There are legendary and influential filmmakers, and then there are groundbreaking visionaries like director Fritz Lang. Be it his classic, genre-defining epic Die Nibelungen or arguably the most important science fiction film ever made, Metropolis (or the greatest serial killer film ever made in M, just to name a handful), few filmmakers have shifted the medium that is cinema quite like Fritz Lang.
However, few genres have seen his stamp be more lasting and important than that of film noir. Itself a genre already grounded in, at least aesthetically, German Expressionism, what with its stark use of light and shadow and angular design work, Lang has been the artist behind some of the genre’s greatest and most important works. Even reaching back to his classic 1933 picture The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, a genre has rarely, if ever, been so singularly influenced as the crime/noir genre has by Lang.
And yet some of his best films aren’t nearly as discussed as they truly should be, particularly one near the start of his Hollywood tenure.
Entitled You Only Live Once, Lang’s second American feature stars one of the period’s greatest on screen entities in Henry Fonda as a three-time-jailed ex-con named Eddie Taylor, looking directly in the face of his last chance to go straight. With a potential “fourth strike” looming that would lead him directly to the electric chair, his character is let out of jail and into the loving arms of co-star Sylvia Sidney’s Joan. However, as we see throughout this haunting and unforgiving motion picture, society is less than interested in ever giving this man a fair shot at letting his past sins fall to the wayside, proving that the only thing worse than fate is a judgmental society. A deeply fatalistic and unflinchingly existential piece of early noir cinema, Lang’s picture is as essential a bit of genre cinema as they come, and is in dire need of some much needed home video love.
Lang’s direction here is as assured as it ever would come. An early touchstone on-the-run picture, the film has gone on to not only influence the entire film noir genre, but almost usher in a film like Bonnie And Clyde, a film that owes a great debt to Lang’s existential masterpiece. Lang himself is a director arguably best known for absolute visual bombast. Be it any one of his classic silent masterworks, particularly a film like Metropolis, Lang’s films before his arrival stateside were often very grand and larger in scale. However, the beauty of this film is not so much in any sense of naturalism, but in its decidedly smaller, ground level aesthetic. Yes, there are numerous cinematic flights of fancy here (particularly the film’s central moment, a surreal bank robbery that is as nightmarish and unsettling as anything you’ll see this side of a David Lynch picture. Think Rififi by way of Inland Empire), but despite the film holding with it a very artistic sense of style, it’s a remarkably human and humane drama. The plight of our lead character is real and palpable, and the oppressive nature of both society and to a much greater and broader extent fate itself is so deftly manifested that it almost feels like an abstract visual essay on the damning nature of past sins.
But Lang’s direction is forward thinking, without a shadow of a down. Haunting in its use of light and shadow, this picture has the DNA of any definitive noir picture, and some of the genre’s greatest set pieces. There is particularly an attempted escape near the start of the film’s final act that is shrouded in such a dense and almost Nosferatu-esque fog that itself almost becomes as thematically relevant as any actual moment during the film. An unforgiving, blinding fog is the setting for what is the film’s most important, truly central moment, a moment so dark and troubling that it would seem bleak even in today’s torture porn landscape. Gritty in the most rewarding of ways, Lang’s film still holds within its seemingly cold exterior a great sense of heart, particularly thanks to Lang’s loving mood towards his good-intentioned lead characters.
It also helps to have such warm performances as he gets from Fonda and Sidney. Fonda is of particular note here giving a more raw and lively performance than he has become known for, and yet holding within that breathtaking face of his the same pure heart that has turned him into a cultural icon instead of just a Hollywood legend. Sidney has great chemistry with his leading man, and their final act together is deeply moving and bewilderingly rewarding.
Distinctly crafted and thematically as dense as films from this time period came, Lang’s film has sadly seen much better days. Impossible to find on home video here in the states, the film is available to stream on Netflix, but in the wake of Criterion’s addition of Lang’s underrated gem Ministry Of Fear, the company could do far worse than take on the job of bringing this masterpiece to audiences. A new restoration would be superb, showing off the film’s great use of light and shadow, and particularly some of the film’s many great and aesthetically audacious set pieces. A commentary would be welcome, as there is not a shortage of people around that find Lang as one of their great influences, and a feature on Lang’s time in America would really show that he was one of the great foreign voices to truly make an equally impressive career here in the states. It would be a release that this masterfully crafted and broodingly dense look at the damning nature of fate and society truly deserves.