Die if you must, for a cause that’s just…but shout to the end — no surrender!
Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotector of Czechoslavakia during the Second World War, died following an assassination attempt in May 1942 as he made his way from his country villa to Hradschin Castle in Prague. Hangman Heydrich, as he was known, met his end at the hands of two soldiers of the free Czechoslovak army in England, who had been parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the R.A.F. The resulting reign of German reprisals included the executions of hundreds of Czechoslovak civilians as well as 120 members of the Czech resistance who were hiding in a church with the 2 free Czech army soldiers (although it is believed that the Gestapo never learned that the two were among that group). In 1943, Hangmen Also Die, directed by Fritz Lang from a story by Bertolt Brecht and Lang, presented the Hollywood version of these events, to quite effective results. Long difficult to find on television and previously only available on laserdisc in a rather disappointing and truncated version, Kino on Video has now brought Hangmen Also Die to DVD.
Kino is presenting Hangmen Also Die (originally a United Artists release, now held under copyright by Film Archives Trading Co.) as part of their film noir series. (Two other titles in the series, also available at present, are Railroaded and Lured.) Hangmen Also Die, is not, however, film noir. Much of it has the noir look all right, with some wonderful shadow work and interesting camera angles orchestrated by Lang and cinematographer James Wong Howe, but it lacks the disorienting effect of true film noir, where the viewer can no longer find the standard reference points such as well-defined characters, sharp motives, and clear distinction between good and evil. The events resulting from Heydrich’s assassination as presented in Hangmen Also Die possess all these familiar reference points but are presented in the form of a melodrama that is not only gripping, but one which conveys a real sense of caring on the part of the film-makers for the subject matter.
Whoever had the original inspiration for the film that became Hangmen Also Die is somewhat unclear. In mid 1942, Arnold Pressburger, an independent producer who was a native of Czechoslovakia and at the time a recent refugee from Europe, was eager for an anti-Nazi film set in Prague. At about the same time, Fritz Lang, recently departed from 20th Century Fox, also had an idea for a film based on the Heydrich assassination. According to Lang, who knew Pressburger from their earlier years in Europe, the two agreed on the idea of making such a film soon thereafter. Playwright Bertolt Brecht, who had been hiding in Finland from the Nazis and had been able to get to America, partly through the financial support of such film-makers as Lang, was engaged to assist Lang in developing the story. John Wexley was later brought in to develop the script into its final form.
The well-written script that resulted focused on four elements: a Czech family whose daughter (Anna Lee) helps the escaping killer (Brian Donlevy) of Heydrich and whose father (Walter Brennan) is imprisoned and subject to execution as a result; the efforts of the Czech resistance to support and later shield the killer; the Gestapo chief (played by Tonio Selwart) who tries to catch the killer; and the involvement of a Czech quisling — a supposed supporter of the resistance who is really in the employ of the Gestapo. The denouement in which the quisling plays a vital role is a pleasure to experience.
The acting ensemble assembled for Hangmen Also Die is one of the joys of the film. In the main roles, Brian Donlevy, Anna Lee and Walter Brennan are all fine — although Donlevy conveys a little too much of the idea of a thuggish, American gangster at times rather than a Czech resistance fighter. Gene Lockhart is quite effective as the quisling. The wealth of character actors that existed in Hollywood in the 1940s really shines in the many supporting roles, however: Hans von Twardowski in a wonderful vignette of Reydrich — probably completely unlike the real Reydrich, but memorably caricaturish here; Jonathan Hale as the resistance leader; Lionel Stander as the taxi driver; Margaret Wycherly; Byron Foulger; even Charles Middleton (the famous Ming the Merciless of Flash Gordon fame).
Kino presents a DVD of Hangmen Also Die that is quite watchable given the age of the film. A newly struck 35mm print was apparently struck from the original (but slightly damaged) nitrate negative. The resulting DVD is visited by almost continuous speckling with occasional scratches and a couple of splices where part of a line of dialogue is lost, but the blacks are black and the contrast is fairly good. The level of shadow detail is variable during the film. The sound is monophonic and clear for the most part.
Talk about your bare bones DVD. Hangmen Also Die has scene selections and several quotes on the insert, but that’s it. No trailers, no player profiles, no other languages, no captioning. Commentary? Don’t even think about it. Now that’s pretty much what one expects from the smaller public domain outfits, but I’d place Kino more in along with the likes of Roan, All Day, and VCI in terms of the image quality of their DVDs. Occasionally, these outfits try to go the extra mile to add at least a few small extras. Kino didn’t do much here, and it’s too bad because the subject of the film has been extensively written about and more in-depth notes based on those writings, at least, would have provided interesting added value for purchasers. Given the quality of the cast, profiles of the performers should have been a priority too.
Hangmen Also Die is a well-acted, gripping film based on the Heydrich assassination in wartime Czechoslovakia. Although Kino has provided a rather bare-bones DVD of the film, the image and sound quality are quite acceptable. This is a good opportunity to obtain a copy of a film previously only available on a laserdisc import of questionable quality. Recommended.