The Bavarian woods surrounding the Wolfschanze provide just the enchanted garden this tall tale demands. In a monumental précis about the gulf between intent and deed and action and consequence, Fritz Lang places Hitler circa 1939 before the telescopic rifle of a blithe British big-game hunter (Walter Pidgeon): It’s a "sporting stalk" to prove the athlete’s skill, he aims the empty gun and pulls the trigger, grins, and is jumped by a Nazi sentry after putting a bullet in the chamber. There’s no need to kill the prey once the hunter establishes his victory, the fastidious prisoner tells his capturers; the German officer (George Sanders) deems him "decadent" and sets out to get a spy’s confession out of him. (The shot of the tracks left on posh carpet by the tortured man’s boots as he’s dragged into a room is one of the thousand visceral details which endow Lang’s furious abstractions.) Pidgeon escapes and returns home, only to find that foggy London has become the Berlin of Spione and Testament of Dr. Mabuse. A "walking corpse" Nazi spy (John Carradine) is on his trail, a spirited, cockney working-gal (Joan Bennett) is his only ally. Dudley Nichols’s screenplay mines Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male for dutiful propaganda, an unerring directorial eye draws from it a trove of lasting images -- the blade inside the agent’s walking stick, the great underground scuffle on electrified subway rails, Sander’s monocle glowing in the dark as Bennett walks into a living-room interrogation. The progression is from prewar dandy to RAF paratrooper following the invasion of Poland, or rather from civilized façade to vengeful killer after the death of a beloved, Bennett’s chromium brooch-arrow points the way ("Do not lodge it into the wrong heart"). Romance is unconsumed, the kiss is interrupted -- revenge, not patriotism, is the hero’s goal at the close, the perpetuating circle that is Lang’s vision of the "unconscious assassins" unleashed for war. With Roddy McDowall, Ludwig Stössel, Frederick Worlock, and Heather Thatcher. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce