James Bond Begins?
- Spies review by Count Otto Black
Fritz Lang was unquestionably one of the all-time great directors, and some of his early work in particular is absolutely extraordinary. Unfortunately, after he made what is nowadays regarded as his masterpiece, "Metropolis", he had the same problem as Terry Gilliam did in the wake of "Baron Munchausen"; if you spend a fortune on a massively ambitious film which isn't a commercial hit, no matter how good you are, the studio is going to give you a lot less money next time. Lang, whose budgets had been getting steadily bigger, suddenly had to compromise his grand visions because the accountants were shaking their heads, and it took him a while to adjust.
"Spies" attempts to create another supervillain just like Dr. Mabuse (and played by the same actor, Lang's favorite bad guy Rudolf Klein-Rogge), only even more terrifying, since instead of Mabuse's handful of sleazy minions, Haghi, whose hairstyle is as odd as his name, is in charge of a vast and ruthlessly efficient criminal organization, controlled from a secret underground headquarters several levels deep and with at least a hundred full-time staff, including proper henchmen in sinister leather uniforms. So basically he's a Bond villain 34 years before the first Bond movie.
It's a fantastic concept, but unfortunately Lang can't afford to show us any of it properly. Haghi's HQ amounts to little more than one small, bare control room containing what passed for hi-tech information technology in 1928 (you can see how tiny and low-budget it is in the stills above), and his gang is effectively no bigger than Mabuse's, since the existence of everyone and everything else is almost entirely established by a couple of shots of extras milling about in a stair-well. Apart from a fairly convincing train crash and some rather muddled action towards the end, Haghi's nefarious schemes are very low-key, and the magnificently decadent night-life that so enlivened "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler" isn't shown here, other than a token scene in a peculiar night-club for people equally keen on ballroom dancing and boxing.
It's still pretty good, other than the slowness of the first half, which gives us romantic and moral dilemmas instead of action in an obvious attempt to save money for the big finish, but you can sense Lang's frustration with the low budget. Even his trademark weird visuals barely feature at all (the second-last of the stills above, which seems to show a medieval army, isn't from this film), apart from a bit of total bizarreness involving a clown with a gun and some giant insects, but that's literally the last three minutes of the movie. Overall this is one of a very talented director's lesser works. And apart from the much more prominent romantic elements, there's nothing in it that Lang didn't do better 6 years earlier in "Dr. Mabuse the Gambler".
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