You Only Live Once (1937)

You Only Live Once (1937) is a 1930s couple on the run prison crime drama noir by Fritz Lang, and a super-early film noir classic, the bleakness of which the United States was not quite ready to face.

The picture's true noir inclination arises from the fact that it is about destiny and fate, and is the subjectively told story of the interlocking forces that serve to ruin the lives of a positive and beautiful young couple.

Although everything may at times seem to be going well for this couple, the truth is that everything is going badly. 

An early entry into the sub-genre of fugitive lovers on the lam pictures, the story leans on the legend of Bonnie and Clyde and shows how three times jailbird Eddie Taylor (played by Henry Fonda) is released, after strings are pulled,  into the arms of his adoring gal, Jo Graham (Sylvia Sidney). 

Determined to go straight and settle down with Jo, Eddie finds that society is not ready to forgive nor forget. If it is not the media that is after him, or the general public, the worst of it is that his former comrades in criminal arms want him back with them as well.

Barton MacLane and Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once (1937)

The resulting tragi noir tale is shot with full proto-noir and expressionistic flavour, including drifting  mists and web-like shadows playing across key scenes, as well as lopsided angles and an ongoing frog motif which highlights the sometimes nightmarish aspect common to so many of Lang's, especially earlier movies.

Canted angles — prison noir — You Only Live Once (1937)

You Only Live Once (1937) may be one of the earliest examples of the true film noir style — perhaps it's even a taste of the style or a foreshadowing before noir began its full and recognisable expression, around 1940.

The resulting film was not a success at the box office however, perhaps proving that in 1937 the world was not ready for noir. Lang of course, having come from Germany, had seen the future, and it was enough for him to create this — the darkest entry for sure in the doomed lovers school of filmmaking.

Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once (1937)

As a down-on-one's-luck prison and death sentence noir You Only Live Once (1937) plays the fullest of classic film noir's favourite and most complete symphonies — an innocent person trying to deal with their past, while at the same time being sucked towards a fateful and deadly conclusion, through a combination of good-faith acts gone wrong, and ill-timed fateful happenings.

Newspaper noir in You Only Live Once (1937)

The fact that You Only Live Once (1937) was a failure at the box-office was simply a sign of just that — the audiences of America were not ready for these dark and fateful stories yet. Unhappy endings, heroes being thrown to their fates, and beautiful young lovers not concluding the screenplay in a clinch — lest it be a clinch of death — this was still a few years away.

Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once (1937)

By the early 1940s, only a few years away, much of this would be the norm. Social issues are one of the newer aspects which Lang in particular brought to the American cinema, and film noir does often deal with the progress of characters as they come and go from prison, and consequently try and fit into society.

The grim aspect of this early noir masterpiece is brought together by so many factors, including the super-expressive and sad tearful face of Sylvia Sidney, which carries the day. The shot of Eddie (Henry Fonda) in his cell, with the shadows of the bars reaching out to meet the uninterested guard, is almost a classic of film noir in itself — a roaring example of a medium that was yet to come.

 and Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once (1937)

The influence of poetic realism seems to be manifest too, in the crummy and downbeat settings and characters, and the morose and intractable air that touches everything. After Henry loses his job, being verbally assaulted by his boss for his past, and in desperation, tries to keep his wife from finding out, the noose seems to tighten further and the movie becomes a kind of rollercoaster ride to the bottom.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time then makes Henry out to be a suspect in a bank robbery, and and he ends up on death row. It seems that by the start of the film, it is already too late, and Henry will become the criminal that society already believes him to be, coming up with a crazy escape plan that will lead him to yet deeper doom.

It is a positive sign that this subject was at least of interest to film noir directors such as Fritz Lang. A Fritz Lang from 1938 deals with this same issue and on a grander scale, in the movie You and Me (1938). In You and Me there is a whole squad of parolees and ex-cons trying to make their way in society by working in a department store. 

Key to this approach in the classic film noir style, is a solid character who believes in them — one person perhaps tough on the exterior but holding an almost religious faith in the goodness of the men or women in question. 

Henry Fonda plays Eddie Taylor, an ex-convict and 'three-time loser' who feels he is reformed and deserves a break, but he has doubts that he will get one. Initially, his doubts seem unfounded as his life goes well. He gets married to Joan (the woman who waited for him and who has always believed in him), and her boss (Stephen the public defender, played by Barton McLane) has helped him get a steady job, and he has the potential to buy a house with Joan.

The marriage is most interesting, and one of the most enjoyable courting scenes in film noir as it coupled with the scenery of a nearby pond, where the couple first watch frogs mating. There are signs that this new life is going to fall apart because the lower-middle-class busybodies who run the boarding house — Margaret Hamilton who would achieve screen immortality two years later by playing The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz — work out through tedious detective work in true crime magazines — that Taylor is an ex-con and they throw him out in a scene of super-petty comic malignity — which might be funny were it not so mean.

Meddling neighbours, social disapproval, in You Only Live Once (1937)

Notice here that this also allows another great Fritz Langian theme to be explored, and exceptionally early in his American career — but this is the link between crime and mass media, and social welfare and wellbeing, and the same. 

