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The West Of Fritz Lang

In a 1959 interview with Cahiers du Cinema, Fritz Lang expressed his affection for Westerns, citing their foundation in a fundamental ethical code and the timeless struggle of good versus evil.

Refer to the article for an in-depth look at The West Of Fritz Lang.

Lang’s western films, including The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941), and Rancho Notorious (1952), stand out in cinematic history due to their portrayal of rugged individualism, diverging from the grandiose style associated with directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks.

This unique approach laid the groundwork for the psychological westerns of the 1950s, crafted by filmmakers such as Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.

Fritz Lang
The West Of Fritz Lang

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The West Of Fritz Lang

Throughout his 41-year career, Lang delved into recurring themes of revenge, corruption, redemption, and loss within the Western genre.

Lang’s fascination with the American West and its mythology was pivotal in his foray into Westerns.

He likened the significance of the Western genre to the European Saga of Nibelungen, emphasizing its integral part in shaping the country’s history.

Furthermore, Lang’s interest in American Indian culture was evident during his sojourn on a Navajo reservation in 1935, an experience that influenced his exploration of social themes in his Western films.

Notably, Lang’s 1940 opportunity to direct a western for 20th Century Fox, a sequel to Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), was attributed to Darryl Zanuck’s belief that Lang would offer a unique perspective on the genre.

This opportunity led to the creation of The Return of Frank James.

The Return of Frank James

Lang’s immersion in the Western genre allowed him to examine essential themes through a unique lens, leaving an indelible mark on cinematic history.

Fritz Lang
Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Zanuck’s assessment proved accurate. The Return of Frank James can be regarded as one of the pioneering examples of noir westerns.

Lang’s meticulous attention to detail and the creation of a distinctive atmosphere dominate this unconventional tale of vengeance, giving the film a visual and moral essence unlike any other Western of its time.

Additionally, The Return of Frank James represented a cinematic progression for Lang, incorporating Technicolor and location photography to capture stunning shots of the High Sierras.

This departure from studio-bound filmmaking gave the director fresh air, literally and artistically.

Lang’s affinity for the screenplay of The Return of Frank James granted him the freedom to implement necessary alterations.

However, due to the constraints of the Production Code, the character of Frank James, portrayed by Henry Fonda, was unable to seek retribution for his brother’s murder and did not commit any killings.

Instead, the individuals responsible for Jesse’s death, Bob and Charlie Ford, met their demise through other means.

At its core, The Return of Frank James explores the conflict between the individual, embodied by Frank, and the systemic power represented by the railroad company.

The film commences with the conclusion of Jesse James, paralleling Lang’s two-part Die Nibelungen saga, as the treacherous Ford brothers fatally shoot Jesse.

Fritz Lang
The Return of Frank James

Subsequently, the narrative delves into Frank’s initial reluctance to seek vengeance, followed by his decision to rob the railroad company as a subtle form of retribution, enabling his pursuit of the Fords to Denver.

A pivotal scene unfolds as Frank attends a theatrical re-enactment of Jesse’s murder, culminating in a dramatic chase through the Sierras.

This visually striking sequence, characterized by the Germanic atmosphere in Lang’s architectural rock formations and the strategic use of dead trees in the foreground, culminates in a tense gunfight between Frank and Charlie Ford, accentuated by Lang’s deliberate omission of background music and dialogue.

The film takes an unforeseen turn when Frank abruptly halts his pursuit of Bob Ford, returning to Liberty, Missouri, to defend his servant Pinky, who was falsely accused of murder by the railroad company.

Subsequently, the narrative evolves into a bitter and occasionally comedic courtroom battle, culminating in Frank’s exoneration by Southern sympathizers, portraying the striking Civil War resentments between the Northern prosecution and the Southern defense.

Notably, Frank’s attorney, also a newspaper editor, denounces the railroad detective as “Yankee scum” during the trial.

Fritz Lang
French poster.

After Frank is cleared of charges, he decides to pursue Bob Ford. However, an unseen gunfight ensues, resulting in Clem’s death after he shoots Ford.

Subsequently, the film presents its most noir-like scene as Frank encounters the fatally wounded Ford in a dimly lit barn.

From a psychological standpoint, Lang’s dark and menacing indoor settings depict Ford’s final moments as those of a helpless animal.

Upon discovering Ford’s body, Frank experiences the gratification of avenging his brother, remarking, “That’s the other one, Jesse.”

The Return of Frank James concludes on an optimistic note as Frank returns to his farm in Missouri. However, Lang introduces a thought-provoking image in the final scene.

As Frank rides out of town, he passes a weathered “wanted” poster of the James brothers; the wind gradually erases the names of Frank and Jesse as the film fades to black.

Western Union

Lang’s meticulous attention to historical and human details played a crucial role in “Western Union,” a fictionalized account of the telegraph line’s development in the 1860s.

