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THEY LIVE BY NIGHT

(1948)

Starring Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell; dir: Nicholas Ray

 

First film from director Nicholas Ray, who would go on to make In A Lonely Place, with Bogart, and Rebel Without A Cause. According to Francois Truffaut They Live By Night "is still his best film".

Today it is remembered for two distinctly un-thrillerish reasons. Firstly, there’s its pervasive atmosphere of melancholy and missed opportunities. (No wonder the French loved it.)  Then there’s the central romance and the soft innocence of its leads. In Film Noir - The Dark Side of the Screen, Foster Hirsch cites both these attractions: "The film’s bittersweet, rueful tone, which sets it apart from any other noir drama, is supported by shrewd casting". Granger was "a perfect noir victim, the eternally dazed man in a net", says Hirsch. Cathy O’Donnell is luminous, but at the same time vulnerable and genuine - a lost talent and a real ‘whatever happened to?’ case. (She and Farley would reteam two years later in Anthony Mann’s Side Street.)

This couple is extremely androgynous (our first sighting of her is in overalls with her hair up) - and sexless. They realise that their new union means they can now learn how to, ahem, ‘kiss’. This sophomoric quality is reinforced by their being under the wing of gang cronies who seem parental, or at least like bad uncles. Their leader Chicamaw is notoriously (and literally) ‘one-eyed’, and foreshadows the Jim Backus father figure whom James Dean bridles against in Rebel. When Chicamaw crushes the Christmas ornaments out of frustration with an uncooperative Bowie (Granger’s character) it’s a clear portent for our pretty but fragile protagonists.

Besides casting, visuals tell the story, consistently remaining in a deeply claustrophobic darkness. There’s a great shot of O’Donnell where she is framed behind broken glass, through which a gun passes, vividly showing her as distanced, vulnerable and fated. They Live By Night is justly famous for the overhead helicopter shots which open it and punctuate the action. These are thrilling but also, through repetition, show the protagonists as rats in a maze, from which they can never escape.

As with all such ‘His-and-Hers crime spree’ films there’s an interlude (complete with swelling romantic music) where they briefly live the dream of the happy couple, young and blissfully in love... But this outdoorsy ‘honeymoon’ is the only time they are allowed to ‘breathe’ and the gloom is so all-enveloping it makes most of their life seems oxygen-deprived. Originally titled The Twisted Road, the film’s eventual title achieves full expression in a scene driving across the Mississippi late in the ‘honeymoon’ phase, when she wistfully longs to visit this beautiful countryside by day.

There are two outstanding supporting performances. Helen Craig plays Mattie, wife of a jailed gang member who, as she rats out the ‘kids’ on the run to free her man, projects a real poignancy of inner conflict that recognises her own entrapment even as she sets up theirs. The gaunt features of Will Wright (seen also in The Blue Dahlia) animate the shifty mien of the nocturnal wedding celebrant Hawkins, whose diverse corruption is ultimately shown to have even its limits.

Of course there’s no mistaking whose side we’re meant to be on as the final shot of Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) that ends with a corona of light around her fading-to-black face to form a halo makes plain (underlined by silence, despite her being surrounded by cops swarming on to a fresh crime scene).

One of six Hollywood features in five decades inspired by Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker’s exploits, They Live By Night is based on Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us. It was remade - poorly - by Robert Altman under that title in 1974, though Altman claims never to have seen it beforehand. 

"Acclaimed for his first film", Leslie Halliwell said of Ray, "he later seemed to lack a particular style". However from the very outset with this debut, a lyrical, bittersweet tone stylistically unifies his best work. Francois Truffaut  saw commonalities in his content: "All his films tell the same story: the violent man who wants to renounce violence and his relationship with a morally stronger woman". Ray’s perspective often reveals an empathy with the teen-angst version of Romantic suffering; here, as in Rebel, the grown-ups are basically another species. Jean-Luc Godard said They Live By Night scored a "B budget, but it deserved an A for ambition". In 1965 Francois Truchaud called Ray "the cineaste of the twilight of the soul, of the falling night".  U.S. critic Steven H.Scheuer went even further, calling They Live By Night "perhaps the best debut film of an American director, and I’m not unmindful of Citizen Kane".

-Roger Westcombe