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Joan Graham, who works for the public defender Stephen Whitney, is in love with Eddie Taylor--a three-time convict who has just received an early release thanks to the support of Whitney and the prison chaplain, Father Dolan. Joan and Eddie get married, but their new life together isn't easy; rejected by society at every turn, Eddie finds himself out of work and begins to associate with other ex-cons. When Eddie's hat is discovered at the scene of a fatal armed robbery, he is captured, convicted and finally sentenced to death. Joan, however, is convinced of his innocence. He manages to escape and Joan goes on the run with him, facing an uncertain future.
Fritz Lang's second American film, You Only Live Once (1937), is often characterized as among the very finest of his post-German career. In it he manages to achieve a rare balance between hard-edged social commentary, a moving love story, and expressive visual design. From the opening shot--an imposing, vaguely menacing view of a Hall of Justice--Fritz Lang indicates that he will question the nature of justice itself, or at least how justice is implemented in society. This is born out by the judgmental and callous behavior of ordinary people that Eddie and Joan meet after his release from prison. The hotel manager and his wife, inflamed by stories in sensationalistic "true crime" magazines, evict Eddie and Joan from their room on their honeymoon. The trucking company owner fires Eddie and talks casually on the phone with his wife about a card party while Eddie pleads for his job. Greedy individuals pocket cash register tills, claiming that the fugitives Eddie and Joan robbed them. Here Lang's cynical view of "the crowd" displays underlying similarities to the lynch mob in Fury (1936), his first American film, and to the panicky, quick-to-accuse populace in M (1931). At the same time, this film is enriched by a number of striking images, including Eddie and Joan's honeymoon conversation next to a frog pond, the devastating scene in which a newspaper prepares three different front-page headlines and photos of Eddie depending on the outcome of his court trial, the fogbound prison escape scene, and smaller details such as Joan drinking milk from a can pierced with a bullet hole.
Lang had been dissatisfied with his experience working at MGM on the film Fury due to studio interference such as an imposed happy ending. In that respect, it was fortuitous that he was able to make You Only Live Once with independent producer Walter Wanger. According to Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, it was lead actress Sylvia Sidney who recommended to Wanger that Lang direct the project. The idea for the film came out of a dinner conversation between Wanger, Sidney and author Theodore Dreiser, during which Dreiser recommended that they do a story on Bonnie and Clyde. Lang was brought in as director after a draft of the script had been completed. Wanger agreed to let Lang have control over the final cut of the film, a privilege very rarely granted to directors in Hollywood. In his biography on Walter Wanger, author Matthew Bernstein notes that although Lang claimed at the time that Wanger refused to let him shoot a prologue depicting the "troubled environment" in which Eddie Taylor grew up, this assertion is questionable since no such prologue exists in the various drafts of the script.
Lang's notorious drive to control every aspect of a film was extended even to the acting; more than one person--including Henry Fonda, the film's male lead--has remarked that Lang treated his actors like puppets. Sylvia Sidney had worked with Lang previously on Fury and was more or less used to his methods. "I loved working with him because I loved the fact that he was so meticulous. He knew more about [the] camera, he knew more about cutting, and when he said he wanted just a close-up, [it was] very much like Hitchcock, it's what we used to call cutting in the camera." Later she would boast about being the only actor to survive three of Lang's films, the third being You and Me (1938). Lang's working relationship with Henry Fonda was far less smooth. Sidney recalls how Lang deliberately manipulated Fonda to get the desired results in terms of performance: "What he would do was take me across the set where Fonda was sitting, and would whisper in my ear. He had a thermos with homemade soup in it and he would pour some for me, all the time speaking softly. Well, Fonda knew that Fritz and I had worked together before, and he assumed that Fritz was giving me preferential treatment; giving me extra coaching, you know, that sort of thing. Well, Fonda would fume and mutter, 'That son of a bitch'...while all Fritz was doing was telling me how he had made the soup. And Fonda sort of said, 'The hell with him. I'll show him,' and he gave one hell of a performance."
You Only Live Once was not a great box office success during its initial release, but it was well received by most critics. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times did not feel the film was as strong as Fury, but he did praise Lang's direction: "Mr. Lang's intuitive sense of camera angle, pace and mood raises it to dramatic stature...." However, the reviewer for Newsweek characterized the film as "the finest of its type since [The] Public Enemy ", adding: "Given a stirring screen play by Gene Towne and Graham Baker, [Lang] directs it with the power and realism that characterized his work in M and Fury." Similarly, the reviewer for Time wrote, "You Only Live Once sets a pace which 1937 cops-&-robbers sagas may find hard to beat."
Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Gene Towne and Graham Baker
Photography: Leon Shamroy
Art Director: Alexander Toluboff
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Costumes: Helen Taylor
Music Director: Alfred Newman
Cast: Sylvia Sidney (Joan Graham), Henry Fonda (Eddie Taylor), Barton MacLane (Stephen Whitney), Jean Dixon (Bonnie Graham), William Gargan (Father Dolan), Jerome Cowan (Doctor Hill), Chic Sale (Ethan), Margaret Hamilton (Hester), Warren Hymer (Buggsy), Guinn Williams (Roger), John Wray (Warden).
by James Steffen