Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

“This is war, and you’re in it!”

Synopsis:
In Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, a doctor (Brian Donlevy) working for the underground secretly assassinates the corrupt deputy governor (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski), then seeks refuge in the home of a young woman (Anna Lee) who helped him flee the police. When Lee’s father (Walter Brennan) is sent to prison awaiting execution, and a double agent (Gene Lockhart) works to turn in informers, Lee — whose fiance (Dennis O’Keefe) is understandably distressed by her life-saving pretense of being Donlevy’s lover — must decide whether to protect her own family or the greater cause of her nation.

Genres:

Review:
Very loosely based upon the real-life assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, this Fritz Lang propaganda film — co-scripted by Bertolt Brecht, and clocking in at 134 minutes — is (as noted in TCM’s article) “one of Lang’s quartet of war-inspired productions including Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of Fear (1944) and Cloak and Dagger (1946).” TCM informs us that “though these films have never been considered Lang’s best work, their release amidst wartime fervor made them successful contributions to the Hollywood propaganda effort.” As with Fred Zinneman’s The Seventh Cross (1944), we’re most intrigued by the complexity of this story — that is, how many people are (indeed, must be) involved in efforts to resist fascism. Lee’s character arc is perhaps most notable: she shifts from justifiably furious with Donlevy for placing her family’s previously untouched lives in danger, to gradual recognition of the collective situation; but we also see Brennan (fine in an unusually subdued supporting role) bonding with fellow captives as he faces near-certain death, and other minor characters refusing (even under torture) to betray their countrymen. The narrative through line of a double agent (Lockhart) who finds himself gradually hemmed in by his own deceit is enormously satisfying — and if the Nazis here are portrayed in a somewhat caricatured fashion, this can easily be forgiven given the era in which this film was made and released.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Walter Brennan as Professor Novotny
  • A powerful tale of the need for collective resistance in the face of fascism

  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography


Must See?
Yes, as a powerful WWII-era drama. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Hangmen Also Die! (1943)”

  1. First viewing. A no-brainer must-see. Contrary to what TCM reports, this is among Lang’s best work. As per my post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “He who serves Hitler – serves Germany
    He who serves Germany – serves God”

    ‘Hangmen Also Die!’ (1943; DVD): When I saw the above quote used on a banner at the Gestapo HQ in this film, I thought of where we are today in America: how [R]s strive to rally their troops by hiding behind a phenomenally false mask of Christianity. Is the Fascist trend always this predictably cyclical? … I’m not sure whether or not this Fritz Lang film is lesser-known or just less-talked-about, compared with other films of his, such as ‘Metropolis’, ‘M”, ‘The Big Heat’, etc. But, having seen a good deal of Lang’s work, I feel safe in referring to ‘HAD’ as a masterpiece. It is loosely based on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich – [the Nazi Reich Protector of German-occupied Prague, number-two man in the SS, and a chief mastermind of the Holocaust, who was known as ‘The Hangman of Prague’: Wikipedia]. Though Heydrich was indeed killed by the Czech Resistance, the exact details of his death were not revealed until after this film was made and WWII had ended. The film is remarkable in all aspects (not the least of which is the immeasurable contribution by the always-dependable DP James Wong Howe), but what gives it the bulk of its prestige is the script; tight and richly textured, it becomes progressively (and refreshingly) more complex as it builds to its conclusion. Co-written with Lang, ‘HAD’ is the only official film credit for Bertolt Brecht. The two share a ‘story’ nod – and it took a court case to reveal that John Wexley (whose name was the only one on all script drafts) had, in fact, passed the material off as his own… which unfortunately won him the case for sole credit for the screenplay. …As assassin for the Resistance, Brian Donlevy was given one of the best roles of his career. Backed by firm support from – among others – Anna Lee, Walter Brennan, Dennis O’Keefe and Margaret Wycherley (best known for playing Ma Jarrett opposite James Cagney in ‘White Heat’), ‘HAD’ is a prime example in illuminating some of the finer points of Resistance activity. It is also simply breathtaking filmmaking.

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