You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937)
The public defender's secretary and an ex-convict get married and try to make a life together, but a series of disasters sends their lives spiraling out of control.
Fritz Lang’s second American feature, the first being Fury, continues on building the themes that will become the cornerstone of Film noir and Melodrama. Starring Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda as the Taylors, Eddie and Joan form a young couple of an ex-prisoner and the secretary of the public defender. This unique union of “good and bad” is linked by the fact that Lang exploits the Rousseau principle on the beliefs of Joan that she believes that every man is born good and that society brings him to do bad things. In fact, the plot of the film slowly evolves into proving that it is quite right.
Wrongly accused and judged of robbing a bank and killing six persons, Eddie goes back to prison to wait for his eventual execution. But before these things happen a strong depiction of how a person is marked for life and that forgiveness isn’t always a given when someone has sinned. Lang’s themes in You Only Live Once revolve around the Catholic themes of guilt, innocence, forgiveness, and unconditional love. The criminal life of Eddie follows him all along the film even if he did not commit a crime to get inside. However, Joan knows that he is good and knows that is feelings for her are pure. For that, she will get into deep trouble as a showing of her love and dedication. Even if someone is not acquainted to Catholic values, the moral dilemmas and observations exposed enriched the keen qualities of the script.
Shot in a crisp black and white, You Only Live Once marks the fact that Lang is establishing himself as one of the most talented storyteller of his time. His mise en scène is methodical and nothing is useless or superfluous. It is easy to take this Fonda movie and to compare it with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, also starring Fonda and based on a crime that he may or may not have done. While Hitchcock’s film was a pale attempt to direct a Neorealist film. On the other hand, Lang directs a genuine film that will reverberate itself for decades. There are many similarities between both directors but at some point, Lang is a better storyteller and he is more apt to direct actors and infuse believable characters.
Finally, since Fritz Lang was more of a hard tempered director he had some troubles to get the recognition amongst Hollywood and since he was German this never helped him to fully get the respect he deserved. In the upcoming weeks many Lang movies will be reviewed and have a full spot on them.