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You Only Live ONCE

You Only Live Once
Image Entertainment
1937 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 86 min. / Street Date June 24, 2003 /
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

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.

Synopsis (spoiler):

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 same year's 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
Video: Fair
Sound: Fair
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 16, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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