The Drop Box

January 27, 2008

They Live By Night (1948)

They Live by Night poster

I’ve tiptoed around Nicholas Ray‘s movies for ages: I love the stuff I’ve seen, particularly Johnny Guitar and In a Lonely Place, but I haven’t seen a lot – something about the burden of expectations… But when Ray’s first feature, They Live By Night, was recently made available on DVD, I took a chance. It looks like an easy one, part of a cheapo double feature with Side Street, but the film is a revelation. An absolutely devastating noir starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell as Bowie and Keechie, the eponymous lovers on the lam, They Live By Night highlights in particular what a great director of actors Ray was, right off the bat. He’s no slouch with the visuals either: often noted for his expressive use of camera and color, here Ray works us over in black and white, following the misbegotten couple from the first bated breath of romance to its last gasp.

 Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell in They Live by Night 

Our first vision of Keechie is not a flattering one – she’s not the prettiest girl an escaped con’s ever fallen in love with and, strikingly, she’s not wearing any make-up (it’s incredible how unaccustomed one is to seeing a very plain girl in a movie). But Bowie is bewitched – he’s unaccustomed to seeing girls at all; locked up since he was 16, he fairly explodes with feeling for her. Keechie can’t keep her fondness for him hidden either, despite her misgivings about his criminal life.

Da Silva and Granger in They Live by Night 

Unfortunately, that criminal life is hovering dangerously close to the would-be couple in the thuggish persons of T-Dub and Chicamaw, the two heavies who broke him out of prison: they need him for bank jobs, and call in their IOU with more than just the threat of violence. The couple try to shake them, hopping a bus and, in a fittingly tawdry yet somehow hopeful setting, marrying; but Bowie’s past is not so easily escapable, and the shadow it casts soon begins to darken the emotional landscape. Driving at night, sleeping in the day, Bowie and Keechie are always hiding, cramped, fearful. They share a real tenderness for one another, but every moment of happiness is followed by a bleak reminder of their untenable situation.

O'Donnell and Granger in They Live By Night

O’Donnell is amazing. Her face is the emotional center of the film, and it’s one of the most expressive in movies – Keechie is a teenager in love, and every change, every nuance of adolescent feeling, dances across that face. Granger, too, is perfectly cast, though not quite the actor O’Donnell is. His Bowie is a naif, awkward and emotionally overwhelmed, obviously doomed – the original, maybe, of James Dean’s rebel. The rest of the cast is just as strong: Howard Da Silva as the one-eyed Chicamaw, all uncontrollable fury and lust; Jay C. Flippen as T-Dub, the more frightening for being so in control; and Helen Craig, who, in an almost-impossible situation herself, acts – heart-breakingly – to make our lovers’ situation actually impossible.

With They Live by Night, Ray arrived fully formed, shining a light into the dark places he’d be going for the rest of his career. Ray practically created cool by directing Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause. Yet the popular reading of Dean as cool is a mistake – his cool exists, obviously, but Ray was fascinated with its flipside: the facade when it crumbles, our inability to control our inner lives, the impossibility of escaping our raw emotional selves. Think Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar; Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel; even Humphrey Bogart loses his temper in In a Lonely Place. They Live by Night is Ray’s first American tragedy, and with such strength of style, story-telling efficiency and powerful direction of performance, it may rank as his best.

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