YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE
(director: Fritz Lang; screenwriters: Gene Towne/C. Graham Baker; cinematographer: Leon Shamroy; editor: Daniel Mandell; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Sylvia Sidney (Joan ‘Jo’ Graham), Henry Fonda (Eddie Taylor), Barton MacLane (Stephen Whitney), Jean Dixon (Bonnie Graham), William Gargan (Father Dolan), Jerome Cowan (Dr. Hill), John Wray (Warden Wheeler), Charles “Chic” Sale (Ethan); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Walter Wanger; United Artists; 1937)
“It always seems to be night and raining for its alienated main characters, who have only their love for each other to keep out the cold from the world.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An emotionally draining but superb visually told moralistic Depression-era film noir directed by Fritz Lang (“Fury”/”You and Me”/”M”) that smacks of fatalism, a dark German expressionist style, and a Bonnie and Clyde scenario. It has three-time loser Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), a petty career criminal, released from prison after a three-year stretch for driving a getaway car during a heist, getting married to sweet gal Jo Graham (Sylvia Sidney) and promising to go straight. She’s the secretary for his public defender, Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane), who’s in love with Jo but agrees to help Eddie get a trucking job. The two try to build a good life together despite the doubts from Whitney and her sister Bonnie (Jean Dixon). When Eddie’s late to work, he’s fired and the hothead when not given a second chance punches out the boss. Though it’s tempting to join his bank robber friends, especially when society refuses to give him a chance to start over, Eddie nevertheless resists. A one-man heist of a bank truck and the killing of six guards makes the newspaper headlines, and there’s a photo of Eddie’s hat at the crime scene. The hat was stolen while he was at a beanery. In a panic, the framed man plans to flee not trusting the system but wifey turns him in thinking that’s his best chance. He’s convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. On the night before the execution he cleverly escapes armed with a gun slipped into the prison, and holds the frightened prison doctor (Jerome Cowan) hostage and orders the warden to open the gates or the doctor gets it. Word comes over the wire that the actual bank robber was found dead when the missing bank truck was lifted up from a swamp, and he’s to be immediately released. Neither the warden nor the prison priest, Father Dolan (William Gargan), can convince him this is true and in an agitated state while in the foggy courtyard Eddie kills the chaplain when the gates don’t open in time. His pregnant wife joins him on-the-run and they commit a robbery of a gas station; after she gives birth and gives her sister the baby boy, the couple try to escape across the border to Canada. But they are stopped by a roadblock, and while fleeing on foot both succumb to police gunfire. While on-the-run, Eddie poignantly says “They made me a murderer.”
Lang allows death as the only escape for the ill-fated lovers, Jo and Eddie. It’s a well-executed and acted social consciousness melodrama that makes its case for justice (even for someone like Eddie, who is certainly no angel), that there are indeed innocent men who get death sentences and that there’s nothing you can do to counter your fate (I think more of an Islamic view than a Christion one). It always seems to be night and raining for its alienated main characters, who have only their love for each other to keep out the cold from the world.
REVIEWED ON 11/11/2006 GRADE: A https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/