• It is a tad stiffer than 1945’s Scarlet Street and 1953’s The Big Heat, but You Only Live Once has an argument to be called Fritz Lang’s greatest American film.
  • You Only Live Once stars Sylvia Sidney (top billing as Joan Graham) and Henry Fonda (as Eddie Taylor). Fonda’s Taylor is an ex-con and an unfortunate victim of circumstance in a cruel world (Lang’s world). They end up as lovers on the run -preceding Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, Natural Born Killers, and all the others.
  • This was a big film for Fonda- it is not his debut, but as of writing this page, this is his first of twenty-nine (29) archiveable films.

One of the great compositions in the film (and Lang has packed quite a few into the sub-90-minute running time) is the low angle shot up at the guard tower in the prison at the 7-minute mark. Back to Metropolis and Destiny and others in the 1920s Lang is obsessed with structure, architecture, intersecting and parallel lines.

  • Sidney is back with Lang again after his first American film Fury in 1936 (so You Only Live Once is his second). She matches Fonda here in achievement—she is great at displaying desperation.

Lang’s nihilism (with a splash of pre-noir—and this is a precursor– fatalism) is there as an undercurrent in the background even as the young, handsome couple hold hands on their honeymoon. Lang holds on a magnificent shot reflecting off the water. The two talk about frogs mating for life— and Lang is waiting to rip it all down.

  • Fonda as a wronged ex-con with a temper is certainly good practice for The Grapes of Wrath and playing Tom Joad in 1940.
  • At the 36-minute mark Lang has this gorgeous black light fixture at the top right of the frame with Barton MacLane’s defense attorney right underneath.

Lang and cinematographer Leon Shamroy make a point to shoot through the prison bars again and again—and at the 43- minute mark Lang produces one of the great frames of the 1930s. Fonda’s character is in his solitary cell, the illumination from within creates this dazzling pattern of shadow filling the frame- it is simply breathtaking.

  • To a lesser degree- Lang would shoot a few frames at the hospital the same way.
  • Lang uses fog as a cinematic weapon with the prison gate set piece (and a young Ward Bond is there to open the gates).
  • Leon Shamroy made a lot of forgettable films as cinematographer- but still- he has four total Oscar wins, eighteen nominations
  • A Must-See film- top five of the year quality