You Only Live Once (Studio Canal)
Released 4th June 2012
Viennese born director Fritz Lang’s classic film noir You Only Live Once is released on DVD on June 4th, with brand new extras, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its release. Partly based on the nefarious activities of Bonnie and Clyde, You Only Live Once is often sighted as one of the earliest film noir in the original cycle of pictures, shaping the sensibility and style of the Hollywood noir mood that continued until the late 1950’s, starring Oscar winning actor Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney.
For many years, the predictable viewpoint on the career of Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was that he was a great innovator in Germany, directing such monumental works of cinema as Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), who after leaving Germany, when Joseph Goebbels offered him control of the German film industry in 1933 (Lang’s second wife, Thea von Harbou, stayed and worked on many pictures with an indisputable Nazi ideological standpoint), was then forced by studio moguls to produce hackwork in Hollywood. Thanks to the efforts of director William Friedkin, Lang biographer Patrick Gilligan, critic George Wilson (who wrote the seminal Autumn 1977 Sight & Sound essay on You Only Live Once, The Doubled Feature, and contributes an extensive and insightful overview of the film on this DVD) and others, Lang’s 40-year career is now viewed in its entirety, with a connection made between his concepts and technique. Lang’s American noir films, such as Scarlet Street (1945), The Blue Gardenia (1953), The Big Heat (1953) and While The City Sleeps (1956), rank among his finest works. You Only Live Once could arguably be the best.
Eddie Taylor (Fonda) is an ex-convict who has just served his third term in prison but who cannot get a break on the ”Ëoutside’. He marries Joan ‘Jo’ Graham (Sydney), the one person in the world who believes in him, attempts to settle down and gets a job as a truck driver. When an armoured car collecting from a local bank is robbed and employees killed, Eddie is a prime suspect. He is arrested, convicted on circumstantial evidence, and as a ”Ëthree time loser’, sentenced to death. On the date set for his execution, Eddie escapes from the prison hospital, with a prison doctor as a hostage. Eddie is now forced on the run with his pregnant wife in tow. In trying to avoid capture, Eddie Taylor becomes a murderer for real.
You Only Live Once is technologically immaculate. The DVD extras feature an amazing film reel showing the filming of the justly celebrated rain soaked bank robbery scene and how the sequence was ultimately put together. This scene alone shows that Lang was always the master craftsman, but You Only Live Once contains many more examples of his genius. Some have seen Lang’s picture as a 1930s ”Ësocial consciousness’ picture, with the everyman Eddie Taylor unable to get a second chance in Great Depression bound America. Yet Eddie Taylor (brilliantly played by Fonda, who would shortly become a respected American idol in such John Ford films as Drums Along the Mohawk, and The Grapes of Wrath) is too ambiguous a character to be seen simply as a victim (as it is also virtually impossible to make a sound judgment on Taylor’s guilt or innocence), while the romantic ”Ëgood girl’ Jo seems to embrace her own doom through her irrational, blind devotion to Taylor.
One of the prevailing themes of You Only Live Once is that of Fate, of humanity’s lack of control over its fundamentally wretched fortune. This is frequently articulated stylistically with scowling, forebodingly dark German Expressionist shadows and swirling fog, producing wraithlike images ”â prison searchlights reach out for Taylor like nightmarish, skeletal fingers, the malevolent appearance of the poison gas explosions in the armored car robbery. The Bonnie and Clyde style protagonists fit perfectly with Lang’s obsessions. The people who comprise organized, ”Ëcivilized’ society are simply out to get them and they will inexorably triumph. Justice, as represented by Lang in a panning shot across a sequence of pending newspaper headlines depicting Eddie’s innocence, a hung jury or guilt after his trial, is merely a matter of luck.
The other theme is perception. Throughout, each character is fatally unable to witness and act upon the significance of what the viewer, through Lang’s director of photography, Leon Shamroy, perceives. The presence of Sylvia Sidney, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) between filming Lang’s Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once, only highlights the many occasions of these two foremost directors borrowed flagrantly from each other in the passage of their dazzling careers.
Lang, with his monocle, Teutonic demeanor, notoriously harsh working methods and indeterminate politics, could never be portrayed as a straight humanist like Ernst Lubitsch or as a steadfast idealist in the Charles Chaplin mold. However there are moments of unadulterated poignancy between Sidney and Fonda’s characters in You Only Live Once that reveal the existence of Lang’s more predictable, empathetic human feelings, though the overall mood of the film is of despair (the director also had a sense of humor, which is evident in the superb 70 minute DVD extra audio interview with Fritz Lang, recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1962).
For some viewers the climax of the film bares all the hallmarks of a studio imposed ”ËHollywood ending’, but one only need remember the title of the movie to see Lang’s beautiful, bleak vision shining through. You Only Live Once is a film for the ages.
You Only Live Once is released on 4th June 2012.