Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney) works as a secretary to a big city public defender, Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane). Joan is in love with a criminal named Eddie (Henry Fonda) who, luckily, is allowed to leave prison on probation with Stephen’s help.
Fresh out of the slammer, Eddie is ready for a new life. He wants to give up crime, get a respectable job and marry Joan. He envisions a completely normal, calm, crime-free future for them. Eddie quickly finds a job as a truck driver, but the job only lasts for a day, so back to the search he goes. But while he’s searching for another job, a bank robbery occurs, leaving six victims dead and Eddie accused of the terrible crime.
Joan, convinced that Eddie is innocent, pressures him to take the case to court and prove that he did not commit the crime. However, circumstantial evidence and the jury’s prejudices against a man with an existing criminal record lead Eddie to be sentenced to death. Back in prison, Eddie quickly gets to work planning an escape, while unbeknownst to him, the real culprit is being caught. Will the FBI catch the true criminal in time to legally release Eddie, or will he carry out his sinister escape plan and resort to a life on the run?
Fritz Lang directs 1937’s You Only Live Once, which is often regarded as one of the first examples of film noir. The screenplay was written by Gene Towne (Eternally Yours) and C. Graham Baker (Eternally Yours, The Singing Fool). Originally running at 100 minutes, the film was famously cut down by a whole 15 minutes due to a few violent scenes that conflicted with production code restrictions.
The film starts out in a fairly calm way, setting up the characters and Eddie’s release from prison. This gives the audience time to see the chemistry between Joan and Eddie, leading viewers to become emotionally invested in the characters and their relationship.
Considering the high reputation of this film as one of the first great noir dramas, I did expect things to pick up a bit more quickly than they did. The film clocks in just short of an hour and a half, and it talks half an hour of that running time for the real action to begin. At the same time, this technique works because the viewer cares for Eddie and Joan by the time the complications arise. The audience is definitely on the couple’s side during Eddie’s trial and sentencing.
And boy, does the action pick up after those first semi-slow thirty minutes! Once the dramatic and highly suspenseful robbery scene, which is quite graphic for its time, takes place, the viewer is tossed into a world of chaos. After the robbery occurs the film becomes consistently dramatic, but with varying levels of drama throughout the duration. There’s the “calm before the storm” suspense, moments of high tension between the characters, anxiety caused by Eddie’s predicament, and more all in the same film.
Along with these slight mood changes, the film is full of unexpected twists. The outcome isn’t completely unpredictable, but there are enough twists to keep the viewer guessing, and even the more unsurprising moments are satisfying to the viewer because they are so full of emotion and anticipation.
If all of those rave-worthy elements of the film weren’t enough, You Only Live Once also boasts a number of truly fantastic performances. Sylvia Sidney in particular is absolutely fantastic. Her character is completely consumed by her love for Eddie. She’s willing to do anything to help him, and enters a bit of a craze when she feels like there’s nothing she can do to get him out of his death sentence.
Such strong emotions aren’t easy to play without going over-the-top, but Sidney carries it off without a hitch. She easily holds her own against Henry Fonda, who is much more well-remembered than she as a performer. That’s not to say Fonda isn’t great as well – he gives as solid a performance as ever and makes his character all at once both likable and menacing. But the highly underrated Sidney is definitely the stand-out.
You Only Live Once is a remarkable effort that certainly deserves its reputation as one of the best early noir films. The score: 4.5/5