I did not watch this DVD in optimal conditions. Between the widescreen television which stretched the square frame, the discussions going on around me in the room, and the eventual switch from TV to laptop (with one ear of the headphone not working), I could discover any number of excuses for why Fritz Lang's classic crime melodrama didn't work for me. After all, I'm not even a major Lang aficionado - I admire his supreme skill (how could I not?) but often find his movies cold; I admire the visuals but grow restless with the drama. Less so with his Hollywood work - I quite liked Fury - but he certainly is not in my pantheon of personal favorites (yeah, I know, he's heartbroken).
Yet I enjoyed You Only Live Once immensely; I was completely engrossed despite the distorted image, the noise, the interruptions. Formally, Lang's work was as tremendous as ever: the consistent yet often subtle use of "prison" bars around the outlaws, the proto-noir lighting effects, the occasional fairy-tale echoes of a froggy pond near the honeymoon suite, or the happy home that will never be broken in (the ever-elusive American Dream takes on the quality of a kind of beautiful, half-imagined fable in Lang's jaundiced, almost brokenhearted view of his adopted country). All in all the film luxuriates in a heavy, oppressive atmosphere of the harsh, spare cells, foggy, murky jailyards and backroads, and the cluttered backwater homesteads of Depression America. It captures a time and a spirit, and makes a fascinating comparison with the restless, ruthless Gun Crazy and the romantic, charismatic Bonnie and Clyde - all of which reconfigure the mythology of that outlaw couple to fit the ethos and styles of their various periods.
In You Only Live Once, the violence retains an air of desperation - the transgression of Gun Crazy and adventurism of Bonnie and Clydee hardly factor here. There's no way out for Fonda's character, and he's never tapped into his latent ferocity with greater skill or intensity. It's especially interesting to see him here, young, coiled tight, after watching his performance as the tepid innocent in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. Though it was obviously intentional, I nonetheless found Fonda's inertia quite frustrating in that film; it seemed that, in the face of police harassment and public hysteria, he was too passive - even Kafka's protagonists register a kind of panicked reaction. Anyway, no one can accuse Fonda's character of accepting his fate this time; indeed, by the ending, he may have gone too far for many viewers. Yet both director and star deserve credit for neither demonizing nor sentimentalizing the "hero."
A remarkable, thoroughly entertaining, wonderfully crafted thirties classic. Highly recommended.