Friday, March 27, 2015

Spies (1928)

Spies (aka Spione, Fritz Lang, 1928) Based on a novel by his then-wife Thea von Harbou, who had collaborated with the director on his previous film, the more-famous being Metropolis, Spies is a proto-James Bond movie released back when that character's author-creator was a mere twenty years old. Here, agents, given numbers and their names taken away, hunt down the criminal masterminds hiding in plain sight as respected businessmen in Germany.

One such Captain of Industry is Haghi (Rudolph Kleine-Rogge*), who is a financier and is in charge of the huge Haghi Bank. But, his interests are more than just the compounded kind. A master of blackmail, and with a network of duplicitous agents scattered in high places, Haghi keeps track of the weaknesses of his account-holders, and uses them to his own end, infiltrating them in with the more established agents in various high-stakes plots: The Minister of Trade is assassinated from a moving car and condemning evidence is stolen right on the street; secret documents are lifted from the French Embassy in Shanghai; a murderer is saved from hanging to be used as an agent; and the wife (Hertha von Walther) of a prominent politico will have her opium habit exposed, if she does not obtain information about an upcoming treaty with Japan. The web of intrigue is intricate and spreads world-wide.

So, who's around to stop this seemingly endless series of espionage? The police are baffled and the government's Secret Service seems to be caught so flat-footed that they are openly mocked by the press. Why, intrepid Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch), Our Man on the Street as he's been working extremely undercover in the guise of an out-of-work vagrant (which may explain why there's so much hanky-panky going on in the upper strata of Society). He is approached for, and is rather reluctant to accept, the assignment of finding out who the criminal mastermind is behind all these capital crimes. He is initially reluctant, but that may only be a ploy to uncover the enemy agent in the SS ranks, which he exposes right under the chief's nose. Even the Secret Service is not out of reach of the crime network's clutches.
Agent 326—Our Man on the Street
But, Haghi learns of the agent's mission to hunt him down (don't ask how) and enlists one of his own to serve as a "honey trap" for 326, the Russian spy Sonya Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus), to seduce and distract the agent, and, if necessary, eliminate him. Convinced of his anonymity, 326 never suspects when he comes to the rescue of a distraught woman on the run from the police, that he might be in the process of being set up. All he knows is there's a beautiful woman in trouble and he comes to the rescue.
...but he cleans up really nice.
But, even the best-laid plans of a criminal genius like Haghi's can go awry; he doesn't count on 326** and Sonya actually falling in love after she throws herself at him. This, of course, complicates things—for both sides. Meanwhile, 326, in order to protect Sonya, must keep her hidden from the police (which he knows) and away from Haghi (which he has no clue). But, what he also doesn't suspect is that Sonya has been ordered to betray him, and will do so if Haghi uses his considerable persuasive tactics against her.  
The evil Haghi is not all he appears...
There are complications involving a lover's misunderstanding, an elaborate death-trap for our hero involving a train and an abandoned car in a tunnel, as well as further blackmail schemes, more plots, betrayals, deaths, and a raid on Haghi's secret headquarters inside his bank, as well as one elaborate twist you won't see coming that ends on a darkly ironic note—the sort of not-completely happy ending that Lang preferred (when the studios weren't interfering).
The Haghi Bank and its intricate series of paths, much like a prison.
It's an elaborate puzzle of a movie, with set-pieces that would inspire the humorous intrigue of Alfred Hitchcock in his films (in Germany, Britain, and America), and set a path for sensationally elaborate hokum that would become a tradition of all but the most staid spy films. Lang was a pioneer of such over-the-top fantasy. In his films, threats come from beyond the frame out of nowhere, and the trouble to which the villains go to eliminate any interference would make any normal (evil or non-evil) businessman go running for budget projections.*** At some point, audiences wouldn't be blamed for asking (as they do now) "why don't you just shoot him?" but, even then, the entertainment of the thing keeps the question from burbling to the surface, delaying the logic until after the movie is over. One doesn't want to be a spoil-sport, no matter how much of a megalomaniac one might have the potential to be. The evil plans are ornate, and probably wouldn't pass any forensics examination or test of logic or practicality. They simply are fun (although e-vil) and impressive in the sort of imagery that distracts from the absurdity of the logistics (some of this might be owed to the stunt-work of American silents that were so popular with audiences; there's not an awful lot separating the action work of Lang, and say, Buster Keaton, other than intent). And so, the spy-movie, the thriller runs a long, circuitous and often bumpy line from the early comedians (including Chaplin and Lloyd) through Lang and Hitchcock and on to Bond and Bourne and beyond; it's a century long chase that spans the projected image in an attempt to capture the imaginations of the audience.

The film is presented below.

* Klein-Rogge was Lang's always dependable villain, playing the evil inventor Rotwang in Metropolis, and in a series of films, Lang's master criminal Dr. Mabuse.

** We never do find out his name, although his street-character's name is Hans Pockzerwinski (now, there's a name people will forget quickly)

*** As we all know now, Evil has no budget.  And if they did, they don't care going OVER budget.

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