Fritz Lang Season – You Only Live Once (1937)
It’s been a long, dark road, moving from the silent Rhineland epics to nefarious noir classics, but I think I’ve finally exhausted my Fritz Lang season. Looking back over the program I thought it appropriate to conclude matters in the 1930’s given the coverage I’m managed to accrue for the other decades of his career, with a little known, more obscure work to kill things off. Made shortly after Lang had fled to America from Nazi Germany You Only Live Once was only his second studio picture, funded by United Artists and the first of Lang’s numerous collaborations with legendary producer Walter Wanger. Social conscience pictures were the preserve of Warner Brothers at the time but never being afraid to ape their competitors many of the smaller studios also turned to the newspapers and periodicals for lurid story ideas, for any morsel to sate the insatiable hunger of the public for a thrill and a kiss, and maintain the ravenous production machines established by the whip-cracking executives.
Henry Fonda is uncharacteristically cast as a bad guy or at least a grey guy driven to bad places, a small time crook facing a long stretch in the puzzle house when his getaway driver shtick goes sour on an ambitious robbery. Released three years later he hooks up with his main squeeze Joan (Sylvia Sidney) and is unrepentant in his hatred and venom toward the justice system, so when another robbery occurs with him in immediate the vicinity he finds himself on the run in a picture that prefigures the likes of noir classics They Drive By Night, Gun Crazy or even Bonnie & Clyde exactly three decades later. I think people forget that back in the 1930’s these iconic American gangster figures weren’t ethereal legends, they were real criminals that the papers breathlessly emblazoned over lurid headlines each and every day, depression weary audiences silently cheering on the anti-hero striking back against the establishment, and there’s always been some swooning seduction to a doomed lovers on the run narrative hasn’t there?
Considering its vintage this is striking film, from the enclosed shadow play bruising Fonda and Sidney’s yearning faces, from a shockingly violent Breen-code validated bank heist which plays like an early Michael Mann set-piece, and Lang’s true fascination with the intrinsic moral core of the story – Fonda’s guilt or innocence is wilfully elided in the narrative. He is a sneering, sweaty revelation considering the pragmatic statesmanlike roles that were to come, and there’s an amusing appearance of Margaret Hamilton whom is instantly recognizable as a truly wicked actress a couple of years before she took on an iconic role. You Only Live Once is deliciously ambiguous, teasing the viewers instincts as to whether our persecuted hero is a criminal deserving of judgment or penitence for his crime, with Lang lacquering the film with a visual codex and editing sleight of hand to evade clear-cut moral absolutes. After the scandalous quagmires of the 1920’s Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship code meant that felonious behavior couldn’t be celebrated or tolerated without consequence, lending the film a doomed trajectory as the frantic, hopelessly in love criminal couplet struggle to escape the city for the peace of the wilderness, a yearning for happiness that Lang crushes with his ruthless Teutonic efficiency.
Considering this was only his second American film Lang certainty lacked no confidence in deploying the fathomless studio resources to his full advantage. In the film he plays with unconventional angles and compositions, inverting reflections in water, and placing his camera at low levels to shoot upward and distort both Eddie and Joan, placing a fairy tale fulcrum around their doomed escapades. In contrast the robbery plays out like a prototype Michael Mann stanza, a hard-edged armory of Warner Brothers. social realism (although this was a United Artist film directors aped each others styles even then), conducted by a quite sinister gas masked figure who hurls smoke grenades to bewilder his prey which is oddly violent and menacing for the period. It’s highly reminiscent of the sorcery and mesmerizing methods of Mabuse, with Lang’s pleasure in obscuring the frame with obfuscation and mystery decanted from his European fantasies to the North American noirs.
So that’s Fritz Lang my learned friends, after eight movies over 18 months this hasn’t been the most productive of seasons, but given that I’ve had to stitch this in with other BFI activities and new releases this feels like a natural end – we managed two silents, two films from the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s, including his two widely regarded masterpieces – not a bad score. I would have loved to interrogate one of the aforementioned Mabuse films which seems like a criminal oversight but here we are, and rest assured as soon as Scarlet Street gets a screening at the BFI I shall be breathlessly reporting back. Speaking of the BFI things have been quiet but a couple of Members Special Screenings are programmed for this month, but for now let me leave with you a couple of essential articles on the Teutonic titan that has deeply influenced the likes of James Cameron, Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan to name just three, one of the great pioneers whose shadow still looms long on film art and achievement;