Back in the Prohibition days, when real gangsters were feted like tabloid celebrities, Hollywood jumped on the band-wagon with a series of films loosely-based-on-something-vaguely-resembling-true-stories. This film is not usually mentioned in company with your Scarface, Little Caesar et al, possibly because it came along a few years later, but I suspect because it is a bit more considered and more artful than those other crowd-pleasing shoot-em-ups. You can decide for yourself as the 75th anniversary edition of You Only Live Once is released on DVD (although, annoyingly, not on Blu-Ray), today!
Henry Fonda – still some years away from being type-cast as America’s pre-eminent good-guy – plays three-time loser, Eddie Taylor, leaving prison under a shadow … If he’s imprisoned again, it’ll be the chair. As he leaves it’s obvious that he’s loved by the prisoners and warders alike – But all he’s interested in is Joan, the legal secretary who has been patiently waiting for him for three years.
The film also stars wide-eyed Sylvia Sydney as Joan. You remember the dotty old granny in Mars Attacks whose Slim Whitman records kill the Martians? Well, take sixty years off her and here she is, an established A-list Hollywood star and someone who already had an on-screen chemistry with new-boy Henry Fonda. This was their second film together, even though Fonda was only two years into his Hollywood career.
She’s devoted to Eddie in that passive, long-suffering way that women in melodramas are. As she says at one point, when discussing romance: “Maybe they can see something in each other nobody else can”. Well that’s a workable explanation of their relationship. He’s a decent bloke, not truly bad, just unlucky; but Joan, she’s his promise of redemption. They marry and make plans to buy a house and have a life … But, you just know his past will rear up and bite him in the ass.
Eddie is sacked from his probationary job. Meanwhile Joan starts spending money on their new house and he can’t disappoint here … So he makes the inevitable bad decision. Even 75 years ago, this was a tried-and-trusted plot, but it’s one of those universal stories that never gets old. Hell, the makers of Breaking Bad are still telling it today!
As films of the period often were, it is full of eccentric bit-parts, characters who are there to deliver a bit of exposition, move the narrative along or add some humour. You’ll spot Margaret Hamilton (still two years away from slapping on the green paint for her legendary turn as The Wicked Witch of the West).
The film is the second directed by Fritz Lang during his exile in America. You may think that this film – shot on small sets, with a small cast – is a catastrophic come-down after the epic magnificence of Metropolis only ten years before … And yet, as a story, it has the same concerns … Taking the part of the fragile human against ‘the system’, sympathising with the innocent and the wrongly-accused.
Furthermore, Lang is no stranger to the crime genre, as his Doctor Mabuse films show and, let us not forget, he pretty-much invented the serial killer movie with the extraordinary M, nearly thirty years before Hitchcock got there with Psycho!
Initially, the directing style is quite plain and stand-offish, as though Lang were still getting used to using sound and working with a (to him) foreign crew … But he is saving himself for his big set-pieces. The first is the bank-heist at the beginning of act two, when someone wearing a gas-mask (who may or may not be Eddie) uses smoke-bombs to subdue the guards and steal an armoured car … The sequence is all beautifully back-lit rain, soulful, dramatic music and gorgeously-framed shots; a scene almost devoid of dialogue – playing to Lang’s visual strengths.
The second big sequence is the prison-escape which references the earlier robbery – in that it is shrouded in fog, with long, shadowy silhouettes floating through abstract shadows – which forms a step-change for the film … After that, Taylor’s life spirals more and more out-of-control, and the film’s visuals become more extraordinary as civilisation is left behind and the couple go on the run together into the dirt back-roads and primordial wood-lands of untamed America. They survive on their wits and a stolen set of wheels. Cut off from civilisation, they have a baby (which they don’t bother to name) then leave it with the two people who don’t hate and fear them, before heading for the border and the inevitable show down.
Here, finally, the story starts to bear some resemblance to Bonnie and Clyde story that we know. As with the gangster films of the time (Public Enemy -1931, Little Caesar – 1931, Scarface – 1932, etc) the film-makers took their inspiration from the headlines of the day’s newspapers. So, this is not literally the Bonnie and Clyde story, but it is the template for the many Lovers-on-the-Run films which have come since … Films like Gun Crazy (1949), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and even Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973).
