It is the height of World War II, and the Nazis have executed another pair of American spies, just as those agents were sending important information from what they believed was a secret location. But enough of the message gets through to the O.S.S. back home to let them know there are scientific means being used by the Germans in an attempt to gain the upper hand in the conflict, confirming the worst fears of the Allies: they are researching the construction of an atomic bomb. Something must be done to put them off, so an official is sent to meet with Professor Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) in his laboratory to convince him he has to join up and head to Switzerland...
Why Switzerland? As a neutral country, a German scientist (Helene Thimig) has fled there and the Allies are keen to rescue her before she can be prevented from sharing her information or continuing her research and benefitting the Americans. If this comes across as somewhat frank for a war movie of the nineteen-forties, the reason for that was the war was now over, so more detail had been released by the authorities about what exactly they had gotten up to, to win the thing. By 1946, the one aspect that everyone was aware of as it was preying on the world's minds was the way it had been brought to a close: with two nuclear weapons dropped over Japan.
Thus the sense that a genie was out of the bottle was very much in the air, and while America was promising to be very careful about what it did next, it was nevertheless continuing that research and building and testing more and more atomic bombs. There was also the question of who got the bomb next: the Nazis had failed, but would the Soviets now succeed? So the Cold War had begun, and that was a weight on the population of the planet that director Fritz Lang was keen to explore with his espionage thriller. However, despite his best intentions and the major misgivings across society, the studio got cold feet and edited out every detrimental reference to the A-bomb completely.
That included the very ending, which was a blatant statement for Lang and his screenwriters (who featured soon-to-be blacklisted Ring Lardner Jr) against this potentially world-destroying power, leaving a film that was always on the verge of saying something more than "Nazis were bad, huh?" to pretty much only make that obvious message and very little else. The picture had the feel of being designed (or meddled with) by a committee, consisting of a patchwork of saleable ingredients - action, moral dilemma, romance, wartime reminiscence and so forth) without ever coming together as the powerful effort that was intended in the first place. Casting Cooper must have seemed like a good idea thanks to his big box office appeal, but the thought of this most American of stars as an undercover agent in wartime Europe was absurd.
Hence when he tried to pose as a German scientist, with American-accented dialogue in that language, the effect was hardly convincing. And when the serious matter of the rescue of a different boffin (Vladimir Sokoloff) arises, the fact the plot gets distracted by Jesper's affair with fellow spy Gina (Lilli Palmer) for far too long should really have scuppered most of the entertainment value, never mind the point Lang was trying to convey. However, he was too good of a director not to make at least some of this worth checking out, from the reaction to Jesper at having to kill a man (he was an enemy, but it doesn't sit well in the mind of the professor who cannot afford to be traumatised) to a sense of paranoia as the forces of darkness close in familiar in Lang's work, with some striking imagery putting across exactly that anxiety impeccably. Certainly, it was an ominous-looking effort, and we can only imagine what it would have been like if left as it was originally, but as it was, one of Hollywood's "what ifs" rather than a classic. Music by Max Steiner.
[Eureka release this on Blu-ray and DVD with the following features:
Presented in 1080p from a high-definition digital transfer
Optional English subtitles
Uncompressed LPCM mono audio
Brand new audio commentary by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
Spycraft A brand new video essay by David Cairns
Cloak and Dagger: Lux Radio Theater [57 mins] Radio adaptation from 1946 starring Lilli Palmer and Ronald Reagan
Cloak and Dagger: The Radio Series [approx 660 mins]
A collector's booklet featuring a new essay by Samm Deighan
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.