Thursday, 10 January 2008

DEATH CLANG (Fritz Lang, 1955)

Lang's taut direction is strangely perfect for this ephemeral tale of the Grim Reaper's earthly representative (Barbara Stanwyck) and her seduction of a string of young artistic men, persuading them into Faustian bargains which are later collected by death's bailiff (a haunted Peter Lorre). Edward G Robinson stars as a former writer who gave up on his dream and is tempted by Stanwyck into returning, much to the upset of his girlfriend Joan Bennett, who remembers how unhappy Robinson was before she met him. A wise, non-judgemental treatise on artistic endeavour and ambition, the most striking thing about the film, beyond it's all-star cast and the stunningly dreamy midsummer Louisiana setting, is the sympathy for the villains: Stanwyck drifts from flinty femme to teary cog in a wheel, and Lorre is so sweetly apologetic, finding any excuse he can to evade his duty. Bennett emerges as the villain, somehow(a woman who nursed an alcoholic back to sobriety, remember) , slowly squeezing the life out of her man as she holds him.

The film embarks on a series of red herring dream sequences midway, and the plot becomes so convoluted (imagine The Big Sleep on a swamp, with dialogue by Marlowe and Freud) as to be left behind, replaced by Stanwyck and Bennett in billowing evening gowns atop the clouds of Robinson's fevered imaginings, Lorre dressed as a sad court jester, and five minute sequence in which all the characters wonder through the woods, evading the unseen, all-powerful Pan (voiced by a hysterical Orson Welles). Lang's ability to dance with cliche is vital, as he embraces some of the hokier psychology with straight-faced aplomb.

Lorre's sad turn as a man in an occupation he cannot escape was ignored by all of the award ceremonies, but it is crucial to weighing down the silliness here. Robinson is thoughtful and beautifully confused, and Bennett is revelatory as a sympathetic noble woman realising her own mistakes. Stanwyck's sly critique of her own persona, and impersonations of Dietrich, Garbo and Hepburn make her performance a spotter's delight.

The ending, where the four attempt to evade the certainty of death in a fairground is brutal but open, with punishments worse than death suggested, but not shown. Hollywood's coyness is to its credit this time, with the downbeat, enigmatic conclusion superior to any alternative that comes to the frazzled mind.

Exhibit A in the case for the studio system's ability to throw off its own shackles.

Death Clang Directed by: Fritz Lang Produced by: Nunnally Johnson Written by: J.H.Willy RKO Radio Pictures Inc. Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G.Robinson, Joan Bennett, Peter Lorre Music by: Arthur Lange Release Date US: January 1955 Release Date UK: May 1955 RunningTime: 83mins Tagline: 'Do You Hear The Toll, The Toll Of The Death Clang?'

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