Reinhard Heydrich was one of the key figures under Adolf Hitler who was put in the position of eliminating any Czech resistance during the occupation. For the number of deaths he ordered in his reign, he earned such nicknames as The Butcher of Prague, The Blond Beast and The Hangman.
Hiding in the shadows between buildings and wielding a pistol is Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy, BEAU GESTE, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor). The Nazis are in pursuit. Svoboda enters a dark movie theater. Moviegoers start to whisper: “The Hangman has been shot.”
News spreads fast. When it reaches Mascha Novotny (Anna Lee, who would later play Lila Quartermaine on GENERAL HOSPITAL), she swears she saw the man who shot The Hangman while she was in town. Her father, Stephen Novotny (Walter Brennan, who had already won his three Oscars), insists she didn’t, the primary reason being he himself, a professor with “radical” views, is best out of the Nazis’ sight.
The Nazis have closed off numerous buildings and roads, leaving Svoboda on the run with very few options. Svoboda appears at the Novotny residence, where he introduces himself as an architect who met Mascha at the opera. A bulletin comes through during dinner: “Any person aiding the escape of the assassin or providing him with shelter will be executed.” Soon enough, it becomes apparent just who Svoboda is and what he’s done. Frustrated by the civilians’ lack of aid and their own inability to find Svoboda, the Nazis announce a plan: to kill dozens of citizens at a time until he comes out of hiding.
While the film is occasionally seems to run long, director Fritz Lang keeps the tension building as the viewer grows uncomfortable with just how the chase will end. HANGMEN ALSO DIE (a title too pulpy for the subject and tone; some sources list it with a stylized exclamation point) isn’t necessarily an exciting film in the traditional sense. Lang works against this from the start by veering from the facts and having Heydrich’s death come not from Operation Anthropoid but a surgeon acting alone. The most suspenseful moments instead are the quiet ones and those that don’t need spectacle.
HANGMEN ALSO DIE was released less than one year after Heydrich’s assassination. That Lang (along with Bertolt Brecht, who developed the story with Lang, and screenwriter John Wexley) saw the potential in the story to become a film when so few details were likely known shows just what sort of limitless vision the man had.
HANGMEN ALSO DIE may not be cited as one of Lang’s best works and it is quite preachy at times, but it is still a strong, finely executed work with some stellar qualities, notably the cinematography by James Wong Howe (who would later win Oscars for THE ROSE TATTOO and HUD) and score by Hanns Eisler.
HANGMEN ALSO DIE was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture and Best Sound, Recording.
Video: 1.33:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. While the video is occasionally soft, the overall picture quality is quite nice considering the film’s age and multiple sources used for the transfer. Contrast is strong and black levels are often deep and add much to the style of the film.
Audio: English LPCM 2.0. The dialogue is clear and the Oscar-nominated Hanns Eisler score comes through nicely.
Feature-length audio commentary by Richard Peña: Peña, who is the Director Emeritus of the 2014 New York Film Festival, gives an excellent commentary that offers historical details, production tidbits and more.
Story of a Hangman: Robert Gerwarth on Reinhard Heydrich (28:33): Gerwath, who wrote the book “Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich,” discusses Heydrich and how historically (in)accurate the film is.
1942 German Newsreel (7:58)
Restoration Before & After Comparison (5:01): This piece showcases three examples of the restoration process as undertaken by the Cohen Film Collection, the British Film Institute and Pinewood Studios.
2014 Theatrical Re-Release Trailer