Credit: Columbia

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Patrick Preziosi

Of all that’s become synonymous with Fritz Lang––the conspiracy, the compositional dexterity, the keen comprehension of both silent and sound cinema––one of the most consistent realized throughlines has been the enfolding of violence into the film’s environment, regardless of its inherent artifice or realism. As if to further visualize the byzantine plots almost always existing behind the curtains, Lang fills his films with objects and systems of unremarkable mundanity that are then reappropriated by their film’s conflict, sometimes to brutal results. In Rancho Notorious (1952), there’s a mirror that’s the receiver of a stray bullet (which foresees the later, concluding tragedy) and a lockpick smuggled into a jail in a bottle of champagne; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) sees a whole German city as a blueprint for terrorism; the crux of Fury (1936) is the method in which a mob torches a jail, with its prisoner still inside; Ministry of Fear (1944) unravels a whole Nazi plot when a man accidentally wins a cake at a local carnival; and most unforgettably, the always terrifying Lee Marvin in The Big Heat (1953), reaching for the nearby coffee pot just to throw its scalding contents into Gloria Graham’s face.

By pure happenstance, however, directors Edward Dmytryk and Don Siegel each respectively released films in the 1950s through Columbia––the studio responsible for Lang’s The Big Heat and Human Desire (1954)––that, whether willing or not, recast Lang’s vision within the realm of ostensible realism. This means no heroic POVS and an unnerving use of real locations; both The Sniper (Dymytrk, 1952) and The Lineup (Siegel, 1956) opted for San Francisco, which, among other things, was the latter director’s favorite city in the entire United States. 

Both films also cleave their runtimes neatly in half to follow what can be considered the villain(s) of each film––whose occupation of the roles is more befitting of an agent of good––and the actual “good guys” who pursue them. Neither Siegel or Dmytryk feign personability, and one won’t find themselves rooting for the serial murderers and drug runners on the screen; instead, both directors achieve an arresting distanciation, in which characters operate as if in one narrative mode (fulfilling the pressing task at hand) while truly fulfilling another one (proving themselves to be villains along the way). These are bad guys as viewed from behind glass, left are we with little to do but observe. 

For Lang, however, this physical network of bloodshed only toed the nihilistic. Populated are his films with protagonists who fulfill at least the platonic ideal of a specific hero model. Glenn Ford is vengeful and full of spite in The Big Heat, but such emotions are yoked to a catalyzing loss, in which his wife was the victim of a car bomb meant for him. And the always benevolent Henry Fonda, even if more hardened behind his usual hangdog eyes, strikes a figure of sympathy as one wrongly accused in You Only Live Once (1937). It could be argued that without these performances at the films’s center, Lang’s borderline dystopian vision would become overbearing, those immovable systems they so ruthlessly visualize not even facing the necessary opposition that the director’s richly rendered characters shoulder. 

In The Sniper, Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) becomes something of a subject to the combined efforts of the San Francisco police force himself. Eddie kills women he feels mistreated by (all are innocent, of course) with an M1 carbine, a compulsion he tries over and over to mitigate, first by getting admitted to a hospital after intentionally pressing his hand against an electric stove, and then later by writing an anonymous letter to the police. Dmytryk presents what is now a standard case of violent misogyny for countless noir and noir-adjacent projects in tandem with twin systems––law and medical––that are ill-equipped to counter it, much less even identify the signals. Eddie is on the verge of psychiatric admittance, but the understaffed hospital is suddenly inundated with the victims of a gunfight, and thus his doctor is whisked away. Later, the head of the investigation, Lieutenant Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou), learns of early applied psychology techniques by his department’s resident therapist in an expository interval that predates Psycho (1960), and frames the lieutenant as little more than a feckless lawman. 

The conceit and subsequent construction of Dmytryk’s film strays from Lang’s noblemen, who retain identifiable qualities, no matter how corroded they may be by the film’s end, or how much they may experience vengeful tunnel-vision throughout. However, the wedding of San Francisco––both the location and the people therein––to Eddie’s string of murders is what positions The Sniper as a spiritual companion to not just Lang’s Columbia films, but even those reaching back to when Dr. Mabuse first materialized. Dmytryk creates an anti-city-symphony, leaving San Francisco unnamed just like the metropolitan center of M (1931, this American city is otherwise too recognizable to not realize what it is) as its physical makeup becomes its own conduit of violence. Bullets pierce glass windows and shatter marquee signs, discomfiting implications of bloodshed when the actual murder is elided. 

