The second film directed in the United States by Fritz Lang, the iconoclastic director of German cinema classics including Metropolis (1927) and ’M’ (1931), is widely regarded as the finest from his American period. (That said, it’s difficult to pick a clear front-runner given Lang’s impeccable filmography.)
Produced in 1937, three years after the real-life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were ambushed and died together in a getaway car, Lang’s noir-inflected melodrama bears the trademark fatalism of its Austrian-born director. Though not directly based on the notorious pair’s exploits, Lang’s lead characters are a couple against whom the odds become increasingly stacked as societal and institutional forces work to thwart their efforts to shape their own destiny.
Starring a young Henry Fonda only a few years before his breakout films Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Sylvia Sidney, whom Lang had directed in his first American film, Fury, (1936), the previous year, You Only Live Once also reunited Fonda and Sidney, who appeared together on screen in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, in 1936.
A marked departure in style and tone from that earlier film, Sidney had been so impressed with Lang’s work directing her in Fury, she was keen to repeat the experience in You Only Live Once. While still finding his way in the Hollywood studio system at this early stage of his American career, Lang’s consummate craftsmanship was already fully formed. You Only Live Once reflects elements both of the German Expressionist style that Lang helped define in his German period alongside a poignant naturalism that he elicits from his excellent American leads.
– Roberta Ciabarra – Curator, Film