Based partially on the story of Bonnie and Clyde, Eddie Taylor is an ex-convict who cannot get a break after being released from prison. When he is framed for murder, Taylor is forced to flee with his wife Joan Graham and baby. While escaping prison after being sentenced to death, Taylor becomes a real murderer, condemning himself and Joan to a life of crime and death on the road.
Eddie and Joan were two good looking people… You Only Live Once is directed by Fritz Lang and written by C. Graham Baker and Gene Towne. It stars Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda, Barton MacLane, Jean Dixon and William Gargan. Music is by Alfred Newman and cinematography by Leon Shamroy. He has been pounding on the door of that execution chamber since the day he was born. One of Fritz Lang's first American productions is a cracker-jack proto-noir, a leading light (darkly shaded of course) in the sub-genre of fugitive lovers on the lam pictures. Story leans on the legend of Bonnie and Clyde and finds Fonda as three times jailbird Eddie Taylor. After strings are pulled and promises made, Eddie gets released into the arms of his adoring gal, Jo Graham (Sidney). Determined to go straight and settle down with Jo, Eddie finds a society not ready to forgive and forget, worst still, he's old comrades in criminal arms have cooked something up and it's not going to be good news for Eddie. Cue the Romeo & Juliet factor as two lovers love each other so much they will stop at nothing to be together and to try and make the other one happy. Lang brings his expressionistic bent to the tragi noir tale, drifting fogs, mists and spider web shadows across key scenes. Canted angles feature, reflections in a psychological eye also play their part, while the protection of animals theme – and the continuing frog motif - further strengthens the otherworldly – cum - nightmarish aura that so often permeated Lang's movies. The action scenes are deftly marshalled by the director, with a smoke grenade led robbery and a prison escape particularly worthy of luring you to the end of your seat. Lang also gets fine performances from his lead actors, Sidney is not done too many favours by the screenplay, where she is saddled with one of those compliant love interest roles, but she brings a quality to her scenes with Fonda that earns respect. Fonda is great in what is a two-fold role, shifting skilfully between a tender lover to an embittered man, he's a triumphant fulcrum for all the various strands that Lang is weaving together. It has been argued that it's a film that's too morally grey, but as film noir lovers will tell you, this is no bad thing, especially when Lang marries up his superb visuals with alienation, fatalism and pessimism. Historically important to film noir and Lang fans, You Only Live Once is an ambiguous gem. 9/10