Cloak And Dagger

US (1946) Dir. Fritz Lang

Having felt forced out of his native Germany by the Nazi’s in the early 1930’s the legendary Fritz Lang managed to rein in any overt anti-Nazi sentiment in this World War II spy thriller, but isn’t shy in hiding his feelings about them either.

Near the end of the war, a partial message is received from the allied secret service revealing that the Nazi’s are in the process of developing an atomic bomb. A university professor and noted scientist Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) is recruited by the OSS to make contact with another respected scientist Dr. Katerin Lodor (Helene Thimig) in Switzerland, currently hospitalised with an illness.

With the Nazi’s blackmailing Lodor into working for them Jesper vows to bring Loder back to the US but she is killed when their plan is rumbled. Jesper is then taken to Italy where the Nazi’s are holding Lodor’s colleague, Dr. Giovanni Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), as their researcher with his daughter held hostage. Jesper is teamed with a small unit of Italian partisans, led by Pinkie (Robert Alda), to break Polda free and reunite him with his daughter.

Fritz Lang essentially invented the spy movie and the inherent clichés with his seminal silent classic Spione, so it is no surprise that some of these elements are present and correct here, in smaller doses. Cloak And Dagger is not just a film which delivers exactly what its title promises but is the first to openly address the steps towards nuclear weaponry, although overt anti-atomic rhetoric was removed from the scripts.

Similarly, the film also had an original alternative ending which would see Jesper make a comment about entering the first year of the atomic age and this can’t be kept a secret from the world. However mandarins at Warner Brothers felt this was too close to the Hiroshima bombings, not to mention the idea of the US army staying silent would apparently make them seem weak.  

Prior to this controversial now lost ending is a fast-paced story of espionage and romance based loosely on the non-fiction book Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of O.S.S. by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain. Lang also employed OSS agent E. Michael Burke as a technical advisor for the film.

Jesper is not your usual war hero, a regular man asked to play spy for the OSS (the first time they were mentioned publicly in film since the war was now over) because of his official credentials, only accepting when Loder’s name is mentioned. At first his visit to Loder is a success but Jesper’s contact Trenk (J. Edward Bromberg) reveals that the Nazi’s have twigged their plan and moved Loder to another location.

Cliché number one is the slinky Anne Dawson (Marjorie Hoshelle) sent in to seduce Jesper and milk him for all the information he has and serve as a distraction. However Trenk knows Dawson and has a counter plan up his sleeve. Unfortunately Loder is killed before Jesper can save her so it is off to Italy to save Polda instead where he is to pose as a German doctor to gain access into the Nazi premises where Polda is being held.

While Pinkie’s team seek to free Maria from captivity, Jesper is left behind with lone female operative Gina (Lilli Palmer) and you can guess what happens next for cliché number two. Interestingly when we first meet Gina she is dressed as a man and killing a Nazi guard, which is not revealed until she conveniently gets undressed in the back of the truck.

Later when she starts to fall for Jesper, Gina begins to get a bit girly and sentimental in complete contrast to the tough chick she was before, but thankfully she gets her mojo back for the tense gunfight in the film’s climax. You can tell that this script was written by men (two of whom were blackballed during the Hollywood Communist witch-hunt) – if Lang had his old collaborator and ex-wife Thea von Harbou writing this, Gina would have been a proto kick-ass babe.

Conversely, Jesper is not an infallible hero, prone to needing his skin saved or having devious plans concocted for him since his expertise lies in the science labs and not in espionage. He’s not a complete flake and soon gets the gist of the job, but Lang is keen to expose his weaknesses and failings to remind us he is a not a trained agent.

Gary Cooper actually deserves credit for holding back his machismo in portraying Jesper in such a way, but still maintains a certain ruggedness about him to not completely emasculate him. Elsewhere whenever Jesper gets into a fight, it’s not your standard flailing punches type scrap, there are some flecks of ugly violence involved, such as Jesper almost having his eyes raked out by a German spy, and the two men trying to break each other’s fingers.

Lilli Palmer is an effervescent presence as Gina as both a tough girl and a lovestruck lady, showing some nice comic flair as the latter while Marjorie Hoshelle is all stereotype as the Mata Hari-esque Anna. Despite second billing, Robert Alda’s Pinkie is only a partial role as is that of Polda, which sees Vladimir Sokoloff in full flustered old professor mode.

The blossoming romance slows the pace down in the late second act until the twisting finale; before this Lang kept everything moving with barely a pause for breath in a tense cat and mouse game that shows the old master didn’t leave all of his trick behind in Germany. Dynamic use of mirrors and shadows for that noir veneer create some interesting tableaux in what is a solid outing for the legendary director.

Lang’s finest work will be his German made output, ending with M, but Cloak And Dagger is a perfectly acceptable wartime thriller that shows there was still some energy left in the tank of this visionary auteur even under the strict Hollywood regime.