As the 1991 book The Double Scenario in Fritz Lang by Gérard Leblanc and Brigitte Devismes amply demonstrates, the great German director Fritz Lang had a very particular approach to filmmaking.
He regarded the script, however carefully crafted, as only the first level of a film; and upon it he would meticulously compose what he regarded as a second script comprising gestures, sounds, camera angles and movements. This "double scenario" in Lang's work results in remarkably rich cinematic effects, even when the basic story is dramatically threadbare.
Cloak and Dagger, made in 1946 during the director's years in America, is a prime example of Lang's stylistic resourcefulness. The narrative is a simple, generic affair – the not-especially-thrilling adventures of an atomic physicist (Gary Cooper) turned spy in World War II – although it is enlivened by political references supplied by two writers (Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr) later to be blacklisted in the McCarthyist era.
Often written off in accounts of Lang's career, Cloak and Dagger is a film full of remarkable scenes, details and directorial touches. The world of espionage, as rendered here, is one in which each gesture, each appearance, is coded or duplicitous.
Lang reduces dramatic exchanges and key plot moves to the barest but most eloquent of cinematic signs: a look, a signature, a flash of light from a gun blast. One particular set piece, in which three spies engage in a soundless, brutal battle while cheery music plays in the street, is among Lang's best.
Gary Cooper is one of the great mysteries of the American cinema. Technically he is quite a poor actor, and his attempts at expressing complex emotions are often downright comical. When the hard-bitten resistance fighter Gina (Lilli Palmer) enters the picture, however, Lang is able to exploit the enormous contrast between Coop and his leading lady to achieve some surprisingly touching moments of pathos.
On all these levels of art and craft, Cloak and Dagger is one for hardcore Hollywood buffs.
© Adrian Martin June 1994