“You Only Live Once” (1937)

In commemoration of my schmancy new “owl with a Vertov monocle” logo, I think it only fitting that I inaugurate this WordPress blog with a movie by Fritz Lang. You Only Live Once (1937) was Lang’s second American picture, made before his cache in Hollywood depreciated, and was something of a hit; Variety gushed “Fritz Lang follows up his Fury (1936) with another wallop”.  In keeping with Lang’s high-brow pulp brand profile, the movie was a ripped-from-the-tabloids variation of the Bonnie & Clyde theme. Henry Fonda plays an ex-con who tries to flee after committing a murder. Sylvia Sidney plays the devoted wife who sticks by his side all the way to the end, which, natch, involves being shot to death by cops mere steps from the Mexican border.

In retrospect, YOLO is grim little wretch of a movie, as brutal as anything imaginable from pre-noir 1937, a year in which the musical rom-com the Great Ziegfeld took the Oscar for best picture. “You haven’t a Chinaman’s chance” – Sylvia Sidney’s chain-smoking spinster sister’s prognosis of the couple’s future – is memorable not only for its hilariously casual 1930s racism, but also as a kind of irreducible precept governing Lang’s universe. Lotte Eisner, in her famously privileged and infamously compromised Fritz Lang, picks a different YOLO line as “the philosophy which would stand as a motto for all of Lang’s American films”: prison chaplain Father Dolan’s “Every man – at his birth – is endowed with the nobility of a king. But the stain of the world soon makes him forget his birthright,” but no matter. What’s at play is the “world as maze”, what Sarris dubbed Lang’s obsession “with the structure of the trap.”

hmm, what's it gonna be?

what’s it gonna be? 

 

surprise, surprise. Welcome to Langland. 

The orothodoxy goes like this: Lang is uninterested in psychology, but rather sociology. The characters themselves are more or less hollow, and it is the relentless force of  the world on screen that propels the movie. As is typical, YOLO presents the protagonists, outsiders with their petty hopes and dreams, who are vexed and oppressed by the rest of the Langian ecosystem, embodied as usual by the institutions of civil order (not for nothing does Taylor conflate prison with both a “hotel” and a “college”), the claustrophobic architecture of the diegesis itself, with its windshields and jail cells, where encroaching bars are multiplied ad infinitum by sinister shadows, and the mob (note that YOLO‘s two appearances by a proper collective character are both expressions of antagonism: firstly when spectators vocally register their disapproval to the ump’s call during the prison yard baseball game, and other by-standers with no stake in the game look up from their activities to join in the chorus of booing, and secondly after Taylor is found guilty, and is walked out of a court to be greeted by an assembly of heckling citizens).  On the whole, the film’s minor characters are sock-puppets of society, self-righteously in line with the status quo, and Lang repeatedly shows us how crass and hypocritical such upstanding citizens are, as with the example of the apple-pilfering policeman in the first scene, or the gas station attendants, who call to report that the fugitive couple has stolen a tank of gas, but add the fabricated detail that they also emptied the register (whose contents presumably disappeared shortly thereafter into the robbery-victims’ own pockets). The landlady who insists, after learning of Taylor’s past, that the newlywed couple be evicted from their honeymoon suite at 4 a.m. is played by the witch from The Wizard of Oz. No doubt about it, in Lang’s world, people just ain’t no good. There are notable exceptions, Father Dolan and Public Defender Whitney, but they are ineffectual dissidents against the tyranny of the majority. YOLO is a classic example of Lang’s deterministic style, where a coalition of fate, society,  mise-en-scene and the “collective antagonist” conspire against the protagonist. As a result of this coherence with the established signature contours of Lang’s oeuvre, YOLO is often relegated to mere lists of his works, rather than being given individual attention; as Gavin Lambert’s 1955 Sight & Sound piece on the film epitomizes: “There are again only three characters: the outcast hero, his girlfriend, society.”

 What fine-grained analysis YOLO has been afforded has tended to focus on Henry Fonda’s Eddie Taylor, as in the “What is This Thing Called Noir?” chapter of Silver and Ursini’s syllabus-mainstay Film Noir Reader. Therein Silver and Brookover note that YOLO “is more subjective than other of Lang’s films” and examine at length Taylor’s “residues of hope and idealism” in their section headed “The Innocent.” This strikes me as mistaken. Taylor’s “Innocence” is tenuous at best. The Frog Scene may  establish his goodness, but he is a confirmed criminal, and the movie gives us an at best ambiguous impression of him. From the get go, he is a walking, talking shoulder-chip, and while there are flickers and flashes of hope and idealism, these are tempered by his actions. He flies off the handle easily, socking his boss in the face after being fired and, of course, shooting the film’s most untainted Innocent, Father Dolan, on impulse. The robbery for which he is condemned virtually groans with the suggestion that he did it. Two scenes before, after he’s been fired, we see a fade-out with him looking at the gun he keeps under his pillow. The next scene shows him pleading for his job back, saying the only work he has been offered is “foolproof” bank heists with his old gang and then, after Taylor clocks his boss in the jaw, the scene ends with him saying “and I wanted to go straight.” Cut to the robbery, which is perpetrated by a gas-masked grenade-hurler dressed like Taylor. 

