1930s, 3/4, Drama, Fritz Lang, Review

You Only Live Once

#24 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.

*note: My mother watched this with me, and she decided to write about it as well.*

This is of a piece with Fury, Fritz Lang’s previous film, in that they both deal with innocent men facing the unjust reactions of systems. Fury was about mob justice, but You Only Live Once is about the official system leaning unfairly on a man on the edge of acceptance, essentially using his past to deny him justice for a crime that leaves only the most circumstantial of evidence against him. The movie lacks the clarity of Fury‘s emotional throughline, essentially becoming a proto-Bonnie and Clyde in its final act that muddles some stuff dramatically, but Lang brings his visual acumen more acutely than in Fury and is able to manage the production well, based on the script by Gene Towne and Charles Graham Baker.

Jo (Sylvia Sidney) works for Stephen (Barton MacLane), a public defender, and is ready to marry one of Stephen’s clients, Eddie (Henry Fonda), who is getting released from his third stint in jail. The laws of “this state” dictate that a fourth felony conviction will lead to a much bigger, more permanent punishment. With Jo at his side, though, he’s determined to go straight.

The early part of the film feels like an issue movie with the issue being ex-convicts and their treatment by society. The pair go on their honeymoon, and when the proprietors (including the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton) figure out that he’s an ex-con, they kick the married couple out. Eddie, through Stephen, gets a job at a trucking firm. He works hard, but one night he’s late on a delivery by an hour and a half because he’s showing Jo the house that he’s going to buy. His boss fires him over the phone at a gas station, and he will not allow him back at all, gloating over his power over this ex-con who needs him so much. Eddie is getting desperate. He even mentions that his old criminal pals have jobs, easy bank jobs, that he could partake in to make things better. Then there’s a robbery, complete with teargas in the rain, where Eddie’s hate, monogramed with his initials, gets dropped and the loot gets away with the man who did it.

Who did it? The authorities zero in on Eddie immediately, who sneaks home in the rain to Jo who convinces him to give himself up since he’s innocent. It turns out badly, and, in a very quick transition (cleverly done with two newspaper men reviewing the three possible options before the editor receives a call and then points at the one of the three that applies), Eddie has been sentenced to death for the robbery where six people died.         

It’s about here where the movie really moves beyond the issue movie and into a genuinely engaging drama. The conflict between Eddie and Jo, where Eddie blames her for his fate and Jo must find a way to make it up to him, is compelling. It’s believable that Jo tries to help his escape attempt, even if she’s rubbish at it. The moral center of this piece is Father Dolan (William Gargan), the priest at the jail that had helped Eddie through his previous stints and offers solace and guidance to both Jo and Eddie in this, Eddie’s final stint. He’s a good man who wants to help where he can, and he even helps keep Jo from making a huge mistake in her nascent quest to redeem herself to Eddie.

Now, this is definitely a melodrama, but it was also cut down by the Hays Board (it was submitted at 100 minutes and released at 86, so a bunch got cut). I have a feeling that one section got cut was around this point where Eddie escapes. It’s typical melodramatic stuff where last second evidence is found that exonerates Eddie, the governor issues a pardon, and…Eddie finds a loaded handgun in the isolation room bed. The movie does not explain how this got there, and I’d bet real money that the explanation was excised by the Hays Board, the explanation probably implying that the prison system was corrupt in some way, which would have probably been some kind of no-no in their eyes. The timing of it all is tragic, leading Eddie to make a rash choice that helps him get away but puts him in a tighter bind. Together with Jo, they go on the lam.

This part is very clearly inspired by Bonnie and Clyde, the two outlaws that dominated newspapers just a couple of years before this film’s release. Now, I get this as a thematic point. Eddie has been cast aside by society and the law because of his past, not because of his actions around the actual robbery itself, and he’s reached the point where he can’t rely on anyone but himself and Jo. However, the film’s dramatic progress had moved towards a specific point where Eddie either gets redeemed or falls. I understand the fall, but the two going on the lam, stealing where they go, muddies that. It turns a tragedy too far, making them more than just victims but also perpetrators of injustice. They don’t go as far as the real Bonnie and Clyde, meaning they don’t kill anyone, but they do hold up people. I suppose the argument could be that their smaller crimes can be justified in the grander scheme, but as the final stage in a tragic trajectory, these are muddying questions, not clarifying ones. I don’t hate this ending, by the way. It’s an interesting way to develop their final stage, but that moral obfuscation is something that I don’t think really works dramatically.

