Cloak and Dagger (1946) (DVD)

“I’m coming back for you, Gina.”

With the ending of the Second World War, there was a bit of a race in Hollywood to put out the first film dealing with the activities of the Office of Strategic Services (the O.S.S., which would become the C.I.A.). First out of the gate was Paramount’s O.S.S. (1946, with Alan Ladd), but following soon after was Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger, which was made for Milton Sperling’s United States Pictures, an independent production company whose films were released through Warner Brothers (mainly because Sperling was married to Harry Warner’s daughter).

The film stars Gary Cooper as Alvah Jesper, a professor of physics at a midwestern university who is persuaded to work for the O.S.S. near the end of World War II. There is concern over the German progress in constructing an atomic bomb. Jesper is to travel to Nazi-occupied Europe where he is to attempt to locate and free Dr. Polda, an atomic scientist held by the Germans. His assignment takes him to Switzerland and Italy where an Austrian scientist named Katerin Lodor may be able to help. Later, with the assistance of an Italian partisan named Gina (played by Lilli Palmer), he manages to locate Polda and then smuggle him to a secret location where he hopes to get him away safely to the United States.

Unfortunately, Cloak and Dagger is far from a success. Cooper is unconvincing as a scientist and he seldom looks comfortable in his role. The story holds promise, but is allowed to bog down for much of the second half by a budding romance between Alvah and Gina. The best acting work in the film comes from some of the secondary characters including Vladimir Sokoloff as Polda, Marc Lawrence as a fascist thug, and Helene Thimig as Lodor. The film is the least of Fritz Lang’s four wartime films (the others were Man Hunt, Hangmen Also Die, and Ministry of Fear), but it does manage some typically brutal sequences including the cold-blooded shooting of a scientist lying in bed and a violent struggle in a stairwell between Cooper’s character and the Marc Lawrence thug. SPOILER ALERT! The ending is a reversal of Casablanca, with our hero getting on the plane while the woman stays behind, but a conventionally happy one for all that. Lang had a much more ambitious ending in mind and one that was actually filmed. It was a major reason for his interest in doing the film. Lang’s ending involved Jesper going back to Europe to attempt to destroy the German atomic bomb facility and then warning about mankind’s inability to be able to control the power of atomic weapons. After a preview for WB executives, producer Sperling decided to drop Lang’s ending (perhaps at Warners’ request) and imposed the one we see now. Lang was not pleased, but eventually tempered his criticism when Sperling complained that he was spoiling the film’s box-office chances. Lang couldn’t afford to alienate too many more Hollywood studios if he wanted to keep working. The film’s critical reception was mixed upon its initial release, although it seems to have gained more favour since, possibly due to the influence of auteur advocates who seem to believe that any film by a good director is worthy, no matter what.

Artisan delivers its usual standard of mediocrity when it comes to its classic releases on DVD. The image (full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio) is quite variable in quality. There are stretches when it’s clear and sharp, others where it’s too dark or too light. Speckles and some scratches are evident. The image is also subject to unsteadiness at times. The disc packaging advertises a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround mix, but the effect is nothing more than mono. It’s clear enough to do the job, but certainly offers no surround experience as Artisan would have you believe. There are no supplements whatsoever.



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