You Only Live Once is apparently considered to be an early film noir, but this probably has more to do with the fact that it’s directed by Fritz Lang than anything to do with its content or style. While it is in black and white and features a large number of sharp-talking men in hats, it’s more a crime drama than anything else.
Eddie (Henry Fonda) has just been released from prison for a crime that he did commit, but is repentant for. As far as he is concerned, he’s done his time and after three stays in jail he wants to turn his life around and go straight. The public defender has feelings for Eddie’s wife Joan (Sylvia Sidney), a legal secretary, and, because of this, agrees to get him out of prison. However, he finds life difficult on the outside and, through a combination of misfortune and bad decisions, the unfortunate couple find their life together falling apart.
The film itself, considering the era in which it was made, is incredibly stylish and modern. One scene in particular that stands out is a bank robbery that occurs about half-way through the movie, which unfolds like something from Batman Begins – the robber, in a gas mask, pumps gas into the area surrounding the bank and throws cannisters at the vans around him. It looks marvellous and is a great example of how ahead of its time this film is, even if time hasn’t revered it in the way that it should have.
Henry Fonda’s performance is more real and bristling than most male leading performances of the time seem to be, and the viewer gets a real sense of danger whenever he is on-screen. Although he’s trying to do right by his wife, he is foiled every step of the way. What makes it all the more frustrating is that the troubles that are heaped upon Eddie, by men who are less noble but more law-abiding than he, are also partly his own fault. To give an example from early on in the film, Eddie is offered a job as a driver with a delivery firm. He is an hour and a half late for his first shift as he is excitedly showing his wife the house that he has put a down-payment on, with money from his new job. His tardiness gets him fired from the job with which he would pay for his house. This is the first step on the whole staircase of misfortune that Eddie falls down for the duration of the film’s running time.
Sylvia Sidney deserves a great deal of credit as Joan, his vulnerable but knowing wife. She’s called upon throughout the film to do things that she never would have considered beforehand in the name of love and for no real gain. She does those things anyway, because she loves Eddie, and she sees that he is not really a bad man, just a naive man in the wrong circumstances.
Overall, the film is a great deal better than many other so-called film noirs in that it is actually a believable story with realistic characters. Some scenes may seem far-fetched, but that’s a feature of films of the time more than a flaw in this particular movie. Be certain to catch the 75th Anniversary re-release, as this film is definitely worth watching.