Fritz Lang picked up his career in America after his rapid departure from Nazi Germany with Fury (1936), an anti-lynching melodrama starring Spencer Tracy. Lang originally wanted the protagonist, the intended victim of the film, to be African American, in order to expose the vicious racism he had observed in the American South. Although he fought with his studio bosses at MGM “like a Trojan,” in his own words, he was simply ahead of his time.
The film is still a ringing indictment of small-town narrow-mindedness and prejudice. Lang found it difficult initially to work on a Hollywood set — he saw no reason to stop for lunch or dinner if a scene was going well, and rapidly alienated his star, and much of his crew, with his dictatorial attitude—but he soon adjusted to the studio system and became one of Hollywood’s most personal, if pessimistic, stylists. After You Only Live Once (1937), a superb drama in which Henry Fonda, as an ex-convict, tries to go straight but finds that the deck is stacked against him, Lang was assigned to two Technicolor westerns at Twentieth Century Fox, The Return of Frank James (1940) and the epic Western Union (1941). When Fox’s studio chief questioned whether or not Lang could persuasively handle the material, the director replied that the western was America’s great mythic saga, as Die Niebelungen was Germany’s, and that he felt entirely at home with the epic sweep of the material.
Lang directed the anti-Nazi action drama Hangmen Also Die (1943) and went on to make three of his most suspenseful and unremittingly fatalistic films in a two-year blaze of creativity: Ministry of Fear (1944), The Woman in the Window (1945), and Scarlet Street (1945). Ray Milland stars in Ministry of Fear as a mental patient caught in a web of espionage, but given his unbalanced state no one will believe him when he tries to go to the authorities.
The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street have identical casts, and nearly the same plot: 1940s tough-guy Dan Duryea, seductress Joan Bennett, and Edward G. Robinson, cast against type as a mild-mannered victim of Duryea and Bennett’s machinations. All three films represent high points in the genre of film noir, a moody, pessimistic style of filming with downbeat plots, unscrupulous protagonists, and dark, atmospheric cinematography that reflected the social malaise and unease of postwar American society. In all these films, Lang developed his view of humanity as essentially flawed, foredoomed, and inherently corruptible.