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Cloak and Dagger

Cloak and Dagger
1946 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 106 ? min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 14.98
Starring Gary Cooper, Lilli Palmer, Robert Alda, Vladimir Sokoloff, J. Edward Bromberg, Marjorie Hoshelle, Ludwig Stössel, Helen Thimig, Dan Seymour, Marc Lawrence
Cinematography Sol Polito
Art Direction Max Parker
Film Editor Christian Nyby
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Albert Maltz, Ring Lardner Jr. from a book by Corey Ford
Produced by Milton Sperling
Directed by Fritz Lang

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant likes to speculate on the reasons for curious missing scenes and dropped dialogue lines in movies. When Universal removed the word "God" from Frankenstein, is it safe to assume that it was done to avoid offending religious conservatives?

Cloak and Dagger isn't top-rank Fritz Lang but it has one of the most interesting post-production alterations ever done to an American film. Its writers and some of its actors would soon fall to the onslaught of the HUAC witch hunts but Savant believes that the pacifist anti-nuke message of this film was nipped in the bud -- censored before it ever reached a movie screen.


American Professor Alvah Jesper (Gary Cooper) speaks German and knows atomic fission, and is dispatched to Switzerland to try and get the inside story on Nazi bomb research. Before he can rescue allied-leaning physicist Katerin Lodor (Helen Thimig), the Nazis kidnap and shoot her. Continuing to Italy, Alvah poses as a German professor and joins a group of partisan agents (Robert Alda & Dan Seymour) to spirit key professor Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff) out of the country. Beautiful partisan fighter Gina (Lilli Palmer) helps Alvah hide and wait for his chance, avoiding Gestapo agents like Luigi (Marc Lawrence).

Cloak and Dagger is an espionage war film made just after WW2 but with the same fervor that Lang applied to his earlier Hangmen Also Die! For the first couple of years after the victory American films in general downplayed war themes, but Lang kept up the fight, twisting the spy theme to point up a threat even more pressing than Nazi terror. The plot is about the efforts of the pre- C.I.A. spy organization O.S.S. to stall the Nazi nuclear research program, but the script pauses more than once for bald pacifist lectures. Unlikely scientist / man of adventure Cooper says things like the following:

"Peace? There's no peace. It's year one of the Atomic Age and God have mercy on us all! ... if we think we can wage other wars without destroying ourselves."

Cooper succinctly says that Atomic power is beyond human control and that its spread has to be stopped. He's speaking of the Nazis but the message is clearly anti-nuke. This, right in 1946 makes Lang's Cloak and Dagger one of the first movies to buck the Official Policy that was already spreading the idea that the Atom would be a clean source of safe energy and that America needed to build bigger and better bombs. Lardner and Maltz'es speeches also plainly state that nuclear science isn't held by America alone, and is not a secret somebody else would have to steal if they wished to build a bomb. Technical solutions could be stolen, yes, but not the secret itself. Government propaganda would soon use the leakage of Atom secrets to weave tales of Communist spies making off with our patented Golden Fleece. "We can explode the atoms in one apple and destroy a city," says Cooper, "But for all our science, we can't make one apple." The pacifistic and anti-nuke ideas were obviously what appealed to Lang, but he filmed Cloak and Dagger without knowing that his full message would never make it to the screen.

Fritz Lang literally invented the modern spy movie. From Spione to The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, he introduced every kind of double-cross and technological spy gimmick long before the advent of James Bond. His spies of the twenties resemble modern comic book super-criminals, curious mixtures of chivalry and ruthlessness in elaborate theatrical disguises. In WW2, the hero of Lang's Ministry of Fear had to fight a paranoid world of double agents and shifting values. With its Brave New Nukes theme, Lang's Cloak and Dagger was again ahead of everyone else.


Cloak and Dagger is a straight and humorless spy story with some good episodes. Novice operative Cooper fools an American double agent in Switzerland but fails in his main purpose, and a good woman dies. He does better in Italy but still comes out with only a middling success -- a team of agents is destroyed. Unlike the best Lang pictures, the pacing in this story is off. It begins with far too much talk. When Cooper and Gina later hide out in Italy the confinement in just a few sets puts too much strain on the bigger story. It loses the feeling of context, like a stage-bound television show.

Cooper's character is also a stretch. Without any training, he transforms from an academic into Indiana Jones. It's obvious that you don't send a potential member of the brain trust on such an unlikely mission, but off he goes. Coop passes for German in Switzerland but never finds a character -- he coolly blackmails a seasoned spy and then turns into a real softie for the remarkable Lilli Palmer. Just when we're keen on his mission the film leaves the rescue of a scientist's daughter to happen off-screen, and we instead watch the blooming of a new romance.

