You Only Live Once
One of my favorite films from 2013 (my second favorite in fact) was David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The 70’s era, Texas set film was compared in many reviews to Terence Mallick’s The Badlands and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us. But an earlier film, Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once probably had an even greater influence of Lowery’s work (and countless other filmmakers). And there are obvious reasons Lang’s second film in the US had such an impact on American cinema.
The young outlaws in love is a classic story trope (elements date back to Romeo and Juliet) because their desperation elevates the entire emotional impact of the story. How in love are they? And how much would you do to protect or be with the one you love? That is how You Only Live Once begins and ends, but that aspect of the story isn’t what made the film last as one of Fritz Lang’s lesser classics. The reason so many believe this is one of his best films is the elements of justice which are explored in the story of an ex-con driven to desperate measures to prove his innocence, hits on our continuing discussion of what is justice and how does it fit into our justice system.
Henry Fonda plays the ex-con, which is one of the odd bits of casting. For audiences today, who certainly know Fonda best for films such as Mr. Roberts, The Grapes of Wrath, and 12 Angry Men, “convict” is not a character you think of when his name comes up. But in 1937, that persona hadn’t yet been established and Fonda’s mere presence didn’t make audiences have definite expectations about his character. In truth, Fonda never really evokes the image of a man hardened by a prison stay or with a history of a life of crime. But when he begs for his job back or tells his wife he’s been framed, Fonda is exceptional and reminds us all why people came to see him as the actor to represent truth and honesty.
Fonda’s desperation to prove his innocence for committing a crime after being released for prison, and the chain of events which lead to the characters final fate is what made Fritz Lang such an iconic director (and why his second Hollywood film lost money). It’s a romantic film which barely focuses on romantic drama and a crime movie with barely any action. And while the justice system is ultimately wrong in this film, so is Fonda’s character. But in a world which is as unjust as Fritz Lang’s image of society, fate is what it is, and you simply can’t escape yours.
You Only Live Once is an odd blend of a bleak Lang film and standard studio picture. But there are aspects of the film which would become trademarks of a film by Fritz Lang. The slanted angles, use of steam and smoke, high angle shots of intimidating architectural structures, and giving information with texts (telegrams and posters are all over this film) would all be used over and over in Fritz better known Hollywood films. But the aspect which makes this an unmistakable Fritz Lang is the bleak tone and social statement which made it standout as one of the darker film of the Hollywood Golden Age.