You Only Live Once

You Only Live Once (1937) movie poster

(1937) director Fritz Lang
viewed: 09/11/10

After seeing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), I was interested in finally seeing more of his other films, his American films that he made after emigrating before the outbreak of WWII.  The first of these films that I queued up for myself was the Depression-era crime film You Only Live Once, starring Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney.

Considered a proto film noir, the movie is actually the first cinematic interpretation of the story of Bonnie and Clyde (with a great deal of liberties thrown in).  What’s most striking about the film are both some of Lang’s very poignant and powerful visuals and violence, but also the outsider drama and passion for the two misunderstood criminals.  I would argue that surely it’s proto-noir, not the genuine article, but that it is a fascinating step in the generation of the style while tying itself to the populist antihero criminals that are its stars.

Fonda plays a small-time criminal who is just being released from prison, reformed and ready to toe the straight-and-narrow with his loving new wife Sidney.  But a harsh world for ex-cons doesn’t show him either hospitality nor much leeway and he quickly loses the job that he’d gotten lined up for him on the outside.  Down on his luck, things get worse when he is framed for a bank heist that kills four bystanders and cops, and when his wife convinces him to turn himself in to prove his innocence, that backfires too and he is found guilty and sentenced to death.  His innocence on the crime is found out, but not before he kills a priest, a friend of his who has worked hard to help him, in a desperate jailbreak.  This lands both Fonda and his once innocent wife on the wrong side of the law for good and they take to the lam in a tragic story arc.  Harsh times beget harsh realities.

Really, it’s a very pessimistic film, a dark message for the Depression-era audience.  But it’s lively and well-made.  Fonda has never been a favorite of mine, but he and Sidney are strong in the film.  The real star is Lang’s construction, in most particular the violent bank robbery, which is deftly shot and powerful.  It’s fascinating to see the heroes/anti-heroes, good-hearted, good-natured people driven to extremes, driven in desperation by a world that doesn’t cut them an even break, and to see it all wrapped up in tragedy, not a merry ending.  Harsh times indeed.  Excellent film.

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