Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) – 75th anniversary DVD review
Only once? The way Fritz Lang tells it, there’s more than enough violence, fear and mistrust in a single life to make death feel like freedom.
You Only Live Once
(Fritz Lang, 1937)
You Only Live Once begins with the story of a grocer, outraged because a policeman consistently steals apples when he walks past the stall. It’s played for laughs, a cute gag – and then the cop walks in, takes an apple the grocer has left off the desk, and walks out of the room with outrageous bravado. Law and order take a tumble, justice is given the finger, and you know this film isn’t going to have a happy ending even before we’ve met one of the main characters.
Few films are as spare and fatalistic as this one. It’s the story of Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), a paroled bank robber who has fallen in love with Joan (Sylvia Sidney), a girl who works for a liberal public defender prepared to give Eddie a second chance. But the rest of society isn’t as ready to forgive and forget, and soon a volatile mix of 25% misfortune, 25% coincidence and 50% the public’s cynicism, mistrust and meanness, sets off a chain reaction that forces the lovers to take desperate measures. It’s a film of such flinty menace that it actually dares to give us realistic hope of salvation, only for the characters to renounce it in disbelief because they’ve become so attuned to hardship.
Fritz Lang arrived in Hollywood after the rise of Nazism forced him to flee his German home, and he sure as hell brought that pessimism with him. He saw the same poverty and desperation in America, and the same failure of institutions to deal with it. Kindness is doomed – a peaceful priest fails to help Eddie, and the liberal lawyer is such a weak-willed guy he starts to flout the law himself when it matters. Elsewhere, people are spiteful, nimbyish figures who don’t want to know an ex-con, or so selfish they can’t be bothered to help.
What’s amazing about this film is how tight it is. Lang chews up enough plot for three films; a whole genre – the “lovers on the run” cycle of Bonnie and Clyde (whose real-life story inspired Lang) and Badlands – sprang up from You Only Live Once’s final act. This is even more impressive when you learn 15 minutes was chopped from the film for violence to reach the 86 minute release version, but the editing is ruthlessly precise and pared-down the urgency feels integral to the film’s impact. With each scene transition, Eddie and Joan’s odds of happiness are slashed further down. Sometimes, the ellipses are so sudden and breathless you’re left wondering how much time has passed since the last scene – but time is no remedy. All that matters is that there is less of it left.
The only exception to this are the running joke – if “joke” can be applied to something so cruel – in which Lang zeroes in on man’s natural propensity to greed. It’s there in that opening scene with the apples, but also in a shot of gas station attendants, held up for petrol but calling in the crime as a full-blown stick-up so they can pocket the cash from the register. Or the motel owner who spots Joan and gives up her position to the police, not out of moral duty but because he clocks the reward money on the poster. Even in moments of exposition, Lang twists the story into a wider portrait of a malign society. The sense of entrapment seeps like poison, just as (in the film’s most eloquent example of Lang’s expressionist, pre-noir photography) the bars on a jail cell leave inescapable shadows on all sides.
In the 1960s, critics would make a huge deal about the counter-casting of Hollywood’s moral icon, Henry Fonda, as a cold killer – but Lang beat Sergio Leone by three decades. Eddie isn’t a bad person; simply one who is never given the chance to be good, so takes bad by default. Once that first domino has been pushed, it’s more than even Fonda’s intense idealism can do to prevent the whole lot from tumbling, cueing a descent into wide-eyed hysteria. But the true sucker-punch comes from Sylvia Sidney as Joan, the fresh-faced beauty who begins the film laughing at the grocer who has his apples stolen and ends it a willing accomplice in Eddie’s descent into hell.
You Only Live Once is released on DVD on 4th June 2012 by StudioCanal in time for its 75th anniversary. Extras include rare footage of the film being made (in the days before DVD, stuff like this ended up in museum archives; the material has been loaned by the Museum of Modern Art) and a lengthy 1960s audio interview with Lang at the BFI.