Ray lived by night, Godard left us breathless, Penn ignited the New Wave, Altman turned the camera back on thieves like us, and Malick informed us that lands, despite being the crux of majesty in the world, were indeed bad, all prismatically glimpsed from the confines of the same essential story of lovers on the run from the law. Before all of them, though, a German expat, death and national turmoil lingering in his mind and social opprobrium hot on his tongue, took the same story and welcomed it as an opportunity to remind us that innocence, once drained, has no life left to give. A rejoinder to the torrential downpour of Nazism absconding with the ostensible innocence of his old home and a riposte to the dislocation of Depression-era life in his new home (two paths that would cross circa 1939), You Only Live Once sparkles with director Fritz Lang’s inveterate directorial gloaming. It isn’t the destruction-maestro at his most malevolently implacable (M could never be topped). But this mostly unknown film today not only tackled present-day social schism with fractured, sharded filmmaking but also, arguably, served as Lang’s most explicit premonition of the genre he would become most famous for: the noir.
Without the vaguely sudsy sterility of Fury – Lang’s first American film, and a real corker anyway thanks to the director’s nigh-unmatched skill at intimating subterfuge in every nook and cranny of the world – Lang’s follow-up is the director’s American canon at its most despondent and gasping for life. With Fury, you could practically feel Lang stabbing his newly adopted home in the back to fascinating results (undone only slightly by the studio’s lame excision of Lang’s abominably nihilistic ending, not redressed last-minute via a cheeky Murnau-inspired post-reflexive jolt akin to The Last Laugh). You Only Live Once, however, advanced Lang’s growing interest in American domesticity unshackled by the recklessness and homeless malaise of the Great Depression. Tonally, it’s still vicious and a little acrimonious, but there’s a malarial overcast lingering overhead, like a red-hot screed married to an impending storm.
In an early social conscience film, Lang leeches social consternation out of an ex-convict played by Henry Fonda and his lover played by Sylvia Sydney, with the director essaying the world as a prison of conspiratorial chance and social predisposition ensnaring the lost couple in a fatalistic gloom. No matter what Fonda’s atypically blunt character tries, circumstance seems to have it out for him. Although a good deal of Lang’s filmed violence was stricken from the final release of the film, the toxic fumes and palpable mist of Leon Shamroy’s smoky lensing still dances with the devil (an early achievement for a man who would eventually garner a still-unusurped, although admittedly tied, four Academy Awards for cinematography). Together, Land and Shamroy essay the American ’30s not as a political battleground but as a sometimes literal hellscape.
A stunning, fumigated bank heist early on – Lang’s greatest achievement this time out – is a potent cocktail of midnight fright and malignant chaos with the ferocity of the fearless man who once coiled Mabuse around the German populace as both an injected instigator of pandemonium and a corporealized manifestation of Lang’s view of capitalistic social decay. For all the claims that Lang hated Nazism, his attack-dog status was inscribed much earlier and aimed at the ghostly pall of capitalist excess. The director’s evocatively barren framing twitches with bitter resignation and rue for the realization that unchecked inequality had led to dislocation in his new resident nation as well.
Add in a surreptitious score from Alfred Newman – tormented but inflected with a shimmering, soaked radiance that would inform the poetic romanticism of Nicholas Ray’s lovers-on-the-run tale – and Lang is most certainly in impeccable company with You Only Live Once. The director, always something of a bellicose visualist, also knew how to undress his features of unnecessary ornamentation, especially in the sound department. There’s nothing as revolutionary as the cavernous sound fantasia M (the first sound cinema masterpiece and arguably the greatest study in how sound relates to image in the medium to this day) or the nearly silent introductory hotbox of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang’s wonderful final German feature). But You Only Live Twice benefits from Lang’s crystalline deployment of his murderer’s row of talents in service of a harsh, brow-beaten, so-direct-it-hurts tale, downtuned and shot through with a pulpy but crestfallen sadness miles away from the Byzantine Metropolis, Lang’s most famous film from a decade before. Lang discovers not only the social discontent embroidered in the criminal act but the resigned stillness enshrined in contemplating a better life. Or envisioning a dream that only exists in a collective social unconsciousness and manifests in flickers of human radiance and interludes of misty romantic fable (some of the more soft-focus moments, especially in the nature-encrusted final third, feel like Lang doing Murnau in an ode to his dearly departed friend and one of the great cinematic dream weavers).
Lang’s grip on the picture is tight, nominally the result of his undernourished budget but obviously a beneficiary of Lang’s ironclad claws as an auteur with the palpable, tactile skill of a craftsperson as well as the worldly genius of an artist. It suggests not only flutters of German Expressionism but Lang’s dialectical awareness of the Hollywood Pre-Code cinema that itself owed a debt to Lang in the first place. Of course, You Only Live Once was released in three years after the institution of the restrictive Code as a sort of moral majoritarian dogma that no doubt reminded Lang of the fearsomely art-phobic Nazi dogs he escaped from in the first place. Probably recalcitrant, the obstreperous director seems to have spliced in as much surreptitious, foggy turmoil as he could suture together when Hollywood wasn’t looking; even with the film’s violence cut-down, Fonda’s still-present, failed, nearly silent suicide attempt in his cell before being sent to the electric chair still strikes you in the gut. In an ideal world, You Only Live Once would be of a popular caliber with its Pre-Code counterpoint Scarface, yet it remains mostly unheralded to this day.
The most apt comparison point, though, is probably the more famous I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and like that devious picture, the social conscious of You Only Live Once is inscribed in its dastardly vision of society as an unthinking grotto looking for a patsy. Like the absolutely luminous Angels With Dirty Faces, and unlike the more tentative and incomplete Fugitive, You Only Live Once doesn’t pull its punches by stacking the deck in favor of Fonda’s action-prone but ruminative fallen chance figure; his soul, his worth, is not divined by our sympathy with him as a “good” man but via the encircling-vulture of our awareness that society never afforded him a chance to be good in the first place. There’s a clenched-jaw, battered, excoriating empathy to the film here that intimates the way negative actions are the misfortune of fortuitous circumstance.
American pictures have been burglarizing Lang, and especially You Only Live Once, for decades, but of course, the film stands on its own merits as a throaty, throbbing tragedy. Still, if we are permitted to glimpse into the future only for a second, how cunningly perfect is it that, only two films into Lang’s still underappreciated American canon, he was already inventing two of the most soon-to-be American genres. And, if that wasn’t enough for your plate, the monomaniacal director was already coming so close to perfecting them too.