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USA 1937
Directed by
Fritz Lang
86 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

You Only Live Once

Although Lang’s film does have a certain tragic persuasion in its story by today’s standards it is stridently over-stated in achieving it.    

It is Depression-era America and Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), a small-time crook and three-time loser has finally gotten a break thanks to a good woman Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney). She manages to get him released from his latest stretch in the pen. Edie vows to go straight but society is so judgemental of his past that he ends up back in the nick and on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Once a loser always a loser according the opinion of the world at largeand when Eddie breaks out of jail his reputation only gets worse.

Thematically related to Lang's previous and first Hollywood film, Fury, which also starred Sylvia Sydney, You Only Live Twice is a scathing condemnation of social bigotry.  Whilst Lang effectively creates the sense of impending doom descending on Eddie with moody chiaroscuro lighting and camerawork that has rightly been cited as paving the way for the pervasive film noir style of the next decade, the screenplay by Gene Towne and Graham Baker so steadfastly demonizes everyone around Eddie that instead of being fatalistic the plot seems unconvincingly contrived, at least by today’s standards.  One asks questions such as “why would his former prison colleague set him up?”; “why wouldn’t the prison warden tell Eddie the name of that same person instead of letting Eddie kill a priest?”; “why do the police hound Eddie so viciously when they know the reason for his prison break?”.  

Inspired by the legend of Bonnie and Clyde Barrow, the quasi-spiritual ending to the martyred Eddie and his devoted wife is far less satisfying than that of Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, comparison with which amply demonstrates how film-making values had changed in a mere thirty years.




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