Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You Only Live Once: Outlaws on the Road

What is it about Fritz Lang’s films that makes them so idiosyncratic? His masterpiece, “M,” (1931) has an unmistakable look and vitality that you seldom see in films of that or any other era. In “You Only Live Once,” (1937) he translates his German Expressionist instincts to the most American of all film genres, the gangster film, and creates a powerful statement about justice and loyalty. Few American films of that era delved into the murky waters of criminals and the deeds they do with such assuredness.
In “You Only Live Once,” Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), a three-time loser, gets released from prison.  He promptly marries his sweetheart, Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney) and is set up in a job with a trucking company courtesy of the correctional system.
But Eddie’s path to redemption quickly turns rocky.
His rooming house landlord has seen him in a true crime magazine, and landlady, Margaret Hamilton, future Wicked Witch of the West, insists that he be evicted.
Convicts and their wives are not welcome at this tawdry establishment.
They find a new place – a shabby house to buy. But Eddie get’s fired by his nasty boss at the trucking firm.

Joan moves into the house, and Eddie feels he has to keep up a charade that he’s still gainfully employed. That mean he has to make the down payment on the house by the end of the week.
We see that Eddie has ideas of his own about how he will make the down payment when he pulls back some bedding to reveal that there’s a gun under his pillow.
Last Ditch Effort
Eddie makes an appeal to his boss, but he won’t rehire him or give him a recommendation. Eddie loses his temper and slugs him.
We cut to a cleverly shot scene of a heist. An armored car is held up beneath a strong downpour. It’s all beautifully shot in stunning black and white. We see only Eddie Taylor’s hatband, with the initials “ET” emblazoned on it that appears to identify him as the culprit although we don’t see the perpetrator’s face throughout the scene.
Eddie goes to his new home, but “The bottom’s dropped out of everything.”
He tells Joan his hat was stolen in Tony’s Beanery – it’s the only clue left at the robbery scene – and he is being framed. Joan wants him to turn himself in, but the police find him before he can.
In a clever scene that takes place in a newspaper office, we learn that Eddie has been found guilty, and is electric chair bound.
The authorities have no sympathy. “Eddie Taylor has been pounding on the door of that execution chamber since he was born,” says one.
On death row, he tells Joan to bring him a gun when they have their last visit.
But a priest who accompanies her is wise to the charade and gets her to give him the gun after she sets off the metal detector.
The shadows reinforce Eddie's desperate situation.
One of the truly great German Expressionist images in this film is that of the shadows cast by the bars in Taylor’s cell. They are severe and blunt, and could never be cast in real life by the lighting we see in the frame. But they visually reinforce the fact that Eddie is inescapably trapped in his cell.
A kitchen-worker inmate passes Eddie a note that there’s a gun stashed in the mattress in the isolation ward.
Escape Impossible
Eddie tears apart a tin cup, cuts his wrist and goes wild so they’ll put him in isolation.
He uses the gun to escape, and takes a doctor as hostage.
The warden sends out the order, shoot to kill, but save the doctor hostage if possible. The scene cuts to a news ticker tape – the armored car Eddie supposedly robbed has been recovered and evidence shows he is not the guilty party. A pardon for Eddie has been issued – probably the quickest delivery of justice in American history. The real killer is Eddie’s former cellmate, Monk.
Taylor is still trying to break out of jail, and when they tell him he’s a free man he thinks it’s a ploy to capture him. Father Dolan, the priest who clipped Joan’s gun smuggling activities, intervenes. But Taylor no longer believes in anything or anyone.
It’s appropriately foggy outside in the prison yard, and prison officials are afraid to let Eddie escape with gun even though he’s been pardoned. He’ll kill the first person he meets, prison officials say.
As he’s making his escape, Eddie kills Father Dolan.
The Fugitives
Joan follows Eddie to a rail yard where he’s holed up in a boxcar.
Eddie is wounded, but they go on the run together – as known fugitives they are blamed for every stick-up in the area.
Joan's sister wants to send her to live in Havana, but she hits the road with Eddie instead.
It's not long before the law bears down on them. When they are motoring down a seemingly calm country road a highway patrol officer sprays their car with machine gun fire. Both are wounded
Troopers pursue them on foot, and they’re almost at the Mexican boarder, where they can escape and start a new life. But it’s not to be.
Eddie carries Joan, just yards from the border, and she expires in his arms. We see the pair lined up in a trooper’s telescopic sites. A blast of gunfire ends their quest for freedom.
End of the Game

We hear Father Dolan’s voice say, “You’re free, Eddie, the gates are open!” referring to the gates of Heaven, rather than any earthly passageway to freedom. It’s one of the corniest endings to a solid film that I’ve seen in a while.
You have to wonder if the studio forced the cloying ending on director Lang. I'd like to think he would never have chosen to close his film that way.

1 comment:

  1. I love Henry Fonda in all of his movies. Now, I have to see this one!