Cloak and Dagger, by Fritz Lang (1946)

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou


Under the “Moving History” category, inaugurated today, I intend to write (twice a month) on the ways that history is represented, constructed and used in and through film.


cloak and dagger


For the first post, I chose Cloak and Dagger, a 1946 film by Fritz Lang. It has the peculiarity (at least for a category that purports to examine the use of history in film) of being an indirect commentary on very recent events. Despite being one of Lang’s lesser known works, it bears unmistakable signs of his authorship: the unforgettably choreographed, mute and lethal hand-to-hand battle between Gary Cooper and the Italian ruffian that attacks him; the child’s ball falling down the stairs (reminding Lang’s own M); the tough female protagonist (Lilli Palmer), an Italian resistance fighter, who – despite the predictable romance with her leading man – stays well away from Hollywood standards of femininity; and last, but not least, a thinly veiled critique of the use of atomic power.

Written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr. (two of the so-called “Hollywood Ten” who refused to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee merely a year later), the movie is a tribute to the Office of Strategic Services [OSS], but it’s tone is far from uncritical. The OSS was the central intelligence office of the USA during World War II, and the movie is partly inspired by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain’s Cloak and Dagger. The Secret Story of the OSS. The movie opens in the USA a year after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Significantly, its original ending where Gary Cooper (unlikely portraying a nuclear physicist-turned secret agent) exclaims “God have mercy on us if we think we can wage other wars without destroying ourselves”, was cut from the film and subsequently lost.

The ending was mirrored in the beginning of the film nevertheless. When Gary Cooper is approached by the OSS for the first time, he shares with the agent who happens to be an old friend, the same preoccupations: he rails against the lack of governmental support and funding for scientific research before the war, especially where the cure of diseases such as cancer and typhus were concerned, compared to the same government’s willingness to back nuclear energy and the building of the atomic bomb. Cooper’s character, Alvah Jesper (supposedly based on Robert Oppenheimer) confesses that he is terrified by the possibility of atomic power, stating that society is not yet ready for it, and lamenting the fact that he is indeed a scientist.

The story follows Jesper as he travels to Switzerland and Italy, first verifying claims that the Nazis are close to the construction of an atomic bomb, and then trying to rescue an Italian scientist who is collaborating with them, under threat for his daughter’s life. In Italy, he meets Palmer’s character, Gina, a ferocious and indomitable woman who has joined the resistance. Jesper is forced to stay with her and lay low, while Gina’s fellow fighters go on a mission to free the scientist’s daughter. Although the film’s myth was built primarily around its lost ending, its interest lies more in the attempt to depict truthfully what life would have been like in wartime Europe. A key scene involves an otherwise minor incident: when Jesper is left with Gina, at the first (and only) night they spent together at her crummy apartment, he hears a hungry cat meowing outside the door. The scene is revealing for the differences in the perception of war between the American who has only experienced it from afar, and the Italian for whom it was an everyday reality. Jesper wonders if there is any milk to feed the animal, provoking Gina’s sneer who exclaims that she cannot remember the last time she had milk herself. Later scenes are also memorable in that sense, as Gina and Alvah are forced into hiding in ruined buildings and under bridges, eating only apples.

Gina, as a character, is another indicator of the film’s efforts to construct a realistic universe – and of the distance that separates it from the standard spy thriller/romance. When she and Alvah fall in love (awkwardly thrown together as they are), she hints at the moral sacrifices and despicable actions she has had to perform in order to survive throughout the war, effectively dismantling the heroic and romantic myth of the resistance fighter. The end of the film as it stands, is rather bitter. Mistakenly characterized as a happy-end, it has Gary Cooper getting on a plane with Polda (the Italian scientist) and Lilli Palmer staying behind to continue fighting for the resistance. Her sacrifice is entirely stripped of the narrative momentum that the one made by Ilsa Lund three years ago had (which is why Cloak and Dagger’s conclusion feels hollow). Contemporary viewers of Casablanca did not have the privilege of knowing how the war would end, unlike the ones seeing the 1946 film.

In the end, Cloak and Dagger is not so much a film about history, as the events it refers to are still raw in collective memory. It would be illuminating if more information were available regarding the public’s reception of the film, especially given that it seemed to adopt a critical stance towards the use of atomic energy, USA’s exclusive domain at the time. At least one contemporary review dismissed it as standard fare in the adventure and romance genres, full of spy-thriller clichés (the New York Times, published October 5, 1946). In any case, Lang’s pessimistic view of society’s immaturity and lack of preparedness to deal responsibly with nuclear energy, as well as the incapacity of Americans to comprehend the full extent of the trauma suffered by Europe during the war, somehow still lingers.