The year is 1942 and the nation of Czechoslovakia is struggling under the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, trying to appeal to the Soviet Union to step in and rescue them. The chief of operations in this region is the Gestapo leader Richard Heydrich (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) who is ruling over his new subjects with a fist of iron, and has thus become a prime target for the resistance, but he is so important to his bosses that any attempt on his life would have dire repercussions. No matter, they have made up their minds and set an assassin after him, the surgeon Franz Svoboda (Brian Donlevy), who does succeed in gunning the tyrant down, but finds the whole Nazi war machine bearing down on him and the rest of his allies...
Now, Heydrich really was assassinated, they got that right, but for whatever reason this was a fabrication otherwise as German director in exile Fritz Lang teamed up with German playwright in exile Bertolt Brecht (credited as Bert, somewhat informally) to do what such emigrants did in Hollywood of the early nineteen-forties, make propaganda against the Nazi regime. However, while Lang stayed on to direct their subsequently rewritten screenplay, Brecht complained bitterly about his treatment, little ray of sunshine that he was, though scholars are able to detect the more typical elements of his style throughout the running time of Hangmen Also Die!, so he was not entirely erased from it.
This is why the film continues to hold an interest with audiences down the decades since, though not particularly with the sticklers for detail who are frustrated with every historical inaccuracy in what was a made up plot which saw the rebels snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat, when what happened in real life was the repercussions visited upon the locals were absolutely awful, and there were no clever machinations to make sure weasely collaborators and too smart for their own good lower level officials alike were brought to book. The depiction of the Nazis was weirdly akin to that of the comic lampoonery that the Allied comedians were churning out, more or less as idiot buffoons, such was the way of propaganda here.
That said, the bad guys here were not wholly stupid, there were a few who were able to work out the wool was being pulled over their eyes by the canny Czechoslovakians, and they were the threat to be beaten by the resistance, which they did not achieve without losing on their side to an extent either. It was a curious, broad tone throughout, where there were many in the cast you could accuse of overacting, especially those playing the villains, yet the subject matter was undeniably grim and there must have been many in the contemporary audiences who were well aware about the real events that had happened but did not mind so much as long as they could get to see the evildoers get their comeuppance. With that in mind, Lang was fairly clearly working to a template that he provided his own particular variations on.
Cinematographer James Wong Howe took care of the shadow-strewn visuals and made something oddly akin to pantomime without the laughs more like the wartime chiller it would be more appropriate to present. Still, there was a problem that the antagonists were portrayed with far more enthusiasm than the good guys, with Donlevy dialling back his performance to stoic yet colourless, Walter Brennan as subdued as he ever was as a rabble rouser who is arrested for Donlevy's crime, though Anna Lee (her British accent contributing to the hodgepodge of global inflections to be heard here) as Brennan's daughter had more fire in her belly as she gets in over her head when trying to exonerate her parent. Lang concocted some of his trademark suspense sequences - when the Gestapo Inspector (Alexander Granach) is cornered upon realising what is happening, for instance - and the sense of a paranoid society folding in on those who instigated that very paranoia was deeply felt, but there was an artificiality hanging over the production. More historically interesting for its message than how it was presented, and the depiction of Heydrich was one Freddie Starr himself would have regarded as over the top. Music by Hanns Eisler.
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.