Fritz Lang obviously didn’t anticipate James Bond when naming this film. Inspired by Journeys in Classic Film, I decided to look for a much older film than what I’ve been watching. I used to watch TCM quite a lot, and if you can get past certain things, older films still have a lot to offer. Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) was already in my queue. Anticipating the YOLO youth culture motto/hashtag/annoying-phrase-to-say-after-doing something-idiotic by almost 75 years, Fritz Lang nonetheless is better known for directing the silent sci-fi classic Metropolis (1927) (a restored version is available on Netflix streaming). My personal favorite of his, however, is M (1931), a film that is still ahead of our time in how it deals with its subject matter. If I were to make my top 100 films list, it would be somewhere in the top half.
Although a pretty good film, You Only Live Once wouldn’t make it that list. The Netflix synopsis for this film calls it a “melodrama,” which in 1937 was also known as a “drama,” as this film was no more melodramatic than most films of that day. The film opens with a painfully dated scene, where the secretary (errr, executive assistant these days) to a public defender, Joan Graham (played by Sylvia Sidney), listens to an ethnic shopkeeper complain about how nothing is being done about the apples being taken from his fruitstand. Comedy is definitely not Lang’s strength, and we aren’t subjected to too much of this hilarity, as the melodrama gets going pretty quickly. Joan is in love with a three-time convict, Eddie Taylor (played by Henry Fonda), who is warned by the police chief that a fourth conviction will result in a life sentence. The D.A. has done Eddie (and Joan) a favor by landing him a job at Ajax Movers. Eddie faces discrimination and unfair treatment from the jerk of a boss, who treats him like dirt because of his past crimes. He ultimately fires Eddie over basically a minor incident. I’m glad to see that our society has changed, and that employers nowadays look beyond a person’s past…oh, wait, nevermind.
We wonder about Eddie’s next moves after losing his job, and we then see a bank robbery unfold before our eyes. This scene is the only one in the film that Lang definitely brought his own sensibilities to. The rest of the film could have been done by a lot of the directors of this time, but this bank robbery has an edge to it that creeps you out in the way that M does. The menacing eyes, leering thru a tiny opening in the back of a car; hands grabbing gas masks; a crowd panicking as tear gas is thrown into the street. If you look up this film on Wikipedia, you will find that over 15 minutes were cut from the film due to its then “unprecedented realistic violence.” It’s a true shame that this happened, as you witness true greatness in the little that actually survived that cut here in the robbery scene. In some ways it reminded me of the bank robbery scene in The Dark Knight, not necessarily for content, but in how it felt.
SPOILER ALERT: well, not quite yet, but coming soon. So of course Eddie somehow gets blamed for this bank robbery, and faces a life time conviction. Various things happen that if i describe them all, of course would defeat the purpose of viewing the movie. But I do have to mention how weird and dated the very end feels. Eddie and Joan are running from the law, and anticipating the corniness of Shining Through, are just inches from the Canadian border and safety. We know that Joan is already dead, and we gather from, as an IMDB reviewer says, the “syrupy” voice of the priest that Eddie shot during his escape speaking to Eddie from Heaven, that Eddie also dies. It’s not really an ending that works, but the theme of the film, that a justice system that is unfair, hostile, and corrupt is just a reflection of the society that created it, rings true.
Both Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney for the most part avoid the overacting and excessive emoting common to this era of film making, but I would expect none of that from a Fritz Lang film in any case. You’ll notice the weird camera angles that Lang is known for throughout the movie. Also look out for Margaret Hamilton, two years before her career defining role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
My IMDB rating for You Only Live Once: 7 out of 10
My Netflix rating: 3 out of 5