They Live by Night August 13, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s, Nicholas Ray , trackback
“This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…”
Two weeks ago, the director Nicholas Ray had a very good couple of days on DVD. July 30 saw one of his finest films, Bigger Than Life, released in the UK by the BFI, a superb edition highlighted by Ed Buscombe’s commentary and a conversation between film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and director Jim Jarmusch, who served as Ray’s teaching assistant in Jarmusch’s last year at NYU. The following day, July 31, Ray’s debut feature They Live by Night hit the market as part of Warner Bros.’ fourth Film Noir collection in R1. It also featured a commentary, this time by film noir aficionado Eddie Muller and star Farley Granger. It’s been a long time coming for Ray, the most under appreciated of the great American auteurs, and, make no mistake, Ray is indeed a great director in the pantheon of the best English language filmmakers despite remaining woefully underrepresented on DVD in the United States. Still waiting for a release in R1: Bigger Than Life, The Lusty Men, Party Girl, The Savage Innocents, Born to Be Bad, A Woman’s Secret, Hot Blood, Wind Across the Everglades, Knock on Any Door, Run for Cover, 55 Days at Peking, and, most frustratingly, Johnny Guitar.
Ray’s tenure making pictures for Hollywood was fairly short-lived, from They Live by Night until Samuel Bronston’s 55 Days at Peking in 1962, during which Ray collapsed with a stress-induced heart attack, was replaced, and ultimately barred from the set. Despite being “interrupted,” as he would later classify his stint directing film, Nicholas Ray made several essential pictures of the 1950s, as well as one each from the preceding and following decades. Lost promises and squandered talent are unimportant when a filmography manages to still include legacy-defining movies like In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar. There’s never quite been a director like Nick Ray and his legacy is all the better for it. By my count, Ray made five borderline masterpieces and four nearly great films in a period of only twelve years. I’m not sure any other American director can claim such lofty accomplishments.
One of those nearly great pictures was his debut feature They Live by Night, starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell as doomed lovers unable to combat their production code destinies. When filming ended in October 1947, Ray called the movie Your Red Wagon, from the performance of a song by that name in the picture, but as RKO struggled and Howard Hughes took the reins, the film was rechristened They Live by Night and entered theaters in the fall of 1949 with little fanfare. Initially perceived as another run-of-the-mill gangster movie, critics and audiences alike apparently shared a collective shrug of the shoulders. The often-maligned New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther derided the film for its “sympathies for a youthful crook,” though he still seemed to like it well enough and praised Ray’s “eye for action details” and Granger’s “genuine sense of nervous strain.” Even the critics in France, who would later, through the writings of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, come to appreciate Ray much more than those in his native country, seemed unimpressed.
I suppose this shouldn’t be entirely surprising, what with Ray’s lack of any real notoriety or Hollywood experience. They Live by Night was actually released after both A Woman’s Secret and the Bogart-starrer Knock on Any Door played in U.S. theaters, a couple of films which do little to establish much of a reputation. There’s also the fairly pedestrian plot, something which Ray clearly saw past enough to transform into one of his signature works. The film begins with Granger as one of three men who break out of prison, an event not seen, but the aftermath of which is shown in exhilarating detail via helicopter camera shots of the getaway car, and almost immediately plot to rob a bank. His character, Bowie, had served seven years in the joint for murder, since he was only sixteen, and seems content to follow around his escape buddies. When he meets O’Donnell’s Keechie, Bowie is immediately interested despite her somewhat plain looks and lack of romantic experience. As we see during the course of They Live by Night, these are two lonely creatures in the midst of trying to figure out the vast expanse of life and adulthood, with the additional element of one being a fugitive and criminal.
Though Ray’s film is frequently classified as a film noir, it’s really more of a love story set against the backdrop of a life of crime. Bowie and Keechie find each other after short lives without emotional affection. Ray crafts a beautifully moving romance between his two lost souls, as he would frequently do throughout his career, even if the viewer knows things will end tragically. They marry on a whim, during a bus stop at a place that both rents ($1) and sells ($5) wedding rings, and forge a bond of defiant loneliness, the first love of each. It’s really quite impressive how Ray and his actors manage to forge such a sympathetic relationship between a violent criminal and his accomplice. Just look at the many, many other examples of this kind of lovers on the run type of film to see how difficult it can be to establish a fully fleshed out romance between two lawless characters.
