Hangmen Also Die!

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HANGMEN ALSO DIE! —-the most unrestrained of director Fritz Lang’s anti-Nazi propaganda efforts, from the war-movie-saturated year of 1943, has some of the slimiest enemy villains you can find in the pantheon. As a doomed Czech woman defiantly lays it on the Gestapo, “Your mothers were slimy rats! Their milk was sewer water!”  *

German-occupied Czechoslovakia, 1942. Reichsprotektor and arch-fiend Reinhard Heydrich is assassinated in Prague. Reprisals are ruthless, and bound to increase unless someone informs on who was responsible. When a young woman (Anna Lee) realizes that a man she sees fleeing police (Brian Donlevy) may be involved, she covers up for him, but soon wily inspectors implicate her family, including her father (Walter Brennan), a respected professor. A deadly cat & mouse situation develops, bringing into play a resistance cell, her fiancé, a collaborator (Gene Lockhart) and a cross-section of Czech society caught up in the Nazis vengeance hunt.

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Elaborate plotting, a good deal of tension, effective use of violence—implied and actual, well photographed by James Wong Howe, with some especially memorable villains, though some of the minor supporting players are on the the stiff side, and the ‘resist anthem’ stuff is less inspiring than intended. The story and script were done by Berthold Brecht (billed as the less-Germanic ‘Bert Brecht’), then reworked by John Wexley, with much ego conflict over “dramatic purity” during production between Brecht and director Lang, and then hassles over writing credit on the final product.

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Donlevy is okay (after Wake Island, now fixed in good guy mold), Lee fine, but the acting honors go to the repulsive bad guys.  Besides the traitor weasel done by Lockhart, the lineup of Nazi ogres is put over with lip-smacking relish by Alexander Granach, Reinhold Schünzel, Ludwig Donath, Tonio Selwart and Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (malicious mincing as Heydrich). They succeed at being both over-the-top and yet chillingly acceptable as the sort of human-disguised creatures who delight in torment. Seen any on TV news lately?

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Not successful at the box-office (can’t locate figures on this one), perhaps on account of  the sheer number of war movies that year, but more likely due to the downbeat tone, with a sober, less-than-cheerful ending. It did manage to accrue two Oscar nominations, for Music Score (by Hanns Eisler) and Sound. ***

Twist the screws and build resolve for 134 minutes, with Dennis O’Keefe, Margaret Wycherly, Sarah Padden, Byron Foulger, Lionel Stander, Kurt Kreuger, Dwight Frye, Philip Van Zandt.

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* The Nazi swine in this movie eclipse even the portraits etched of vicious Japanese captors in 1944s The Purple Heart (paging Richard Loo). Lang’s other fight-the-Reich movies were 1941’s Man Hunt, Ministry Of Fear in 1944 and Cloak and Dagger from 1946. Lang purists usually dismiss his 1950 true-story actioner An American Guerilla In The Philippines, but it has location filming in color and Tyrone Power, more than enough to reward a view.

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** The monstrous “work” and/or just deserts of Reinhard Heydrich have been served up on screens in—among others—Hitler’s Madman, Holocaust, The Price Of Freedom/Operation Daybreak, The Wannsee Conference, Conspiracy, Anthropoid, The Man With The Iron Heart and The Man In The High Castle.

*** So much for fighting fascists. Because of the involvement of some notable leftists (okay, a few Communists) the movie was one of those the McCarthy witch-hunters later raked over their right-wing coals as being “subversive”.  Writers Brecht and Wexley, actor Lionel Stander and composer Eisler were blacklisted.

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One thought on “Hangmen Also Die!

  1. Brecht did testify in front of HUAC. But mostly played “dumb foreigner who doesn’t understand english” games with the committee. By 1950, he was safely ensconced in East Berlin with his own state financed theater troupe. The renowned Berliner Ensemble.

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