on 21 January 2013
"You only live once" is here presented in a crisp, sharply contrasted print with an excellent audio level - quite simply, you could never see any black and white film of the 1930's in better quality than this. It makes the photography look stunning.
I hadn't seen this in a long while, and I'd forgotten how good it is - it's usually "sold" as a crime melodrama, but it's equally one of classic cinema's great love stories. There is real chemistry between Henry Fonda and waif-like Sylvia Sydney and their tragic love story should move even the hardest of hearts. It's a story set against the background of depression America, and of one man's struggle, eventually lost, to go straight and throw off his criminal past. Henry Fonda is particularly effective and his defeat by a particularly cruel sequence of events mainly outside of his control is harrowing to watch.
This is definitely a film which deserves better recognition and it's rarity now - it's not been on TV for many years - is quite a scandal really.
I thoroughly enjoyed this - if you like 1930's drama you are in for a treat!
This brilliant (and typically fatalistic) early (1937) Fritz Lang noir was the film-maker’s second film in Hollywood, following the previous year’s 'revenge mob classic’, Fury, and You Only Live Once continued Lang’s exploration of many of the themes of the earlier film (and, indeed, themes from his previous German period). As with Fury, we once again have a pair of young lovers, here Henry Fonda’s Eddie Taylor and Sylvia Sidney’s Jo Graham, struggling to survive both the forces of a depressed economy and an unforgiving judicial system, but here, as well as (again) pointing up the potential flaws in the system of capital punishment, Lang also explores what actually 'makes’ a criminal (the 'three time loser’ Eddie) and the balance between social conditioning and innate human characteristics. Of course, Lang’s film is far from being a barrel of laughs (albeit the man’s dark, ironic humour surfaces at the most unexpected moments) and we’re not taken in for a second by the film’s upbeat beginning, but the film’s mix of suspense, ambiguous plot points and (frequently) sombre drama also allows for the film-maker (and cinematographer Leon Shamroy) to make You Only Live Once one of Lang’s most stunningly visual US efforts.
Lang’s central pairing is outstanding – Fonda, cast against type as the (increasingly agitated) ex-con whose forced optimism is knocked back at every turn (whether by new-found landlords or employers); Sidney, again playing the demure optimist, whose honesty and integrity is gradually eroded as 'cynical society’ and her obsessive love for Eddie morphs the lovers’ (frog-like) love pact into a death pact. Fonda and Sidney thus monopolise the acting honours (and screen-time), but, elsewhere, Barton MacLane and Jean Dixon also impress as the 'restraining influences’ on Jo’s obsession with Eddie, MacLane as ‘public defender’ Stephen Whitney and Dixon as Jo’s sister Bonnie. William Gargan’s Catholic priest, Father Dolan, also provides a significant motif for Lang, as the man of the cloth lies for the benefit of Eddie and provides him with a potential spiritual way out of his predicament.
What transforms Lang’s film from merely good into outstanding, however, is its mise-en-scène, specifically Lang’s inventive storytelling devices – three potential press verdicts on Eddie’s guilt or innocence, a tickertape message and ‘wanted’ posters all borrowing from Lang’s silent films (and M). In addition, we get a near-endless stream of visual pyrotechnics – the brilliant 'deceptive’ robbery sequence being a highlight (and reminding me of Spione), plus multiple low angle, off-kilter and extended close-up shots, montages, shots through prison bars, reflections in water and stunning use of light and shadow.
Lang, however, continues the social commentary by reminding us of what Eddie and Jo are up against via two stark moments – first, as Eddie realises one of the only times anyone (other than Jo) has shown him any compassion is when his life is saved to allow him to 'go to the chair’ and, second, as the camera looks into the eyes of the couple’s young son and we wonder whether he faces the same fate as Eddie. It’s powerful stuff in what is a hard-hitting, inventive piece of classic noir.