These type of films would become quite popular over the thirty or so years following They Live by Night (itself made a decade after the similarly themed Fritz Lang film You Only Live Once). Ray’s film was based on the novel Thieves Like Us, written by Edward Anderson and made again by Robert Altman in 1974 using the book’s title, an apparent invitation or glamorization of crime and deemed inappropriate by the strict production code in effect for the earlier version. In the interim, films like Gun Crazy, Badlands, The Honeymoon Killers, and, most famously, Bonnie and Clyde would repeat the same formula but never with as much soul and heart as Ray’s tragic love story. Ultimately, the audience cannot empathize with cold-blooded murderers unless we’re given some kind of common denominator in which we can relate. First love, perhaps the most emotional period of anyone’s life, is the perfect equalizer and Ray tapped into that here without flaw.
The director, also the sole credited screenwriter of the film, emphasized with notes in his final draft that the movie would be “tender, not cynical; tragic, not brutal” and a “Love Story,” comparing Bowie and Keechie’s plight and short time together to that experienced by Romeo and Juliet. Producer and future Oscar winner/nightmare of prospective law students John Houseman was under non-exclusive contract at RKO, the studio where he had worked at as an assistant on Citizen Kane, and his confidence in the first-time filmmaker can only be described as remarkable. Like his fellow Wisconsin native Orson Welles, Ray would struggle with artistic interference throughout his run in Hollywood, but he would never have as much creative freedom as he did while making his debut feature.
The characters portrayed by Granger and O’Donnell are unique even among Ray’s motley assortment of loners and misunderstood protagonists in that they are truly criminals, evading the law. Granger’s Bowie killed a man seven years previous, escaped from prison and then participated in a bank robbery. O’Donnell’s character is upset with Bowie when his criminal ways continue, but, realistically, what could she have expected? Bowie is certainly not portrayed as a bad man or someone unduly violent, but he nevertheless can’t exactly seek honest employment and make a good life for his new bride and unborn child. His and the film’s end are inevitable, the only way someone on the wrong side of the law can have their fate unfold in the cinema.
As Bowie, Granger is naively sympathetic, giving maybe his best performance on film. The actor would star in two of Hitchcock’s better films, Rope and Strangers on a Train, as well as re-teaming with Cathy O’Donnell for Anthony Mann’s Side Street (included on the WB disc with They Live by Night) before later appearing in Luchino Visconti’s Senso. Granger is not an especially versatile performer, but Ray really worked to his strengths with this role, allowing the actor to show his natural innocence and vulnerability as a young victim of circumstance lost in the frightening reality of the world. Granger recently published his autobiography and, while promoting the book, cited Ray as his personal favorite among directors he worked with, unsurprising praise when you look at the brilliant performances the director continually elicited from his actors. The freedom he gave stars like Bogart, Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and James Mason, among others, shines through in their acting, all arguably never better than when working with Ray.
It’s that willingness on Ray’s part to allow his actors to express themselves without fear of embarrassment or Kazan-like belligerence, as well as the director’s unique penchant for disaffected characters at a time when cookie-cutter conformance was de rigueur in Hollywood movies, that make his films seem so fresh and removed from the standard melodramas and overblown exercises in method acting of the 1950s. Watching They Live by Night, I was reminded of the music of Bruce Springsteen and, specifically, the song “Atlantic City” off his Nebraska album. Both artists were able to locate the pulse of the outsider, someone not particularly special in any way but undeniably American in spirit and attitude. The idea of bettering one’s self and family, even if it means turning to crime or working outside the margins, is a recurring theme in both men’s work. Of course, Ray put his finger on this pursuit some twenty and thirty years before Springsteen.
The newly released DVD of They Live by Night is quite outstanding in picture quality, especially for an RKO film, and it looks noticeably better than Warner’s release of On Dangerous Ground just last year. The more I delve into the Film Noir V.4 set, the more I think it’s truly one of the best DVD releases we’ve had. The special features are a little on the superficial side, with each film sporting a highly condensed short featurette running about five minutes and consisting of talking heads saying little of interest, as well as a commentary. These ridiculously truncated programs seem edited within a millimeter of their lives and leave this viewer wondering how knowledgeable persons like Molly Haskell, Oliver Stone, Alain Silver, and James Ursini could be restricted to such a short amount of time to speak about one of the truly great debut features of the 1940s. The bonus disc included in the Vol. 3 collection was much more interesting and meaty than these little trifles Warner Bros. has given us here. That’s a minor complaint though, and absolutely not intended to dissuade anyone remotely interested in film noir from paying roughly $4 per film for this wonderful set.