I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am
But they won’t let my secret go untold
I paid the debt I owed them, but they’re still not satisfied
Now I’m a branded man out in the cold
Merle Haggard’s classic Branded Man could easily describe Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), a three-time loser who’s just been released from prison (he did a stretch in the pen because he drove the getaway car in a robbery) hoping to start a new life on the outside with Joan “Jo” Graham (Sylvia Sidney). Jo is a secretary to the public defender who pleaded Eddie’s case, Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane), and despite his own feelings for Joan, arranges for a trucking company to hire Eddie as a driver despite his criminal history.
As Eddie later describes it to Joan, “the bottom’s dropped out.” He’s lost his job for running behind schedule on one trip, and later at the scene of a bank robbery—where six people are killed—a hat bearing Eddie’s initials has been found left behind. Despite his protestations of innocence, Taylor is convicted on both circumstantial evidence and his past history…and his sentence is death. Through the help of a prison confederate, Eddie obtains a gun on the night of his execution…and taking the prison’s doctor (Jerome Cowan) hostage, goes for broke in a desperate attempt to crash out. Will the news that Taylor’s been found innocent and pardoned arrive too late to prevent a tragedy?
At the risk of spoiling it for those of you who have not yet seen You Only Live Once (1937), since the tale of newlyweds Eddie and Jo was inspired by the real-life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow…the movie’s outcome is not an optimistic one. It was the second American film directed by German émigré Fritz Lang, who was hired by producer Walter Wanger (his first production for United Artists) on the strength of Lang’s success with Fury (1936) (Fury also starred You Only Live Once’s Sidney, who recommended Fritz to Walter). Lang worked with scribes Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker for four weeks on the screenplay, and while the director had wanted to establish how Eddie Taylor became a criminal (due to a combination of societal influences and environment) he was ultimately overruled. (This and the back-and-forth about Once’s controversial [according to Joseph I. Breen] bank robbery sequence [the movie originally ran 100 minutes and had to be trimmed] earned Lang a reputation for being “difficult.”) I’m kind of glad Lang lost out on this because I think the ambiguity—we’re a little unsure as to whether or not Eddie actually committed the robbery…we believe in his innocence only because Jo does—greatly benefits the film.
The films of both Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock share a common “wrong man” theme—their protagonists have become patsies in the hands of the Fates and must spend the movie’s running time extricating themselves from their predicaments. Lang’s films always seemed a bit darker than those directed by The Master of Suspense, however, and You Only Live Once is one of the bleakest. It’s a testament to Henry Fonda’s acting talent that we immediately sympathize with his character (despite Lang’s background history idea being vetoed), and the reason why we’re in his corner from the get-go is the genuinely loving relationship between Eddie and Jo. When Eddie sees Jo waiting for him as he’s being escorted to the prison exits by Whitney and kindly Father Dolan (William Gargan in one of his finest screen roles), we witness a man whose entire reason for living resides in the love he has for a woman who’s never wavered in her devotion despite the many pitfalls along the way. We know that Eddie Taylor has learned from his mistakes and is going to walk the straight-and-narrow (Dolan believes so…and if you can’t trust a priest—who can you trust?), and as such it’s heartbreaking when circumstances beyond Taylor’s control slowly turn his life to merde.
There are thematic similarities between Lang’s Fury and You Only Live Once, and the most striking is that when the couples in those films (Spencer Tracy and Sidney in Fury; Fonda and Sidney in Once) enter into a forced separation, that’s when things go off the rails where the man is concerned (intimating that the bond between man and woman needs to be maintained to fight off whatever Fate throws at you). I’m a big fan of Fury, but I have found with each passing year that I prefer Once for several reasons: the Fonda-Sidney relationship is far more convincing; Henry’s plight is far more dire than Spence’s (Fury shifts gears in its second half to concentrate on the mob being prosecuted for Tracy’s “death”); and except for a brief eye-rolling bit at the very end of Once (you’ll know what I mean when you see it), the ending of the movie is positively nihilistic, which appeals to my naturally pessimistic nature.
You Only Live Once was released before 1941, the year that many film noir aficionados acknowledge as the start of the style (with The Maltese Falcon)…but its stark cinematography (courtesy of Leon Shamroy) and fog-shrouded sequences set in both a prison yard and a rail yard bear the undeniable stamp of film noir. Once also boasts a splendiferous supporting cast that includes Jean Dixon (as Jo’s supportive sister Bonnie), Margaret Hamilton, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Warren Hymer, and Charles “Chic” Sale (his cinematic swan song—he and Hamilton play an elderly couple who rent cottages and are freaked when they learn Fonda’s an ex-con); you’ll also spot (uncredited) favorites like Ward Bond, Al Bridge, Jack Carson (his feature film debut), Jonathan Hale, Wally Maher, Amzie Strickland, and Dick Elliott (memorable as a newspaper editor who, when asked if he thinks the verdict in Fonda’s case will arrive before the paper’s deadline, observes: “The verdict is our deadline.”)
You Only Live Once was originally released to DVD in 2003 from Image Entertainment…but trust me when I say: you don’t want that. ClassicFlix re-released the movie on DVD/Blu-ray in 2017, using 35mm archival elements courtesy of the British Film Institute…and the results are truly astounding (there’s a before-and-after comparison included among the bonus features, along with audio commentary from film historian Jeremy Arnold [author of TCM’s The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter]). A blueprint for later couple-on-the-run films like They Live by Night (1949), Gun Crazy (1950), and of course Bonnie and Clyde (1967), You Only Live Once will surprise you with its uncompromising depiction of harsh survival during the Great Depression and mesmerize you with Fritz Lang’s mastery of film expressionism (Once was one of his favorites).