(director/writer: Fritz Lang; screenwriters: from the short story by Bertolt Brecht/John Wexley; cinematographer: James Wong Howe; editor: Gene Fowler Jr.; music: Hanns Eisler; cast: Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (Reinhard Heydrich), Brian Donlevy (Dr. Franticek Svoboda aka Karel Vanek), Walter Brennan (Prof. Stephen Novotny), Anna Lee (Nasha Novotny), Nana Bryant (Mrs. Hellie Novotny), Margaret Wycherly (Ludmilla Novotny), Dennis O’Keefe (Jan Horak, Nasha’s fiancé), Gene Lockhart (Emil Czaka, brewer), Alexander Granach (Gestapo Insp. Alois Gruber), Tonio Selwart (Chief of Gestapo Kurt Haas), Reinhold Schünzel (Gestapo Insp. Ritter), Sarah Padden (Mrs. Georgia Dvorak, grocer), Lionel Stander (Banya, taxi driver), Byron Foulger (Bartos), Jonathan Hale (Dedic), Lester Sharpe (Rudy, waiter); Runtime: 131; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Fritz Lang/Arnold Pressburger; Kino Video/United Artists; 1943)
“A first-rate anti-Nazi propaganda film shot as film noir.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A first-rate anti-Nazi propaganda film shot as film noir that is loosely based on a true story (it accuses Hangman Heydrich of being a homosexual when he was in fact a womanizer on top of being a brute). Fritz Lang’s (“Fury”/”Ministry of Fear”) stirring film captures the mood of the Czech people faced with a Nazi reign of terror. This was Lang’s only collaboration with his fellow leftist friend, the German émigré playwright Bertolt Brecht (his sole Hollywood collaboration). Unfortunately they had a falling out when Brecht disowned it saying Lang left out much of his ideas. Lang offered proof that in the final cut Brecht’s ideas were retained, as Lang seems to be right because there’s certainly enough speechifying and didactic presentations that inter-cut the action. The Nazis are portrayed as fanatical thuggish ideologues spouting hate and carrying out a ruthless policy to maintain their illegitimate rule. As a result of the feud the other co-writer, left-wing American John Wexley, ended up with sole screen credit. Besides the superb performances from everyone, there’s James Wong Howe’s stunning black-and-white photography that captures the defiant spirit of occupied Prague in the backlot sets used.

It opens with the assassination of bestial Nazi Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Hangman, during broad daylight in Prague by Resistance member Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy). Before he can get away, the taxi driver (Lionel Stander) of the getaway vehicle is arrested and brought in for questioning by the Gestapo, which throws the escape plan awry. The city quickly gets shut down by the German police and Svoboda has no place to hide as a curfew is imposed and an intense manhunt begins, so he takes a chance and goes to the apartment of the woman stranger whom he briefly met at the vegetable market and who refused to betray him to the pursuing German police by sending them in the wrong direction. Nasha Novotny (Anna Lee) is the daughter of history Professor Stephen Novotny (Walter Brennan) and the fiancé of Jan Horak (Dennis O’Keefe). They agree to hide him for the night despite knowing they face execution if caught.

The Nazis hold 400 or more Prague citizens as hostages, including Professor Novotny, and threaten to turn Prague into a bloodbath until the capture of the assassin, as the menacing Gestapo Inspector Gruber (Alexander Granach) enjoys himself in a boorish way intimidating the population and keeping frightened wealthy Czech brewer and traitor Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart) in line with his forceful manner. When the underground gets wind that Czaka is a betrayer they come up with an elaborate plan to frame him as the assassin.

The film works very well as a Hollywood thriller; it’s a taut narrative, filled with typically stimulating Lang visuals and action sequences, and offers an intelligent commentary on the bloodthirsty fascists in action with particularly riveting interrogation scenes set at Gestapo headquarters. It’s a bleak film, whose dark photography makes the whole scenario look oppressive as if it were a nightmare. Lang juxtaposes the sadistic Nazi gangsters with the ordinary peaceful Czech citizens who see no other way to survive than by resisting such tyranny through underground activities or by simply resisting the Nazis whenever they can. The film was probably even more appreciated when it was released during wartime and these sickening events were happening for real.