Widely recognized as the first grand-scale western in Technicolor, the 1941 Fox production departed from Lang’s typical Hollywood endeavors.

Unfortunately, producer Zanuck insisted on adhering to Robert Carson’s exposition-heavy screenplay, thwarting Lang’s proposed script changes that could have imbued the film with a darker, less formulaic essence.

Fritz Lang
Fritz Lang directs Robert Young and Randolph Scott.

Despite the excessive comic relief and a disproportionate focus on romance, Lang managed to infuse elements of his fatalistic vision into the narrative, notably through the character of Vance Shaw, a reformed outlaw hired as a scout for the telegraph company.

Lang’s distinctive nuances added moments of authenticity to what might have otherwise been an exaggerated spectacle akin to a Cecil B. DeMille production.

In contrast to “The Return of Frank James,” “Western Union” featured a more expansive landscape, utilizing portions of Kanab, Utah, and Arizona’s House Rock Canyon for its filming.

The West Of Fritz Lang
Foreboding darkness in epic-scale Technicolor.

The film’s emphasis on technological progress and the encroachment of civilization distinguished it among Lang’s Westerns, symbolized by Shaw’s declaration to outlaw leader Jack Slade regarding the certainty of the Western Union’s influence.

Additionally, Lang portrayed Indian culture in a predominantly sympathetic light, contrasting Shaw’s pacifist approach towards the indigenous people with the more aggressive stance of his romantic rival, Richard Blake.

The film’s most notable action sequence involved a forest fire ignited by Slade and his gang, depicted in an elaborate, studio-created blaze that rivaled the scale of the flood in “Metropolis” (1927).

Lang’s adept use of color effectively fused flames and shadow, culminating in a harrowing and visually stunning sequence.

Despite its epic grandeur, “Western Union” found its narrative strength in Shaw’s moral conflict as he grappled with his allegiance amid the conflict between Slade and the telegraph company.

Lang’s directorial touches imbued a naturalistic quality to the climactic showdown between Shaw and Slade, enhancing the audience’s belief in the characters and their actions.

Fritz Lang
Randolph Scott’s breakthrough role as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

The film’s conclusion was poignant and fitting, featuring an expressionistic shot of Shaw’s grave with telegraph poles in the background, symbolizing a tragic yet appropriate ending.

“Western Union” was significant for introducing Randolph Scott in a breakthrough role, showcasing a darker edge that would later be explored in his collaborations with director Budd Boetticher.

The commercial success of “Western Union” allowed Lang to return to the psychological thrillers that suited him best, marking a pivotal moment in his career.

Rancho Notorious

Rancho Notorious is an unconventional Western film that subverts genre conventions through its highly stylized and artificial aesthetic, imbuing the narrative with theatricality.

Fritz Lang’s directorial vision is evident in the film’s moody and ominous shots of the sky and landscape, displaying a painter’s eye for composition.

Despite being largely set-bound, the film features expressionistic camera angles and intense close-ups, creating a claustrophobic and emotionally charged environment.

Fritz Lang
A Langian dissolve.

The film faced critical limitations due to its departure from traditional Western tropes, with some critics expressing reluctance to categorize it as a Western.

However, Rancho Notorious defies rigid categorization and is comparable to the artistry of director Anthony Mann.

In Lang’s interpretation, the hero’s struggle to resolve his psychological turmoil takes a backseat to the overarching theme of loss and fate, a prevalent motif in the narrative.

Rancho Notorious incorporates elements of sadism and sexuality, reflecting the evolving themes in 1950s westerns.

The film also challenges the constraints of Hollywood’s Production Code by centralizing the theme of revenge, ultimately culminating in a narrative where nearly every character meets a grim fate.

The West Of Fritz Lang
The criminal hideout of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).

Social status and power dynamics play an ironic role in the film, with the character Altar forming a community of outlaws at the “Chuck-a-Luck” ranch, reminiscent of Lang’s criminal organization in the Dr. Mabuse series.

The juxtaposition between the corrupt town of “Gunsight” and the outlaw community adds depth to the film’s exploration of moral ambiguities and societal decay.

Fritz Lang
Spanish herald.

Ultimately, Rancho Notorious presents a pessimistic portrayal of the American West, portraying characters resigned to their fates in an emotional wasteland.

Lang’s vision of the West as an unforgiving and desolate landscape is encapsulated in the film’s conclusion, where the protagonists ride off into an uncertain future, underscoring the theme of inevitable loss and disillusionment.

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Ashish Maharjan
Ashish Maharjan
Ashish, a seasoned editor and author for World Cinema Paradise, intricately weaves creativity with precision in his writing, establishing himself as a prolific content creator. Renowned for clarity and captivating storytelling, Ashish has cultivated a devoted readership, driven by his unwavering passion for words and commitment to excellence.

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