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.
Fritz Lang had a difficult time during the period of ‘studio Hollywood’. Possibly he was his own worst enemy, but it is the case that he struggled to make the kinds of films he thought were appropriate for a filmmaker of his standing. In 1953 he would be 63 years-old and about to embark on his 36th directorial project. That means he directed 36 features over 34 years, including his ‘epic’ productions during the 1920s at Ufa.
In Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (faber & faber 1997), Patrick McGilligan argues that in 1952 Lang was complaining that he was blacklisted for his leftist/communist leanings after finishing work on Clash By Night, but actually Lang was ‘out of work’ for only six months before he got the contract to make The Blue Gardenia. It was Columbia supremo Harry Cohn who intervened for Lang and helped him get the job. The Blue Gardenia was an independent production which was to be distributed by Warner Bros., not Columbia. After it was completed, Lang signed a contract to work at Columbia and his next picture would be one of his best known American films, The Big Heat which would appear later in 1953.
The Blue Gardenia was a low budget film adapted from a story by Vera Caspary, a writer with real pedigree and a long list of Hollywood credits including Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and Joe Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Caspary’s story was adapted by Charles Hoffman whose credits were also numerous if slightly less distinguished apart from the Michael Curtiz film Night and Day (1946) starring Cary Grant as Cole Porter. Despite the low budget, the production did have some class, enhanced by the cinematography of Nick Musuraca who was still working at RKO but had just completed Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. Presumably at this point he was available for loan-outs. He had also worked on Clash By Night (1952) which was an independent production released through RKO and using RKO contractees.
The story is fairly straightforward , especially for what some critics see as a film noir. It also shares with Lang’s later films, While the City Sleeps (1956) and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), a fascination with journalists and murder stories. Local fashion designer Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr) has a reputation as a womaniser, luring young women back to his flat where he also has a sideline in painting glamour/pin-ups of his attractive conquests. His latest idea is to hang around a telephone exchange hoping to collect the phone numbers of the ‘exchange girls’ as new conquests. One of the switchboard operators receives a ‘Dear Joan’ letter from her boyfriend in the American forces stationed in Korea and accepts a date with Prebble on the rebound. She is not the kind of young woman Prebble usually dates and in her fragile state she drinks too much and passes out. At this point, the film begins to feel not just Langian but also Hitchcockian. Bad things happen! Richard Conte plays a crime reporter with a following for his column in an LA paper. He sees the possibility of a major story and cooks up a plan to entice the murderer into the open. I’ve avoided any spoilers so don’t leap to conclusions about what happens (and ignore the IMDb summary which is wrong anyway). I do think that there are some flaws in the plotting but overall this makes an intriguing 90 minutes murder mystery. The ‘Blue Gardenia’ refers to the restaurant where the couple eat and drink and the flower bought from a blind flower-woman. It is also the song sung by Nat King Cole live in the restaurant – I told you this film has class!
The woman who goes on the date is played by Anne Baxter. She is very good and Lang said later that whatever his misgivings about the film (he routinely put down his own work), he was pleased with her casting. She was someone he had always wanted to work with. It’s not hard to see why. She was Oscar-nominated for her role as Eve in All About Eve (1950), she won as Best Supporting Actress for The Razor’s Edge (1946) and also appeared in leading roles for Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and for Hitchcock in I Confess (1953). Baxter’s character Norah is one of three single women, all working at the same telephone exchange and sharing a rented cottage-style house in LA. The older woman is played by Ann Sothern (who also appeared in A Letter to Three Wives) and the younger by Jeff Donnell. I spent much of the film trying to think why I knew her and eventually realised that she is the wife of the police officer, whose superior officer during the war was Humphrey Bogart, in In a Lonely Place (1950).
The two male leads are also interesting. Raymond Burr was very active at this time. He was an equally suspicious character in Rear Window (1954) for Hitchcock. Here he seems an enormously powerful physical figure, dwarfing the women he encounters. Richard Conte seems the only one of the cast who might be mis-cast. McGilligan describes him as a ‘hero-without-warts’ which is a little unkind, but I don’t see him as a reporter or a columnist. He seems too smooth and I think if it had been Dana Andrews, the journalist from Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the role might have worked better. Conte is ‘Casey Mayo’, a star reporter/columnist whose clout on the paper can enable him to mount his own campaign to find a wanted person before the police. He is so prestigious that he is invited to witness an H-bomb test and must therefore ‘solve’ the mystery and get into print before he boards a plane to see the test. This reference alongside the war in Korea and a reference to TV shows are all markers of a clever script that strives to be contemporary but Conte’s character with his ‘little black book’ seems full of contradictions. He’s man in his forties who acts like someone much younger and I felt that his actions in the final third of the narrative don’t serve the intriguing situation that had been set up earlier.
It seems that Lang had only 20 days in which to shoot The Blue Gardenia – roughly the time available for most B pictures. The script and casting are for an A picture and Lang did very well to produce what he did in such a short time. The speed of the shoot must also have put pressure on Musuraca. As it is there are some impressive night-time scenes, complete with heavy rain and fog, and a drunken haze scene which perhaps evokes films noirs from the 1940s. Otherwise the camerawork is efficient and functional on a first viewing. The Blue Gardenia now has a much higher reputation than it had at the time. I’m not sure about its status as a ‘forgotten’ or ‘unheralded’ noir, but aspects of the film are very good indeed, particularly Anne Baxter’s performance and I would like to have seen the ‘three women in the apartment’ angle developed more. I just wonder what Lang might have achieved with more time to work on the script and more time to shoot.
