What’s the best Fritz Lang film? The argument could go on all night, and there are so many to choose from – contenders include M, Fury, You Only Live Once, The Woman in the Window, or While the City Sleeps. Or how about Rancho Notorious, Metropolis, The Big Heat or Man Hunt?
So how about the worst one? 1938’s You and Me is a prime candidate. It’s still an interesting if largely unsuccessful film. Lang himself considered it to be his worst, a “lousy picture”, he said in his autobiography, in which styles argue with each other while a miscast lead does his best to make sense of a character.
George Raft is that man, an actor best known for playing criminals, here introduced by Lang with a wink towards Raft’s baggage in a scene where Raft’s character is going into detail about a “racket”. This turns out to be a tennis racket. Groan. As the camera pulls back we can see that he’s trying to sell one to a customer in the department store where he works. Joe Dennis (Raft) is just one of a contingent of ex-cons taken on by public-spirited boss Mr Morris (Harry Carey). Rehabilitation is the idea and it seems to be working with Joe, who has both a job and a girl, Helen (Sylvia Sidney), and is on the way to building a new life with her, though for reasons to do with his criminal record they have to keep the relationship under wraps. There’s also something Joe doesn’t know about Helen (a revelation that gives Sidney a chance to shine, and steal the movie from Raft).
If Helen is keeping a secret from Joe, Joe is also keeping something from her – he’s being courted by one of the old gang, who is hatching a plan to turn over kindly Mr Morris’s store in the night using all the ex-cons he employs as muscle – that’s gratitude for you.
The IMDb calls this a film noir but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s not even prototype noir. It’s a strange sort of rom-com with musical interludes, and at one point Lang decides on a bit of Brechtian alienation in a scene where the cons break the fourth wall by breaking into a declamatory song – the music is by Brecht’s frequent collaborator, Kurt Weill, so the faint rhythmic and melodic echoes of The Threepenny Opera make sense.
Odd they may be, but these “alienated” moments are some of the best in the film, and whisk the whole venture away from its humdrum plot, which consists of Raft and Sidney making gooey eyes at each other and turns largely on a lag’s parole requirement not to get married.
Raft sucks but Sidney shines. He’s out of his depth with the love stuff but she’s bright and frothy, smart and agile and as the plot increasingly stress-tests the characters, she manages to ride out the ridiculousness while Raft looks increasingly like he wants to hit someone, which his character eventually does.
Lang’s camerawork makes the film worth a watch. It’s slinky and fluid and he repeatedly uses crane shots where no one else would bother, giving the whole thing a light-as-air aspect.
In this movie crime does not pay, and in the conceptually amusing but in reality hopeless conclusion, Helen sits down with the ex-lags about to heist the department store and, with blackboard and chalk, gives them a lesson in just how much it doesn’t pay.
It’s preposterous, and yet also cute, and another demonstration that the further this film is prepared to wander from reality, the better it is.
This was Lang’s third Hollywood movie after Fury and You Only Live Once. He’d return triumphantly two years later with The Return of Frank James, the hit Lang wanted after the flop that You and Me turned out to be. Posterity hasn’t been much kinder to it either.
You and Me – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023