You and Me (1938)

You and Me (1938) starring George Raft and Silvia Sidney is an early film noir from Fritz Lang, set in a department store which is staffed by criminals on parole.

Delightful within You and Me is the German expressionist sensibility which is quite apparent in the photographic style, but which the American audiences may not have been quite ready for. 

Most especially in the scenes where the large criminal gang are together, there is a certain flavour of the director's earlier film M (1931), stylised at times by the actors facing directly into the camera to achieve an arresting effect — as well as powerful and small touches which carry great weight.

Likely the most memorable of these describes the relationship between the two young lovers George Raft and Sylvia Sidney, whose hands touch as they pass on an escalator. The way this shot is managed speaks volumes, and in the midst of a chaotic crime caper, which to be fair has as many romantic and screwball aspects to it as it does full film noir flavour, it's among the most powerful of moments.

Some of the rhythmic rewards of capitalism in
You and Me (1938) by Fritz Lang

The opening of You and Me contains a musical number about the power of money and how money controls every aspect of production and living. It is beautifully Brechtian and the lesson is set to the distinctive sounds of Kurt Weill. 

Sylvia Sidney — intimacy in the mechanised city
You and Me (1938)

As film noir is usually on its most assertive level discussing morality, it is no surprise to find this motion picture a moraliser of an early pre-noir amusement.

Like some of Fritz Lang's work in Germany You and Me is a moraliser about crime, and from several angles views the criminal as a sympathetic, vaudeville-style fraternity composed of men whom often have child like weaknesses. 

George Raft in You and Me (1938)

A Fritz Lang fraternity, unlike the same in a John Huston film, is more likely to have a code of honour or solidifying bond. Like the poor, the criminals in a Fritz Lang film are often all in it together, unlike the poor and the criminal in later and fully Americanised productions, particularly those of the 1950s, in which everyone is alone, can only trust themselves, and have no bond other than the occasionally shared goal, if it is in the form of a heist, which it often is. 

Sylvia Sidney in You and Me (1938)

The heist in You and Me (1938) is a stranger feat still, taking place in a department store, which is one sense a reforming home from home for the prison community.

You and Me is best viewed as a comedy, not a thriller, and while the romancer takes centre stage, it coast fairly traditionally waters, with the lovers overcoming their separate pasts, and acquiring trust, in order to serve a happy end.

The department store setting is an oddity within You and Me, and one of the many business operations in Lang's films. Even though it is not known to the public, this business is also secretly full of criminals, who are there ostensibly to rehabilitate.

This is a comic echo of the business enterprises which double as criminal organisations in other film noir productions, Lang films, such as the bank in the 1928 film Spies. The head of the department store (played by Harry Carey) is an impressive leader and an identifiable moral and guiding social force.

The opening montage of You and Me is memorable and invitingly modern and fantastic. The montage shows items that can be bought in modern society, arranged into abstract visual patterns and shown in use by the growing commercial society. With music by Kurt Weill, these scenes form something truly exciting for American cinema in its day, 

Sylvia Sidney in You and Me (1938)

Pipeline to authority — Harry Carey in You and Me (1938)

In her book on Fritz Lang, Lotte Eisner mentions that shop window displays appear in Fritz Lang's films, in general terms, as a reflection of Lang's general interest in media. The windows communicate information to the public, in bold, modernistic and persuasive manners, and Fritz Lang has a fine interest in all the media and modality of communication. Shop windows in fact show up in M, Fury, The Woman in the Window, Rancho Notorious and While the City Sleeps —  while You and Me is set in an entire department store.

While not exactly a heist movie — and not entirely a comedy —  and not exactly a thriller or early film noir —  You and Me does build up to a raid on the department store, by both crooks and then by the police, like the climactic raids in Spies and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the raid on the underworld nightclub in M, and the raid on The Spiders' headquarters in The Spiders Part II: The Diamond Ship (1920). 

Crime caper and rehabilitation in You and Me (1938)

Fritz Lang seems to be taking the  more established aspects of what is here instantly recognisable as German Expressionism, and seeing if they can be fused with the American gangster style, which by 1938 was an art perfected in and off itself.

The results have a peculiar old world feel to the morality, because the thematic aspects of this type of cinema are what makes this an odd affair. Thematically, everything is a theatrical fantasy, rooted in extremely old fashioned ideas of good and bad, and all the while working closedly with the notion of communal behaviour, communal living, communal working and public morality.

Violence in Fritz Lang as might be expected of the pre-War period, tends to be concentrated in scenes of raids, composed of large scenes with battles between good and bad guys, much like a war, turning out to be conclusive moral struggles for power or authority. Fritz Lang was an officer in the First World War, and this kind of military metaphor must have dominated his thinking. As the film noir style developed, battles tended to be focused on individuals and their one--to-one conflicts and battles.

Oddly, such battles are less clear cut, because in watching say — a battle between two male opponents —  we are aware of nuances in their characters, having seen the characters arrive and evolve, and this individuality does not lend itself to solutions, merely to psychopathic battling.

Fritz Lang, influenced by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, who had developed a style of theatre called Lehrstucke, (theatre that teaches) sought to make a didactic picture demonstrating to the audience that crime does not pay.

Most oddly of all, this message is literally spelled out at the end by Sylvia Sidney on a blackboard to a classroom of crooks. These are in effect all softies, soft crooks as it were — a tough-on-the-surface community of emotional and easily influenced men, whom at the conclusion are captured in a department store and lectured on their errant behaviour.

Former cons in You and Me (1938) by Fritz Lang

Stranger yet is a scene where these ex-cons talk fondly and nostalgically about prison. Still as baffling today as it must have been in 1938. The subterranean meetings of these crooks with their expressive greetings to camera are straight out of Fritz Lang's M (1931).

You and Me (1938) on Wikipedia

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