The final moment also seems to imply that Eddie goes to heaven which, considering his actions of the final half hour of the film, seems wrong. Maybe it’s just the recognition that he dies a free man, though. That’s possible. I’ll say that Jo, especially after Sidney’s performance in Fury, was a small disappointment. They’re different characters, so this is really the fault of the writing, but I liked her more as the idealist who must follow through no matter what in the previous film than the hurt puppy dog who does everything she can to make Eddie happy here.

Visually, this is more engaging than Fury, though. Eddie’s escape from prison is the standout, done in fog with harsh shadows, it’s kind of beautiful, but there are other images throughout that stand out like the rain falling on the car before the robbery and Eddie’s cell, lit from the inside so the floor is consumed by the shadows of the bars. Fury was more straightly filmed without these standout moments, so it’s nice to see them return to Lang’s work.

I think the first 2/3 of this film end up coalescing really well and working in a melodramatic/issue movie sort of way that approaches the success of Fury. The final third is less clear and doesn’t work as well. It ends up a serious-minded film that mostly delivers on the promise, overcoming some of the melodramatic convention, and buoyed by Lang’s visual sense.

Rating: 3/4

8 thoughts on “You Only Live Once”

  1. This might be my least-favorite Lang film so far. It got on my bad side right off and things went downhill from there.

    There are some nice flourishes with camera work and lighting, a little nod to Expressionism of his past, the light and fog in the prison jailbreak is very nice mood-wise. That made me smile and remember good Fritz Lang movies.

    Henry Fonda is a fine actor, though I never buy him as a tough guy. As as asshole, sure, that part I believe, but I don’t buy him as a tough. He does his best here trying to be a hard boiled egg. William Gargan does the best job overall, playing the kind of young, athletic priest that seems to have disappeared in America. Sylvia Sydney (or more her character, Jo) really earned my ire here, though.

    I will put this down to bad writing, as she was slight but not super annoying in Fury, but here…I think I hated her. It starts with an immigrant, a new citizen, trying to lodge a complaint about a crooked cop. He steals an apple a day from him and Jo is just smiling, laughing, smirking at him and his distress. And the guy goes on, making a good case about how this little corruption adds up. It honestly reminded me of the trial in M, where both sides of the death penalty are allowed to make their emotional cases. But she just laughs and blows him off. She never explains to him that they’re the Public Defender’s office…meaning…they’re on the side of the criminal. Apparently, even criminal cops. (Corrupt in small ways, corrupt in all ways. And I’ll get back to that in a minute.).
    Then we go on to her relationship, she’s completely smitten with Fonda’s Eddie and she’s believable…and incredibly blind. Love is blind and it makes you dumb. Another convict makes a similar statement in fact…though he either killed or attempted to kill a man over his woman so…anyway. She helps him steal. Binds his wounds. In the end, she leaves her new born infant to chase after Eddie, despite everyone trying to help her and the child. Again, I think I hate her.

    But back to corruption, Lang again seems to be showing a world where everyone (except the priest) is a little bent. Robbed gas station attendants lie about the pair robbing the cash register so they can steal from it, cops steal apples, the Public Defender bends rules to get a three time loser out of jail so his secretary can marry him. It makes it hard to find anyone to root for, honestly. I can’t root for Eddie.

    Eddie comes off as hard, untrusting, with poor judgement. So yeah, he does play a real criminal. Most of them are idiots, lazy or worse. Eddie, after all the strings pulled for him, decides to skive off for an hour and a half to show his wife a new house…on the clock. Honestly, the trucking manager is right to fire him. Yes, he’s obviously prejudiced against hiring a convict, a very real problem even today for people trying to go straight. (If anything, this is a mild version of stories I’ve heard, up to and including working for slave wages). And what does Eddie do when he’s told, no you can’t have your job back? He assaults the manager, knocking him out. It might be a minor mistake on his part, but he’s no Jean Valjean. And Eddie crosses the moral event horizon more than once, from blaming his loving wife, to breaking out of jail, to murdering the priest trying to tell him he’s been pardoned.

