“The bottom’s dropped out of everything.”
Given his German Expressionist credentials, it seems fitting that Fritz Lang would direct one of the earliest American film noir antecedents. His 1937 feature, You Only Live Once, just the second film he directed in the U.S. (following the similarly forbidding Fury in 1936), is an exquisitely shot, stirring drama, a fatalistic prototype with excellent performances throughout. But it is also a pessimistic exercise in futility, where the main character, three-time loser Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), is granted an early release from prison and almost instantly finds himself in a perpetual state of scorn and desperation. In Depression-era America, even freedom has its downfalls, and once someone has been tripped up for whatever reason—be it social inequity, economic anxiety, or sheer happenstance—cruel twists of fate yield merciless stagnation. As Eddie discovers, in a mournful tune that surely rings throughout post-war noir to follow, the past has a way of always resurfacing, usually for the worst, and once you’re down, you may as well be out.
Unlike the downtrodden loners who typically inhabit a noir world, Eddie does not have to go it alone. By his side is Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney), a fetching young woman who works for public defender Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane), a man who not only had a hand in Eddie’s release but also harbors an obvious love for Joan. For a brief time, the tide has turned. Eddie and Jo are reunited and ready to start anew. But from the moment the two are kicked out of a local inn due to his checkered past, to when Eddie is fired from his truck driving job, leading to a subsequent depletion of funds, it is clear their blissful reunion will be short-lived. Chance puts Eddie—or more specifically, his hat—in the wrong place at the wrong time, and before long, he is back in court, back in prison, and queued up for the electric chair. At this point, escape is the only option, but just as he makes a break for it, word of his innocence spreads. It’s too late; the wheels are already set into motion, Like everything else in the film and, so it seems, everything else in Eddie’s life, the inevitability of it all is too much to bear.
At first, owing in no small part to Fonda’s emerging persona (this was just his eighth film), it’s hard to believe Eddie wasn’t eaten alive in prison, so genial is his demeanor and his folksy shuffle. But it is the outside world that proves so demanding and unforgiving. Though replete with thievery and the like, even his criminal backstory has touches of decency—as he tells it, his first rap came when he beat up a boy who was tearing the legs off a frog. Eventually, though, as things go from better to bad to worse, Fonda does unleash a convincing ferociousness, displaying a jarring yet understandable rage. And even at his most monstrous (holding a priest at gunpoint), Eddie is at no time beyond redemption. Hardened and drained of life, his dead eyes express a man beaten and hopeless, not a man consumed by evil (it would take more than 30 years and a filmmaker like Sergio Leone for Fonda’s unflappable screen decency to get thoroughly upended in that way). Jo, on the other hand, carries forth with a more consistent and persistent optimism. As played by the enchanting Sidney, who had considerably more experience than Fonda (including an appearance in Lang’s Fury), she is big-grin sunshine through it all; she has moments of sadness, certainly, but it’s never enough to fully bring her down. Together, Fonda and Sidney produce a contrasting, yet wonderfully complimentary, relationship. It’s a juxtaposition that leads many in the film to question their compatibility. Such is nature and mystery of love. Going back to the frogs, Eddie tells Jo the amphibians have an intractable bond, so that if one dies, its mate likewise expires—they cannot live without the other. She self-reflexively suggests they see something in each other no one else can. This mindset promotes the overriding romantic heart of Your Only Live Once, which is as much a love story as anything else. “We’ll beat this thing yet,” Eddie assures Jo. But despite their enduring tenderness, devotion, and her ability to take any obstacle in stride, the deck is stacked against them; even during the film’s stormy final getaway, the elements work in opposition. For all of its ups and downs and moments of tension, You Only Live Once isn’t exceptionally suspenseful. One may anxiously hope for Eddie’s redemption, but the scenario generally lacks uncertainty, if only because it is obvious they never stood a chance to begin with.
Though the film is often cited as a lovers-on-the-run precursor to everything from 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde (that real-life story did serve as inspiration for Lang and his team) to 1994’s Natural Born Killers, this particular aspect of the plot only comprises the final quarter of the film. Pursued by authorities, Eddie and Joan are common scapegoats, living a scavenger existence subject to criminal exaggeration. If the film works on a romantic level (forgiving its hokey conclusion), the script by C. Graham Baker and Gene Towne also fits Lang’s penchant for societal criticism. Starting with a fruit vendor who disparages an apple-stealing policeman and wonders if cops would ever arrest cops, the film takes a resolute stance on the side of the oppressed, the “victims of circumstance.” You Only Live Once works in a scathing condemnation of state autocracy, mass hysteria (shades of Fury), and a surprisingly prominent admonition of multimedia hyperbole, sensationalism, and detached callousness (three front pages at the ready, depending on the verdict of Eddie’s court case). Lang wanted to take this social angle even further, diving into Eddie’s past to examine the environmental factors that brought him to this point, but the acerbic nature of the film was pushing things already (around 15 minutes were cut due to the violence, especially during the bank robbery). Hints remain, though, as when the warden’s wife dismisses Eddie and his ilk as simply being “born bad.”
In his commentary on the new ClassicFlix Blu-ray of You Only Live Once, author Jeremy Arnold discusses the contentious relationship between Fritz Lang and Henry Fonda, arguing that despite their quarrels, their respective strengths shine through (and they would again work together three years later on The Return of Frank James). Though less combative, at least publicly, the film is also an impeccably realized collaboration between Lang, with his established knack for visual bravado, and cinematographer Leon Shamroy, an 18-time(!) Oscar nominee and four-time winner. One sees evidence of their aesthetic rapport in the thin, vertical shadows cast by cell bars, the ghostly fog that sets in during the jailbreak, and the expressive, rapid dolly on Jo as she greets the freed Eddie. In one final alliance worth mentioning, editor Daniel Mandell works with Lang to maintain a steadily hastening pace, like a whirlwind, rollercoaster, or snowball—choose your similes—keeping the dosage of chaos and development well-timed and well-executed. You Only Live Once is a lot of movie in just 86 minutes, and as Arnold states, there is no fat on the picture.