It is a strange fact that the Land of the Free locks more of its citizens in prison than any other country in the world. This American love of incarceration gave the European refugee film director Fritz Lang the perfect scenario for his second US movie, the doomy, melancholy, pre-noir You Only Live Once.
In May of 1934 those two legendary Texan outlaws, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, had had their robbing and killing spree brought to a close by getting shot by police. The year before that Fritz Lang had fled Nazi Germany after Josef Goebbels asked him to take over running the German film industry. These two events, the death of two attractive young criminals and the inexorable rise of the Nazi Party, both overshadow the creation of You Only Live Once in 1936.
The story of Bonnie and Clyde provided the seed of the idea behind this film. Like their real life counterparts, Sylvia Sydney as the Jo Graham and Henry Fonda as Eddie Taylor are a young couple who go on the run from the law and eventually die at the hands of the police. These are not two fun-and-gun-loving criminals however, and their time on the road only takes up the final 15 minutes of the film.
Graham made her name playing gangster’s molls, although she also appeared in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks!, but here she plays a woman who is apparently less knowing. As the film progresses, her initial innocence is questioned as she follows her man down an increasingly dangerous path. Henry Fonda’s hard-done-by Eddie is a moody fatalist, one moment indignant then quietly desperate, and always adoring of sweet Jo.
Much of the film revolves around jails, court rooms, and legal offices. These implacable institutions provide the vice that gradually crushes the hope and then life from Eddie and Jo. At the beginning Jo works as a secretary to the public defender (a state-funded defence lawyer) and is in love with Eddie, a convict just about to be released from prison. This strange relationship is frowned on by her respectable colleagues. Luckily, her beau is determined to go straight.
This is where Nazism, or at least social forces beyond our control, comes in. You might think that having found refuge in America, Lang’s films would have portrayed his adopted country in a positive light, but this was not to be. The abiding lesson learned in Germany is that the institutions of state, whichever state, rarely give the individual a chance. So Eddie, never really stands a chance. This is a man who has been “pounding on the door of the execution chamber since the day he was born.”
It turns out that Eddie was sent to a reform school as a boy, and this is his third stay in prison which means the next time he’ll get a long sentence. After coming out of prison Eddie marries Jo, and the couple are thrown out of their honeymoon hotel (by Margaret Hamilton, the actress who later played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, and her husband) because he is an ex-con. He then loses his job driving a lorry when he turns up late for a delivery (rather foolishly he’s been looking at houses with his new wife); the boss, apparently taking pleasure in ruining his life.
Lang said that the constant theme in all his films is the “the struggle of the individual against fate” in an interview with New York photographer and journalist, Gretchen Berg in 1965. The struggle is the thing, he explained: “we fight against laws, we fight against rules that seem neither good nor just. We are always fighting. I believe this combat is more important than the result.” Eddie is definitely up against fate in the sense of unjust laws and oppressive institutions, but also in the sense of plain old bad luck.
After storming out of his boss’s office there is a violent robbery – in which we see a mysterious pair of eyes peering out of slit in a car window – and Eddie is put back inside for robbery and the murder of six policemen after his hat is found at the scene. Whether or not these eyes are Eddie’s, he is caught and put on death row. The prison recalls the alienating, de-humanising urban landscapes of Lang’s earlier work Metropolis, but he escapes and goes on the run with faithful Jo.
Eddie breaks out of gaol, with tragic consequences
You Only Live Once was produced by independent producer Walter Wanger after Lang’s contract at MGM was not renewed after his first US film Fury, (this was unsurprising as the studio was mostly famous for musical spectaculars rather than movies about lynchings, which is at the heart of Fury). With its doomed criminal hero, emphasis on fate, and moody lighting, the film can be seen as a precursor to Film Noir of the 1940s and 1950s. Although the cards are clearly stacked against Eddie, his is not simply a doomed life. Lang questions fate too: We never know if Eddie is guilty of the robbery (although he could well be innocent), but it is certain he makes some bad choices. Also, Jo may start life as a trusting innocent, but she gradually compromises her moral integrity.
In addition to this powerful meditation on fate and moral culpability, we also have a love story. The loving couple are destined to be apart for much of the film, and even when they meet they are kept apart by steel doors, prison bars and thick glass windows – all given the characteristic Lang visual treatment. Eddie’s love for Jo brings some softness to his slightly unattractive character.
Somehow Fritz Lang managed to cram all this, and quite a lot more, into an hour and a half. You Only Live Once it might initially appear fairly bleak, but as a portrait of two people determined to stand up to The Man, it is a moving testament to human dignity.
You Only Live Once 75th Anniversary Edition is out on DVD on 4th June, 2012. Extras include an introduction by George Wilson, an audio interview with Fritz Lang recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1962, and Inside You Only Live Once – production takes from a film in the making.