 

 

 
 
  When he arrives at the home he now owns with Joan, soaked by the rain and carrying his gun, he pleads with her a little too desperately to believe him. When the police do show up, Taylor’s first instinct, cornered indoors, out-gunned and with his unarmed wife standing next to him, is to incite a shoot-out. Any viewer harboring sympathy for Taylor would have to be driven away by the contempt with which he regards Joan after he’s caught and tried. All along, Taylor is no innocent, but rather a man who has internalized the world’s nastiness, who seems to have seen too many Fritz Lang pictures.
 
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To my eye, both Lambert and Silver & Brookover’s readings cut against the grain of the movie. YOLO is, at its core, about Joan. Sylvia Sidney, on whom Lang reportedly insisted and who appeared in Lang’s immediately previous and successive movies, begins the film in a position of power, sitting behind a desk in the Hall of Justice conducting business while kindly hearing the immigrant fruit-seller’s malapropism-laced grievance against the apple-stealing cop. Public Defender Whitney and the District Attorney alike agree that  she’s “a better attorney than either of us.” She replies that it’s more “interesting” the way it is, with the District Attorney “putting them in” and the Public Defender “getting them out”: an explicit endorsement of the “system.”
 
 
When her sister warns her against life with Eddie, Joan says she “loves being wacky” and that all the things people say “don’t matter.” She is the Innocent, as of yet untarnished by the cynicism of the Lang universe, who believes in the future. Whtiney asks Father Dolan, “what is it she feels for him, is it love? pity?” The chaplain replies, “I have a faint suspicion it’s more than pity.” But it is precisely her love that is Joan’s downfall. Throughout the film, whenever a scene between Joan and Taylor takes place in jail, it is staged with the camera positioned predominantly on Taylor’s side, creating an impression that it is Joan who is imprisoned. In these scenes it is generally Taylor who is mobile, who either approaches the bars to engage Joan or storms away out of the frame, leaving Joan trapped in the window. 
 
 
 
 
  And yet, while Joan’s devotion to Taylor is constant, it is her choices which drive the plot. Joan, with her faith in the essential goodness of the system intact,  convinces Taylor that he has nothing to fear in a trial for a crime he didn’t commit. When he demands a gun, she procures it, thereby facilitating the death of Father Dolan and setting in motion the events leading to their inescapable death (“I’m guilty Eddie, not you. I pulled the trigger on him. I killed Father Dolan. If I hadn’t had this silly belief in faith…”). The most jarring example of the arch Joan’s love for Eddie brings her character through is to be found in how she regards their child. The baby, only barely even hinted at until we hear a baby cry in the wilderness, isn’t even given a name. “We just call him “baby” ” she says to her sister and Whitney, before abandoning the child and resuming her flight with Eddie, so removed has Joan become from the well-adjusted character who dreamt of domestic bliss and believed in the system at the outset of the movie.
 
 
 
  The final climax is again caused by Joan, as she is spotted buying cigarettes (Eisner includes the nugget that Lang intended the ironic flourish of the cigarettes being Lucky Strike brand, but was rebuffed by the studio).  When their car is gunned down, she throws herself in front of Taylor, in marked contrast to the way he endangered her life when the police stormed their house. And when she dies, in his arms, her last words are that she’d do it all over again, “gladly”.
 
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So what is this? Clearly it’s not a case of an “outcast hero” and his sidekick girlfriend. The idea of Taylor as a hero or protagonist of any kind is flimsy, as he exerts negligible force over the course of events, as compared to Joan. His actions, to the extent that they play a critical role in the progression of the plot, are all made with the mindset of a cornered animal. Joan choses . Taylor undergoes virtually no change throughout the duration of the movie, bobbling between wild-eyed panic and his residual hope with little rhyme or reason; Joan experiences a broad arch, from satisfied establishment figure to Langian vic-tagonist, but never relinquishes ownership of her fate. Were it not for the fact that she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge any error in her ways at any point in her downward spiral, she’d be a classic Aristotelean tragic hero, fatally flawed by love. So is Joan’s fate an authentically chosen one, as she believes, or are we, the audience watching her die in the “hobo jungle” as Eisner called it, better positioned to recognize her devotion as mere pathology, that handmaiden of sociology so pervasive in Lang’s films? Beats me. Either way, YOLO deserves another look.
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