Year: 1937

Director: Fritz Lang

Starring: Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney

Times, they have been a-changin’. Somewhat. Back in the 1930s, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were folk heroes. They were vicious thugs by trade, responsible for the murder of many civilians and lawmen over the course of their careers as robbers. They were also, as the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde tag line put it, young and in love. I guess everyone’s a sucker for a star-crossed love story, especially when it’s cut short by a hail of bullets. Americans like to side with the underdog; the thirteen colonies originated as the underdog, and something in the American spirit — regardless of the U.S.A.’s place in the world — likes to believe we’re constantly rallying against all odds to fight for what is right. Who knows? Maybe we are. If an underdog carries a pistol and puts lead pills in law-abiding innocents, maybe we fit the bill better than we’d like to acknowledge.

The brilliant Fritz Lang made You Only Live Once not long after emigrating from Germany. Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney are fetching stand-ins for Barrow and Parker. Lang constructs his scenes with fluidity and terse grace, weaving between subtle, almost workmanlike mise-en-scene and moments of expressionist grandeur. Lang’s style abets the self-conscious moral tone of the film in surprising ways. While its plain starkness upholds a sense of black-and-white morality and redemption, jutting, layered shadows — and one notable scene shrouded in fog — drench the story in ambiguous noir overtones. When Fonda’s ex-con, Eddie Taylor, is fired for being late with a truck delivery, we are supposed to be outraged at his boss’s judgmental sadism. When Eddie shoots a priest in cold blood, we’re supposed to empathize because the poor man’s been sitting on death row for four months because on a bum rap. When Sidney’s Jo is spotted buying cigarettes, we’re supposed to lament the cosmic fickleness that these young, handsome people should be cornered so close to freedom. Without detailing the reversals and discreet mechanics of the film’s plot, allow me to simply say that for all intents and purposes, this is a “wrong man” scenario in which the wrong man (and his too-adorable-for-words wife) are persecuted by a callous society.

It’s the typical socially-conscious Hollywood picture, with a one-sided moral alignment against that most nebulous of villains, the Establishment.

To watch the film today and accord its storytelling dexterity the same virtue as its moral commentary would be a grave mistake. Perhaps even for its time, its moral compass was eerily directionless. Consider that three-time felon Taylor is only fired because he took his wife house shopping during working hours. Precipitating the Taylors’ tragedy, it illustrates their disconnect between dream and reality. Having established that Taylor is a pragmatist during his parole hearing, it astonished me that Eddie would flaunt the opportunity he’d been given his first week on the job, given his conviction that the world already scrutinizes him unfairly. After being fired, he seeks the solace of a former criminal partner and lies to his wife when she enquires about him. This criminal associate later perpetrates a massacre and frames Eddie — with Eddie having practically turned over the damning evidence with a pretty pink ribbon. His impatience for freedom and frustration with a damaged justice system lead him to jailbreak, despite the fact that, had he accepted his fate with graceful stoicism, he would have received the news of his pardon without killing a priest. He’s an aggressor; an advocate of his own fault. When we find him torn up by the guilt of Father Dolan’s murder, Jo urges him to shrug it off. Though the film (wrongly) absolves Eddie of personal responsibility for everything except killing the priest, he is anything but a passive victim.

There appears to be a mentality among many narrative artists that if a person lives at the poverty level and encounters enough unpleasant, rich, old men, he is morally unaccountable for murder. I can’t say he “gets away with murder,” since a narrative staple of films where the downtrodden are oppressed by authorities and the wealthy is that the protagonist is often shot, lynched, stabbed, burned, or executed in some other infamous fashion. My distaste for the regurgitation of these themes over the course of 100+ years of cinema — and several hundred years of literature — stems from that fact that the foundational morality of the film is flawed in service to a vogue, vague sociopolitial aim. Fonda had a penchant for playing saints and martyrs, but his Eddie Taylor is at times mercifully closer in behavior to Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West. In this respect — Fonda’s performance — the film achieves a transcendence even Lang’s direction can’t grant. Fonda’s is a naturally “honest” face you want to trust, to admire, to follow. What he does with this role is take his perpetually searching gaze and etch his eyes and his angular limbs with the fervor of a paranoid sewer rat. If he has the capacity for love, his predeliction for shortcuts and willful ignorance surpass it every time, leaving him gazing with those wide, honest eyes through the shadowy bars of a self-constructed cell, counting the eternities of every passing minute.

Eddie may be a martyr, but he’s no saint. The film canonizes him anyway. Rather than a moral complexity, it ends up an inconsistency — or, worse, a contradiction. We’re invited to look past Eddie’s career as a criminal to the sensitive soul brimming with love underneath his taut skin; instead, what lurks beneath is an antisocial malcontent whose dedication to bad choices — when he has the intelligence to know and the talent to do better — undercuts himself, and worse, his idiotically naive young wife. The truth is, Eddie is trouble. He’s young, unreliable, and infatuated with the idea of love. When he thanks Jo for loving him, perhaps his affection is genuine; maybe he’s too addicted to the idea of being loved to let her go. Like a doomed puppy, she remains by her man’s side till the bitter end, and when the gates of paradise metaphorically open for them in a tangled, existential forest, it’s a mockery of all the genuinely downtrodden people of the earth who manage to scrape by without resorting to self-delusion and crime.

You Only Live Once is a virtuoso young-couple-on-the-run drama, but morally afield. I guess it was just a Bad Time for America. Would that times were morally evolved now, but I can’t say they are. Cinema has a particular romance with outlaws and so-called “outlaw art.” Stories often shoot for moral complexity and flawed characters, but a stubborn consistency in focusing on the outlaw life suggests a much deeper empathy in filmic reality than exists in reality itself. Would you root for Eddie and Jo to cross the border to Mexico or would you place the call if you recognized Jo buying those cigarettes? Would you give Eddie a pass on murder, or would you demand a fair trial and a fair sentence? Film grants these characters, flawed as they are, eternal life and sainthood. Living once for them is living forever for us; they aren’t the dirty-faced angels I want perched on my shoulder. I don’t care how “in love” they are.

By Matt Schneider