© 2013 William Ahearn
“You Only Live Once” began – at least according to Sylvia Sydney – at a restaurant dinner with then independent producer Walter Wanger, and related in some detail in Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. Theodore Dreiser joined Sydney (who had starred in an adaptation of Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy in 1931) and Wanger and Dreiser mentioned that he was researching Bonnie and Clyde and said that if anyone could play Bonnie, it was Sylvia Sidney. Sidney had played a similar character in “Mary Burns, Fugitive” that had been written by Gene Towne and Graham Baker that Wanger had produced. Long story short, Wanger hired Sidney, Towne and Baker and Leon Shamroy, the cinematographer on the Mary Burns film and lined up Henry Fonda. Sylvia Sydney suggested Fritz Lang as the director and Wanger – having heard the stories about what happened on “Fury” – had a heart-to-heart with Lang and by that point, a working draft of the script had already been completed. Lang made numerous and significant contributions during script consultations, according to sources and Wanger gave Lang complete creative control.
The gist of the flick goes like this: Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), a three-time loser is in love with Joan “Jo” Graham (Sylvia Sydney), secretary of the district attorney and she’s been waiting three years for him to get out. He makes parole and gets a job as a truck driver that was arranged by the district attorney (who is also in love with Jo). Eddie gets fired from the trucking job and implicated – by his hat – in a bank robbery and gets convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Jo is going to commit suicide and instead tries to bring Eddie a gun but the priest stops her. Inmates have planted another gun and Eddie uses it to make his escape and kills the priest by accident. All of this is unnecessary as Eddie was pardoned when the real bank robbers were caught. Eddie and Jo take it on the lam, and have a baby and get caught and shot down by the police. As Eddie looks toward heaven, the voice of the murdered priest says, “You’re free, Eddie, the gates are open.”
Peter Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang In America asked Lang: “Were the priest’s words at the end – “You’re free, Eddie, the gates are open” – meant as an ironic note or the truth?”
Lang responded: “As the truth. You may laugh, but don’t forget, I was born a Catholic – perhaps I’m not a good Catholic according to the Church – but Catholic education (and probably any education which has to do with ethics) never leaves you. And I think it was the truth for those people – the doors are open now – it was not ironic. [Emphasis in original.]
Besides Lang’s taut direction, another appealing aspect of this film is that Eddie’s innocence regarding the bank robbery isn’t firmly established even considering the governor’s pardon. Lang leaves it ambiguous in that the film doesn’t give him an alibi and Eddie never offers one.
There were the usual – and deserved – complaints about Lang from the cast, the cinematographer and the crew. Henry Fonda – like Spencer Tracey – was quick to point out that Lang didn’t see actors as humans. And Fonda – like Tracey – got a career boost from the film even though it didn’t make production costs at the box office. It is arguably one of Fonda’s best performances.
Fritz Lang once remarked in an interview, “‘You Only Live Once’ was in my view a completely American film without any trace of Europe in it.” That will surprise recent film critics who see German film styles in all of Lang’s films and yet Lang didn’t bring anything to the film that wasn’t already in Hollywood films, he just visualized it much more dramatically and more coherently. It’s a testament to Lang’s directorial chops that this hokey Hollywood film about the ills of “society” plays as well as it does. Lang is one of a handful of directors at that time that could make a film look better than it actually was.
The film is visually stunning – the bank robbery scene was lifted from “You Only Live Once” and dropped into Max Nosseck’s “Dillinger” made in 1945, almost a decade later – and it’s one of the few times that Lang presents a real loving couple even if the story strains credibility. The other Lang films that features a loving couple is “Der müde Tod” and “The Big Heat.”
The reviews weren’t the raves that “Fury” received. They were good and Lang was singled out as making the film worth seeing. In The New York Times, Frank S Nugent wrote: “‘You Only Live Once’ . . . is not the dynamic and powerful photoplay his ‘Fury’ was, but, within the somewhat theatrical limits of its script, it is an intense, absorbing and relentlessly pursued tragedy which owes most of its dignity to the eloquence of its direction. In less gifted hands, it might have been the merest melodrama [although] it does not become the convincing social document its producers meant it to be.”
In The Spectator, Basil Wright wrote: “The social problem involved is a real one. Melodramatic treatment makes it unreal. No compromise is possible – especially when the film ends in a double death, to a female choir, and the voice of the murdered priest calling from heaven: ‘Eddie, you are free.’
“Having established the necessary negatives,” Wright continues, “let me duly confess that the film has all the production values one has learnt to expect from Lang. It is well constructed, suspense and action alternate in a quickening pulse of excitement reel by reel, and all the characters are excellently directed.”
As much as the critics praised Lang, the film failed to meet production costs at the box office. It was, of course, all the producer’s fault according to Lang and he had a litany of complaints, including that the producer refused to incorporate a prolog showing the conditions that lead to Eddie Wilson’s criminal history and that Wanger was also a fan of Benito Mussolini.
Patrick McGilligan deflates this nonsense in his biography of Lang citing sources that show “no such scene appeared in the script drafts.” The film may have failed but it certainly helped Henry Fonda’s career and the producer, Walter Wanger, further established his “innovative and progressive” credentials.
Lang went back to working on his scripts and treatments that never went anywhere and didn’t get a directing job for six months and, once again, Sylvia Sidney may have gotten him the job.