    The editing here is a mess, too. I had to rewind scenes several times to see what was happening. The frog scene goes on too long when compared to the rest of the film. I’m a big believer in showing and not telling and sometimes the movie does one…some times it does the other. Important stuff happens off camera or is unexplained, and other important plot points are summarized in a blurt as the movie races on. The frog scene and most of the opening belongs in a 2 hour movie, while the second 2/3rd is at a breakneck pace most of the time.

    Didn’t like the characters, didn’t sympathize with them, the plot was thin and not as morally complex as it would like to think. But…there are some kernels of quality here. But only kernels. Dark movie and there’s more darkness to come. Noir indeed.

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    1. I see it as an embrace of moral complexity, hinging on a lovelorn woman to make a lot of it happen.

      I actually watched this with my mother when she was last visiting, and she was mostly struck by the overt Christian imagery as well as Henry Fonda’s youth.

      I don’t think he’s supposed to be a tough, but a low-end gangster (the kind of guy Ray Liotta would push around) who’d been thrown into the prison system, and came out with no support but the love of a woman. He’s not that smart. He’s not that tough. He needs to rely on other people, but when things go completely wrong he becomes desperate and fully embraces the hood everyone thought he was.

      I was never rooting for him, but I did empathize with him. He was on the lowest rung of society, and people refused him any sort of second chance or even benefit of the doubt. The rest is melodramatic contrivance (especially the timing of the new evidence), but I found his character to be compelling in its own, non-traditional way.

      Sidney is, as you say, a weak link from a script point of view. At least she gives the baby to good people, but she seems to have little agency herself beyond Fonda. Her refusing to go along with Tracy’s deception in Fury was better. And that final third of the movie really is a whole movie’s worth of material on its own. Maybe we can remake it…see if Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are available for me.

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      1. Eddie GOT a second chance, he fucked it up, screwing around on company time. He was working for a trucking company with time tables and he took a 90 min vacation on the clock to go house hunting with his wife. What he wanted was a third chance. And then a fourth, if he’d gotten it, cuz he would have screwed up his third chance.

        The guy was a crook young, he even admits to it, with an ever-escalating series of crimes he’s been convicted for. The most recent one was being the getaway driver for a bank heist gang. Sure, he is willing to go straight…to a point. He still carries a .45 as a convicted felon, though.

        And I THINK Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway might be a bit long in the tooth for you. I can check on Pete Davidson and Kim Kardashian if you like?

        I almost admire the movie’s bleakness. From a poison gas attack that kills 6 people to the pair of them getting gunned down on the way to the border…it has more integrity than the ending of Fury.

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      2. The second chance he screwed up was because he got excited about a new life. It wasn’t malicious. Yes, it was a screw up. Yes, getting another chance would be a third instead of a second, but his motivation is important from a dramatic point of view. It obviously doesn’t matter to his employer who needs his trucks to run on time. I don’t blame him for that, but I can still empathize with Fonda for that mistake.

        Is the ending bleak? My issue with the ending was that it was hopeful, actually. It seems like it’s supposed to be read as Fonda going to Heaven.

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  2. Well, I agree that a guy who murdered a priest without sufficient repentance is not going to Heaven. So that ending was dumb but I was already irritated by the movie for other reasons that I didn’t call that out 🙂

    But yeah, both of them get shot down trying to run to Canada…instead of going to Havana. They don’t get a happily ever after ending and they don’t escape. The baby is going to grow up without knowing either stupid parent and may have stupid DNA as well. So…kinda bleak ending with your main characters dead and total failures at life.

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    1. So, my mother wrote about her thoughts on the movie, and I think her summary is pretty apt:

      “It’s fairly affecting, and frustrating, as opportunities for redemption are missed and mistakes are made. There’s some striking shots.”

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