Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger (1946) is a far more interesting film than its middling reputation suggests. A spy story about an American physicist recruited by the US government in 1944 to prevent the Third Reich from building an atomic bomb, it’s typically regarded as a final, belated entry in the series of anti-Nazi thrillers the director shot in Hollywood during World War II. Lang intended it, however, not as a backward-looking (and fanciful) evocation of past peril, but as a parable about a new and very real threat: weapons of mass destruction. The movie’s message was compromised by its producer, who cut an entire reel from the picture before its release, but it stands as one of the earliest warnings about the dangers of the nuclear age to reach the screen. It also remains – despite its rushed development and troubled production – eminently watchable, featuring the kind of bravura filmmaking and formal precision that characterizes Lang’s best work. 

A decade after decamping to Hollywood following Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, Lang had developed a reputation as a difficult, exacting director and something of a specialist in anti-Nazi spy thrillers, having helmed no fewer than three since the beginning of the war: Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), and Ministry of Fear (1944). It’s not surprising, then, that producer Milton Sperling thought of Lang when he acquired the rights to Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain’s Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of the OSS in 1945. Head of the newly formed United States Pictures, an independent production company with an exclusive distribution deal at Warner Bros., Sperling hoped to make the first movie about the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s intelligence agency during World War II. His acquisition of Ford and MacBain’s history of the OSS was a coup, but the book was essentially a series of vignettes detailing the organization’s most dramatic operations. Sperling tasked Boris Ingster and John Larkin with shaping this material into a story, and then brought Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr. onboard to polish the script. It was a rushed affair, and the worried producer no doubt hoped that hiring Lang would guarantee a solid result in the mould of the director’s earlier work.

The finished film seems at first glance to fit that mould neatly. It stars Gary Cooper as Alvah Jesper, a nuclear physicist who teaches at a Midwestern American university and is secretly working on the Manhattan Project. When Allied spies uncover evidence that the Nazis are building their own atomic bomb, the OSS recruits Jesper to thwart their plans. His first mission is to make contact with Katerin Lodor (Helene Thimig), a Hungarian scientist who was pressed into service by the Reich but has escaped to Switzerland. After his efforts to enlist Lodor as a mole for the OSS result in her murder by the Gestapo, he is sent into German-occupied Italy to extract Giovanni Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), another nuclear physicist forced to work for the Nazis, with the help of resistance fighters Pinkie (Robert Alda) and Gina (Lilli Palmer). This time Jesper is successful, but the victory is bittersweet: he must leave Gina, with whom he has fallen in love, to bring Polda back to the US. As the story of an ordinary man caught up in international intrigue, Cloak and Dagger is clearly of a piece with Lang’s other wartime spy thrillers. And it was received as such by critics, who complained about its belatedness (the film hit theatres more than a year after the end of the war) as well as its historical inaccuracies (the Nazis never came close to producing an atomic bomb).

As Lotte Eisner notes, though, Cloak and Dagger is more than “a concluding commentary on the terror of the Reich.”1 Lang himself insisted: “I made it for one reason and one reason only, and that reason was nullified by studio cutting.”2 He was referencing an epilogue to the story that was scripted and shot but removed by Sperling prior to the film’s debut. In this epilogue, Polda dies before he can be evacuated to the US but reveals the location of a secret German nuclear facility in the Bavarian Alps. Jesper storms the complex with a company of paratroopers, only to find it abandoned. According to a studio synopsis, the picture would have ended with Cooper uttering the lines: “God have mercy on us if we think we can keep science a secret! God have mercy on us if we think we can wage other wars without destroying ourselves.”3  Lang intended Cloak and Dagger, then, less as a final word on World War II than as an early warning about World War III. Without question, the removal of its final reel – likely prompted by sensitivities around America’s use of nuclear weapons to end the war in the Pacific and growing concerns about the threat of Communism (which shortly thereafter led to the blacklisting of screenwriters Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr. as members of the “Hollywood Ten”) – diluted the director’s message. It still registers in the released film, however, especially in the scene that introduces Jesper, a character modelled after J. Robert Oppenheimer4, who famously regretted his role as the “father of the atomic bomb.” Informed by his OSS recruiter of Hitler’s nuclear ambitions, he replies: “This is the first time I was ever sorry I’m a scientist… We’re running ahead of ourselves. Society isn’t ready for atomic energy. I’m scared stiff.” Even without the epilogue, Cloak and Dagger distinguishes itself from Lang’s previous war pictures as a cautionary tale about nukes, not Nazis.

The film’s prescience as an anti-nuke fable is far from the only reason it remains of interest. Although it’s been described as “bland” and “uninspired”5, Cloak and Dagger is a gripping thriller, directed by one of the cinema’s great masters of suspense. Even its quieter moments, such as the interlude between Jesper’s missions when he and Gina fall in love, are expertly constructed and freighted with significance.6 The stolid, plain-spoken Cooper is miscast as a man of science, but he credibly conveys his character’s transformation from amateur spy to ruthless operative. And while Palmer was by all accounts treated terribly by Lang on set, she turns in a strong performance as a hard-bitten yet tender-hearted partisan in her first American role. The picture is full of exciting set-pieces, including a celebrated fight sequence that was sketched by the screenwriters in a single line, but that Lang took a full six days to shoot.7 In it, Jesper engages in brutal hand-to-hand combat with a fascist agent in the vestibule of a Roman apartment building while street musicians play a love song for oblivious passers-by outside. Watching the movie, one is reminded how much Lang’s work – from Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, 1922) and Spione (Spies, 1928) onward – shaped the spy genre, paving the way for the Bond films, among others. The hero even orders a martini at one point! It’s past time to drag Cloak and Dagger out of the shadows and see it for what it is: one of the most interesting and memorable pictures of Lang’s Hollywood period.

Cloak and Dagger (1946 USA 106 mins)

Prod Co: United States Pictures (distributed by Warner Bros.) Prod: Milton Sperling Dir: Fritz Lang Scr: Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr. (based on an original story by Boris Ingster and John Larkin, and suggested by a book by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain) Phot: Sol Polito Ed: Christian Nyby Art Dir: Max Parker Set Dec: Walter Hilford Mus: Max Steiner
Cast: Gary Cooper, Lilli Palmer, Robert Alda, Vladimir Sokoloff, Helene Thimig, J. Edward Bromberg, Marjorie Hoshelle, Dan Seymour, Marc Lawrence, James Flavin


  1. Lotte Eisner, Fritz Lang (New York: Da Capo, 1986), p. 267.
  2. Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg, Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak (New York: Signet, 1972), p. 131.
  3. Patrick McGilligan, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 339.
  4. Higham and Greenberg, p. 132.
  5. McGilligan, p. 340.
  6. See Doug Dibbern, “Multiple Reflections: The Woman in the Mirror in Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger” in A Companion to Fritz Lang, Joe McElhaney, ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), pp. 458-473.
  7. McGilligan, p. 334.

About The Author

Ian Olney is a Professor of Film Studies at York College of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Zombie Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2017) and Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture (Indiana University Press, 2013), and co-editor, with Antonio Lázaro-Reboll, of The Films of Jess Franco (Wayne State University Press, 2018). His articles and essays on film have appeared in such journals as Quarterly Review of Film and Video and Film Studies, and such edited volumes as A Companion to the Horror Film (Wiley Blackwell, 2014) and Recovering 1940s Horror Cinema: Traces of a Lost Decade (Lexington Books, 2014).

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