Fritz Lang’s second Hollywood picture, You Only Live Once, was released in 1937, three years after the death of Bonnie and Clyde, and was the first movie to tell their story – sort of. A tale of bad luck and trouble rather than one of bad people doing bad things, it stars Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney as a couple in love – she a sweet girl who works for the Public Defender, he a threetime jailbird determined to go straight and make an honest woman of his wife-to-be but finding that society won’t give this sucker an even break.
Blocked at every turn, Eddie (as Clyde is called here) turns back to crime, gets caught, winds up on death row, then shoots his way out of jail just as – the fickle finger of fate – he’s about to be pardoned. Hitting the road in fugitive style, Joan and Eddie then end up in the shootout finale which Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway immortalised.
It’s often credited as being the first film noir. But its emphasis on difficult material meant that its passage into the world was problematical. Lang had left Germany in 1933 and arrived in Hollywood just as Hollywood was upping the ante when it came to censorship. The Supreme Court had unanimously decided in 1915, in Mutual Film Corporation v Industrial Commission of Ohio, that the right to free speech did not extend to motion pictures. As a result, censorship boards had started springing up in various states. To ensure its films would be acceptable to all the various boards, whether it was New York or Ohio, Hollywood decided it needed to bring in its own code.
Though this was a half-hearted and patchy implementation at first, 1922, 1927 and 1929 were all ratchet years. It wasn’t until 1934 that the Production Code Administration started rigourously enforcing standards. It’s for this reason that there is about 15 minutes of missing material in You Only Live Once, much of it from the bank raid that’s the centrepiece of the film, and which results in Eddie winding up back in jail.
So the film plays at about 86 minutes rather than the original 110. Even butchered it both makes sense and works well, though without the violent, excised material it probably comes over as more moralistic than Lang had originally wanted and far less nuanced.
Lang tells his story visually. Look at the scene where the verdict on Eddie is about to come in and a newspaper editor is sitting with three different versions of the next day’s front page (Guilty, Not Guily and Undecided) up on the wall behind him. A word or two would have sufficed but Lang does it all as a silent movie director would do it (which he originally was, of course), right down to the editor indicating with a finger which front page the printer should run.
He’s aided enormously by ace DP Leon Shamroy, who bathes the romantic scenes between Eddie and Joan in a romantic glow and the jail scenes in the harsh geometrics (light slanting through bars etc) that connect this film up with Lang’s earlier, more Expressionistic output.
Fonda is good as Eddie, though that much-mentioned natural nobility isn’t really working in the film’s favour – again, that excised material would have worked as a counterweight. Sidney, who gets top billing, is a sweet and effective Joan, though her damascene conversion from public-spirited gal to fugitive’s moll in the final scenes makes little sense.
The censor’s cuts have robbed the movie of moral heft, which is ironic, but Lang’s intention is clear. Made in the teeth of the Depression, which drove decent people into doing things they wouldn’t normally do, this Bonnie and Clyde wind up in situations that are completely out of their control. Bad luck or bad decision-making on their own can be dealt with, but Eddie’s on the back foot to start with, and Joan’s bad luck (or bad decision-making) is to have fallen in love with Eddie. “You only live once” is another way of saying “tough shit”.
I watched the ClassicFlix restoration, which isn’t as crystal-clear and eye-popping as you might want, but is a marvel when compared to the original elements it was restored from (watch the accompanying special feature, if you get the Blu-ray or DVD, and be amazed).
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© Steve Morrissey 2022