As Joan (Sylvia Sidney) excitedly awaits the release of her thrice-convicted criminal lover Eddie (Henry Fonda), she has little idea of the tragic consequences that lie in front of them. Once released, Eddie struggles against a society that refuses to give ex-cons a second chance and before long they are on the run, condemning themselves to an early demise.
- You Only Live Once review by Count Otto Black
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Fritz Lang was fascinated by evil, and all his most memorable characters are villains of some sort. In this movie from the start of Lang's American period, a young Henry Fonda proves once again that actors who are usually typecast as squeaky-clean good guys often give their best performances when they're allowed to play baddies. Fonda's performance here, as a man with a seriously dirty past who tries to go straight just a little bit too late, is excellent, making us care about him without actually liking him. Lang cleverly tweaks our perceptions of him so that for a surprisingly long time we're not sure how bad he really is, and we fully understand why many of the other characters react to him so negatively. We're also unsure for quite a while whether Sylvia Sidney, who does a fine job of conveying how passionately she loves this guy, is blinded by her feelings, or is right about the good man she perceives to exist under that rough exterior.
Of course, it all gets a bit more complicated as the story unfolds. Along the way, Lang makes a powerful if occasionally heavy-handed statement about the utter helplessness of individuals who for whatever reason are labeled "undesirables" by the establishment. Even the silly comic business about apples in the opening scene turns out to foreshadow the main plot, since it shows us how easily The Man can walk all over little people. Having seen firsthand the Nazi takeover of Germany, Fritz Lang knew all about that!
In the end, the only true villain in this film is the system, and it's noticeable that almost none of the characters, however minor, are entirely good or bad. Convicts guilty of terrible crimes exhibit more kindness and humanity than "good" people who refuse to admit that the rules they unquestioningly obey might be wrong, while genuinely good people end up having to break the law in order to do what they know is right. And in a pitch-black bit of subversion, the only 100% good man in the whole movie - a saintly stereotype obviously forced on Lang by the Hollywood system, along with the almost-copout in the closing moments - is so morally inflexible that he makes a decision which, if you think it, is spectacularly stupid, and ends up being disastrous for everyone.
As American films from its era go, it's surprisingly hard-hitting and cynical. Certain elements of this movie obviously influenced the even more uncompromising "Gun Crazy" (1950), with which it would make a fine double bill, so much that it's almost a semi-remake. By the way, apart from inspiring its title, this film has no connection whatsoever with "You Only Live Twice".