Unfortunately, we don't get much of a feel for Cooper and Palmer's plight. All they really do is hide in a few rooms, a carnival storehouse and under a bridge. The film stalls while waiting for the plot to re-commence. Lilli Palmer is given some charming business to perform. In a touching scene, she dresses up to re-create the 'pre-war Gina' for Cooper's approval.  1

The acting and performances are variable. Robert Alda, Dan Seymour and others make a colorless bunch of partisans, yakking away in English and never appearing to be Italian. Veteran Vladimir Sokoloff (For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Magnificent Seven) also walks through his part. Much more interesting are the small bits without much screen time. Helen Thimig is the sickly scientist Cooper tries to free in Switzerland, who unfortunately has only one scene.

When Lang does things right the picture sings. The compromising of an enemy agent is spelled out in a deft series of shots. There's a good, messy fight in the failed rescue attempt. Cooper's fortunes always seem to be guided by little mistakes, as when Palmer allows sympathy for a housecat to interfere with their mission. Encountering a snoop photographer at an airport (just like James Bond in Jamaica in Dr. No), Cooper avoids having his picture taken, immediately attracting the interest of Gestapo agents.

The best scene in the film is a terrific fight, kind of a precursor to Hitchcock's sloppy farmhouse murder in Torn Curtain. Cooper and Palmer can't pick up their scientist on the street because known agent Luigi (a truly slimy Marc Lawrence) is watching. Palmer distracts Luigi by straightening her stocking, and Cooper muscles him into a doorway for a masterful bout of no-nonsense dirty fighting. Lawrence gouges Cooper's eyes while they struggle for a knife and a gun. Cooper pries Lawrence's fingers apart in an extremely painful-looking shot, and gives him a couple of murderous-looking chops to the throat. All this happens to the sweet tune of an Italian organ grinder outside in the street. It's serious stuff, and it gets applause, even now. To top it off, the scene ends with a visual reference to Lang's "M" in the form of a bouncing ball symbolizing death.

But the best scene in Cloak and Dagger, the one that would have made it a classic, isn't there. Author Lotte Eisner reported that it was the reason Lang made the movie. It was cut and destroyed before release and cannot be restored.  2

The movie now ends with Cooper and Sokoloff's scientist flying away to America, while Gina stays behind to fight. A lot of it is clearly a re-shoot, with a lengthy farewell speech exchanged between them just at the time when the takeoff should be hurried. A cut to the airplane's propellers turning over mimics Casablanca, and Max Steiner's music rises to a patriotic climax. It's an unmemorable finish that feels like a wartime morale booster, only three years too late.

What was cut -- or censored by government influence, as Savant believes - is the following:

Jesper and Gina's romantic farewell is curtailed by the necessity of taking off right away. In flight, Jesper and an O.S.S. officer tend to professor Polda, who succumbs to his heart ailment. Before he dies he names several secret lab locations where the Nazis are perfecting their Atom weapons. Unable to talk, he gives them a snapshot photo to represent the last location.

Experts identify the landscape in the photo and there follows an Allied commando mission. Cooper accompanies a hundred paratroops as they storm a fortress high in the Hartz Mountains. But the nuclear research equipment for "weapons of mass destruction" have already been disassembled and moved somewhere else. To Spain? Argentina? The mission comes up empty-handed.  3

The troops rest outside the cave and Cooper quietly contemplates the idea that the genie is now out of the bottle, that the world has been forever changed into a menacing and doom-laden place. He shares a quiet conversation with a homesick paratrooper:

Paratrooper: Nice Sky.
Jesper: Sure is.
Paratrooper: Looks like the sky over my part of Ohio. I want to go back there, take off my suit, and never climb into it again.
Jesper: That's a good want. I hope you make it.
Paratrooper: Blue sky and birds singing. Guess I'll see my girl soon.
Jesper (smiles): Guess I will too.

And the movie ends on a weirdly calm note. There was no reason but political censorship to cut the original ending. The description makes it sound like an expensive and exciting scene, with the troops charging their objective like the swarming cops at the end of White Heat. It would have provided a jarring conclusion that people would remember. Cloak and Dagger is the missing link in the post-war nuke film, made just as national security concerns became the excuse for suspicion, lies and witch-hunts. I'm willing to believe that the conservative Jack Warner could very well have ordered the re-shoot and re-edit on his own without direct government interference, but the why is unchanged. Fritz Lang's work was betrayed, just as had happened before with Fury and Hangmen Also Die!  4

Artisan's DVD of Cloak and Dagger has a sharp, undamaged image and clear sound, and would be in fine shape if it weren't for one serious flaw. For big chunks of its running time, the image is unsteady, and bumps slightly up and down on the screen. The element used has shrunken, and doesn't run smoothly through a telecine. Sometimes it's distracting and often it isn't, but this isn't the kind of flaw we expect DVDs to have. Obviously a real restoration is needed on this one.