In 1953 Fritz Lang, in the last section of his Hollywood career, was pleased to be able to sign a two-picture deal with Harry Cohn and Jerry Wald at Columbia. In the space of a year this arrangement produced what is generally recognised as one of Lang’s best American films, The Big Heat, as well as one of his least appreciated films (by critics) in the shape of Human Desire. Oddly, both films have the same pair of stars, Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame, so what is supposed to have gone wrong with the latter film?
It’s important to recognise that these two films were very different ‘properties’ that Columbia hoped to exploit and that the producers and director took a different stance towards each of them. I’ve been reading Patrick McGilligan’s book on Lang (faber and faber 1997) on the background to the two productions and I was intrigued that he doesn’t mention the key change in Hollywood during 1953 – the switch to widescreen. Fox introduced CinemaScope as a 2.55:1 aspect ratio in 1953 and the other studios had to respond. They could agree to adopt the Fox standard or develop their own formats In the immediate aftermath of Fox’s The Robe in September 1953. Columbia did eventually opt for CinemaScope, but for Human Desire, released in August 1954, they released a non-anamorphic or ‘spherical’ projection print in 1.85:1 black and white. ‘Scope required an anamorphic ‘squeezed print’. Columbia’s option meant masking a traditional Academy ratio (1.37:1) 35mm projection print. Such a print would need to be magnified to fill a wider frame with possible increase in grain, but using black and white stock in 1954 would still make it a superior image to Fox’s colour ‘Scope. All of this may sound fairly academic, but for this picture the image is more important than usual. The cinematography by Burnett Guffy includes some terrific footage of the immense diesel locomotives then in use by American railroads. Guffy was one of the leading Hollywood DoPs, known for work with Max Ophüls (The Reckless Moment, 1948), Robert Rossen (All the King’s Men, 1949) and Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place, 1950). The last of these featured Gloria Grahame, so he did know how to present the magnificent Grahame at her best. The print I watched was from MUBI, available online. It was ‘broadcast’ at 1.78:1, i.e. filling the 16:9 video or computer screen. Even so it felt like a significant improvement on the 4:3 TV screening I watched thirty or forty years ago.
Human Desire is an adaptation of the Emile Zola story that is probably best known from the earlier Jean Renoir film version, La bête humaine in 1938 starring Jean Gabin and Simone Simon. Columbia insisted on ‘Human Desire’ instead of the translation as ‘Human Beast’. The story is relatively simple. An engine driver falls in love with a married woman whose husband has forced her to become involved in a murder. Jean Gabin was, at the time and for many years after, the epitome of French masculinity in cinema and it is hard to imagine any Hollywood actor quite matching his mix of tough guy, heart-throb, hero, liberal icon etc. Simone Simon was one of several leading female actors in France to enjoy working with him. McGilligan refers to Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame as “not quite A List”, which seems to me disparaging. He follows up with the suggestion that Ford was Columbia’s ‘go to’ star name, capable of playing a wide range of characters. Born in Canada but raised in California, Ford has that ‘ordinary but possibly heroic demeanour’. He’s cast here as Jeff Warren, a returnee from the Korean War who comes back to his job on the railroad. He returns also to lodge with his co-driver Alec (played by Edgar Buchanan), whose daughter is now grown up and has her eye on Jeff. It’s not long before Jeff becomes aware that Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) has become the railroad Yard Manager and only a little later that Carl’s wife Vicki (Gloria Grahame) is trouble of one sort or another. Crawford was probably best known then for his role as Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1949) and also as Judy Holliday’s boyfriend in Born Yesterday (1950). Human Desire opened in the UK in September 1954, which was perhaps unfortunate timing since Broderick Crawford was about to become very famous as the Chief in the TV series Highway Patrol which began in the US in 1955 and became a staple of the new ITV programme schedule in the UK in 1956. Crawford’s role in Human Desire is actually rather sad – he’s a drunk who mistreats Vicki. The plot will manoeuvre Vicki into a situation where Jeff will have to try to keep her safe from Carl. I won’t spoil the narrative any further.
I can understand why the critics were disappointed with Human Desire. Part of the problem was that the studio couldn’t cope with the idea of Glenn Ford as the psychopathic character of Zola’s story. Lang argued that all three characters suggested the ‘Human Beast’, but instead, Cohn insisted on Grahame as a femme fatale who manipulates the two men. My advice would be to forget the original story and simply focus on Ford and Grahame, both excellent in underwritten roles. For Gloria Grahame in particular, the role she was offered doesn’t really allow her full rein. For me she is one of the sexiest and appealing of all female stars forever seemingly typecast except when she got the role that won her an Oscar in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (US 1952). Columbia certainly messed up on this movie. Guffey had originally researched shooting in the Canadian Rockies which would have added a great deal to the action including a metaphorical ‘edge’ as the line went through mountain passes. As it was it seems that the main railway action was filmed on the Rock Island line in Oklahoma.
I think the film is definitely worth seeing and I note that IMDb users rate it at 7.2 which suggests that plenty of audience members rate it highly. It certainly could be a film noir. The soldier returning is a good man drawn into a dangerous relationship. Perhaps the studio did mess up with its changes to the property but with the talents of the actors, director and cinematographer, this is a film that offers plenty of attractions. Here’s brief clip from a key scene.