Fritz Lang’s second American feature (and one of his best) gets a nifty DVD edition from StudioCanal
The main pull of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once might now be its claim as an archetype of sorts for the lovers on the run pictures which followed over the decades. Such logic is a little flawed to be sure, as only the last fifteen or twenty minutes of the movie actually depict the couple on the run from the law, but it’s easy enough to find reminders of They Live by Night, Gun Crazy, and Bonnie and Clyde here as Lang is at least covering similar ground (and doing it earlier). Film noir, too, frequently comes to mind in both the subject matter of You Only Live Once and its keen stylistic depictions of shadows and fog. The hints of noir occur despite the dark style not generally recognized as beginning for another three or four years, making Lang’s film certainly one of its important precursors.
In my estimation, You Only Live Once actually intrigues for possibly less immediate reasons than those and, as such, deserves to be seen as the finest and most fully realized of Lang’s early American, pre-Scarlet Street films. It continues what Lang had done with his first Hollywood picture Fury, with its horrifying depictions of mob psychology and the treatment of those presumed guilty, and also predicts much of the quieter paranoia and pessimism that would be found in the director’s subsequent work. There’s a strong sense of an inevitability of doom for the characters played by Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney. Some of it is a concern over their actions but it’s more so a dread that encompasses how society will treat them. Upon being released from prison, Fonda’s character Eddie Taylor is reminded that he’s a three-time loser now and a fourth offense could mean a far more serious penalty. Just the terminology here and the mentality that immediately follows it, of being a repeated “loser” now expected to re-enter society, feels self-defeating.
Lang was incredibly adept at somehow wedging his own take on an issue into a film while also seemingly showing it from several different sides. The most notable example of this would probably be M, in which Peter Lorre’s child killer is forced to beg for his life in front of a renegade group of bloodthirsty citizens. There’s no indication that Lang was in any way showing support for a murderous pedophile yet he presented the scene in such a way as to almost elicit brief, fleeting sympathy for Lorre. It was the methods Lang was criticizing. When a similar fate meets Spencer Tracy in Fury, the viewer is likely to react much differently from a visceral standpoint due to Tracy’s innocence. In You Only Live Once, Lang followed up Fury by having a thrice-convicted criminal shown facing smaller but still entirely damning reactions in which he’s prejudged for having been in prison. The idea now is that even those who received punishment as required by law still face further consequences from society for their actions. In the earlier films, the mob wants to lynch the culprit having presumed him guilty and now the “lynching” becomes less immediate but just as pervasive.
The visuals in You Only Live Once, provided by ace director of photography Leon Shamroy, really further the rather noirish feeling of helplessness and being encaged by emphasizing the prison bars when Fonda’s Taylor is visited by girlfriend and eventual wife Sylvia Sidney. The first time we see the two of them together, as he’s just about to be released, they kiss and embrace with the bars still between them instead of waiting a few additional seconds to hug more freely. A thick, oppressive fog later can be seen as Fonda attempts an escape. It, the bars, and the treatment he’s shown receiving as an ex-con all serve as a sort of impediment or limitation. Even when he’s free and happy with his new wife, he’s essentially trapped by his past.
Lang and Shamroy also stage a dynamic heist cloaked in ambiguity because we never see the face of the robber. He puts on a gas mask and uses tear gas against the guards and policemen as he drives the bank truck away from the scene. The sense of chaos and cold orchestration on the part of the robber is displayed masterfully by Lang. It looks like nothing else from 1937 or even years after, save for the poverty row Dillinger biopic which actually lifted the footage and inserted it into a robbery scene of its own in 1945. The incident itself in You Only Live Once plays a dramatic part in the film’s quick, well-paced narrative since it becomes the catalyst to again separate Fonda and Sidney. A hat with his initials found inside the robber’s car would seem to be the only link between him and the crime but Fonda is nonetheless convicted. Lang never shows a courtroom, instead relaying the fact that he’s on trial and then convicted entirely through a newspaperman pointing to one of three potential front page outcomes after getting a phone call.
The performances from Fonda and Sidney deserve heavy praise, with both actors opting to play their roles in a potentially divisive manner. Fonda displays a volatility at times that was unusual for him but he generally settles in for quiet desperation. It’s not a showy performance, even by his standards, but it’s entirely effective. Sidney and her character are so supportive of Fonda that some might have difficulty understanding why a woman with a decent job would sacrifice so heavily for a repeat offender. The love story component, which is really quite heartbreaking and done with more warmth than what we typically expect from Lang, hinges on Sidney’s utter devotion to him. The whys become unnecessary and the focus instead should be on recognizing their connection as something eternal and unable to be broken. As with Metropolis, the often cynical Lang seemingly let his idealism reign for this relationship. He even blessed the film with an ending almost out of something from Borzage, assuring the audience that what the Production Code might prescribe for these two needn’t be the true end of their time together.
StudioCanal brings You Only Live Once to R2 DVD in this 75th Anniversary edition. There was an earlier UK release from the Cinema Club label and a Blu-ray for the film was put out in Italy not too long ago. In R1, Image issued a standard definition disc years ago that uses an inferior transfer and is best avoided.
The dual-layered disc presents the film in the proper 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Contrast is pretty good and only some white speckles register as any kind of damage. There is some grain present, though not at what might be considered excessive levels. The image quality overall is certainly a huge improvement over that Image R1 disc but almost surely, of course, to be inferior to a high definition offering such as the one available from Italy. Those just looking to own the film at a reasonable price now shouldn’t be disappointed in how it looks on this release.
The English mono audio is modest, perhaps on the weak side, but not marred by any major issues. Dialogue escapes freely and at a consistent volume. There’s no struggle to understand what is being said at any point in the film. StudioCanal’s predecessor Optimum never seemed to include subtitles on its English language films so it was a pleasant surprise to see them being offered here. The optional subtitles are white in color.
The included extra features here indicate some real effort was made with this release. The first is a lengthy audio interview with Fritz Lang recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1962. It consists mainly of questions from an audience which had just seen Metropolis. Several things of interest emerge from Lang’s comments. He talks a little about his films but generally avoids going into specifics and You Only Live Once is never mentioned. Topics that do come up include Michelangelo Antonioni and his film L’avventura, which Lang seems to particularly dislike, and a brief but intriguing mention of his former collaborator and wife Thea von Harbou. At eighty minutes, it’s a long listen, not helped by the static screen on the DVD, but ultimately a fascinating one just to hear Lang’s words as he spoke them somewhat off the cuff. I was a little amused by the interviewer beginning the session by asking the audience to keep the director’s comments confidential in order to allow him to be as candid as possible. Times (and technology) have certainly changed over fifty years.
Film professor George Wilson offers some ideas on the film in an intriguing video piece. Wilson definitely interprets what Lang was doing as more cynical than a conventional reading might indicate. I’m not sure I agree entirely with some of his theories but they’re nonetheless worth consideration.
Also included on the disc is a vintage promotional thing called “Inside You Only Live Once” that shows some footage from the film.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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