Lost in the Movies: You Only Live Once

You Only Live Once

I did not watch this DVD in optimal conditions. Between the widescreen television which stretched the square frame, the discussions going on around me in the room, and the eventual switch from TV to laptop (with one ear of the headphone not working), I could discover any number of excuses for why Fritz Lang's classic crime melodrama didn't work for me. After all, I'm not even a major Lang aficionado - I admire his supreme skill (how could I not?) but often find his movies cold; I admire the visuals but grow restless with the drama. Less so with his Hollywood work - I quite liked Fury - but he certainly is not in my pantheon of personal favorites (yeah, I know, he's heartbroken).

Yet I enjoyed You Only Live Once immensely; I was completely engrossed despite the distorted image, the noise, the interruptions. Formally, Lang's work was as tremendous as ever: the consistent yet often subtle use of "prison" bars around the outlaws, the proto-noir lighting effects, the occasional fairy-tale echoes of a froggy pond near the honeymoon suite, or the happy home that will never be broken in (the ever-elusive American Dream takes on the quality of a kind of beautiful, half-imagined fable in Lang's jaundiced, almost brokenhearted view of his adopted country). All in all the film luxuriates in a heavy, oppressive atmosphere of the harsh, spare cells, foggy, murky jailyards and backroads, and the cluttered backwater homesteads of Depression America. It captures a time and a spirit, and makes a fascinating comparison with the restless, ruthless Gun Crazy and the romantic, charismatic Bonnie and Clyde - all of which reconfigure the mythology of that outlaw couple to fit the ethos and styles of their various periods.

In You Only Live Once, the violence retains an air of desperation - the transgression of Gun Crazy and adventurism of Bonnie and Clydee hardly factor here. There's no way out for Fonda's character, and he's never tapped into his latent ferocity with greater skill or intensity. It's especially interesting to see him here, young, coiled tight, after watching his performance as the tepid innocent in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. Though it was obviously intentional, I nonetheless found Fonda's inertia quite frustrating in that film; it seemed that, in the face of police harassment and public hysteria, he was too passive - even Kafka's protagonists register a kind of panicked reaction. Anyway, no one can accuse Fonda's character of accepting his fate this time; indeed, by the ending, he may have gone too far for many viewers. Yet both director and star deserve credit for neither demonizing nor sentimentalizing the "hero."

A remarkable, thoroughly entertaining, wonderfully crafted thirties classic. Highly recommended.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Tony D'Ambra said...

You Only Live Once is a fascinating proto-noir. Henry Fonda and the luminous Sylvia Sidney as star-crossed lovers become desperadoes on the run, and the stunning ending presages Gun Crazy’s fog-bound denouement by a full decade. As a relentless fatalistic melodrama moodily shot by virtuoso DP Leon Shamroy, it is a real contender as the first poetic realist film – beating the French by a full year. Consider this, Carne’s Port of Shadows was released in 1938, and Pépé le Moko debuted in France on 28 January 1937, while You Only Live Once opened in the US only a day later on 29 January 1937! The amour fou of Lang’s feature I think bumps the less romantic Pepe Le Moko.

Dave said...

I'll throw in a dissent on this one. I love Fritz Lang, and admit that there are some interesting things done with the cinematography (that picture you post is great), but I thought the story was seriously lacking. I find it very cliche-ridden -- even more so than other films of the era -- and felt no real sympathy for Eddie Taylor. Without that, the movie just doesn't work, I think.

I would still recommend people see it, because it is a proto-noir, as Tony says, and done by a master like Lang. But I would take Port of Shadows or Pepe le Moko over it without hesitation.

MovieMan0283 said...

Very interesting. Obviously I throw in with Tony on this one - and the irony is that I don't "like" Lang as much as Dave (even though I greatly admire him)! While it was the atmosphere more than the particular story which captured me (or rather, the way the atmosphere amplified the story and made it more resonant) I didn't find the story particularly cliched. Archetypal perhaps - but that only added to the weird sensation that I was watching a contemporary fairy tale. This is a sensation I sometimes get from the best thirties films, the ones which face the Depression head-on but do so from behind the facade of studio-bound illusionism and near-mythological modes of characterization and storytelling. I just love the dissonance.

I found much of Pepe le Moko a rollicking good time but was vaguely disappointed that he turned out to be such a softie. Bogie may have been a romantic in his heart, but he usually managed to avoid getting all weepy! Still haven't seen Port of Shadows - but then my record with much pre-New Wave cinema is rather hit and miss.

Thanks for your input, both.

MovieMan0283 said...

Also, I sympathized with Eddie, at least initially, because he seemed to want to go straight without really being equipped for it. The fact that he was flawed only made him more "real" to me - and though I certainly can't condone his shooting a priest, the violent fury his wrongful conviction has engendered in him is well represented by Lang. Fonda's ferocious delivery of "What do you think they're gonna do to me?" is masterful.

Tony D'Ambra said...

Dave, Lang's accomplishment is discussed in Alain Silver's review in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference. It is too long to quote in full (and is not on line), but Silver highlights Lang's sophisticated use of mise-en-scene. For example:

"Finally, for Eddie's escape, Lang fills the prison courtyard with fog, so that the searchlight beams reach out for him like white, spectral fingers, and the whole, nightmarish array of mists, massive walls, blurred lights, hazy figures, and loudspeaker voices becomes an extension of Eddie's frightened and disoriented state of mind. In this visual context, Eddie's murder of the priest, if not pardonable, [is] at least understandable as the desperate response to a prolonged assault not merely on his life but on his very conception of the world with its moral and physical realities of truth, justice, and love, an asault on the foundation of his sanity."

MovieMan0283 said...

Great description, and I agree about the way Lang winds his mise en scene around the characters' psychology: it's a triumph for the unity of form and content.

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