You Only Live Once is a 1937 crime drama that is regarded as one of the earliest examples of the film noir genre. The film stars Henry Fonda as ex-convict Eddie Taylor who cannot get a break and Sylvia Sidney as his devoted wife Joan.
Even before he is discharged from prison, Eddie Taylor feels he is reformed. He hopes that society will be able to give him a chance but doubts that it is possible. He marries his long-suffering sweetheart Joan, a woman who has been passionately devoted to him.
Eddie manages to secure a job and they both buy a house. Life seems to have a sense of normality waiting for them until Eddie is fired from his job. It appears that his boss had always wanted to get rid of the ex-jailbird from his workplace.
A desperate Eddie begs his boss for his job back but to no avail. Eddie is tempted by an offer from his old gang to join them with a few bank robberies. The bank robbery plan goes wrong and six people are killed. Eddie is framed for the murders.
Although intending to run, Eddie is persuaded by Joan to give himself up so that he can prove his innocence. Eddie is found guilty and is sentenced to death by electrocution.
Just before the execution, Eddie learns that a gun has been smuggled into the prison medical center which he uses to help him escape. Eddie is now a convict on the run.
What will happen to Eddie and Joan?
Distributed by United Artists, You Only Live Once is the second American film by acclaimed German director Fritz Lang who had directed renowned classics such as Metropolis, M, and Fury.
Like in his debut American picture (Fury), Lang creates a tale of a man struggling to clear his name. Both films are used to question the notion of accepted social justice that we are meant to enjoy. As somebody who fled Nazi Germany, Lang knows all too well about injustices in society.
The excellent screenplay was written by Gene Towne and Charles Graham Baker, which was based on the “Bonnie and Clyde” inspired novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson.
Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda are perfectly cast, and they produce the core of the acting honors in the movie by convincingly playing two of life’s losers with conviction and sympathy.
The film had to be trimmed by at least 15 minutes due to the violent content that would have been deemed unacceptable at the time.
Despite its failure at the box office on release, You Only Live Once is now regarded as an early classic of the genre and one of Fritz Lang’s finest American movies.