirms that it is “highly suspenseful in a slick cinematic style”. He finishes his review, advising his readers to go and see Rossellini’s Rome, Open City which has just reached New York. That’s a good call, even if there is a closer connection to Rossellini’s Paisa which had not yet reached America. Cloak and Dagger ends with the arrival of an (unconvincing) RAF plane as planned – something which matches aspects of Paisa with partisans and Americans working together and RAF flyers shot down. Crowther is right, Rossellini offers a corrective to any romantic notions that Cloak and Dagger might arouse.
As research for writing this post I used Patrick McGilligan’s book Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (1997, faber & faber). McGilligan gives lots of detail about the production and it is significant that the original property was a fictionalised account of OSS operations acquired by Milton Sperling. A relatively young producer who had already written several scripts for earlier productions, Sperling decided to hire two sets of writers to create a story, one of those was Boris Ingster (the director of the proto-noir Third Floor in 1940). But after Lang came on board the story still seemed thin and Sperling recruited Ring Lardner Jr. (and then Albert Matz was thrust on him by Warners) to write the screenplay. That’s quite a few writers and and with Fritz Lang, notorious for blocking producers and banning them from the set, life for Sperling was not easy. Gary Cooper was paid much more than Lang and Lang treated Lilli Palmer very badly, even though he finally conceded that she gave a very good performance. Sperling was Harry Warner’s son-in-law and when Sperling returned from war service in a photography unit. He set up ‘United States Pictures’ with Warner Bros. to act as an independent production company creating product for the studio. Cloak and Dagger was the first of what would become 14 productions, many with war/military connections, over the next 20 years. For some of those involved who had some OSS connections, the film was a disappointment but for Warner Bros. it was a hit. For Lang it was a job he needed at the time and a chance as McGilligan suggests to hammer “a final nail in the fascist coffin”.
My own response is that after a poor opening, the film picked up the pace and I’m now more inclined to go back to Lang’s earlier attempts to make anti-fascist films in Hollywood. I’m also interested in comparing Lang and Hitchcock’s films about the wartime period. My views on Gary Cooper haven’t really changed. He is serious and sombre throughout with only the occasional lighter moment. Lilli Palmer was a revelation and for me the best thing about the film. The production featured Sol Polito as cinematographer, generally good and a Max Steiner score that at times I found irritating. Overall, however, I think it is a film worth reappraising and although I only saw a print on Talking Pictures TV, the stills on DVD Beaver from the Eureka Blu-ray look very good.