One of the best examples of this in Lang's storytelling is the short scene with the newspaper editor, who is preparing three different front pages, GUILTY, NOT GUILTY and UNDECIDED. It's more than silent-cinema-style storytelling but works a treat and now more than ever, cinema needs technique, and Lang was a part of that boom.

Newspaper noir in You Only Live Once (1937)

As Eddie's new life falls apart, he is summarily fired after his boss finds out about his past also. Eddie's old gang tempt him with an offer to join them in bank robberies, but he chooses to search for legitimate work instead. 

When a bank job occurs during which six people are killed, Eddie is framed — by use of the ultimate male noir prop — his hat —   and subsequently wrongly convicted for the murders. He is sentenced to death by electrocution.

Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once (1937)

You Only Live Once (1937) takes on an unremittingly desperate tone after this, and explores moral regions rarely touched even by later film noirs. The effect the wrongful death sentence has on Eddie is dramatic, and when he is pardoned and does not know it, the drama reaches uncomfortable peaks —  and conclusions.

The success of this story is the bedrock of chemistry between Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda —   both convincing and charismatic as innocents abroad in a wicked world. They are cowed by fate, and by architecture, then finally by crime and poverty, and when You Only Live Once turns into a couple on the run movie in the latter third, they have a baby on the run, which wile ultimately a dramatic zenith, may have confused viewers at the time, looking for direction on how to think and feel.

Moody lighting and curious camera angles do make their appearance in You Only Live Once, along with favourable use of classic film noir fog when needed. Although the range presented from the two leads, who manage love, vulnerability, tension, mania and desperation all to a tee make this a superlative example of the form, before the form had fully developed and identified itself.

Expressionism is wonderful to see when mediated by Hollywood at this stage, and rather than being a style in itself it amounts to a tool for the telling of in this case a tragic noir tale, landing drifting fogs, mists and prison bar shadows where it can, which more than anything else asks a remove of the audience, inviting them into what is in fact a fantasy, framed and told in with as many real life motifs as it can muster.

Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once (1937)

Elements of the lightest of comedy and fairly firm romance are included at the head of the drama, but few film noirs grow so dark from such lightness. On the final take, You Only Live Once is a  depressive story of love and prejudice set in an unfair, corrupt and hostile society, where losers do not have the chance to recover their dignity and where common people are corrupt. 

Moreover, the screenplay is certainly influenced by Bonnie and Clyde, who died on 23 May 1934, ambushed in their getaway car, less than three years before the release date of this film. 

Film noir's beautiful prison cages in You Only Live Once (1937)

Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, who were real criminals, this couple Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney are good-natured and kind people. Naturally enough, a feeling of deep sadness and distress begins to form like a cocoon of doom around them, as inevitability and fate close in.

Fritz Lang left Germany in 1933 and arrived in Hollywood as censorship began to take effect after a long march. The Supreme Court ruled in 1915, in a court case Mutual Film Corporation v Industrial Commission of Ohio, that the right to free speech did not extend to motion pictures. 

Censorship boards began in various different states, but Hollywood had been working to try and establish its own code with attempts at implementation at first, 1922, 1927 and 1929

However in 1934 the Production Code Administration started enforcing standards and for this reason  about 15 minutes of material in You Only Live Once are missing, a lot of it from the bank raid results in Eddie winding up back in jail.

Without this the film still makes sense and works well, though without the violent, excised material it probably comes over as more moralistic than Lang had originally wanted and far less nuanced.

This grim masterpiece of early noir captures a lot that was to become staple, including bleak photography, and plot-parts which fit together to drive the lovers  toward an inevitable conclusion. The criminal going straight and trying to get a break is a key theme in film noir, and continues to be throughout the cycle. Combine this with the social liberalism during the New Deal when it was believed all of life's social ills could be cured with the right government program, and you have a timely depression-era feature — albeit one in which the depression era wins out.

Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937)

Perhaps a little like Stagecoach (1939) two years later, this is a daring William Wanger production, going out on a limb and doubling down on depression-era blues, and using the brilliant German director Fritz Lang to mark up an essentially American drama — creating full-fat classic film noir.

You Only Live Once is maybe one of Fritz Lang's best American films, certainly it is memorable in its intensity. In this fashion combines American sentimentalism with German Expressionist fatalism. Foregoing the violent and hard-boiled realism of the decade's Warner Brothers’ prison films You Only Live Once is a more nuanced, psychological and Kafkaseque predicament, and even though it is too chronologically early to win its way into any classic film noir categorisations, it contains so many visual, dramatic and thematic elements which would become the mainstays of the films noir of the 1940s —  with above all, a doomed protagonist.

Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda in You Only Live Once (1937)

The historic background is clearly displayed if difficult to stomach. During times such as the depression, ordinary good faith acting people can be driven to make critically wrong decisions, or do things they would not normally do, and wind up in precarious and dangerous situations sometimes out of their control.

No pot of gold in You Only Live Once (1937)

You Only Live Once (1937) at Wikipedia

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