I expect Fritz Lang to deliver a well-crafted and interesting drama no matter what the subject, but 1937’s “You Only Live Once,” starring Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney holds together beautifully on Fonda’s impressive performance. Fonda plays Eddie Taylor, an ex-convict desperately trying to keep out of trouble. Sidney plays Joan Graham, the secretary for Eddie’s public defender Steven Whitney (Barton MacLane). She remains Eddie’s long-suffering wife as he faces prejudice and uncertainty as an ex-con.
With Eddie already convicted 3 times for various offenses, prison Warden Wheeler (John Wray) warns Eddie that a fourth conviction could mean a life sentence. Eddie promises to do everything he can to avoid another arrest, and looks forward to his new job as a free man driving with a trucking company. Just out of prison, Eddie marries Joan and they buy a house. Eddie’s trucking boss, however, mistrusts the ex-con from the beginning and acts rude and surly towards him. Eventually, the boss finds a way to fire Eddie, putting him in desperate circumstances just as he signs a mortgage.
At this point, You Only Live Once does what a lot of movies do. Instead of having Eddie tell Joan about his misfortune with the trucking company, Eddie decides to keep quiet about it. Joan goes on a shopping spree to furnish the house while Eddie nervously ponders a way out of situation. The easy way for Eddie would be to work with his own gang again, but at this point the audience still believes Eddie will finally go straight. Eventually, in a very well filmed scene, a truck driver, wearing a gas mask, gasses some armored truck guards outside a bank and makes off with bags of cash. Although we don’t see Eddie’s face, the audience assumes Eddie’s guilt, especially when Eddie soon goes on the run.
The police soon catch Eddie and we learn that a few of the armored truck guards died in the gas attack. Joan and Steven Whitney never waver in their belief that Eddie is innocent, but the court finds him guilty and sentences him to death. At this point, the movie examines Eddie’s attempts to escape or influence the governor to grant him a stay of execution. After an elaborately staged escape, Joan and Eddie take to the road and the film becomes a mini road movie full of suspicious rural folk and car chases. Sidney’s Joan remains believable as she turns into a desperate fugitive. As the movie plays out to its unfortunate conclusion, I wondered why things didn’t turn out better. I got the feeling that the couple brought on this trouble themselves. If Eddie and Joan really love each other, why couldn’t they have planned things better.