There's one jump cut right in the middle of the first pacifist speech, which moves Gary Cooper halfway across the set. It may just be a damaged film element, but under the circumstances, it's easy to suspect another censored dialogue line.

There are no extras, not even a trailer, and the packaging carries no indication of the film's touchy politics nor its truncated ending.  5

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Cloak and Dagger rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 5, 2003


1. The beautiful, ageless Lilli Palmer returned as anti-Nazi operatives twenty years later in The Counterfeit Traitor and Operation Crossbow.

2. Eisner, Lotte Fritz Lang, Oxford University Press 1977

3. I can just imagine government officials flipping when hearing Cloak and Dagger's declaration that Fascist Spain and Argentina might harbor Nazi fugitives! In the volatile political climate of 1946, that alone would have gotten the film censored. (The fugitives of the noir film Cornered are criminals with Nazi tendencies.)

4. Most censorship in America is of course non-governmental -- political films are so unpopular, no studio will touch a controversy. Why do you suppose that so many movie terrorists are really simple criminals in disguise (Die Hard, et. al.). The recent poster with a girl flashing a peace sign wasn't censored by the government, but by marketers cowering before mass opinion. The controversy around Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine rarely rises to the issues he raises: the consensus is that politics and films shouldn't mix.

Curiously, this film doesn't even show up in the British Board of Film Censors database. I checked just to see if it perhaps was released at a longer length there. Was it not shown in the U.K.?

5. A note from Aitam Bar Sagi, 6.5.03:

Thought you'd like to read this, very interesting:

"In the last days of World War II, an American physicist and undercover agent are sent on a mission to free a scientist whom the Nazis are holding captive. In the film the Nazis have successfully developed an atom bomb. However, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this topic no longer seemed so opportune. Against Lang's will, the studio changed the ending. Lang had wanted his hero to discover the deserted facilities where the bomb had been developed, a center of Nazi power in a mountain bunker, as well as a camp with the corpses of thousands of slave laborers whom the Nazis had murdered before they fled. This ending was to insinuate that the Nazis had succeeded in moving their laboratories and scientific formulas for the bomb to a secure location. In other words the threat of Nazi terror continued. The film was to close with hero's disillusioned words: "God have mercy on us if we think we can keep science a secret! God have mercy on us if we think we can wage other wars without destroying ourselves."

From- FL: Fritz Lang. His Life and Work. Photographs and Documents 2001 by Filmmuseum Berlin - Deutsche Kinemathek and Jovis Verlag Gmbh.

A note from Marshall Deutelbaum, 6.05.03:

Dear Glenn Erickson, I got the DVD of Cloak and Dagger a couple of days ago, but haven't yet watched it. Your review means I'll make a point to watch it soon. If you read French, you might like to read script excerpts from the missing final reel. They appear in Fritz Lang: La mise en scene edited by Bernard Eisenschitz and Paolo Bertetto, published in Turin in 1995 by Lindau. The book inventories everything Lang left to the Cinematheque Francaise and has an essay about each film. Noel Simsolo wrote the one for Cloak and Dagger titled Cloak and Dagger: La Fin Coupee (C & D: The Cut Ending) on pp.301-311.

He says the final sequence runs 13 pages and consists of 35 shots (nos. 218-253). He says Lang shot the scenes. Two stills from this part of the script appear in the essay. Simsolo reproduces the script for shots no. 220-231 where the German site is figured out and plans are made to parachute in, and shots 251-253, in which the characters survey the site and realize that the Germans have moved all of their bomb-making facilities somewhere else and remain a threat. The intervening shots are summarized. Simsolo suggests the pacifist ending was cut because of the beginning of the Cold War.

"Scarcely had the peace been signed that the enemy was no longer the Nazis, but the Reds. And since the power of the atomic bomb theoretically gave the United States superiority over the Eastern Bloc, it was no longer appropriate to question its use or to speak of peace. In the Cold War a pacifist message was no longer the order of the day. Cloak and Dagger had to become a simple anti-Nazi spy film." (309--my poor translation.)

As always, I find your reviews insightful and fascinating. -- Marshall Deutelbaum

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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