#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.