The film is credited as ‘early Noir’, because ‘Noir’ is one of those sexy terms that marketing people love. Of course, everyone knows that ‘Noir’ began in 1942 with The Maltese Falcon and finished in 1958 with Touch of Evil. Except this is a rather simplistic view of the (sub) genre.
Noir is defined by several iconic signifiers … A weak or unreliable protagonist, a ruthless and sexy woman, a criminal setting, a frame that the protagonist finds himself in and, of course, those startling visual tricks. Well, those ingredients are not unique to Noir … But I’ll happily concede this film is ‘noir-ish’. Okay?
The Noir genre is symbolised by its lighting – Which generally throws light through windows so the window frames or venetian blinds can form shadow-bars on the walls. These bars signify the prison that the protagonist is in … Because the point of a Noir is that the ‘hero’ is invariably trapped in a metaphorical cell of his own making … A Noir ‘hero’ usually has too much past and not enough future!
Well, those shadow bars are here in You Only Live Once. Five years early! But that lighting was inspired by German Expressionism … As practiced by Lang, among many others, in his native Germany, so, if it had to make its debut anywhere, where better than here?
There is a subtle sub-text to be found here … When they are on their honeymoon, Eddie and Joan watch frogs in a lily pond and Eddie mentions that frogs bond for life. When one dies, the other often dies too. imple dramatic fore-shadowing? Maybe … But it also helps give the film a spiritual aspect, and not just that represented by the inevitable prison padre. Lang was working (for just about the first time in his career) with a script he himself had not written … But still his authorial finger-prints can be found all over it.
The title, of course, hints that there is more going on here than a simple melodrama. There is an almost philosophical awareness of mortality in this film … Best represented by the prison cook who, having prepared Taylor’s ‘final hearty meal’ observes that they killed the chicken, to feed Taylor, and then they will kill Taylor. There is a real sense of futility here – which is remarkable when you consider that this film was made by a major studio, with a major star, and was released at a time of Recession. Lang turns it into a tale of personal responsibility, a tragedy brought about by cruelty and stupidity where the only thing one can believe in is personal morality and (as corny as it may seem) love. It may not save your life … But it will save your soul!
The film had fully fifteen minutes cut from it upon its initial release, and that footage seems to be lost. This is actually quite unusual for studio films of the time – Since the Hays Office had to approve the scripts before they were even shot. So, clearly something about the way Lang interpreted that script upset them. We’ll never know what.
George M. Wilson Interview – 23 minutes
A Philosophy lecturer at USC, Prof Wilson gives you a quick guided tour of some of the motives and sub-textual ideas running through the film. It’s like your very-own one-on-one seminar with a Film Studies lecturer!
“A Film in the Making” – 10 minutes
From the Museum of Modern Art archive: A selection of un-cut camera footage, showing clapperboards, off-camera direction from Lang and some behind-the-scenes action from the making of the film. It is MOST unusual to have ANY behind-the-scenes footage from a film this old so, as scant as this is, it really is quite special.
NFT Audio Interview. 80 minutes.
Conducted in 1962 at the National Theatre and hosted by Stanley Reed who takes the trouble to point out to the audience that the interview will be confidential and is not to be transcribed and published by the press. Oh, okay then.
Lang has a wry sense of humour and a deliciously silky voice which makes this audio recording a pleasure to listen to. He also is surprisingly patient with the terribly-terribly British stiff-collars asking their impertinent and occasionally stupid questions in their clipped RP accents. This is from a time when the cult of personality had fallen away from film directors … And ‘cineastes’ (as they liked to call themselves) were arrogant, dismissive and opinionated in the extreme (so, no change there, then). Consequently, some of them actually find themselves arguing with Lang in a way that simply would not happen in a comparable Q&A today.
There is nothing in this recording specifically about this film, but that doesn’t matter … It is still a privilege to be able to hear so talented and ferociously intelligent a film maker talking in such an unguarded manner about his long (and very illustrious) career and about his opinions of other films and film-makers.
For more on Lang, you might like this fascinating TV interview from 1975 when William Friedkin took the time to interview the then-86 year-old Lang. Yes, THAT William Friedkin! This is the uncut ninety-minute version of their conversation off Italian TV, but you’ll quickly learn to ignore the Italian subtitles.
YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE
1937. Black and white.
Dur: 82 mins
Aspect Ratio: Academy 4:3 (Don’t believe the nonsense on the box about 1.85)
You Only Live Once 75th Anniversary Edition DVD is available on DVD from today.
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