Four around the Woman (aka, Vier um die Frau) (Fritz Lang, 1921)
From the first visually impressive (and expressionistic) image we see of the camera tracking in towards a large circular betting table (like Hitchcock, Lang certainly had an interesting obsession with circular imagery, at least early in his career) with the white-suited man in the middle dealing around to the perimeter of shady figures obscured by the chiaroscuro lighting and enveloping wafts of cigarette smoke, to the story’s main characters moving (often clandestinely) between the protective surrounds of the idle (scheming) rich and the allure of easy money to be found in the tough crime-ridden urban streets, Four around the Woman is as an obvious, and surprising (as I would have thought the film would be much more recognized than it is) dry run for the early urban noir landscape Lang would delve head-first into the following year with his first legendary Mabuse picture. I could imagine legendary and massively important early German cinema producer Erich Pommer seeing Lang as a perfect choice for “Mabuse” after this one.
It may not be as grand or operatic (or over four hours long) as the 2-part epic Dr Mabuse the Gambler, yet, as we almost immediately witness the wealthiest broker in town Harry Yquem (Ludwig Hartau) don a disguise to walk unrecognized in the dark atmospheric streets and enter an illegal pawn shop to buy stolen jewellery (where we find, no surprise, the powerful presence of Rudolph Klein-Rogge as the store’s brutal and thuggishly conniving proprietor Upton, one year away from screen immortality as Mabuse himself yet already standing out as the most memorable actor in many Lang films, including this one) for his wife Florence (Carola Toelle), then move further into a narrative (co-written by Lang with his greatest collaborator and wife on drums, Thea Von Harbou) loaded with destructive marital distrust, counterfeiting and duplicity, including two brothers (one who has fallen into despair over the lost love of a woman, while the other has risen into the ranks of the idle rich, played by the same actor) who keep getting mistaken for each other, “Woman” is not only a pronounced corollary to that film… it’s also Lang’s first full manifestation of the bleak world-views he would soon be realizing with regularity, in Germany and on into America (though not always as effectively without von Harbou around, who stayed on in the Fatherland to help make propaganda films for the Nazis). The only thing really missing is a Lang suicide (surprising, as between the economic desperation of many of the street characters, to the emotionally jealous turmoil and vacuous lifestyles shown of the rich, there certainly was room for it).
Other than the always outstanding Klein-Rogge, and perhaps Hartua, as the jealousy-tortured broker living a duplicitous life, none of the actors stand-out as memorable presences, and yet Lang appears to have directed them to produce a surprisingly restrained quality to the performances that is admirable and works well for the film (this, at a time of silent cinema where looking back one could almost suspect, not that I mind at all when watching, that each player was directed, and I include Lang in this, to outdo the other in terms of who could generate the most wildly gesticulating gestures, sometimes for even the quietest of emotions).
While “Woman” doesn’t end on an unforgettable note of sheer madness as the first Mabuse film did, its conclusion is not without complexity… love might be confirmed, yet needless murder has ocurred and prison awaits our main hero (standard fallout for romance in a bleak Lang world… when he’s doing it right, that is). While the title Four around a Woman (directly translated from the German) does reference the circular quality so intriguing to Lang, I’m not sure of its appropriateness, either in its narrative meaning (other than her three main pursuer/suitors, there’s only one additional tangential figure who I’m not sure qualifies as a fourth) or in the misleading way it presents the film (I was prepared to settle into what I thought was going to be a domestic drama or something and was completely unprepared to find myself delving into a startling pre-noir, quasi-expressionistic vision). Either way, it’s well worth watching, both in context of what’s to come for Lang, as well as for the sheer pleasure of the film itself.