You Only Live Once, 1937.
Directed by Fritz Lang.
Written by Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker.
Starring Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda and Barton MacLane.
A recently released criminal is determined to go straight and marry the woman he loves. Circumstance says otherwise. StudioCanal are releasing Fritz Lang’s second American film on DVD June 4th, commemorating its 75th anniversary.
Boy, does Henry Fonda look young. He plays Eddie Taylor, a man just released from the slammer. He’s been in there three times already, and another means the chair.
It’ll be easier going straight this time, because now he has a woman in Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney). It was her efforts down at the Public Defender’s office that got Taylor out early. They’re besotted with one another, and it’s easy to see why. They’re a pretty couple, full of hope and kisses. They swoon over plant arrangements and two frogs sitting side by side. It sounds mushy, and it is, but you hardly notice for Sidney’s face in soft focus.
Also, this is a Fritz Lang film – only his second ever on American soil – so there’s an impending sense of dread even in these overly romantic scenes. When they talk of the frogs, for instance, Taylor reveals that if one frog dies in a couple, the other follows soon after, not being able to live apart. “I didn’t know that,” replies Graham, dreamily. “Huh, I thought everyone knew that,” Taylor sighs with melancholy.
You Only Live Once continues this way for its first half hour, building up Graham and Taylor’s relationship, how much they love each other, their joint dreams and aspirations for the future. They’re both in work, and they’ve put a down-payment on a house together. But then the dread manifests itself. Taylor is framed for bank robbery and six ensuing murders. The actual robber stole the money by throwing tear gas grenades at a crowd, then running in with a gas mask to cover his face. The film predates the beginning of World War II by two years, so this is more likely an echo of the Great War that ended 19 years prior. Nevertheless, You Only Live Once feels linked to both. Lang had only recently fled Nazi Germany for America, after all.
Taylor is arrested and, now having a fourth strike by his name, is sentenced to death. The couple are further ensnared by fate’s web, pulling them down deeper into desperation and shutting off their ways out. “I can’t… you’ll kill someone,” Graham refuses Taylor when he asks her to smuggle a gun into his cell, key-lit tears streaming down her soft-focus face. “What do ya think they’re gonna do to me!?” he shouts in reply.
The film is seen in cinema history as a proto-noir, as one of the gangster melodramas that flourished in the 30s – yet a fully fledged Noir with femme fatales and John Alton cinematography. Yet Lang instills his masterful sense of a disorientated vision, everyday shots made strange by mirrors, shadows and Dutch angles.
This is more Lang than Noir, if the two can be separated. The pacing is sublime, each shot holding for exactly the right length, slowly racking up the tension with every second, of which the prison breakout is a perfect example. Lang has a unique ability to infuse objects with overwhelming visual significance. For You Only Live Once, it is Talyor’s hat, who’s initials are embroidered on the inner rim. You see it once in close up, briefly, on Taylor’s bedside table. Later, when the same hat with E. T. embroidering is left at the crime scene, it becomes the thread that unravels the life that Graham and Taylor are building together.
Ultimately, it is the story of their intense, fatal love.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★