Monday, May 19, 2008

You Only Live Once

This month, the Cinématheque Pusan is having a retrospective of the films of Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937) is loosely based upon the story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, but unlike Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which saw them as particular, quirky individuals, Lang's film views them as victims of circumstance. It's not Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) that's bad, it's the world.

As the film opens, Eddie is an ex-con trying to escape his past. When he gets out of prison after serving a three year sentence, his girl, Joan (Sylvia Sidney), is waiting for him on the outside. Not everyone is so understanding. The couple gets kicked out of a bed and breakfast when the owner recognizes Eddie's face from a true crime magazine. When Eddie loses his job as a truck driver, he finds the only people willing to hire him are his old gang.

This is all familiar stuff, but then Eddie's framed for a robbery, and it's here that the film becomes interesting. Joan wants Eddie to turn himself in so he can clear his name, but Eddie doesn't think he'll get a fair trial and wants to make a run for it. As it happens, he's caught before he can and sentenced to death, but that's far from the end of the story.

I won't reveal what happens next. Watching the film I was surprised to find that I didn't know where the story was going.

Eddie and Joan aren't esspeically interesting characters. Although the film gives Eddie a very clear choice, his decision has less to do with his personality than the filmmakers' liberal thesis. Joan is even worse insofar as the script relies on referrences to "Romeo and Juliet" to motivate some of her actions.

You Only Live once is a bit dated but still worth checking out. The plot has plenty of twists, and Fonda commands the screen. There's something effortless about his acting: even while playing a hardened criminal, he seems utterly benign, yet you can't take your eyes off him.

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