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Film - Jonathan Romney puts Fritz Lang in perspective

It's not easy to get a handle on Fritz Lang's identity as a film director - the "sacred monster" myth stands so forbiddingly in the way. According to Patrick McGilligan's recent biography, ripely subtitled The Nature of the Beast, Lang "lived his life with the glinted eyes of a maniac". What he actually did, and how it looked on screen, has been overshadowed by scare stories of megalomaniac wrath, and by a number of near-mythical images of Lang. One is of the man who fled from Goebbels's request that he should be the Nazis' head of film, having already made the great mythical films not only of German modernity (the Siegfried diptych), but of modernity tout court - the quintessential paranoid thrillers of the Doctor Mabuse cycle (finally completed in 1960); the loner-in-the-crowd terrors of M; and Metropolis, the absolute template for cinematic dystopia. Another image is Lang's valedictory - playing himself, in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mepris (1963), as an urbane, cultivated cynic reluctantly tolerating Jack Palance's hectoring mogul.

The film-within-a-film that Godard gave Lang to direct - a version of the Odyssey - might have equalled the heroic undertakings of Lang's Weimar years. But Lang was valued by Godard's generation of French cineastes as much, if not more, for the seemingly routine Hollywood studio work he did in a variety of genres - thriller, western, adventure, even Pacific war story. Some critics see Lang as the expressionist visionary demeaned by years of hackwork; for others, the true mark of his greatness is the ability to stamp an individual and sometimes confoundingly discreet mark on what seems the most infertile material.

The Lang mystery can be unpicked over the next two months at the National Film Theatre, with an extended retrospective including, on Saturday 15 January, a whole day devoted to Metropolis. The British Film Institute is also pushing out the boat for Lang, with new monographs on M and Metropolis in the Film Classics series and a full-length study by Tom Gunning published next month.

Two new prints are showcased in the season. Next month, it's You Only Live Once (1937) with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney as the hounded duo foreshadowing all of American cinema's runaway couples from They Live by Night to Badlands and beyond. This month's print - complete but for 30 seconds that were trimmed long ago by the British censor - is the strange and unsettling Scarlet Street (1945). The NFT's booklet advises us not to see Lang's films as "illustrated tracts about destiny", but if we were so inclined, this would be a key text. Based on the same novel as Jean Renoir's La Chienne, Scarlet Street is on the face of it a textbook cautionary tale for staid men who stray towards temptation. Edward G Robinson is Chris Cross, a shy cashier and amateur painter who gets entangled with streetwise Kitty (Joan Bennett) and her lover/pimp (Dan Duryea). She mistakes Robinson for a known artist and an easy mark: it's a one-way road to tragedy.

Scarlet Street is perplexing not least because it's practically a remake, or a remix, of The Woman in the Window, which Lang made the previous year - another ironic triangle with Robinson as the gentle sucker, Bennett as the vamp, Duryea as the heavy. Both films involve a portrait of the lady and a sleazily appointed love nest, both incongruously use the straw boater as a signifier of moral peril. But where The Woman in the Window ends in the most controversially cavalier "it was all a dream" endings in cinema, Scarlet Street plays it mercilessly for real, to the bitter end. It feels highly German, echoing The Blue Angel in its story of a cultured dreamer wrecked by desire for a woman from the wrong side of the tracks. But Lang makes it clear that his apparently innocent hero is a mine of folly and vanity, and - considering he's a painter - suffers from hopelessly flawed perceptions. A bereted Greenwich Village type declares that Chris's paintings "have a certain peculiar something - but no perspective". A sense of perspective, as Lang reminds us in so many of his films, is the key to survival. Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window feature the most curious, certainly the earthiest, triangle in forties Hollywood - Robinson's sweetly blundering, pug-faced naive, Duryea's lanky, whiny-voiced grinner (a forerunner of later sensualist heavies such as Richard Widmark and Bruce Dern) and Bennett, whose deep breaths and languorous moves make for a genuinely ambivalent femme fatale, combining after-hours class with an exhilarating whiff of low-rent sexiness. In Scarlet Street, she's the forbidden fruit of Greenwich Village and all that "hot" bohemia entails, sketched in as far as the moral arbiters of the Hays Code would allow. The code very nearly drew the line at one deliciously perverse scene. "Paint me, Chris," Kitty beseeches, and hands him her toenail polish, adding: "They'll be masterpieces."

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing