You Only Live Once (1937 film)

You Only Live Once is a 1937 American crime drama film directed by Fritz Lang and starring Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda. Considered an early film noir,[3] the film was the second directed by Lang in the United States.[4] It is believed to have been inspired by Ben Anderson's 1937 novel Thieves Like Us, itself a retelling of the story of Bonnie and Clyde.[5] At least 15 minutes were trimmed from the original 100-minute version of the film due to its then unprecedented violence.[6] Despite the absence of such scenes, the film is widely considered an early film noir classic.[7]

You Only Live Once
Directed byFritz Lang
Screenplay by
Music byAlfred Newman[1]
CinematographyLeon Shamroy[1]
Edited byDaniel Mandell[1]
Walter Wanger Productions, Inc.[1]
Distributed byUnited Artists Corp.
Release date
  • 29 January 1937 (1937-01-29)
CountryUnited States[1]
Box office$589,503[2]

Plot synopsis

Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda) is an ex-convict who feels he is reformed and deserves a break, but he expects he will not get one and, in spite of marrying Joan, the woman who waited for him and who always believes in him, it seems his expectations will be met. He has a steady job and he and Joan buy a house. He gets summarily fired, however, by a boss who seems all along as if he is just waiting for the chance to rid himself of a "jailbird". Eddie's old gang wants him to join them in bank robberies, and he is tempted. Then, a bank job occurs during which six people are killed. Eddie is framed and subsequently wrongly convicted for the murders. He is sentenced to death by electrocution. On the eve of his execution, a gun smuggled into the medical area in which he is being held enables him to escape.

As his escape is taking place, it becomes known to authorities that the bank vehicle containing the money, which had been driven from the robbery as part of the plan, has been recovered from a lake - with the body of the guilty bank robber/murderer inside. Eddie receives a last minute pardon and the prison chaplain, whom Eddie has always trusted, tries to convince him of this reprieve. Eddie is too bitter and disillusioned to even consider that he is a free man. Desperate to get out his way, he unintentionally kills the chaplain.

He and a pregnant Joan go on the lam, hoping to make it across the border to Mexico. They become infamous and are blamed for every crime in the areas they pass through. After the baby is born, Joan manages to meet up with her former employer, Stephen, the public defender, and her sister. The two have arranged for Joan to hop a boat to Havana with the baby and wait there while Stephen works to clear her name. She refuses to leave Eddie. As they continue their run, they are ambushed by the police.



The film recorded a loss of $48,045.[2]


Radio adaptation

You Only Live Once was presented on Philip Morris Playhouse November 28, 1941. The adaptation starred Burgess Meredith.

Cultural impact

James Baldwin writes fondly about the film in The Devil Finds Work, arguing that Lang "never succeeded quite so brilliantly again."


  1. "You Only Live Once". American Film Institute. Retrieved July 9, 2019.
  2. Matthew Bernstein, Walter Wagner: Hollywood Independent, Minnesota Press, 2000 p437
  3. Schager, Nick. "Please don't call Fritz Lang's fatalistic noir "YOLO"". Film.
  4. Fritz Lang on IMDb
  5. Barra, Allen (December 9, 2013). "Why Bonnie and Clyde Won't Die". The Atlantic.
  6. Justice, Christopher. "You Only Live Once".
  7. French, Philip (July 14, 2012). "You Only Live Once" via

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