In Fritz Lang’s 1946 classic Cloak and Dagger, a prescient and thrilling fable about the loss of innocence
At the Movies' is a fortnightly column on Hollywood's Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read more from the series here.
Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger (1946) was made at a peculiar historical moment in 20th century American history. World War II had just ended and with it, the rivalry with Germany. But the Cold War, marked by the ‘red scare’ and Communist witch-hunts, hadn’t yet begun. The effect of this unusually peaceful period, nevertheless characterised by an exhaustion with the long war and an anxiety about the nuclear future, is palpable both in the circumstances of the film’s production as well as its narrative. In its own way, Cloak and Dagger attests to the passing of the baton from Hollywood’s left wing, in the ascendant since the Great Depression, to the conservatives, who would dominate the industry in the subsequent decade.
Made by Warner Brothers, the film is set just before the end of the war and opens in southern France with one of its many wordless sequences: a reconnaissance mission involving freight trains, a liaison with an Allied informant at the back of a bar, a double-cross leading to a double murder. Back at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington DC, we learn that Germany is amassing raw material for the development of an atomic bomb and that the OSS needs a scientist in their ranks to sabotage this development. So they solicit Professor Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper), a physicist at “Midwestern University” working on the Manhattan project.
It’s a rather odd casting choice whose oddity is revealing too. As he’s written, Jesper is a nuclear scientist who speaks German, which suggests that his character was imagined as an immigrant (like Lang himself). Casting Cooper — and not someone like, say, Edward Robinson, the star of Lang’s previous two films — transposes a flavour of American exceptionalism over the anxious scientist character. But Jesper remains a man of science only for his first scene, in which Cooper, in suit, fixes lab equipment, flexes his fingers and plays with an apple as he converses with the OSS emissary sent to persuade him. Convinced of the importance of using science only for humanity’s good, Jesper is reluctant at first, but joins the mission nevertheless when he thinks of the horror of a German nuclear weapon. Once recruited, Jesper becomes a full-time spy — a character that fits Cooper like a glove, even when he’s speaking German with an American accent.
Right away, Jesper flies to Switzerland to gather more information from Dr Lodor (Helen Thimig), a German scientist who has just fled the Nazis. At the end of a series of twists, Jesper finds himself en route to Italy to meet with Lodor’s colleague Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff). After his illegal crossing into Italy via a lake — another tense, wordless sequence — he meets Gina (Lilli Palmer, also a German immigrant to Hollywood), an Italian resistance fighter who will help him contact Polda and lie low until an escape is planned. His first sight of her is when Gina removes her dark raincoat and hat in the cargo truck, her sexy white dress and blonde hair illuminating the dark interior of the truck. It’s a tender introduction that sets the tone for the film’s first major transition: following a long meeting with Polda, which slows down the narrative tempo and prepares us for the second movement of the film, Jesper is asked by his peers to simply hole up with Gina for a week.
This is where Cloak and Dagger turns into a full-scale romance, as its guiding perspective shifts from Jesper to Gina. The focus of their first night together moves from their mutual seduction, mediated by a hungry cat, to the scars from Gina’s past. We learn that Gina was a hopeful musician in love until the war forced her into an untrusting, broken girl who kisses without feeling. As they flee from her flat — now no more a safe space — to an abandoned circus to a lavish apartment and finally to the ruins, the film enacts a narrative of tortured domesticity, emphasising the feeling of never being able to settled down. Their journey through these symbols of purity and homeliness becomes a reminder of what the war has damaged, perhaps irreparably. Even so, this time together with Jesper is a moment of respite for Gina, who finally dresses up in a nostalgia for life before the war.
While the transition to sentimentalism can seem jarring for viewers used to tight film noir narratives of the era, Cloak and Dagger deems it important and just to give Gina this passage of peace and warmth before the spy film resumes with all its violence and mayhem. For Lang’s film is first and foremost a fable about the loss of innocence — a theme that preoccupied the filmmaker throughout his working life. In 1945, the year before the film’s production, the Nazi concentration camps were discovered, shaking western civilisation’s deep-rooted faith in progress. It was also the year atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, catapulting humanity into an age of fear and uncertainty.
One of the first Hollywood films to deal with the moral and existential repercussions of the nuclear era, Cloak and Dagger evokes the disillusionment of a civilisation with the stories it has been telling about itself.
The film was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., screenwriters blacklisted in 1947 as part of Hollywood’s anti-communist drive, and Jesper’s opening speech spells out their pacifist dispositions. In an interview years later with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang revealed that the film’s original ending had Jesper discover an abandoned concentration camp with several thousand deceased inmates who had been forced to work on the bomb. This conclusion, with its suggestion that the real danger had only begun, was too strong for producer Milton Sperling, who instead ended the film triumphantly with Jesper returning to America with Polda.
Jesper, too, experiences this loss of innocence in a stylised-yet-austere scene set in an apartment foyer, where he’s forced to fight a henchman tailing Polda. It’s an unsettling, very physical sequence of hand-to-hand combat in which the henchman digs his nails into his rival’s eyes while Jesper, with Gina’s help, strangles the man to death. That this peace-loving scientist of lofty ideals could suffocate a man with his bare hands is the kind of dark irony Lang was adept at driving home. A master of mixing tonalities, Lang amplifies the brutality of the sequence by cutting it with sweet accordion music playing in the streets. As the dead man lies on the floor, a ball comes bouncing towards him from the staircase — a quintessential Lang image of corrupted innocence that harks back to his German-language masterpiece M (1931).
Cloak and Dagger might also be regarded as one of the first examples of the Euro thriller — a sub-genre of Hollywood thrillers whose action takes place in attractive European locations and which is predicated on the prerogative of the American hero to go wherever he wants without hindrance. The challenges of the film’s plot are rather conveniently resolved by Jesper, who wanders around Switzerland and Italy without much trouble. The Italian streets splattered with Mussolini propaganda are, of course, shot in Hollywood studios, whose artificiality sticks out all the more considering Rossellini made the neorealist epic Paisan the same year. Realism of appearance, however, is not the primary concern here. Cloak and Dagger put its finger on a paranoia that would come to define a decade, attaining its full proportions when the Soviet Union performed its first nuclear weapon test in 1949.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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Updated Date: Nov 10, 2019 11:37:46 IST