Tuesday, January 5, 2010

DVD Dialogue - You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, USA, 1936)

So why this film to kick off a new series?

A series? Hmm. We’ll see how far the enthusiasm of the new year lasts.

As a DVD it does several things brilliantly. The copy is superb. The film is a Walter Wanger production and without knowing exactly what’s happened there seem to a lot of Wanger’s productions being circulated in very poor copies. The bootleggers have had a field day issuing his films in cheap editions using very poor material. For years there were copies of Algiers and Scarlet Street being offered cheap but the copies were terrible. Even SBS played a copies of those films that were very poor indeed. I think Wanger’s productions may have gone out of copyright and anyone could put them out. The only problem was that the material available, which needless to say wasn’t being supplied by the legitimate heirs and successors of Wanger’s immensely high quality output, was in very poor shape. So it’s a pleasure to see that Universal has been putting Wanger’s productions out on DVD using material clearly close to the original negative.

As well the single extra on the film is magnificent. So credit where it’s due.

Was it a Wanger project or Fritz Lang’s?

Well according to David Thomson, it arose when Wanger and Sylvia Sidney bumped into Theodore Dreiser who said he was writing a piece about Bonnie and Clyde. Dreiser said it would make a great movie and Sylvia a great Bonnie Parker. After they had a script, Sidney suggested Lang. She had just been in his first American film Fury (1936) and no doubt saw him as perfect for the task of making a movie about a guy hit with the full force of the law for something he hadn’t done. The Bonnie and Clyde aspects got played right down. Henry Fonda, always brilliant playing troubled, virtuous men, is an ex-con trying to go straight but defeated at every turn. A decision, prompted by an excited new wife, to go house-hunting instead of turning up for work on time proves a fateful moment. Then there is the long elaboration of a robbery and its aftermath for which Fonda’s Eddie Taylor gets the blame. The sequence involving a pair of eyes looking through a gap in a car windshield in pouring rain, the attack using tear gas, the single unknown man who drives the armoured car away and the heard but not seen accident, is magnificent.

One of Lang’s best films?


What about this single extra?

It’s a piece in which Claude Chabrol, all of 70+ plus, looks at the film on a viewer and analyses Lang’s film-making skills with quite remarkable perception. Chabrol is also interviewed and these sequences and bits and pieces of illustrative material from the film are incorporated into a very fine piece of film criticism. Whatever you thought you knew about You Only Live Once you know a whole lot more after seeing this. Chabrol has this fascination with Lang’s staging that enables you to get much additional meaning and much greater appreciation of Lang’s skills. This would not have been an expensive film. Most of it, even the outdoor post robbery and flight sequences are done in the studio or with back projection.

Chabrol’s analysis is most acute. There is even one lateral tracking shot, when Eddie is being escorted towards Death Row and is flanked by a guard and by the kindly priest Father Dolan where Chabrol notes how the camera loses the characters from the middle of the frame. He is perplexed as to why the shot is there in this fashion as he doesn’t concede that the clumsy look is intentional. This is film criticism of a very high order and, as I guess as I have been saying for ever, the opportunity that DVD has opened up for new methods and techniques of criticism has added immensely to the sum of our knowledge and broadened the way we can actually dissect films.

Chabrol was once a critic and has no doubt retained these skills.

Yes. Mind you very few film-makers outside that small coterie of French critics cum film-makers, mostly from the fifties and sixties, have ever had these dual skills capable of closely-argued and rigorous analysis and fine film-making. Maybe Lindsay Anderson and Peter Bogdanovich qualify. Hasn’t been anyone else who has come to film-making from these roots for decades.

Chabrol actually made a film that seemed to be a homage to Lang’s Mabuse character?

Indeed. I think it was called Doctor M. I may be one of the few in the world to have seen, it at a market screening at a festival in the early 90s. The less said the better I’m afraid. Chabrol is a true inheritor of Lang’s legacy. As an imitator he failed.

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