Having defined the espionage genre with Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, Fritz Lang returned to the genre with this surprisingly fast-paced and remarkably grim thriller. Rudolf Kleine-Rogge stars as Haghi, the head of an elaborate criminal empire, and Willy Fritsch is the undercover agent assigned to topple the diabolical king from his throne. Filled with the sexual intrigue and high-tech gadgetry that continue to define the genre, Spies remains remarkably contemporary, more than 85 years after its original release.
Special Features: 2K Digital Restoration by the F.W. Murnau Stiftung, Piano score by Neil Brand (2.0 Stereo), Spies: A Small Film With Lots of Action (68 Min.), Original theatrical trailer (5 min.)
Director Fritz Lang followed up his iconic science fiction film 'Metropolis' with 'Spies' (1928), a spy thriller of international intrigue based on the novel of the same name by his wife and co-writer on the film, Thea von Harbou. Originally 178 minutes, the version Kino presents on Blu-ray is 150 minutes. While entertaining, 'Spies' both feels too long because the era's pacing during scenes and also too short because it seems to have parts of the story missing.
'Spies' opens with the theft of documents from the French embassy in Shanghai. Then shifts to a country that is on the precipice of signing a treaty with Japan, but a criminal organization led by its wheelchair-bound mastermind Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) wants to disrupt the negotiations. I presumed the country was Germany due to the filmmakers and diegetic writing, but later another country is clearly named in documents and I realized I hadn't seen any identification up to that point.
A vagrant (Willy Fritsch) is picked up and taken in to the Secret Service. It turns out the man is Agent 326 (no other name given) and upon his arrival, it is revealed the organization has been comprised. Agent 326 is tasked with taking down Haghi; however, Haghi has a plan of his own for 326 involving Russian spy Sonya (Gerda Maurus), which falls apart within a few moments as the two rapidly fall in love (or lust) after meeting each other, resulting in Sonya refusing to betray 326.
Vice proves the downfall of many in this film. Haghi blackmails Lady Leslane (Hertha von Walther) about her opium use so she'll provide information from her husband about the treaty negotiations. Sex is used to take down another of Haghi's obstacles, Dr. Akira Masimoto (Lupu Pick), the Japanese head of security. Kitty (Lien Deyers) seduces him and when he awakes from what was surely more than a nap, his desires cost him and his country plenty.
Haghi is an odd character and it seems like parts of his story are no longer part of the film. Certainly clever and ruthless as a villain, his reasoning for foiling the treaty is not clear beyond causing chaos. The story takes an odd turn during the third act with the introduction of Agent 719. Although his face is never shown and the actor awkwardly avoids the camera by walking off screen in an unnatural manner, Lang's camera placement allows too much to be seen and it's clearly Klein-Rogge. Having Haghi as a double agent is a very good plot twist, but I am not sure what is gained having it revealed so late. To further complicate matters, Agent 719 performs as a clown (named Nemo, perhaps) and is a big draw. Why is not clear, and it leads to a very bizarre resolution.
Although slightly hampered by age and a story that doesn't always make sense, Lang's 'Spies' is fun adventure that while shot on a small scale comes across big in scope thanks to the direction and production values.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Classics presents 'Spies' on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc housed in a standard blue keepcase. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.28:1. On screen title cards reveal “'Spies' was restored in 2004 by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung. The primary source element is a nitrate print from the Nardoni Filmovy Archiv (Prague), supplemented by prints held by the Filmarchiv Austria (Vienna), the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia (Canberra), and the Cinematheque Francaise (Paris). The original intertitles come from the Viennese print, as well as 'flash titles' found in a dupe negative held by Gosfilmofond Moscow. Missing titles were reconstructed using the censor registration documents. Laboratory work was performed by L'Immagine Ritovata (Bologna). The 35mm master negative was used as the foundation for this 2k digital restoration."
The image is certainly adversely affected from wear and age. Film grain fluctuates, as do the black levels. Agent 326 wears a tuxedo, which looks gray while he rides in the back of a cab and then turns inky while he is in an abandoned home. Whites and grays are similarly inconsistent, all affecting the contrast. There are many specks and scratches of black and white. Some scenes have so many white lines running through the frame, it looks like rain.
The film delivers very good depth and great detail. An example of how fine the detail is in a close-up of a hand holding Sonya's necklace that reveals the many lines of the palm. Some of the shots are framed with black curves at the top like looking through a telescope, and the soft edges of the black curves move.
There are instances of what looks like light having bled onto the negative, film jitter, and light flicker, although the latter might result from the lower frame rate the film was shot in. When Haghi calls for a Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) to be killed, the light shining off his head almost looks posterized.
The audio is available in Dolby Digital 2.0 and Neil Brand's impressive piano score is the lone element. The instrument comes through with great clarity. There is a satisfying dynamic range, as Brand captures many moods, and an adequate bass presentation. The track is free of defect.
While the overall grade might be low because of the limitations the sources caused with the high-def presentation, I would still recommend Fritz Lang's 'Spies' to silent-film fans who should be able to look past the visual flaws and appreciate the film for its entertainment value and historical significance.