Friday, June 22, 2012

You and Me (1938)

Fritz Lang

YOU AND ME           B+                  
USA  (90 mi)  1938  d:  Fritz Lang

The big shots aren't little crooks like you. They're politicians.       
—Helen Dennis (Sylvia Sidney)

Fritz Lang is something of a film revelation, where he would be renowned if he was responsible for nothing more than the first science-fiction epic, the German Expressionist silent film masterpiece METROPOLIS (1927), using a cast of thousands, building enormous futuristic sets, utilizing what were at the time state-of-the-art special effects, an arduously difficult film to shoot, lasting over a year, which nearly bankrupted the studio (financed by UFA), culminating in a blistering critique of capitalism and its effects on the future, becoming one of the most influential of all silent films.  Shortly afterwards, Lang’s first sound film M (1931) is a chilling portrait of madness, murder, and vengeance, where the underworld and the police vie for a child murderer, a film way ahead of its time in its methodical, perfectly synchronized, psychological storytelling, where Peter Lorre as the compulsive murderer gives one of the great screen performances.  Lang himself considered this his finest work.  Shortly afterwards, the half-Jewish Lang (who was raised a Roman Catholic) was forced to leave the country once the Nazi’s rose to power, leaving immediately after rejecting propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ offer to become the new head of UFA, now a Nazi German film industry, becoming instead one of Hollywood’s most outspoken anti-Nazi filmmakers.  Ironically, Lang was eventually blacklisted during the McCarthy era of the late 40’s and 50’s due to his known working relationship with German playwright Bertolt Brecht and other known communists.  Throughout his career, however, Lang thrived on dark themes, including the psychological effects of lies, abuse of power, revenge, a criminal underground, and trapped characters living in a cynical world.  Coming on the heels of FURY (1936), his first American film, a devastating indictment of mob violence, and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937), a boldly fatalistic outlaw couple on the run film (which had a tremendous influence on the later development of postwar film noir, always shooting at night, featuring characters as doomed as the constant pouring of rain, where the intense scrutiny of their dark interior world couldn’t be more bleak), his third film YOU AND ME is instead something of a Brechtian romantic love story, featuring songs and musical numbers written by Brecht collaborator Kurt Weill, considered a critical flop in its day and reportedly Lang’s least favorite of his own films.             

Yet somehow, YOU AND ME remains one of Lang’s most personal works, especially the way it combines disparate elements of ill-fated romance with the deviant criminal underworld and the outward extravagance of Brecht’s musical theater into a kind of melodramatic B-movie setting that actually endorses capitalism as a way out of the Depression, becoming one of the more ambitiously experimental Hollywood films of the 30’s, even if the whole never equals the sum of its parts.  If it’s not one of Lang’s greatest works, it is among his most unusual efforts, where it’s a jumbled mix of something you just don’t see everyday.  Set during the Depression, the opening sequence itself is a scathing indictment of capitalism set to song, Kurt Weill’s “Song of the Cash Register,” where the uncredited tenor sounds thunderously dramatic like Jan Peerce, leading to an impressive montage of cash registers, retail items and consumer goods, driving home the point that nothing in life is free, everything has a price tag, set to an abstract set of images that are deeply comical, accentuating flamboyant hairstyles of the 30’s, where customers must pay for everything from the most ridiculous and sublime to the most common ordinary needs.  If one gets their hopes up that the suggested anti-capitalist theme will pervade throughout, you’d be sadly disappointed, as instead the unsung hero behind the scenes is the capitalist owner of a successful chain of department stores, Mr. Morris (Harry Carey), whose philanthropist leanings, much to his wife’s displeasure, includes the unusual habit of hiring ex-cons who have successfully served their time, where a job offering allows them a new start and a sense of moral renewal.  The convicts are sales clerks scattered throughout the store, amusingly shown still exhibiting signs of their criminal expertise in making their sales pitch, where tough talking gangster George Raft as Joe tells a perspective customer “There isn’t a racket I haven’t tried.”  But as the camera pulls back, he’s selling tennis rackets in the sporting good section.  Instead of taking an interest in the attractive blond (Joyce Compton), the film alters course with a superbly constructed, fleeting moment, hand holding scene on escalators moving in opposite directions INSTANTES: You and Me (1938, Fritz Lang) - YouTube (28 seconds), a sexy lead-in to his sweetheart Helen (Sylvia Sidney).

Wasting no time, they quickly get married, seen mostly through the transformative eyes of Joe, perhaps motivated by a strangely curious date with Helen where the downbeat, melancholic torch singer Carol Paige pays weary tribute to falling for the wrong kind of guys (another Weill effort conjuring up Pabst’s down and out THE THREE PENNY OPERA [1931] images of Berlin in the 20’s), never dreaming his days as a convict in jail would somehow lead to newfound respectability, though what he doesn’t know is Helen is herself an ex-con.  In an unusual gesture rarely seen in American films of the era that often reflect a prevailing anti-Semitic sentiment, Lang includes sympathetic Jewish characters, Helen’s nosy yet overly affectionate landlady and her husband (Vera Gordon and Egon Brecher).  But when Joe discovers the truth about Helen’s hidden secret, he dovetails back into the criminal underworld, where in a priceless sequence, all the ex-cons from the store have been waiting for him in a mob bar, where they reminisce through jail chatter in song, inventing a kind of percussive, rhythmic chant, a numerical code that inmates use to communicate with one another while incarcerated, imitating knocking on the walls, a stupefyingly euphoric number called “Stick to the Mob,” where once you’re in, you’re never out, where the boys decide to do what they do best, rob Morris’s department store.  Morris captures them red-handed, however, alerted by inside information forwarded to Helen, where he agrees not to send them back to jail if they can sit through Helen’s reformative, on-the-spot, midnight chalkboard lecture (in the Toy section, no less!) on why Crime Does Not Pay.  Using a Brechtian underworld socioeconomic critique, it becomes a cost analysis on the detrimental effects of living a life of crime, where the hidden costs to pay off all the crooks involved outweigh the benefits, where capitalism is subversively expressed as a Ponzi pyramid scheme, where only the ones at the top survive, where Number One (a bribed politician acting on someone’s behalf) always gets their cut, staying out of jail by paying for the best lawyers in town, while the disposable foot soldiers taking all the risks end up fighting among themselves over the remaining crumbs.  In this oddly charming vision of the ever elusive American Dream, Morris’s investment in corporate ownership succeeds while the low paying foot soldiers falter, criminal or otherwise, where even moral redemption, paying your debt to society, comes at a high cost, as the only choice the working stiffs of the world have is to become slaves working for the Man.  “No I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more.”  Bob Dylan - Maggie's Farm YouTube (3:58).

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