YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937) DVD
Before Arthur Penn revolutionised screen violence by massacring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in a slow-mo paroxysm of bullet-riddled flesh, the Bonnie and Clyde story inspired in part Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once. Both films are suffused with a distinctly lyrical fatalism and treat their subjects as gutsy heroes tragically marked for death. But throughout the earlier noir hangs a cloud of irony like a bitter hangover from the recent Depression.
Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) is a three-time loser about to be released back into society. If he gets nicked again, he’ll spend a lifetime in the slammer, so determines to go straight, marrying his respectable girl Jo (Sylvia Sidney) immediately. When putting a deposit on a house causes him to be late for work, Eddie loses his job: with zero employability prospects, a mortgage and a baby on the way, will he be able to resist the temptation of another heist?
Cut to a bank in the pouring rain, a shifty eye staring through the sliver of an open car window observing a street packed with black umbrellas. Inside the vehicle a man wears a gas mask as precursor to an explosion of white smoke under which the loot will be robbed. Six corpses and a hat belonging to the ex-con comprise the aftermath. Despite peevish protestations refuting culpability, the death sentence is passed and the story gets stewed with further mordancy as Eddie becomes criminally desperate to escape the rap and sourly prove his worth to his devoted wife.
The second film that Lang made in America, You Only Live Once is a taut hall of mirrors, refracting and rendering its ambiguity through arch smokescreens. Take the robbery: a sequence made up of elements deliberately obscuring action and confusing vision. Who was the man behind the mask? Did he have an accomplice? Sardonically, the person who was probably in the best position to answer these is a blind beggar.
When Eddie is being tried, the image cuts to a headline pinned to a wall declaring his freedom. The camera then pans to two others- hung jury, TAYLOR GUILTY: we are in an editor’s office awaiting the verdict to decide which front page to run. Once again, a wry sleight of hand to steer the audience into assumption. Lang’s cinema often challenges the staid maxim that ‘seeing is believing’, effortlessly manipulating perception to sarcastically mock the desire to accept things at face value instead of looking deeper, in fear of confronting contradiction and nuance.
But, running parallel to this cynicism, there is charged romanticism tinged with irony. Eddie is often lit in strong key-light, almost angelic, that brightens as his situation worsens; after accidentally committing the ultimate crime in a foggy prison yard, the gates open for him to pass through, the swelling haze and sheer size of the doors making this an image perhaps of an admission to heaven. And the tenderness between the fugitive couple in the final scenes is as striking as an earlier sequence of their wedding night: looking down at two frogs on a lily pad in a night-time garden of almost Edenic beauty, Eddie says that the creatures cannot live without each other. A frog hops off his perch disturbing their reflection in their water. As it shimmers back to stillness, Jo replies, “Maybe they see something in each other that no-one else can see.”
Behind its many deliberate façades, You Only Live Once is a poignant tale of a man who cannot flip the cards that a tough, heartless society has dealt him.
It is classic film noir. audio interview with Lang from 1962, where the director’s terse, deprecatory wit is in full evidence, refusing to offer interpretation; Introduction by a USC philosophy professor that discusses key scenes as if a film studies lecture; Archive outtakes, where we get a hint of the tyrant that Lang could purportedly be on set: “I’ll call you when you should come!”