Directed By: Fritz Lang
Starring: Henry Fonda, Sylvia Sidney, Barton MacLane
Henry Fonda stars as ex-con, Eddie Taylor, who attempts to settle down with Joan, played by Sylvia Sidney, after a life of petty crime. The attempt fails as he’s accused of taking part in a brutal bank robbery. Sentenced to death, he goes on the run with his pregnant girlfriend.
This second American film from Fritz Lang is definitely one of his best, despite being one of his lesser known movies. The movie begins light in tone and grows ever more increasingly dark as the running time progresses. It paved the way for noir filmmaking and is seen as the original “Lovers on the Run” movie. It is said to be based upon Bonnie and Clyde , who were gunned down a few years previously, but the world in which Eddie and Sylvia inhabit is a lot less savoury. 75 years later, the movie is still unsettling and deliciously ambiguous.
What’s most interesting about the movie is that it isn’t judgemental; it shows us enough about Eddie for us to form an opinion as to whether or not he deserves the lot that has been given to him. On the surface, the movie could be about a man hard done by in society. On the other hand, Eddie is culpable. He’s not a bad person but isn’t given an opportunity to rehabilitate. The world in which the characters inhabit do not reward failure and doesn’t forgive and forget. Everyone in Lang’s movie seems to have a criminal flaw, where greed is much of a motivation.
Although not entirely convincing, Fonda is still very good as a young man cast aside by society and mistreated on the assumption that he’s an overall bad person. The acting keeps the movie from spilling over into full melodrama, like Lang’s previous movie “Fury”. Sylvia Sidney is excellent as the person who provides the light in Eddie’s life and potentially the reason for him to attempt to avoid being sucked into a life of crime. The irony is that he’s pulled into it anyway, through decisions by himself and others. Thirty years before Fonda would be criticised for playing an out and out killer in Sergio Leone's sublime elegiac Once Upon a Time in the West, here he is playing a morally ambiguous character.
This movie has been deserving of a full restoration for years and finally we have it here.
It is a bleak story made all the more interesting by the acting and Lang’s choices of camera angles, which at times are unusual but showcase the director’s flair. The film benefits in a number of scenes, from following the silent era. Some of the best shots are those where communication is implied through looks instead of potentially inadequate dialogue. There are many striking and iconic images to enjoy in the movie, the style of which influenced a number of movies subsequently. If you want to watch a master at work, pick up this latest release of You Only Live Once in all its restored glory at all good stockists now.