Don’t look to this noir for hardboiled cynicism – for his first feature Nicholas Ray instead gives us a dose of fatalist romance. Transposed from the previous decade, a pair of fugitives takes what happiness they can find, always aware that a grim fate waits ahead. The show is a career-making triumph and a real classic from RKO — which shelved it for more than a year.
They Live by Night
The Criterion Collection 880
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 95 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date June 13, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, Will Wright, William Phipps, Ian Wolfe, Harry Harvey, Marie Bryant, Byron Foulger, Erskine Sanford .
Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Film Editor: Sherman Todd
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Written by Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray from the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
Produced by John Houseman
Directed by Nicholas Ray
In 1947 Nicholas Ray came back to the West coast again. He had already observed Elia Kazan shooting A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and through the aegis of new RKO chief Dore Schary got a terrific chance to direct in Hollywood with a minimum of studio interference. Schary gave several film producing assignments to John Houseman, who called Ray to rush to the coast. In 1947 one might take a train or a plane to cross the country; Ray chose to drive.
The talented young director’s first feature They Live By Night is the work of a Hollywood outsider, at a studio that five years before had gone public with company statements that it would no longer tolerate notions of creative ‘genius.’ Previously a core member of Orson Welles’ old Mercury Theater team, John Houseman now became the best friend Nicholas Ray ever had. Ray got to use RKO’s entire set of toy trains all right, but with conspicuously less fanfare than Houseman’s previous partner.
Like his mentor Kazan, Ray brought to his first Hollywood picture a consciousness of the Depression years. It’s definitely Noir by theme and characterization, but is sourced in Edward Anderson’s socially conscious novel Thieves Like Us. A product of Roosevelt’s New Deal public works programs, Ray had gone the WPA route, bumming around the South recording folk tales and music. Producer Houseman encouraged him to place artistic goals first. With two young stars borrowed from Goldwyn, Ray made Hollywood’s darkest romance since the silent era.
Although it begins with a brief stylized prologue, They Live by Night is set in the unglamorous and impoverished underside of the Depression years. Inexperienced Bowie Bowers (Farley Granger) has been in jail almost since he was a child and knows next to nothing of the normal world. Bowie escapes with hardened criminals T-Dub and Chickamaw (Jay C. Flippen & Howard Da Silva) and is stashed at the rural filling station of Mobley (Will Wright) to recover from a wound. He’s nursed by Mobley’s teenaged daughter Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), a sullen tomboy. Despite the fact that neither has known anything but hardship and distrust, a friendship begins. Bowie accompanies his cohorts on robberies and is soon being publicized as a bloodthirsty public enemy. Afraid that the reckless Chickamaw will ruin everything for them, Bowie and Keechie go on the run together. They marry on the road and Keechie becomes pregnant. Already paranoid of the law, they find that the established underworld considers them loose-cannon hillbillies and wants nothing to do with them. When T-Dub and Chickamaw run into trouble, the young couple hole up at a motor hotel run by Mattie Mansfield (Helen Craig), who is bitter because her husband’s parole has been denied. Bowie sneaks out to arrange an escape to Mexico.
They Live By Night is surely the most tender of films noir, which sets its hardboiled aspect in stronger relief. It opens with a dreamy shot of lovers kissing by firelight, while a sympathetic text fades up on the screen, like a caption in a glossy romance magazine:
“This boy … and this girl … were never properly
introduced to the world we live in.”
Keechie and Bowie share a sensitivity that transcends their miserable backgrounds. He’s been in prison since childhood. She has turned cold and hostile to avoid further abuse from her drunken father. When Bowie returns from a robbery with a gift, we can see Keechie’s heart melt. From then on they’re like mated animals. Yet nothing is on their side – not their background, their environment, or their criminal associates. Keechie’s father Mobley is a worthless alcoholic, who does favors for criminals to make a buck without working. He’s quick to inform on the lovers. The bull-like T-Dub and the hotheaded Chickamaw use threats to force Bowie into more bank robberies. T-Dub has a minimal sense of decency, but Chickamaw is a real menace. It’s one of Howard Da Silva’s best roles. Chickamaw’s collodion dead-eye makeup would overwhelm any ordinary performance, but Da Silva is just too intense.
Ray concentrates on the couple’s growing relationship. Keechie and Bowie gratefully accept whatever happiness they can find. A normal life is out of the question, as they can’t afford to let down their guard and behave like ‘real people.’ And they don’t know enough to stay clear of trouble. Bowie foolishly flashes his bankroll in front of strangers. A crooked marriage parlor operator (Ian Wolfe) can tell immediately that they’re fugitives. The notion of honor among thieves is revealed as a myth when crooks grossly overcharge them, and friends betray them to the police. As wanted fugitives, they seem to have little control over their fate. Being ‘not properly introduced’ to the world is a noir Original Sin that results in isolation and despair. But they do have each other. It may be a myth, this notion of pure lovers persecuted by society, but many of us have felt that way at one time or another.
Nicholas Ray makes brilliant use of music to express the awful situation of being wanted by the law. Experienced underworld denizens see right through Keechie and Bowie’s façade of normalcy, as if they carried a cloud of doom with them. Marie Bryant’s knowing nightclub performer serenades them with “Your Red Wagon.” The creepy jazz tune spells out their isolation: one’s problems are one’s own, and it’s no good expecting others to sympathize. Although Bryant charms the kids with her professional smile, the song has the same effect on the audience as the Ballad of the Hollands in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie — a voice from outside the narrative is laying down the truth, hard and cold:
Now you’ve finally learned / That you get burned when you play with fire
Don’t come running to me / You can’t use me for your spare tire
That’s your red wagon, that’s your red wagon
So just keep dragging your red wagon along.
