From being one of Germany’s most successful silent film directors Fritz Lang moved to Hollywood in the mid-30s, leaving his wife/collaborator Thea von Harbou behind. Although he was raised as a Catholic, the Viennese-born director had a Jewish mother. Despite this, he was apparently invited by Josef Goebbels to head film production under the Nazi government - a job offer he refused.
However, in America he would never again be given the huge budget, year-long shooting schedule, elaborate sets and cast of thousands that he had in making the sci-fi epic Metropolis (1927), nor would he make anything as long as the five-hour epic Die Nibelungen (1924) or even as dark as M (1931) - the shadowy story of a child murderer. Yet somehow, with his staple of small-scale unpretentious genre pictures Lang flourished. For the next 20 years he turned out a collection of noirs - The Big Heat (1953) - Westerns - Rancho Notorious (1952) - spy thrillers - Man Hunt (1940) - and even a musical - You and Me (1938) - that make up an oeuvre as great as any in the studio system.
You Only Live Once was Lang’s second American film. It stars Henry Fonda as Eddie Taylor, a former criminal paroled from jail who marries the girl who has waited three years for him, only to find that life as an ex-con is not easy. The honeymoon lasts less than one night as the hotel owner recognises him from a crime magazine and asks the couple to leave in the morning. He is fired from his job as a truck driver - his boss refusing to listen, chatting to his wife on the phone, as Eddie makes his desperate pleas.
Fonda is perfectly cast as the hard-pressed, good-hearted reformed criminal but has the ability to transform into a desperate killer with a gun in his hand. Sylvia Sidney is Jo, the smitten nice girl who not only is able to see the good beneath the criminal but is perhaps, like Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1974), secretly attracted to his darker side.
The moral waters are certainly murkier than we would expect from 30s Hollywood, and good and bad are much more ambiguous than in the fairy tale world of Metropolis. Lang never really makes it clear that Eddie is really not guilty of the robbery and murder - the monogrammed hat that convicts him is ‘stolen’ off camera and the bank robber or robbers are wearing gas masks. Yet, despite this, Eddie and Jo stand in contrast to the petty meanness of the ‘law-abiding’ citizens. Whether exaggerating a robbery so they can clear out the till themselves or cheating at draughts, the supporting cast are almost universally self-serving and dishonest. Even the police are seen stealing apples from a greengrocer. But unlike the world-weary heroes of the films noirs Lang would make in the following decade, Eddie and Jo never give up on love and hope. They always believe they can escape this uncaring, dishonest world where innocent frogs are mutilated by children.
Lang shows how well he adapted to the pacing of American cinema. You Only Live Once is a rollercoaster ride of hope and disappointment followed by more hope and yet more disappointment. There is little of the expressionist style of his German films. There is an eerie fog-bound prison break but the cinematography, like the sparse sets, is largely functional, either driving the plot or setting a mood - the romantic croaking frogs in the pond at the honeymoon hotel being particularly memorable.
There are scenes of great visual imagination that remind us that we are watching one of silent cinema’s great directors at work. Hope is raised by a newspaper headline reading ‘Taylor freed’, only to be dashed seconds later as we are shown two alternative front pages - no decision or the death penalty - as the printers wait for a phone call to decide which to go with. The set piece robbery - witnessed by a blind man in a haze of tear gas - is a purely visual tour de force.
As with the poetic realist films made in France at the same time it is the hand of fate that rules the plot. Any attempt the characters make to build a life for themselves is scuppered by unforgiving bosses, paranoid hoteliers or just bad luck - the ticker tape news arrives just in time and too late. The heavy air of pessimism is hardly diluted by the pseudo-religious ending and stands in stark contrast to the more upbeat or escapist feelings we associate with 30s Hollywood cinema.
Although You Only Live Once looks like a precursor of film noir it could also be seen as part of the series of Depression-era social dramas such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The final reel, as the lovers go on the lam together, contributed to create a sub-genre that oddly seems to be made of almost entirely great films from They Live by Night (1948) and Gun Crazy (1950) to Pierrot le Fou (1965), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Badlands and many other great films as well as Natural Born Killers (1994).
As much as Lang adapted to Hollywood it seems American cinema adapted to him. Along with other expats such as Billy Wilder, John Alton and Robert Siodmak, Lang was to lead the way to that great crossroads of European and American sensibilities: film noir,the style/genre in which he was to make his greatest work - Scarlet Street (1945), The Big Heat and The Woman in the Window (1944) stand alongside the afore mentioned M as Fritz Lang’s greatest achievements.