Fritz Lang's SPIES is a classic silent espionage thriller that served as the model for all future films of its type, from Alfred Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS (1935) to the James Bond series and beyond.
Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a respected bank director, is secretly a ruthless criminal mastermind who controls a spy ring from his wheelchair. In his maniacal quest to rule the world, he sends his agents to steal embassy documents and murder a diplomat in order to get a copy of an international
treaty. The Secret Service assigns Donald Tremaine--Agent 326 (Willy Fritsch) to track down who's responsible for these crimes. Haghi responds by ordering Sonia (Gerda Maurus), a beautiful spy, to seduce Tremaine and find out where the treaty is to be signed, but she falls in love with Tremaine
and requests to be removed from the case. Haghi locks her up, and Tremaine is informed by Dr. Matsumoto (Lupu Pick), the Japanese envoy, that Sonia is a spy.
Haghi assigns another beautiful agent, named Kitty (Lien Deyers), to seduce Matsumoto and get a copy of the treaty. She poses as a homeless waif to get into his home and sees him give three copies of the treaty to three couriers, telling them to take different routes. Haghi captures and murders
the couriers, but the packages turn out to be fakes, containing newspaper. Matsumoto himself kept the real treaty and prepares to deliver it, but Kitty makes love to him and when he awakens, the treaty is gone. Haunted by images of the murdered couriers, Matsumoto commits hara-kari. The head of
the Secret Service informs agent 719, who masquerades as a clown named Nemo, that a copy of the treaty will be on the Europa Express train. Haghi sabotages the train and causes it to crash in order to kill Tremaine, but Sonia saves him and reveals Haghi's true identity. The Secret Service raids
Haghi's bank, but he sprays them with poison gas and escapes. Tremaine discovers that agent 719/Nemo the clown is actually Haghi and goes to the music hall to capture him. The Secret Service surrounds Nemo while he's performing on stage, and he puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger. The
audience applauds wildly, and the curtain closes.
Fritz Lang's silent films seem to alternate between the spectacular super-productions, such as METROPOLIS (1927), DIE NIBELUNGEN (1924), and THE WOMAN IN THE MOON (1929), and the pulpy, serial-like action-adventures, such as DR. MABUSE (1922), THE SPIDERS (1919), and SPIES. The former are always
visually stunning, but the latter are usually more fun, and SPIES is no exception, which was inspired by an outbreak of European espionage around 1926-27, and was produced by Lang's own company after the financial disappointment of METROPOLIS. Despite an overcomplicated plot with a number of holes
(many of which are due to the cuts in the shortened American version), it's an exciting and inventive movie, stylishly directed at a breakneck pace so that one doesn't worry about the lapses in logic too much. The milieu of the secret agent, with its disguises, double-crosses, treacherous vamps,
and gadgets (such as a miniature camera hidden in a tie-clip) is very entertaining and was highly influential in the development of the spy-film genre. Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who played the supercriminal Dr. Mabuse in Lang's earlier film, essentially plays a variation of the same character, a
nefarious, omnipotent evil genius, who's described as "The Devil."
Lang amusingly depicts a decadent society, as in the scene where Tremaine and Gerda go to a nightclub that has a boxing ring in the center of it, and an overhead shot shows the elegantly dressed diners dancing around the ring between rounds after the fighters beat each other to a pulp. There is
also a potent undercurrent of eroticism running through the film, most notably embodied by the raw sexuality of Lien Deyers as Kitty, the spy who vamps Dr. Matsumoto. She licks her lips in anticipation when Haghi gives her her orders, and wears an unbuttoned silk robe, revealing her cleavage, to
seduce him. The hara-kiri scene is a stunning collage of expressionist imagery in which a Japanese flag is superimposed over Matsumoto's face, and he's haunted by the images of the three murdered couriers reaching out to him as copies of the treaty float down in slow-motion. The crash of the
Europa Express is expertly staged, and the finale, in which Haghi shoots himself while dressed as Nemo the clown, is unforgettable. (Violence, adult situations.)
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- Review: Fritz Lang's SPIES is a classic silent espionage thriller that served as the model for all future films of its type, from Alfred Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS (1935) to the James Bond series and beyond. Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a respected bank director, is… (more)