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Hangmen Also Die

Hangmen Also Die! (1943), by Fritz Lang, starring Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Gene Lockhart, Anna Lee

Synopsis of Hangmen Also Die

Hangmen Also Die is set in occupied Czechoslovakia.  It revolves around the successful plot by the Czech resistance to assassinate Deputy Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia Hangman Reinhard Heydrich.  And the hunt by the Gestapo to track down the killers that follow.

Review of Hangmen Also Die

Hangmen Also Die is a riveting movie, with great performances all around.  It is set in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation of World War II.  The Nazis are brutal, even more so when the Czech rebels kill “The Hangman”.  Nazi retaliation is swift and brutal, as they search for the Czech responsible.  Innocent people are rounded up, and five killed every day until the person responsible is found.  There’s also a traitor in the Czech underground.  A riveting part of the story, making the end of the movie very memorable, and fitting.  I rate Hangmen Also Die a rare 5 stars.

Cast of Characters in Hangmen Also Die

  • Hangmen Also Die, by Fritz Lang, starring Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Gene Lockhart, Anna LeeDr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian DonlevyA Southern YankeeKiss of Death).  The central character, Dr. Svoboda is the man who executed The Hangman.  He then has to stay out of the hands of the Nazis, with the help of the Czech underground.  And with the family of Professor Novotny.
  • Professor Stephen Novotny (Walter BrennanTo Have and Have NotRio Bravo).  A truly great performance.  Professor Novotny is simply an ordinary man and family head.  He is no longer allowed to teach at the University, per the Nazis.  He continues to tutor students at his home, and takes in Dr. Svoboda one night.  It’s past curfew, and the doctor will be shot by the Nazis.  The doctor gives a false name, which later leads to the Professor’s incarceration.
  • Masha Novotny (Anna LeeThe Sound of MusicHow Green Was My Valley).  The Professor’s daughter, who has to decide which side she’s on once he’s taken by the Nazis.  She knows that the Nazis will execute him eventually.  Unless she tells what she knows.  But all she knows about the handsome doctor is his alias.  At first.
  • Jan Horak (Dennis O’KeefeThe Leopard ManT-Men).  Masha’s fiancee, a nice man.  Who seemingly finds Masha in an intimate moment with Dr. Svoboda.  It’s a con to fool the Nazis … But Jan doesn’t know that.  Gruber tries to use Jan’s broken heart, liquor, and cheap women to find something out.  But he fails.
  • Emil Czaka (Gene LockhartMiracle on 34th StreetMeet John Doe).  A great performance.  Czaka is a member of the Czech underground.  Who secretly reports on their activities to the Nazis.  A Quisling, who is truly despicable.  And makes the end of the movie poetic justice on screen.
  • Gestapo Inspector Alois Gruber (Alexander GranachNosferatuFor Whom the Bell Tolls).  An incredible performance as the despicable Nazi Gruber.  He is a vicious bloodhound in human form, with a veneer of civilization.  He is responsible for the murder of dozens of Czechs daily, among many other crimes.

Editorial review of Hangmen Also Die courtesy of Amazon.com

Because it’s been little seen, and because people tend to shrug off contemporaneous World War II films as “propaganda,” Hangmen Also Die has never received its due. It’s a brilliant, riveting movie, made in response to the atrocities committed against the Czech people following the assassination of Reichsprotektor Heydrich, Hitler’s personal “hangman.” Under Fritz Lang’s ferociously stylized direction, the duel of wits between the Nazi occupiers and the Prague underground–“a ghost army sworn to haunt them till their blood runs cold”–becomes the stuff of legend: virtually another installment of Die Nibelungen, and a dynamic variation on the urban phantasmagoria of the Mabuse films and Spione and M.

There is propaganda–but when the blood-curdling rhetoric comes from Bertolt Brecht, no less, in his only movie script for an American producer, who’s to complain? Lang was Brecht’s full collaborator, however, and the narrative is a steel trap closing on everyone. Every act of charity may potentially doom an entire family, and the resistance fighters–especially Brian Donlevy’s doctor-assassin–agonize over their culpability in jeopardizing hundreds of innocents taken hostage in reprisal for Heydrich’s shooting.

The moral-ethical duality extends to the casting, and our response to it. Apart from Walter Brennan, astonishingly “Brechtian” as a Czech professor of history, the “good guys” are ho-hum Central Casting types while the Nazis–evil incarnate–are juicily portrayed by a passel of German-Jewish émigrés (Alexander Granach, Reinhold Schünzel, Ludwig Donath, et al.), all savoring the opportunity to skewer their own oppressors and to act up a German Expressionist storm in their Hollywood exile. Superbly photographed by James Wong Howe. –Richard T. Jameson

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