You Only Live Once (1937)
What’s it about?
Sylvia Sidney plays Joan, a secretary at a Public Defenders’ office who manages to persuade her boss, Stephen (Barton MacLane) to have her imprisoned lover Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) released from incarceration. Eddie is a “three-time loser” (i.e. has been imprisoned three times for a string of crimes that stretches back to his youth) and his next time will inevitably result in him either spending the rest of his life behind bars or be sent to the chair.
He is determined to go straight and Joan, despite her mother’s misgivings, decides to marry him. However, their problems start when they get thrown out of their honeymoon hotel as the proprietor, an avid collector of true crime magazines, recognises his face from one of them. Eddie then takes up a job as a truck driver but ends up being late for work, resulting in his boss firing him. Eddie pleas for a second chance as he won’t be able to afford a downpayment on the new home he bought with Joan, but it falls on deaf ears. Feeling frustrated at his inability to turn over a new leaf, he ponders returning to his life of crime.
Meanwhile across town a robbery takes place on a bank van. A gas mask-wearing assailant throws grenades at the surrounding security guards, killing six of them. Someone has left a hat with Eddie’s initials at the scene, thus pinning the act on him.
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Why is it significant?
German director Fritz Lang fled his home country during the Nazi era and relocated to the U.S. in 1934. You Only Live Once is the director’s second Hollywood film and is generally regarded as one of his best.
How does it hold up?
You Only Live Once is a fine demonstration of Fritz Lang’s directorial skill, his imaginative flair for suspenseful storytelling and his views on the arrogance of social attitudes to crime and punishment - where the relationship between criminal and wider society tends to all too readily lock into a negative feedback loop. It’s a message that resonates even now, and one surprisingly few directors tackle head-on to this day; many filmmakers present the criminal fraternity as one-note objects of human hatred, and those that give them a tale of redemption tend to resort to a standard set of cliches and tropes. Lang never goes down an easy route with this one.
He does anchor the tale in a touching love story between Joan and Eddie; Sidney and Fonda are great together as the couple, displaying a believable sense of concern for doing right by one another. However it’s all too clear from early on that their relationship is headed in a particularly tragic direction. In one of the first of Lang’s smart flourishes, he shows Joan and Eddie looking over a pond where a pair of croaking frogs are sat close together on their respective lily pads. We then see the two actors reflected in the pool as Eddie talks about how when two frogs are partners, one dying will result in the other following suit.
There are plenty of such stylish moments throughout - many being of the “shadows, rain and fog” expressionist vein that Lang became so well versed in. The bank van robbery features a throwback to the old master criminals of the silent era as the antagonist retains an air of sinister mystery by his face remaining covered throughout the scene - firstly by the rain-drenched windscreen of his car, and then by his gas mask. When his violent act is put into motion the scene erupts in a spectacular series of gas explosions shot from above. There’s lots of well-orchestrated suspense, making impressive use of sound and camera placement. One particularly inventive shot widens out to reveal three potential front headlines waiting to go to print as a man at the newspaper office waits by the phone for the outcome of Eddie’s court case. The vibrant grind of the soundtrack ratchets up the tension for several agonising seconds before the camera pushes back in on the one that represents the true outcome.
However, while there is no shortage of action and tension, You Only Live Once is, at heart, more of a social and character study. Fonda’s performance tips between a formidable rage at the circumstances forcing him to criminality, and a shoulder-heavy remorse that betrays how, deep down, he is a decent human being who has hardly been given a chance to prove himself except his beloved. The surrounding characters (with a few exceptions) come across as singularly mean-spirited individuals who are all too keen to exert their entitlement to pass judgement. Lang is turning the tables on society and asking “are you really any better than the people you condemn?” It’s an attitude that’s undoubtedly rooted in Lang’s own experience living within the judgemental and hate-focussed world of Nazi Germany, albeit developed in a somewhat different direction.
Runtime: 86 mins
Dir: Fritz Lang
Script: Gene Towne, Graham Baker
Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Barton MacLane, Jean Dixon, William Gargan