Lang's M worked as an analogy for the rise of the Nazi movement, predicting the dangers of a hysterical, fearful people putting their support behind fascist tactics of violence and scare-mongering. Two years later Hitler was in power and Lang, fearing reprisals for his Jewish ancestry, fled to Hollywood where he continued his career as one of the prominent film-makers of his time.
You Only Live Once was Lang's second Hollywood feature and continued M's themes of criminals and social persecution.
Eddie Taylor (a young Henry Fonda) is an ex-con to whom freedom is just another empty word, he finds it difficult to adjust to life on the outside where nobody trusts him and he can't hold down a job. He has a girl who loves him called Joan (Sylvia Sidney) but life seems intent on making things difficult for them. Shortly after losing his job as a delivery man, Eddie is wrongly convicted for a daring bank robbery that resulted in the deaths of six people. Awaiting execution, Joan helps smuggle a weapon into the prison to help him escape.
That's quite a lot of the story already covered but it's not the most important part. The twists of fate that befall Eddie and Joan, both unwittingly and by their own design, are what really drive the movie forward. The moral ambiguity is as thick as smog, with every mistake made building on another, leading them towards certain doom.
For all his faults, it is hard to really side against Eddie because he is one of life's victims, backed into a corner and out of options. Fonda is electrifying in this role, crafting a character that is fatally flawed but understandably human. Sylvia Sidney, similarly, is marvelous as the loving and dedicated wife to Eddie. She brings intense, fragile but always believable emotion to every scene they share, only making their inevitable fall all the more tragic.
Yet it is Fritz Lang's stylistic flair that feels like the real star of the film, with his beautiful use of light and shadow. This is perhaps no more effectively used than in the deadly bank raid, where a masked bandit bombards the scene with gas grenades, and the silhouettes of the choking victims are cast against the thick white smog. It's a chilling, intense moment and Lang captures the chaos and horror perfectly. A similar effect is used later in the film during Eddie's jailbreak, fog and shadow and beams of light all mingling together to create scenes of intense mood and heightened drama.
You Only Live Once is without a doubt one of Lang's best works from his Hollywood-era, though not a patch on his German masterpieces. It may lack the incendiary social commentary of M but it is an accomplished and enthralling example of film-making, telling a tragic tale of crime and ignorance.