Lang traces the rippling effects of the plots at his films’s centers, which is exactly what Dmytryk does by objectively folding in the aftereffects of the killings into the intertwining responsibilities of the police who are after Eddie, and the hospital who turned him away. Most intriguing, however, is the way in which Dmytryk ropes in the general public to the spree, who are always present at the scene. These crowds are less bloodthirsty than the pyromaniac lynch mob in Fury, but they still are attracted by the promise of being in tangible contact with the committed crime, and are thus always assembled, always craning their necks to get a better view of the body, or at least the aftermath. 

The Lineup’s production was initially more roundabout in asserting its Lang-indebted mastery.; Siegel was tapped by Columbia to direct the film after contributing his efforts to a few episodes of the television series of the same name. Siegel himself wanted The Lineup to solely focus on the two hitmen, Dancer (a perfectly unstable Eli Wallach) and Julian (affable, though no less sinister, Robert Keith), sent as collateral to San Francisco after the drug smuggling operation they serve suffers a blow from an unperforming mule. The studio however insisted on including the same characters from the police force as seen on TV, and so Marshall Reed and Warner Anderson reprise their roles as Inspector Fred Asher and Lieutenant Ben Guthrie, respectively (not unlike Otto Wernicke as Inspector Lohmann in both M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse). 

Siegel’s disinterest with the inspector and lieutenant is palpable –– in the disappointingly short chapter dedicated to The Lineup in his autobiography, the director writes mostly of the closing car chase and not much else. This imposed decision however imbues Siegel’s film with a similar effect of that of The Sniper; the police are ineffectual in combating a criminal system which has seemingly metastasized through the entire city and beyond, near powerless are they in quelling the rising bodycount. As in The Big Heat or Fury, Siegel has Dancer and Julian’s downfall come at the hands of one not associated with the law, exacted in the form of one Dorothy Bradshaw (Mary LaRoche), whose daughter unwittingly applies the heroin smuggled inside a Japanese doll to that very doll’s face, mistaking the powdered drug for makeup. The doll landing in the wrong hands already set Dancer and Julian back, but the young girl’s actions cause the dominos to then fall even faster, a particularly Langian turn of events, considering the narrative significance of the inanimate object which the drugs come packaged in. 

Julian and Dancer’s cleanup efforts send them pinballing across San Francisco, and Siegel expertly wields his love of the city against itself, those hilly avenues taking on an endless, ominous quality. That is, until the final chase sequence––surely one of the best ever committed to film––as the two men’s alcoholic driver, Sandy (Richard Jaeckel) attempts escape from the police through the intertwining roadways of the yet-as-unfinished Embarcadero Freeway, before coming to an unceremonious, four story drop. Otherwise, Julian and Dancer navigate the villainous system they themselves are cogs in, like a flipped The Testament of Dr. Mabuse: servants are felled by gunfire in decadent townhouses; the two men take a trip to the city’s aquarium to try and intercept Dorothy; and Dancer himself comes face to face with his boss in hopes of smoothing over the day’s mistakes at the Sutro Baths and Museum. In a final, Langian twist, the head of the syndicate is simply known as “The Man”, played by a gruff, wheelchaired Vaughn Taylor, who Dancer promptly pushes to his death, his body splayed out crudely on Sutro’s rollerink. 

The shared location shooting of Dmytryk and Siegel imagines an entire world as a Langian gameboard, a true to life analogue to a director whose films have their roots in the thrilling artificiality of German expressionism. Whether or not Lang is an admitted aspirant, the parallels speak enough for themselves, considering the director was at the forefront of popular film, with one foot in the silent era, and the other in sound; a good handful of his films are the very definition of cinema for many. The Sniper and The Lineup don’t just offer illusory callbacks and superficial similarities, but verifiable reckoning with a formidable body of work, and how its merits could be reinterpreted for the everchanging popular film landscape.