You Only Live Once (1937)

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Fritz Lang is a director appreciated by many classic movie fans, but to a lot of people he’s still associated with the likes of Metropolis and M, absolute 10/10 works of brilliance. Yet he did so much more. They may not have all been quite as great or influential but Lang was a consistently impressive director who created a number of movies well worth seeking out. You Only Live Once is one such film.

It’s the story of Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney), a woman who falls in love with Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda). Many people think that Taylor is a bad egg as he’s just finished his third stretch in prison and if he gets sent back again it will be for life. A few have faith though. Joan, of course, Father Dolan (William Gargan) and Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane), who helps Eddie as much as possible because of his own feelings for Joan. Everyone hopes for the best but it’s not long until prejudice rears its ugly head and fate conspires to get Eddie back in some extremely hot water unless he can roll with the punches and make some wiser decisions.

Written by Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker, You Only Live Once is a mix of over the top melodrama and hard-hitting noir. It starts off as something light and easy to enjoy but quickly starts spiralling downwards in a way that will have you alternately yelling out at the leads to come to their senses and crossing your fingers that they have a stroke of luck. Lang directs with his usual prowess, moving easily from the happy-go-lucky opening scenes to the dark and dangerous second half. There are one or two mis-steps here and there (including the very rapid and easy appearance of a baby at one point) but most of the time you know that you’re being guided by a master at work.

The cast are pretty good. Sylvia Sidney may be stuck playing someone quite weak and malleable but she does it well enough while Henry Fonda is fantastic as the man being pushed further and further towards the end of his rope. Barton MacLane is perfectly fine in his small role and William Gargan is excellent. The quality of the cast is boosted further by the performances of Jean Dixon, Jerome Cowan, John Wray and Margaret Hamilton, to name but a few.

It would be easy to dismiss this movie as just another lesser crime movie to watch only when you’ve worked your way through the multitude of better, and better known, titles but I highly recommend this as almost essential viewing for fans of classic cinema. There are times when it feels like any one of those other titles you could think of but there are also times when it feels very much like a one of a kind experience.

You Only Live Once tries to go straight onto your DVD shelf on the 4th June. The 75th anniversary edition contains only a few extras, but they’re pretty darn fine. There’s an introduction to the movie, and discussion of it, by George Wilson that runs for just over 20 minutes, there are production takes from the film that run for almost 10 minutes and, last but by no means least, there is an audio interview with Fritz Lang recorded at the National Film Theatre in 1962 that lasts about 80 minutes. Considering the age of the movie, this is a very special little selection indeed.

DIRECTOR: FRITZ LANG
WRITER: GENE TOWNE, C. GRAHAM BAKER
STARS: HENRY FONDA, SYLVIA SIDNEY, BARTON MACLANE, JEAN DIXON, WILLIAM GARGAN, JEROME COWAN, JOHN WRAY, MARGARET HAMILTON
RUNTIME: 82 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆
DISC Rating: ★★★★☆

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