Fritz Lang continues his take-no-prisoners indictment of America’s curious relationship with crime; this time he presents the thesis that an innocent man can be a pawn in cosmic game of injustice. Three-time loser Henry Fonda, the glummest actor in ’30s films, doesn’t mean to rob or kill, but gosh darn it, They Made Him a Criminal. Those considerations aside, it’s a wonderful cinematic achievement, made all the better by a decent digital restoration.
You Only Live Once
1937 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 86 min. / Street Date July 25, 2017 / 29.98
Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Barton MacLane, Jean Dixon,
William Gargan, Jerome Cowan, Charles ‘Chic’ Sale, Margaret Hamilton, Warren Hymer,
Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, Ward Bond, Jack Carson, Jonathan Hale
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: Alexander Toluboff
Film Editor: Daniel Mandell
Original Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Graham Baker and Gene Towne
Produced by Walter Wanger
Directed by Fritz Lang
According to Fritz Lang’s major biographer Lotte Eisner, the director said in 1955 that his second U.S. film You Only Live Once is “in my view a completely American film without a trace of Europe in it.” It’s difficult to agree with Lang, seeing how heavily stylized the movie is toward his German roots. The grim fate determined for its young lovers is as rigid as the paths of Siegfried and Kriemheld. Only Lang’s enormous reputation (and surely his own opinion of himself) kept him going for the five years it took him to find his place in America. He made no friends at his first studio, MGM, even though the masterful film he made there, Fury, did well. Fury broke new ground, addressing lynch law in the format of a suspense thriller. But You Only Live Once takes on the entire subject of criminal wrongdoing, to show an innocent man forced to behave like a mad killer. He’s not responsible, but the whole American system is. It’s very American to accept the fact that when you step off the straight and narrow, all Hell will break loose. This picture’s emotional argument breaks all the rules.
Savant is a big Fritz Lang fan, and You Only Live Once is very useful as a yardstick to understanding the director. The beautifully directed movie is, the fifth in a string of Lang masterpieces, after “M”
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Liliom and Fury. Lang’s fine direction of his stars Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney runs counter to the style of the late 1930s, which in itself isn’t a bad idea. As a film theory movie, it’s obviously another gem, rich with cinematic graces. But the moral and intellectual arguments of the story are tilted toward the fatalistic purity of a fairy-tale. Instead of poisoned apples or a magic mirror, it’s Young Lovers Against Evil Society.
After serving a three-year jail sentence, the bitter Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) just wants to go straight and marry his sweetheart Joan Graham (Sylvia Sydney). Joan’s boss Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane), despite loving Joan himself, has arranged Eddie’s parole and lined up a job for him, in concert with Father Dolan (William Gargan) a priest/social worker who believes in Eddie. But Eddie finds himself in a rage over an abusive employer and old confederates that want to exploit him. Framed for a crime he didn’t commit, he’s sentenced to die on circumstantial evidence and makes up his mind that the law is his mortal enemy. The authorities bring the news of a pardon just as Eddie is in the act of an armed escape, using a doctor as a hostage. Assuming the pardon is a cheap ruse, he shoots a chaplain who tries to help him and goes on the run with Joan. They become desperate fugitives, in love and together, but unhappy and with no future except death.
You Only Live Once is dazzling filmmaking. Joan and Eddie throw their future to the wind, in a nightmare of conflicting emotions — defeatist idealism and criminal amour fou. On the lam in a car perforated with bullet holes, they’re an outlaw John and Mary in search of a manger. The press makes Eddie’s inoffensive flight for freedom into a vicious crime wave. Two gas station attendants rob the till and blame it on the Terrible Taylors.
“They made me a killer,” is Eddie Taylor’s outraged cry. MacLane has found him a job, but his reputation as a parolee is an excuse for a sadistic boss to fire him for being late. Cranky old innkeepers throw the honeymooners out of their room. To make the ‘victim of society’ rap stick, Lang presents Eddie’s persecutors as a pack of hypocrites. Every step of the way, Eddie Taylor is the innocent victim of circumstance, prejudice, and malice. The pregnant Joan takes the blame upon herself, deciding that because she advised Eddie to submit to the justice of the courts, it’s HER fault that he was is convicted. No longer believing in anything, Eddie is now a desperate killer, barely understanding what’s happening around him. The movie insists that he’s the downtrodden common man, struggling under the heel of Evil Society.
This is one impressive show, fast-paced and continually inventive. As a visual communicator Lang is far advanced of the Hollywood norm. He assembles precise montages and arranges clear visual associations to show his ill-fated lovers ensnared in a trap of fate. Some of these visuals are pure expressionism. Eddie Taylor agonizes in a prison cell that throws an exaggerated, web-like pattern of shadows on the prison floor. When it’s time to make a crucial decision in the prison yard, he’s marooned in a fog that limits his vision and blurs his judgment. At one point the lovers are caught in a gun-sight iris effect, framed together like a valentine cameo.
Lang continually returned to themes of ‘hate, murder and revenge.’ This time the context is definitely traumatic, hopeless. The Taylors give birth to a baby on the run, as they dash for the border. They’re all alone, with every sheriff’s gun pointed in their direction. Lang’s grandiose cinematics elevate them to a level of mythic grandeur.
Lang would soon fit in better with the American sensibility, but in this show he’s still ‘cooking the stew’ with bizarre expressionistic ingredients, like a very non-realistic insistence on strong symbolism. Not until Jim Henson would a movie become so invested in frogs.
Lang creates a major parallel between our lovers and a pair of frogs in a pond. We learn that Eddie’s sad path to crime first began when he was sent to a reformatory for beating up a boy torturing innocent frogs. He tells his bride a fable about frogs mating until death, that’s repeated to weird effect, like an ancient curse. A frog seems to doom their future, when the ripples it makes on the water disturb the lovers’ reflection. When Joan decides to kill herself, her only message to Eddie is that she “hasn’t forgotten about the frogs.” We see her actually start to drink the poison. The lovers can fight unfair employers and prejudiced landlords, but the curse on them comes straight from a Fairy Tale. This is what contradicts Lang when he claims the film is not European in tone. This entire dated business usually earns laughs in screenings of You Only Live Twice, if only because the symbolism of the frogs is so obvious — as Eddie simmers on Death Row, we almost expect to see a thought balloon image above his head, containing the face of an accusing frog.
But Eddie and Joan might as well have the word ‘doom’ stenciled on their foreheads. Joan has convinced him to give himself up, but circumstantial evidence frames him for the murder of six policemen and he’s condemned to death. On the night of his execution, Joan is ready to die with him, a lover’s death pact that also resonates with German folklore. Now, with all ties to civilization burned away, Eddie gets his chance for escape. Does an innocent man not have a right to fight for his life? He answers a chaplain’s plea with a bullet, just as the news comes of a pardon. As he’s already holding a gun on Father Dolan, he’s convinced that the news of the pardon is a cheap trick. What is proven if Lang insists that Eddie is damned no matter what he does?
Is the picture film noir, or a proto-noir, or just a crime film with overwrought emotions? I’d say it’s really an early ‘social consciousness’ picture half-drowned in all that Germanic deterministic fatalism. The near-absurd narrative relentlessly punishes good intentions.
It’s one thing for a cruel coincidence or two to bedevil a flawed hero. In this show the Cruel Finger of Fate squashes Eddie as if he were a bug. Graham Baker and Gene Town’s script is more than just biased, it rigs events to morally justify Eddie and Joan’s alienation from society. A flawed world is ultimately responsible, not them. They continue to receive help from Joan’s selfless boss Stephen. Both he and Joan’s sister Bonnie (Jean Dixon) are willing to support the runaway couple. Today they would be considered accessories after the fact. Even hardboiled films noir don’t endorse this crazy of a worldview — ‘loser’ noir protagonists like the pessimistic Al Roberts and the insecure Harry Fabian are snared by bizarre circumstances, but in the end they are free agents who must take personal responsibility for their fates. You Only Live Once is a pre-noir fantasy of insane injustice.
Brilliant as it is, the movie is an emotional fantasy that distorts reality — it wants to make a liberal plea for understanding and justice, but substitutes ‘hate, murder and revenge’ for psychology. In 1937 it must have seemed an irresponsible defense of the notorious bandits in the news, the ones that gave the FBI big headlines. Some people already considered Bonnie & Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd to be folk heroes righteously combating banks conspiring to rob the poor and steal their land. The colorful maniac John Dillinger loved to be described as a Robin Hood.
The bleak ending makes a literal jump into the weird fantasy of Lang’s silent Destiny, complete with a heavenly choir and forgiveness from beyond the grave. Dillinger would have loved to receive such a send-off – Eddie’s exit is fit for a martyr in a religious epic.
You Only Live Once is the first of several ‘fugitive Romeo and Juliet’ movies often considered as a group. Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night and Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy are the other two classics, and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us are from the more self-conscious post-noir era. Oliver Stone, David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Quentin Tarantino have of course been to the same conceptual spring. Western movies have always had their noble outlaws, and early gangster films made excuses for outlawry, but You Only Live Once has the audacity to postulate an America so Evil that criminals are almost the only virtuous citizens. It’s boldly expressionistic, but also very weird sociology.
Henry Fonda was at this time just beginning to build his own screen persona as a liberal icon, an unshakeable pillar of ethics. If John Wayne were to play a criminal character, somebody somewhere would need a punch in the face. But if Henry Fonda is a bad guy, something is fundamentally wrong with America. Fonda starred in producer Walter Wanger’s anti-Fascist Blockade the same year. John Ford would eventually exploit these associations by casting Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, where his Tom Joad exemplified the nobility of the downtrodden man, in liberal terms. In You Only Live Once Fonda pouts, whines and mutters vile oaths to the nameless society that scourges him. The casting is perfect, but there’s nothing subtle about Lang’s approach: “Thou shalt not kill, Eddie.” “Whattaya think they’re gonna do to ME?!”
Sylvia Sydney was surely filmdom’s liberal conscience of the decade. Fascinatingly warm and beautiful, she had already played the ‘good’ girl opposite Gary Cooper’s suave crook in Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets. She’s the tearful victim of injustice in Fury and continued with Fritz Lang for the ingenious but wholly misjudged crime melodrama/musical, the next year’s You and Me, with George Raft. That’s not to mention William Wyler’s Dead End, Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage and the social justice outrage film …One Third of a Nation…. Years ago, my kids were shocked to find that Ms. Sidney was the same actress from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks! She’s a genuine legend.
It’s odd to see Barton MacLane playing such a good guy; it almost makes us uneasy. William Gargan and Jerome Cowan come through for Lang as well. In smaller parts can be seen Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, a familiar Errol Flynn hanger-on from Warner westerns, and in a bit, Ward Bond, who went thirty years before becoming a household name on TV’s Wagon Train. It’s odd to see so many semi-comic crooks: Warren Hymer as well. You might catch a young Jack Carson as a gas attendant. The most fun comes with Margaret Hamilton’s appearance as a battle-axe innkeeper’s wife, sort of a Wicked Desk Clerk of the West.
ClassicFlix’s Blu-ray of You Only Live Once is a very good scan from what is seemingly an English element, as it comes complete with a Brit censor card. The wear is very light, just a few tiny scratches. As compared to the old (2003) Image DVD, the transfer is much sharper, much more stable and yields a picture with very good contrast. The show hasn’t looked this good in ages; all those beautifully composed and lit scenes are finally up to a level worthy of appreciation. The audio track is also without issues. A restoration comparison is included.
At first I was concerned that this might be a censored cut — England chopped up American movies pretty badly in those days — but I did a comparison and the show seems 100% intact. The heavenly choir and Voice of God at the end gave me a false memory of a final shot with beams of holy light opening the gates of heaven. Nope, Lang ends on a wholly tasteful image.
Author and TCM writer Jeremy Arnold’s commentary track is a pleasant listen; he covers most of the bases on basic information for Fritz Lang’s film and knows enough not to call it an authentic film noir. His actor and filmmaker information is interesting, and he makes a good case for the exemplary career of producer Walter Wanger.
The King Bros. bought a chunk of You Only Live Once for their 1945 gangster movie Dillinger: an entire scene, the exciting tear gas robbery of an armored truck, is lifted almost intact. The crooks wear gas masks, so none of them can be recognized. The editors even have the audacity to include Lang’s impressive camera move up to the eyes of a crook peering out the back of a getaway car, and pass them off as those of actor Lawrence Tierney. According to Lotte Eisner, Fritz Lang was appalled by the idea that a director’s work could be chopped up like this. But he’d already learned that Hollywood didn’t support the artistic integrity of directors’ work, when money was involved.
The label ClassicFlix is embarking on a series of improved Blu-rays of films that could use the boost in quality. If this is an indication of what’s to come, I’ll be eager to see more.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
You Only Live Once Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary by Jeremy Arnold, restoration comparison
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 27, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson