Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant is a big Fritz Lang fan, and You Only Live Once is very useful as a yardstick
to understanding the director. His second American film, it is even more Germanic than
Fury, and is deeply expressionist in concept. The acting of stars Henry Fonda and
Sylvia Sidney is fine, but 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 a masterpiece. But
the moral and intellectual arguments of the story are stacked in favor of a
fairy-tale conception: Young Lovers Against Evil Society.
After serving a jail sentence, Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) is happy to go straight
and marry his sweetheart Joan Graham (Sylvia Sydney). But the pressure is too much, with
employers discriminating against him and old confederates waiting 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 he's using a doctor as a hostage for an escape. 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, using montages and visual associations to
ensnare its ill-fated lovers in a trap of cinematic inventions. Eddie Taylor agonizes in a
prison cell that looks like a spiderweb. When it's time to make a crucial decision, he's
marooned in a fog that limits his vision and blurs his judgment. For the downbeat
ending, the lovers are caught in a gunsight iris, framed together like a valentine cameo.
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. They receive a lot of help from Joan's
unusually selfless prosecutor boss (Barton MacLane), who bends the rules because he's also
in love with Joan. And Joan's sister Bonnie (Jean Dixon) is willing to support the runaway
couple, even after they're implicated in murder.
"They made me a killer", Eddie Taylor is prone to say. MacLane has gotten him a job, but his
reputation as a parolee is an excuse for his sadistic boss to fire him for being late. Cranky
old innkeepers throw them out of their honeymoon room. Of course, to make the 'victim
of society' rap stick, Eddie's persecutors have to be monsters, and his only crimes are innocent
mistakes. He ignores his work shift, and then lies to his wife rather than admit to being fired.
Then, of course, his ex-crook cronies frame him for their crimes. Every step of the way, Eddie
Taylor is the innocent victim of circumstance, prejudice, and malice.
He finally becomes the butt of a cosmic joke that Lang must have thought as fascinating as
the magic and myth of old German tales in Die Nibelungen. 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. Now, with all ties to civilization burned out of him, Eddie gets his chance for escape.
He answers a chaplain's plea for trust with a bullet - just as the news comes of a pardon. An
innocent man fighting for his life has become a desperate criminal for no fault of his own.
There's a motif of 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." The bleak ending replays the weird afterlife fantasy of Lang's
silent Destiny. The film is heavy with meanings from German Expressionism.
But that style rests uneasily when imposed on American concepts of crime and justice. It's
one thing to say that society fosters crime in slums, but another to make Eddie Taylor into
a Christ figure, martyred by that ever-culpable 'World He Never Made.' Bonnie & Clyde and
Pretty Boy Floyd were considered folk heroes by disillusioned
depression folk convinced that banks and politicians had conspired to rob the poor and steal their
land. In confused times, the bandits were sometimes called Robin Hoods, an interpretation that
colorful maniacs like John
Dillinger liked to encourage. You Only Live Once offers Eddie Taylor as a candidate for
sainthood - after all, his entire criminal career only began because he beat up a kid for
torturing innocent frogs in a pond. Surely there were all kinds of cheap crooks looking for
this kind of validation of their lifestyles: "I'm really a nice guy like Taylor. It's the System,
Man, they're against me."
Even pregnant wifely Sylvia Sydney (fascinatingly warm and beautiful, what a dream face she has)
takes blame upon herself rather than taint saintly hubby Eddie. It's HER fault that he's a
killer, as it was her terrible advice to give himself up rather than submit to the
justice of the courts. Eddie's a hothead, barely understanding what's happening around him,
but he's the downtrodden common man, struggling under the heel of Evil Society.
When the pair go on the lam together, in a car perforated with bullet holes, they're like
John and Mary looking for a manger. The press and the public create all kinds of crimes
they're supposed to have committed. We see two gas station attendants (including a young Jack
Carson) robbing the till and blaming it on the Terrible Taylors. Fritz Lang is noted for
his genre innovations, and in You Only Live Once we have perhaps the first fully-fleshed
example of the noir staple of the doomed romantic pair running from society. They have to give
up their baby as they dash for the border. They're all alone, with every sheriff's gun
pointed in their direction, and this elevates them to the level of mythic grandeur.
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
bold and expressionistic, but also very weird sociology.
Sylvia Sidney was cast to type, already having played a tearful victim of injustice in several
early 30s crime classics, like Rouben Mamoulian's City Streets with Gary Cooper. She
went on with Fritz Lang for a fascinating but wholly misjudged crime melodrama/musical,
the next year's You and Me, with George Raft.
Henry Fonda was at the time partial to the occasional independent left-wing film, like the
Blockade. John Ford would eventually
exploit these associations by casting him in The Grapes of Wrath, where he exemplified
the nobility of the downtrodden man, in liberal terms. As has often been said, Henry Fonda is
so noble, that if he
plays a less than heroic character, then something's wrong with society. He mostly abandoned this
side of his persona for comedy and solid-citizen parts, until the later 60s and the
Western classic Once Upon a Time in the West. In You Only Live Once, Fonda pouts,
suffers 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?!"
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. The most fun comes with Margaret Hamilton's appearance as a
battleaxe inkeeper's wife, sort of a Wicked Desk Clerk of the West.
Image's DVD of You Only Live Once, through Castle Hill, isn't as good as one would hope.
Like dozens of other classics released by United Artists, good elements on this one
have presumably been flung to the winds, and what we have here is a not-very-impressive transfer
of a 16mm print. It's better than public domain, but not by much. The sharp, dark stills on
the attractively designed package make the grainy & soft image look pretty sad, and the hissy
audio detracts from the overall effect. But it's still a remarkable movie, and this might
be as good as it ever looks again, unless a restoration is done - or some unknown, superior
version is waiting to come out.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
You Only Live Once rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 16, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson