Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney) has a steady job in the law courts as a secretary, but there's a darker side to her life which is incongruous with her occupation in that her boyfriend, Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) is a lawbreaker, and doing time for driving a getaway car for a vicious gang of bank robbers. But today he is being let out, and while her boss has reservations that such a sweet girl would be mixed up with a convict, she sees the good in her beau and is there to meet him at the prison gates. Yet going straight will prove more difficult than either of them anticipated as Eddie may think he's reformed, but almost no one else does...
You Only Live Twice was director Fritz Lang's second film in Hollywood having made good his escape from Nazi Germany earlier in the decade, and it was plain to see from this and his first film there, Fury, that he was starting as he meant to go on. The sense of injustice, of fate closing in, of doom unfairly looming around the corner, it was all here, and he may have been a tyrant on the set, but you just had to look at the moody imagery he managed to conjure up from his material to see he was on to something, patently paving the way for the film noir movement in American movies of the next decade.
So basically don't expect a happy ending to these films, as even in the ones that do resolve themselves to some degree of contentment the manner that the machinations of danger and evil have been encroaching on the leads are what you took away, as if any satisfying finale would be tempered by the thought that yeah, it worked out OK this time, but next time this might not be the case. Here the inspiration had been the recent real life case of Bonnie and Clyde, two villainous thieves turned murderers who had become as big of a celebrity couple as any movie star. If you wanted a more accurate look at them then you'd be best to watch the Arthur Penn classic biopic of the sixties - here Lang's sympathies were very much with the unfortunate.
So on their wedding night their landlords, a couple including the Wicked Witch of the West herself, Margaret Hamilton, see them off when the husband recognises Eddie's face from his crime magazines, and as with just about everyone in the film cannot understand that the ex-con is exactly that, deciding to take up the straight and narrow for the rest of his life. We're meant to feel terribly sorry for Eddie and Joan, and to an extent we do, even if Fonda never quite convinces as a hardened criminal: he and Lang did not get on, not unusual for this director but perhaps explaining why Fonda seemed an odd fit for the plot as you could hardly believe Eddie would have been a career criminal when he's almost as angelic as Sidney.
That said, both stars did make for a believable couple in love no matter what the world was throwing at them, that including a terrible piece of bad luck when Eddie is framed for a bank robbery which saw six people killed by toxic gas bombs thrown by the criminals. As the actual perpretrator crashes into a lake unseen, our put upon hero has the dreadful misfortune of having his stolen hat found at the scene of the crime, which is enough for the judge and jury to take one look at his record and condemn him to death. How is he going to get out of this? The point is that no matter how much he squirms in his innocence, fate has other ideas, or it could be God Almighty who is pulling the strings as there's a curiously religious finale which depicts the deity apparently seeing Himself as the saviour of Eddie and Joan, therefore manipulating their lives into His embrace for an ending which appears to offer spiritual comfort, but when you think about it doesn't at all. Very well made, but echoes the slghtly better I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
[Studio Canal's DVD of this enjoys a print which shows slight signs of age but is perfectly clear otherwise, and has an introduction, an audio interview with Lang, and a vintage short featuring takes from the production as extras.]
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.