No guarantee of a happy ending here. This doomed romance angle has a perverse appeal. Pessimists, masochists and lovers of amour fou will get their fill with the tale of Keechie and Bowie.
A natural performer, top-billed Cathy O’Donnell had already won over the country as the girl next door in The Best Years of Our Lives; she is simply magnificent here. Eddie Muller tells us that Ms. O’Donnell had to rid herself of a Southern twang when she became an actress, but she sounds fine with the neutral accent we hear here. Nicholas Ray’s intense direction is just what Farley Granger needed. He comes across as sensitive but not too vulnerable. Granger was never this good again, not even for Alfred Hitchcock. He’s stiff in the theatrical Rope and seemingly tries too hard to be macho in Strangers on a Train. That performance succeeds largely through Hitchcock’s visual and editorial pyrotechnics.
The show is packed with impressive supporting parts. Ian Wolfe plays the oracle-like marriage parlor proprietor. Eight years later he would return as a planetarium lecturer to chills the teens with notions of cosmic doom in Ray’s Rebel without a Cause. Helen Craig’s eerie Mattie is the film’s hardest character, yet also the most heartbroken. She betrays young love in the hope of restoring her own shattered life, but it’s all in vain — the man she wishes to recover is beyond repair.
Auteur notions aside, I have a feeling that Hollywood’s pro cameraman often called the shots on many movies. Instead of resenting the newcomer Ray, cinematographer George Diskant apparently responded to the challenge of putting a different look on screen — They Live By Night feels far more European than the standard RKO picture, even the ones by Jean Renoir. The tight close-ups are unexpected, as are some of the first experimental helicopter shots in a narrative context. The lovers’ happy faces fill the screen as they dream of the future, until the one-eyed Chickamaw shows up to demonstrate his menace by crushing Christmas ornaments. Not every scene happens at night but those that do evoke the false sense of security when driving in a car and the loneliness of being set adrift in a hostile world. Ray’s personal motto was, ‘I’m a stranger here myself.’ This may be the first Road Picture in the modern sense — the road is a state of mind.
Any critic will always come back to the basics: They Live By Night is the second of a string of very good rural bandit – amour fou movies based roughly on the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow story. Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once with Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda is good cinema but now seems one of the great director’s more dated pictures. Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy is more graphic in its violence, expressing a different blend of out-of-control sexuality. Much later, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us is a second telling of the Edward Anderson novel. In some ways it holds its own against Ray’s picture.
Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde is a masterpiece in its own right, and even it openly borrows from Nick Ray. The banker that leaps onto Clyde’s running board and is shot in the face seems meant to one-up the moment when Bowie shoves the nice jeweler from his car window. A big part of our concern for Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty is the edgy knowledge that their demise will be bloody and graphic. At the end of They Live By Night we want to throw ourselves in front of the police to shield the Romeo & Juliet-like Granger and O’Donnell.
The conclusion is as complex as noir films get, a beautiful distillation of the trauma of criminal life. It’s also somewhat idealized, but the Madonna-like grace afforded Keechie is genuinely moving. I’ve never seen a showing of They Live By Night where people didn’t applaud — even back in college screenings.
They Live by Night’s odd release history may have helped Nicholas Ray’s career. Howard Hughes bought the studio and threw its schedule into chaos; for whatever reason he held up the picture for over a year. In the meantime it made the rounds of studio screenings, where word of mouth did wonders for Ray’s reputation — he was established as a hot director long before the movie was released. The exact same interference also boosted the makers of RKO’s The Narrow Margin. Howard Hughes shelved it for almost two years under the reasoning that it was so good, he wanted to remake it with bigger name stars. In the meantime, the careers of director Richard Fleischer, writer Earl Felton and producer Stanley Rubin benefitted greatly from the industry word of mouth.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of They Live by Night gives us a good look at this superb picture that long ago was available only in 16mm, even for retrospective screenings a the L.A. County Museum of Art. The old Warners DVD is okay but this new Blu-ray lends the film a silky texture we didn’t know was there — it’s no wonder that its European lines and Hollywood technical precision impressed the industry insiders. The audio track is also free of old distortion, cracks and pops. I’m told that Leigh Harline’s score uses themes by Woody Guthrie.
As it turns out, relevant extras for this title were not easy to come by. Two major items are repeats from the 2007 DVD. Eddie Muller engages actor Farley Granger in a commentary; the actor is gracious and eager to please but can answer only a few of Muller’s questions about events from sixty years in the past. A featurette on the show is one of those fast-bite montages of film clips and experts, where nobody gets to say more than a sentence at a time. But they did find interesting spokespeople — Molly Haskell, Alain Silver, James Ursini, and Oliver Stone.
The real treasure is a 1956 radio interview with producer John Houseman, an erudite man of letters who projects an aura of informed creativity. Houseman understands the Hollywood system, but also cares about what’s being made. It’s refreshing just listening to a speaker this articulate.
A new essay by Bernard Eisenschitz is on the program insert. Eisenschitz’s book Nicholas Ray An American Journey is one of the best I’ve read about a film director. His essay emphasizes a scene that Ray included at the last minute, showing Mattie informing to the cops. I didn’t realize it, but it is indeed an obvious nod to the treachery of the blacklist, filmed just as HUAC was getting underway.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
They Live by Night
Supplements: Audio commentary featuring film historian Eddie Muller and actor Farley Granger; video piece with Imogen Sara Smith; featurette from 2007 with Molly Haskell, Christopher Coppola Oliver Stone, Alain Silver and James Ursini; audio interview from 1956 with producer John Houseman; illustrated fold-out with essay by Bernard Eisenschitz.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 22, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson