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Please don’t call Fritz Lang’s fatalistic noir “YOLO”

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Texas outlaw saga Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has us thinking back on some of our favorite on-the-lam movies.

You Only Live Once (1937)

The cruel hand of fate conspires with the crueler hand of society to destroy Henry Fonda’s ex-con in You Only Live Once, an early 1937 film noir from Fritz Lang. Regardless of the hopeful plans of young lovers, there’s no escaping death in Lang’s tale, which begins with Fonda’s three-time-offender being released from prison into the arms of Sylvia Sidney—secretary to the public defender—who despite warnings from her boss, Barton MacLane, attempts to establish a normal married life with Fonda. Such domestic reveries, however, are torn asunder by Fonda’s inability to escape his past criminal reputation; slandered at every step as a “jailbird,” he’s cruelly fired from his trucking job, thus making it impossible to complete down payment on the couple’s new home. Such destitution makes a return to the old ways all the more tempting, though even when Fonda resists, the universe won’t grant him freedom. He’s soon framed for a bank heist—pulled off by a gas-masked perp using toxic canisters to cover his tracks—that Lang shoots as a haunting, mist-enshrouded nightmare.


That fog follows Fonda throughout the remainder of You Only Live Once, enshrouding him in fatal confusion, as when—upon having been wrongly convicted of the heist—he attempts to break out of prison at gunpoint and, not believing that he’s been miraculously pardoned for the crime, shoots a priest. Lang films his fatalistic material with piercing close-ups—of hands wielding guns or surgical tools, of faces suffering from violence taking place just out of view off-screen—that convey emotion and elicit suspense via intense silence. That directorial restraint merely enhances the sense, also reflected in shots of Fonda and Sidney’s miserable faces framed by a window while talking at the prison, of life working to squeeze the unlucky couple to a pulp. Most tragic of all, however, is the finale’s suggestion, in a shot of Sidney running away from friends and her baby and toward Fonda, that there’s another force also scheming to doom the duo: love itself.

Availability: DVD and Blu-ray, and streaming on Netflix.

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