Fritz LangMargaret HamiltonBarton MacLaneWarren Hymer
You Only Live Once
Medium: film
Year: 1937
Director: Fritz Lang
Writer: Gene Towne, C. Graham Baker
Keywords: Bonnie & Clyde, film noir
Country: USA
Actor: Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Barton MacLane, Jean Dixon, William Gargan, Jerome Cowan, Charles 'Chic' Sale, Margaret Hamilton, Warren Hymer, Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams, John Wray, Walter De Palma
Format: 85 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 9 August 2010
I couldn't exactly say that I enjoyed that. It's dark, bleak and not giving us many reasons to be cheerful for either our protagonists or for society in general. However it's an ahead-of-its-time film noir with a message and a social conscience, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Henry Fonda, so it's also by no means a throwaway.
For a start, it's the first and possibly least historically accurate Bonnie and Clyde movie. They died in 1934 and this film came out only three years later. It's a puritanical movie, refusing to find anything fun or cool in its heroes' plights. The reason they commit crimes is that they were forced into it by an uncaring society. Henry Fonda would love nothing more than to be able to go straight and do the right thing by his new wife, Sylvia Sidney, but unfortunately he's an ex-con and no one's willing to give him an even break. He's certainly a dangerous character who's fully capable of doing bad things, but that doesn't make him even a fraction of one per cent of the liability that everyone else in the world seems to think he is. You can see why people don't trust him, but you can also see what they're doing to him. The issue of whether he's guilty or innocent is almost of secondary importance, despite at one point yielding some terrifyingly savage irony.
Meanwhile Sylvia Sidney is the sweetest, prettiest little thing in the world, the kind of woman you'd trust to organise church fairs and walk your children to school. You'd never believe she'd ever become a Bonnie, but the film eventually pushes her there. She goes through hell en route, mind you.
The film's message is being delivered forcefully enough that a modern audience might be lucky enough not to be able to believe it. If you can't believe that a guilty verdict can go through on that kind of evidence... well, even today there are plenty of countries where that would be more than enough. However it's not just that. Fonda and Sidney's hotel is run by the Wicked Witch of the West, i.e. Margaret Hamilton. Fonda's boss at the truck company clearly never wanted to employ him in the first place. You can understand everyone's point of view, but that's what makes it so horrible. Note also the terrible comedy Italian in the opening scene, who's getting the brush-off about policemen stealing his apples as if the law didn't apply to them. That scene gives the impression of being on the side of law-breaking policemen, but by the time you've finished the movie you'll have another point of view.
Fritz Lang's doing strong work, although Henry Fonda hated him and nearly quit the film. It shouldn't be surprising to find a refugee from Nazi Germany identifying with a story like this. He pours his strongest visuals into prison scenes, so for instance the early sequence as Fonda gets released from gaol is full of atmosphere and character, especially that dizzying shot gazing up past the prisoners at the lookout tower. Later there's a very German Expressionist shot, painted with cell bar shadows. He's getting good performances out of his actors (except that Italian) and sustaining the grim mood impressively, although to nitpick for a moment, I thought the finale's music was a mistake. It makes the scene feel a bit cliched, when silence would have been more powerful. However that said, Lang's original cut of the film was 100 minutes long, whereas the version that eventually got past the Hays Office was fifteen minutes shorter. Half a dozen actors appear on the Fritz Lang papers at USC but not in the released film, while these were PCS director Joseph Breen's requirements for the robbery scene:
"no flash of a man's face contorted with agony, no showing of a woman lying on the sidewalk, no hurling of bombs, no cop lying on the street, his face contorted with pain, no truck crushing out the life of a cop, no terrible screaming, no shots of bodies lying around, no figure of a little girl huddled in death, no shrieks."
It sounds as if Lang's cut of the film must have been powerful stuff, especially since what got released is hardly rainbows and butterflies. I've just found another on my list of "director's cuts I'd have loved to have seen", along with the complete filmography of Tod Browning. Mind you, the film's bombs look rubbish. At the time I thought they were flour, or at worst smoke.
The film has a few shocking moments. Fonda managed to scare me with that gun, while there's some brutal policy on prison escapes and a grimly hilarious line delivered to someone on Death Row. "Thanks Eddie for seeing me. I'd have died if you hadn't." Guess how well that goes down. There's also some heavy religious imagery, with a kindly priest who at one point appears to become the Lord at the gates of Heaven.
A word on the lead actors. Henry Fonda of course was a huge star who's still remembered even today, but Sylvia Sidney is perhaps less well known. She's in no way the lesser partner here, though. She kept on acting right through her life, was Oscar-nominated in 1973 and was one of Tim Burton's iconic long-timers along with Vincent Price. She's in Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks, although those are by no means her only films from around then.
This is the kind of film that afterwards you're glad you've seen, but you couldn't pretend was enjoyable to sit through. I respect it. I'd have loved to see the original cut and it lives up to everything you'd expect of the big names involved in its production. Obviously though it's not for everyone.