Cloak and Dagger (Fritz Lang / U.S., 1946):

"Put it in code." The remark between two doomed spies is succintly followed by their slaughter, then by two pins being removed from a map halfway across the world -- the first five minutes of an espionage thriller are as good a spot as any for Fritz Lang to conduct a compressed master class on symbols and meanings. The main cryptogram is the apple scientist Gary Cooper contemplates as a doomsday device, an apex of absurdity in humanity's potential for destruction; when the race for atomic prowess is declared in the home stretch of WWII, the hero's boyhood fantasies as "some kind of secret agent" suddenly become real. The European old-guard is dying out as their findings are handed over to modern horrors: One elderly nuclear expert (Helen Thimig) is blasted by her Nazi nurse when the Swiss chalet holding her gets invaded, another (Vladimir Sokoloff) is kept prisoner at a fascist headquarters in Italy, which is infiltrated by Cooper donning a monocle. Partisans welcome the Americans at the Italian shores, the bundled rebel who decimates the beach patrol is revealed as Lilli Palmer, with camisole and machine-gun in the back of a truck. The Italian scenes provide the spectacle of Rossellini's Rome seen by Lang, tender and severe -- hardened by the ordeal, Palmer softens momentarily with a soldier's half-remembered ditty. (Another fortuitous conjunction: Lang borrows Hitchcock's perfidious nuns, Hitchcock recalled Cooper's extraordinary, scarring skirmish with Marc Lawrence for Torn Curtain.) The ugly ruthlessness on both sides of the conflict attests to Lang's pragmatic refusal to pit simple "good" versus "evil," especially with such an atomic Pandora's Box at stake. "Free science in the service of humanity" is the hero's goal, yet the filmmaker has viewed the results in Hiroshima: Max Steiner's fanfare plays triumphantly at the end, but Lang's viewpoint remains closer to Palmer's gaze of battered doubt. With Robert Alda, J. Edward Bromberg, Marjorie Hoshelle, Ludwig Stössel, and Dan Seymour. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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