You Only Live Once
Bristling under the sneering superiority of the self-righteous majority, Henry Fonda is a brooding powder keg of reluctant criminality as three time loser Eddie Taylor in Fritz Lang's pre-noir classic You Only Live Once (1937). Taylor's tragedy is purely theoretical in its premise he's a lifelong felon who'd go straight if only society would allow him and the script by Graham Baker and Gene Towne relies on one contrived complication after another to dig the convict an ever-deepening grave. However, the young Fonda's gravely earnest demeanor, freighted with those hints of murderous explosion, grounds the cynical drama in something recognizably human. The other component of this morality play is Sylvia Sidney (known primarily to younger moviegoers as the elderly social worker from Beetlejuice) as Taylor's lady love Joan, who's stood by her man against the wishes of everyone around her, including her public-defender boss (Barton MacLane), who intervened to get Eddie an early release. Though everyone has their doubts about Eddie, the couple marries on the day of his release and quickly run off to a country inn for their honeymoon. But no sooner do they settle into their room than does the specter of intolerance come a-knockin' at their door in the form of the indignant innkeeper and his very wicked wife (a brief and welcome appearance by Margaret Hamilton), who, having suddenly been made aware of Eddie's criminal past, insist that the couple vacate the premises. Eddie is outraged, but Joan ably defuses his simmering anger; still, this is just a benign sampling of the more serious impediments that await them. Soon, Eddie's hard-case boss fires him from his truck driving gig for goldbricking, leaving him without the means to make the rest of the looming down payment on the couple's new house. It's at this terribly inopportune moment that Eddie's old gang pulls off a heist and frame their ex-partner for the job. Sensing the hopelessness of the situation, Eddie wants to run, but Joan convinces him to face the music, believing that the truth will out. This only proves to be her last hopeful moment, as the unforgiving vise of an unjust society tightens its grip on the lovers until they're both forced on the lam, turned fugitives by "the stain of society." Top heavy with foreshadowing and overt symbolism (one word: frogs), and unbearably fatalistic from the first reel, You Only Live Once is nonetheless a briskly paced crime drama buoyed by a number of inventive plot twists that set it apart from every "lovers on the run" picture it has reputedly inspired (it is itself loosely based on the Bonnie and Clyde story). As usual, Lang's gift for pure visual storytelling astounds, particularly in the taut prison escape sequence where the director and his writers pile on one cruel twist after another. Shot utilizing two of Lang's favorite elements (darkness and fog), it's at once beautiful and excruciating to behold. There is also a very strong spiritual element running throughout the film that almost reads as a sarcastic slap at its main characters' aspirations for this life and the next, which makes the film's final moment feel like a truly fiendish twist of the knife; the music may swell, but hope has been extinguished. For subversive jabs such as this, Lang's picture remains eminently provocative to this day. Image Entertainment presents You Only Live Once in a full-screen transfer (1.33:1) struck from a scratchy, but watchable, print. The sound is monaural, and the disc is bare-bones. Keep-case.