Along with Liliom, which Fritz Lang made in France during his run from the Nazi film studios to those in Hollywood, his 1938 what's-it You and Me is an ungainly but immeasurably pleasurable experiment from a director who, like his quasi-disciple and later model, Alfred Hitchcock, is too often pigeon-holed into making only just one kind of film.
The despair of Fury (1936) and the doomed romantic fatalism of You Only Love Once (1937), Lang's first two films in America, are thrown out the door for...well, what exactly is this film anyway? Whereas most A-list studio films make great efforts to smooth over their variable influences, rip-offs, references, and other post-modern hybridity, You and Me practically basks in its idiosyncratic assembly. Since the film is showing at Anthology Film Archives' One-Eyed Auteurs film series in New York, but is unavailable on video, hopefully some images and description will paint the strange picture. See if this math adds up:
—It is a redeeming romance, with a flat George Raft and a radiant Sylvia Sydney as two ex-cons on parole trying to make good to themselves and each other. While Raft is honest about his criminal past, Sydney hides hers to maintain their relationship, sowing seeds of distrust. They fight against the forces of suspicion and dissatisfaction in their rocket-fast marriage for a long time, before finally finding happiness.
—It is part gangster tale, this being Lang, and Lang in America of course. Raft, like Sidney, works at a department store whose owner makes a point of giving paroled convicts an honest chance. But the obvious result of such a policy is a building full of ex-convicts, and it isn't long before old pals start showing up to pull Raft back to the dark side.
—It is part early 1930s city tale, close to M and like so many of those wonderful, studio bound stories of life in metropolises like New York and Chicago as told by flatly textured and anonymously decorated studio backlots in Hollywood (see, for example, in the gangster cycle, Mamoulian's City Streets, Scarface, and Underworld; or such Borzage as Bad Girl). The effect is of an aliened urban world cut away from the teaming masses that inhabit them; abandoned, eerily empty, plain, transient spaces make up the setting. In such an unfriendly space, lovers, when finally united, seem like they are forced to form forlorn, defensive idylls of heightened and perhaps even forced platitudes of love to combat such an urban abyss.
Sylvia Sydney in particular, in an almost forced performance, has never been so gloriously effusive, and comes off as one desperately wishing to build something, perhaps even a fiction of personal security and safety in the empty, suffocating environment. This urban need helps temper the film's awkward contrivance that she would not mutually share her criminal past with Raft as he has done with her.
—Like Liliom, Lang works at romance through musicality, as if his particular brand of modernist drama couldn't really convince anyone of honest to goodness love (see the glamorous but thoroughly hollow male-female relationships in Lang's German work). So You and Me is a musical, sort of. Actually it most resembles a studio-botched musical, one where a whole film was planned around songs, most of which were cut out after test screenings. This is only partly true of You and Me, which did have more music planned for it but was not hacked to pieces as its lurching quality might suggest.
Yet the film does seem to strenuously dedicate itself to erratic musicality, even with few songs. With music by Kurt Weill and an obvious influence from Brecht, the songs are not sung by main characters and are sung at us. The opening number, which introduces the department store setting, is of a bass-heavy voice proclaiming how nothing can be had in America without buying it; a later music hall number is a kind of impressionistic, subjective tangent into the dreamy thought process of the Raft-Sydney couple, who wonder about each other's love in their criminal context, all shot as a very deliberate (and authentic, considering DP Charles Lang's credits) Josef von Sternberg pastiche; and the third and final song a marvelous one of criminal comradery, calling up a gang's past together behind bars, their means of communication and storytelling.
While the songs stick out like awkward sore thumbs in the film, it probably bares pointing out that nearly everything sticks out awkwardly. From the obvious fascination Lang has with the gangster milieu (songs, nostalgia, faces, prison, heists) to its abrupt placement next to Raft and Sydney’s desperate, enthusiastic attempts at happiness, everything in the film rubs against everything else in provocative ways. And so it should be, I suppose, for a film trying to teach us something.
Via Brecht, Lang makes You and Me the formal culmination of all that he works with in his American period but is often ignored in his later, more genre-based work: social address. Here the film even eventually lectures the audience—amusingly and charmingly, to be sure, since it is Silvia Sydney doing the lecturing to a cast of gangster caricatures—about how crime doesn't pay. But more effective is the less over the top educative glimpses: that of foraging an honest life, that of finding and maintaining love, that of simply existing in a city, of existing in an unforgiving society which so seductively mixes capitalism, crime, and happiness in a melting pot.