Fritz Lang is one of cinema’s most revered filmmakers. In his native Germany he made some of the most influential films of all-time. Metropolis and M are two of cinema’s greatest achievements, but they are only a small part of an incredible roster of films. His move to the US should have signified a move into even more impressive work, but he faltered a little before finding his niche in Film Noir.
Cloak and Dagger is awkwardly placed in Lang’s filmography. It follows Scarlet Street, perhaps his most bleakly cynical film, and by comparison this is a fairly naive, conventional espionage thriller that isn’t the best example of the directors work.
Gary Cooper plays an American nuclear scientist, who is recruited by the secret service to go behind enemy lines to persuade scientists working for the Germans to switch sides. Along the way he meets with the resistance, assisted by Gina (Lilli Palmer) and tries his best to evade enemy agents.
Cooper is his usual stoic self, and Palmer is also attention grabbing in her screen debut, giving her character a lot of inner strength and determination. The problem is the film feels more like a procedural than a thriller. We see the inner workings of the resistance but the characters are never really fleshed out. Cooper and Palmer are fine in their roles, and even have a fair bit of chemistry but they are playing archetypes rather than real people, and there isn’t much nuance to them.
The rest of the cast are largely anonymous, but there are a few exceptions. Vladimir Sokoloff is sympathetic as the absent-minded scientist, and Marc Lawrence especially stands out as a villain. Lawrence would go on to play more memorable characters in Film Noir classics like The Asphalt Jungle and Key Largo, but this is a good dry run; he doesn’t have many lines but positively oozes malice.
Having fled Nazi Germany, Lang was well aware of the sense of paranoia that accompanied living in Germany, and this is conveyed well in early scenes, where a misplaced word from Cooper could potentially give the whole mission away. This is the film at its strongest, but the bigger picture is less satisfying. The plot unravels more or less how you would imagine it would, with very little in the way of surprises.
That being said, it is surprisingly violent for the time, (especially bearing in mind the production code) and there are some quite brutal moments, including an incredibly visceral fight scene between Cooper and Lawrence. To the film’s credit it’s a raw, brutal fight, with both characters using every means at their disposal to win. It’s a brilliant scene, full of tension and expertly directed.
Scenes like this are the exception though. On the whole Cloak And Dagger feels like a propaganda film but weirdly, one released after the war had ended. Everything is just a bit too black and white. Lang was a master of set design and as such it looks great with moody, shadowy cinematography but it too often feels like he’s directing by numbers, without the personal touch he brought to his best films.
Cloak And Dagger is a curious one and a fun spy yarn, with some nice set-pieces and a sense of paranoia that is tangible. Overall though it’s too slight, and can’t measure up to Lang’s more substantial work. You can’t help but think that if this had been directed by anyone else, it probably wouldn’t have received such a comprehensive re-release.
Eureka rarely disappoint, and this new HD transfer looks incredible – there is still a fair bit of visual noise in places, but largely it’s really impressive; some scenes look as if they could have been filmed yesterday. It comes with a commentary from film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a video essay by David Cairns, two radio adaptations, and a lush booklet with more information.