Sleeper Celluloid: Real Reviews of Fake Movies

A Review of The Trigger

Dir: Fritz Lang; Writer: Fritz Lang; Cast: Frank Overton, Eunice Grayson, Ross Tilton

(To see the official The Trigger poster, click here.) 

Near the end of his life, shortly after making The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) when he was beginning to go blind, Director Fritz Lang committed to one last project, which he both wrote and directed. It is referred to in some of his letters as Angel of Death and in others as The Trigger. It is the latter title under which the Bundesarchiv files the footage.

That footage has been assembled now by Lang specialist Julio Sternhagen, and will be shown later this week for the first time at Film Forum. Sternhagen offers a rough cut of the available footage, around eighty-five minutes.

The Trigger is concerned with the early sixties paranoia about nuclear destruction, as expressed in films like Lumet’s Fail-Safe (1964) and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). In it, actor Frank Overton plays a once prominent but now neglected film director named Jacob Lahn. Lahn has been approached to direct a B movie about the nuclear destruction of Los Angeles. At first, Lahn is reluctant to take on the project, feeling it to be an artistic compromise, but his wife, played by Eunice Grayson (of James Bond fame), convinces him that they need the money. Reluctantly, Lahn accepts.

And then he reads the script closely and something changes for him: he begins to see what he might do with it. His bearing changes, his gaze becomes glassy, more distant, though with the film’s expressionist camera work it takes a while for the viewer to notice this. As the planning progresses, Lahn begins to become increasingly serious about the project, even obsessed with it. He demands a closed set, letting actors only see part of the project and discussing only their individual scenes with them. He fires the head actor playing the man who hijacks a nuclear warhead and replaces him with an unknown actor named Ross Tilton (this being both the name of the character playing an actor within the film and the real actor’s actual name).

Tilton follows Lahn around like a puppy dog, adoringly, and quickly we begin to understand that his relation to Lahn is more like the relationship of a cult member to a cult leader than a movie actor to his director.

At this point there is a lacuna in the film, a series of scenes that Lang never managed to shoot. A single title screen appears, reading “According to the script, things are further arranged and Lahn manages to fool the producer to give him a great deal of money. He will use this to pay someone to steal an actual warhead.”

When the film resumes, the cinematography has changed. It is still expressionist, but the film stock is grainy and dim and smoky, the figures very difficult to see. Overton still plays Lahn, but the actor playing Tilton might well have changed—either that or his make-up has been done quite differently. Whereas before we had honest and open close-ups, we now have almost nothing but long shots, the camera angles more voyeuristic and hidden. Formal dialogue has been replaced by bits and snippets of things overheard. We follow Lahn and Tilton around, and slowly gather, or think we gather, hints that they are up to no good. Lahn tells Tilton he is planning to shoot the movie to its penultimate scene and then the two of them will retreat to safety, detonate the bomb, and film the final scene. It will destroy Hollywood, perhaps make much of Los Angeles uninhabitable, but, Lahn insists, it will be better this way. Tilton is enough of an adoring acolyte by now that he seems to simply accept this.

We keep expecting a hero to break in on the scene and wrest control away from Lahn, or Tilton to realize how he has been brainwashed, or Lahn to come to his senses. But none of this happens. Instead, according to Sternhagen’s program notes, Lang dismissed most of the crew and filmed the rest of the film himself. With Lang going blind, the camera work is erratic and irregular, the lighting going through strange shifts, but it is no less effective for being so. It is as if we have entered the mind of a madman. There is a decided change in the acting on the part of Lahn and Tilton, a weird hesitancy as if they no longer know how seriously to take their roles, and they begin to avoid the prop of the warhead as if worried that it may, perhaps, be real.

We follow Lahn and Tilton in their plans. Having finished the shooting, Lahn grabs Tilton and leaves the set with him, telling the other actors that they need to consult and they’ll be back in a moment. They drive some distance away, high into the Hollywood Hills. “Is this far enough away that we’ll be safe?” asks Tilton of Lahn, and Lahn shrugs, then looks straight at the camera. Here ends the footage we have of the film.

Sternhagen speculates: “Why did Lang stop here? In the end did he decide not to pull the trigger? Did he disavow the film but find himself unwilling to destroy it? Or did he simply run out of money and was waiting to shoot the missing middle section and the final scenes?”

It is hard to say. As a film about obsession, about someone working to turn art into life (or more rightly death), The Trigger has much to recommend it. The acting is not as strong as it could be and the plot is far from perfect, but there is, as with even the most flawed of Lang’s movies, something there, something that refuses to be dismissed.

Brian Evenson is the author of ten books of fiction, most recently the limited edition novella Baby Leg, published by New York Tyrant Press in 2009. In 2009 he also published the novel Last Days (which won the American Library Association's award for Best Horror Novel of 2009) and the story collection Fugue State, both of which were on Time Out New York's top books of 2009. His novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an IHG Award. His work has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Slovenian. He lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, where he directs Brown University's Literary Arts Program. Other books include The Wavering Knife (which won the IHG Award for best story collection), Dark Property, and Altmann's Tongue. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and others. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship.