Thursday, May 13, 2021

Crime Month Reminds Us That You Only YOLO


You Only LIve Once
(1937)


“Father Dolan is for everybody!” 

It’s hard to find a more ringing clergy endorsement than Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda)'s description of the prison priest in 1937’s You Only Live Once. The film is the second American film made by the great Austrian/German director Fritz Lang

Lang made many great films in Germany, such as Metropolis and M. Though baptized a Catholic as a baby, Lang had Jewish heritage, and he worried about the rise of the Nazis. This fear intensified when the regime began to censor his films, so he left Germany for America in 1933. 

 It is interesting that Lang’s first two American films are quite critical of the American justice system -- it almost seems he was testing whether he could practice the freedom of expression that was becoming impossible in his homeland. After making Fury, he made You Only Live Once which tells the story of an ex-con who falls in love and marries his public defender’s secretary (echoed in the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona where an ex-con marries a prison guard.)

But the ex-con in this film, Eddie Taylor, can’t keep a job (the man who hires him out of prison uses the first possible excuse to fire the “jailbird”) and is frustrated that he must rely on the income of his wife, Joan (Sylvia Sidney). He's tempted to return to a life of crime, and his former gang offers him a job. Though he resists the temptation, when his ex-gang’s heist goes wrong and six men are murdered, the gang frames Eddie for the killings.


Eddie is convicted of the murders and sentenced to death by electrocution, which brings him back to Father Dolan (William Gargan), the chaplain at the prison. At the start of the film, Father Dolan had urged the parole board to give Eddie a chance, helping him to gain his freedom.

Now that Eddie's in prison again, Father Dolan encourages Eddie not to give up. He urges him to hope in his wife and hope in God, but Eddie becomes increasingly bitter. Dolan assures Eddie that he will be going to Heaven (with a Universalist theology which is quite different from my theology. Eddie rejects it too, but for very different reasons.)

The night before his execution, he uses a smuggled gun and takes hostages. As he's working to escape, investigators on the outside discover evidence that clears Eddie of the murders. Eddie is granted a pardon and the warden tells Father Dolan. The priest tries to convince Eddie that he has been granted his freedom, but Eddie thinks it’s all a trick to get him to give up his gun.

Eddie makes his way to the prison gate, taking Father Dolan as a hostage. When gunfire breaks out, Eddie inadvertently shoots the priest. If the priest calls out that he's been shot, the guards would surely be after Eddie, but Father Dolan chooses to remain quiet and give Eddie a chance to escape and live his life. Father Dolan acts out the words of Jesus in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for a friend.”

Early in the film, when Eddie’s criminal friends argued that Father Dolan was just another cog in the prison system, Eddie argued that the priest was concerned about everyone, including the cons. “Father is for everybody!” This is why the priest earns our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.