Fritz Lang’s second Hollywood picture is You Only Live Once, a 1937 outing with a screenplay by C. Graham Baker and Gene Towne. This Depression-era movie has the hallmarks of noir, even if it doesn’t necessarily fall within the typically accepted period. Most scholars accept that film noir commenced in the 1940s, although Lang was certainly laying foundations beforehand.
With You Only Live Once, the filmmaker’s concerns are with fatalism and with the role society can play in the direction a man’s life takes. There is inborn futility, which blends courteously with the social conscience embodied by Henry Fonda, and it plays gracefully to larger fears of slipping through the cracks.
Fonda is Eddie Taylor, a third-strike ex-convict seeing release after yet another run in the Big House. Sylvia Sidney is Joan, the woman who loves him. She works for Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane), the public defender. Stephen’s set Eddie up with a job at a trucking company and the hope is that everything’s going to work out this time.
Unfortunately, Eddie is late for work and he’s fired. The boss won’t give him a second chance. What’s more, Joan’s already bought a house and Eddie has to come through with the down payment. He has nowhere to turn because nobody wants to hire an ex-con. There’s a bank robbery and Eddie is thrown back in the slammer, this time for good. But nothing can keep the lovebirds apart.
In You Only Live Once, Lang has no use for optimism. Given the desperation of the times, it’s easy to imagine someone slipping through the cracks – especially if that someone has been rejected by society through means of incarceration and/or poverty. Second chances aren’t part of the repertoire in this American life.
Fonda is the perfect performer to play Eddie and Lang’s exploration of what could be called the actor’s simmering righteousness plays right into film noir hands. He plays a criminal who has made mistakes, but he’s far from the hard-boiled epitome of the genre. He’s done the right thing, even when the law said otherwise, and he’s struggled when the deck’s been stacked against him.
Sidney is virtue itself, a grinning and delightful saviour for Eddie. When she meets him at his prison release, they kiss through the bars because they can barely wait to get their hands on each other. And when the door to the prison is open, he barely notices because she’s all he sees. One could argue, as MacLane’s Stephen does, that Joan is a touch on the naïve side.
Regardless, Lang wastes little time dashing the couple’s hopes of a normal life. First, he has them booted from their celebratory suite by a meddlesome couple who just can’t have a criminal staying in their place. Here, Eddie struggles to maintain his cool. He takes his little lady and skedaddles through gritted teeth.
When the job falls through, Lang has Eddie beg. He has the lead character lower himself to desperation. The protagonist is willing to do anything to get his gig back, but his cold-hearted supervisor would rather chatter on the phone to his wife. This infuriates Eddie and he clobbers the guy.
By putting Eddie through the ringer, Lang wonders about the nature of the social order. He opens his film with a shot of the Hall of Justice, but cinematographer Leon Shamroy constructs the aesthetic with menace. And inside the jail, the audience sometimes looks up and through the bars. It’s like they ascend all the way to heaven, with no escape for the common man.
With You Only Live Once, Lang examines the forces that wedge certain people out of society. He offers affable protagonists and proposes an idyllic future, setting the stage for the exaggerated bliss that tends to show up in movies and commercials. But he rips the bottom out, reminding his characters and the audience that even the best intentions can go horribly awry.