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Four Around a Woman
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by Jay Seaver

"Fritz Lang liked his double trouble."
4 stars

I've commented before that it seems a shame that Fritz Lang wound up doing fairly conventional crime films in Hollywood when he had made such ambitious fantasies in Germany during the silent era, but it's worth remembering that a great deal of his early work planted the seeds for what would later be called film noir. "Four Around a Woman", one of his earliest to survive in near-complete form, is a fine example.

The woman is Florence Yquem (Carola Toelle), the beautiful wife of respected financier Harry Yquem (Ludwig Hartau), a jealous man who has a secret life dealing with counterfeiters and stolen jewelry. Jewels are fenced in a run-down bar's back room, and the place's proprietor Upton (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is feeling flush enough to give newly-returned sailor William Krafft (Anton Edthofer) a quick loan, especially since Upton knows Werner's twin bother Werner. The trouble is, if Upton knows Werner, he's probably into something dodgy himself. William also doesn't seem to realize quite how dangerous the city has become, and there's the little matter of why he left five years ago.

In its present form, the plot to Four Around a Woman can seem a bit murky - the film was lost for decades and the print discovered in the 1980s may still have some gaps. Certainly, those hypothetical gaps might serve to explain why characters sometimes act contrary to common sense or seem to have variable knowledge of each other. Given that Lang and co-writer (and future wife) Thea von Harbou tended to weave social commentary into their scripts, the film may also suffer a bit from being removed from its original context of post-World War I Germany.

There are also mistaken identities and disguises to potentially trip a viewer up - devices that Lang and von Harbou seemed to love as storytellers - but even during this early period, Lang was excellent at telling this sort of story clearly, with minimum fuss. It's easy to underestimate how good his work is here until you compare it to other movies from the silent era and see how relatively light a touch he uses, neither hammering points home with close-ups nor must letting the camera stay fixed as though shooting a stage play; he also lets flashbacks happen without a whole lot of hand-holding. It's still a more direct manner of storytelling than one sees in the talkies, but it's genuinely impressive how quickly and easily a somewhat confusing beginning yields to scenes that are funny, intriguing, and exciting.

It's a generally slick production in other ways, too. Few of Lang's other silents seem so grounded in the audience's own world, as even the ones set in contemporary Germany would have secret or surreal elements, even if his sets never had the aversion to right angles that characterized the Expressionists. Four Around a Woman feels real from its snazzy hotel lobby to its dirty barroom, although even the tonier bits reveal a bit of desperation in the characters' unmended clothing and other details.

There's also some good work being done by the cast: Anton Edthofer seldom has to make absolutely sure one can tell William from Werner just by body language, but he makes a nice distinction between the earnest sailor and the scheming pickpocket. Ludwig Hartau does well with Yquem, getting across that though he is privileged and jealous as much out of possessiveness as anything else, there is certainly some genuine affection for Florence there. Carola Toelle walks the line between still carrying a torch for William and not being miserable in her arranged marriage nicely, although I must admit to liking Lisa von Marton a bit more as Florence's less saintly friend Margot.

It's a bit too easy to be disappointed with "Four Around a Woman"; it often gets left out of Lang retrospectives because the single 35mm print circulated is hard to book and the film itself seems rather conventional compared to Lang's daring masterpieces. It's still worth watching when it does play; it's important as both one of a great filmmaker's earliest surviving works and an impressive crime story for 1921.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=28109&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/15/14 13:00:04
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USA
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  DVD: 06-Nov-2012

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Australia
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Directed by
  Fritz Lang

Written by
  Fritz Lang
  Thea von Harbou

Cast
  Carola Toelle
  Anton Edthofer
  Ludwig Hartau
  Rudolf Klein-Rogge



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