Prague, 1942. Czechoslovakia is occupied by the Nazis and suffering under a brutal regime controlled by SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich - the vicious sadist the Czech's call 'The Hangman'. When Heydrich is gunned down by a Czech patriot, the fleeing resistance fighter (Brian Donlevy) finds temporary refuge in the apartment of Nasha Novotny (Anna Lee) and her family before escaping. In retaliation, the Nazis take hundreds of hostages - including Nasha's father (Walter Brennan) - and threaten to shoot them if Heydrich's assassin is not handed over. Nasha Novotny is left with the most terrible decision of her life. Should she save her father - by betraying Heydrich's killer to the Gestapo?
Wartime flag-waving that tries a little bit too hard
- Hangmen Also Die review by Count Otto Black
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You rated this film: 3
Fritz Lang was one of the all-time great directors, and it's hard to criticize a film too harshly when the whole point of it was to remind people that the Nazis weren't very nice at a time when they hadn't lost the war yet. But this is one of his weaker efforts. Part of the problem is that it's wartime propaganda, so characterization was never going to be subtle. Lang was always at his best portraying interesting villains - Peter Lorre's self-loathing child-killer in "M", for instance, and of course Doctor Mabuse - but these villains are so one-note horrible that they aren't interesting. The Nazi in whose company we have to spend the most time is actually quite engaging in an odd way, and sometimes almost amusing, even though he's an evil, lecherous buffoon, because Lang knows he can't afford to bore us, but most of the others are just cardboard cutouts; I was genuinely surprised that none of them at any point kicked a puppy.
The Czechs have the opposite problem, in that, apart from one traitor, and a very few token cowards to make them seem at least halfway believable, they're mostly too heroic to be all that interesting, and they spend far more time making stirring patriotic speeches to each other than normal human beings ever would. The resistance actually come across as a bit stupid for not spotting the traitor sooner, since he's practically the only person in Czechoslovakia who isn't conspicuously noble. And since there's a major subplot concerning the identification of this man by his comrades, it's a bit of a mistake that the audience know who he is all along.
Since it's a Fritz Lang film, there are inevitably moments of genius, like the gleefully sadistic but hideously polite Gestapo officer who torments a terrified old woman in such a way that you know his immediate reaction to everyday objects is to wonder how they might be used to inflict pain. But although the female lead does a decent job as the only Czech who's really allowed to be human, because she has a horribly difficult choice to make and must waver if there's going to be any drama (not that we ever doubt what her decision's ultimately going to be), unfortunately she's paired with the inexplicably popular but always wooden and charisma-free Brian Donlevy, who was apparently a horrible person in real life, was frequently drunk on set, and would go on to ruin the first two of Hammer's Quatermass Trilogy before they saw sense and got somebody else for the third one.
This film has its heart in exactly the right place, but that very fact inevitably means it has to be too preachy for its own good. It's also wildly historically inaccurate (though there may have been extremely good reasons for that at the time), and the way the situation is ultimately resolved is simply unbelievable. A powerful and moving story handled clumsily, and not what you could honestly call Fritz Lang at his best. I'd give this two and a half stars but I can't, so it gets three for really, really meaning well.