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You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937)


      You Only Live Once, one of the finest films from Fritz Lang, one of the finest directors ever to set foot in Hollywood, moves with the same political acuity and sureness of intent as his masterful Fury. The plot entails the persecution of Eddie (Henry Fonda) an ex-con and repeat offender whose guilt is presumed by everyone, with the exception of his faithful girlfriend Joan (Sylvia Sidney). When added to Lang’s oeuvre, it ratifies the notion that the only justice that Lang believes in is poetic justice. Society’s blanket attempts to impose it on itself feels like folly in his films. Told with a timeless sensibility, the film always seems to be searching for truths, and emerges as a parable of a flawed society. Though the protagonists here are certainly three-dimensional characters, one gets the impression that in Lang’s eyes, their belief in the system might be their greatest flaw.


    Though You Only Live Once is smaller in scale than Lang’s silent epics, there’s a certain grand audacity present in the film’s machinations. It can be found Joan’s character arc, which takes her from being the secretary of the district attorney to being a petty fugitive. There’s a palpable sense of injustice in the in idea that the desperate criminality that finally conquers Eddie and Joan is created by their desire for justice. He uses several characters as mouthpieces to present a debate as to what actions are appropriate in this scenario, then pushes the film headlong into a tragedy, which he mourns (in a truly audacious final voiceover) so that his point of view seems most correct. The plot relies upon contrivance, but it’s those contrivances that make the plot possible, and it’s only because his plot twists upon itself that it manages to address so many sides of its own argument.


    Throughout You Only Live Once, watching as society thwarts Eddie’s attempts to reform is frustrating, but a genuinely inspired twist sets off the third act, and sets the movie into a spiral of moral ambivalence that only enhances its excitement. When the authorities learn of the wrongly accused man’s innocence, Eddie suspects everyone, including a preacher, of deceit because he’s been wronged before. Lang’s ability to make Eddie’s crisis of faith literal is both moving and perceptive. Forced to go on the run, the couple is accused of crimes that they didn’t commit and as that happens, the bounty on their head goes up and the law’s grip on them tightens. At the same time, they are guilty of some misdeeds, so mere forgiveness is an inadequate response. While there might be something troubling about the movie’s decision to rally behind the self-righteousness of its anti-hero (who has indeed committed many wrongs), there’s little to criticize about Lang’s expert execution in realizing the picture. If Lang doesn’t find the right answers here, it’s admirable that he is spending more energy looking than most people.


    Several stunning set pieces are present in You Only Live Once, with a gas grenade attack at a bank robbery taking top honors. With a gritty yet sentimental tone, Lang manages to convey both the feelings of his leads and the responses of the world around them. There’s unusual sensitivity toward exhibited by Lang toward the protagonists. Even though he’s operating with more information that any of the characters in the film, there’s never a sense of scorn or condescension in his shot selection. A brief exchange at one point where a character romanticizes them, saying that Eddie and Joan are “probably hiding somewhere, having a swell time.” Lang critiques such glorification of them by immediately cutting to a shot of them driving through an intense rainstorm, still very much on the run. His usual expressionistic touches are near the heights of their intensity here. Rain falls, fog swirls, and shadows impose themselves almost as insistently as Lang’s camera does. The director came to America as an expatriate from Germany, and he delivers in his early American films the same tone that would later come to be termed film noir. Though it is probably a lesser work overall, You Only Live Once is to its genre what M is to the serial killer genre. It stands as a clear precursor for such revered love-on-the-run films as Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands and They Live By Night, but is perhaps better than any of them.




Jeremy Heilman