They Live By Night (1948) Nicholas Ray

They’re young, they’re in love and they kill people. That was the tag line for Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 masterpiece “Bonnie and Clyde” and it could have been equally appropriate some eighteen years earlier in Nick Ray’s first film “They Live By Night.” Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel “Thieves Like Us” (Anderson only wrote two novels of which this was his second ), and one of the earliest of a loosely banded group of films about young fugitive lovers on the run from the law (You Only Live Once, Gun Crazy, Badlands, Natural Born Killers and Bonnie and Clyde ).

Made in 1948, the film remained on RKO’s shelf for almost two years before new owner Howard Hughes decided to release it (It’s U.S. release was in November 1949). Various producers attempted to get a good screenplay written, however it was not until John Houseman came on board as producer and showed the depression era novel to Nick Ray, who loved the book, wanted to make the film and wrote an adaptation. Houseman had considerable clout as a producer at the time and was able to get first time director Ray an okay to direct the film.

Three men escape from prison, two seasoned bank robbers T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) along with young Bowie (Farley Granger) who was innocently convicted of murder.  The three men rob a bank. When Bowie is injured he is brought to Chickamaw’s brother’s place where he meets Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), Chickamaw’s tomboyish niece. After another bank job, the young lovers take off to get away from Bowie’s two thug partners and a life of crime. Unlike Bowie, his two cohorts quickly blow their share of the money and want Bowie for another bank job which goes bad resulting in T-Dub’s death. Bowie and Keechie are again running only this time instead of running to a new life they are running from the law and straight toward a tragic end.

Like many of Ray’s films, the sympathy lies with those living outside of society, outlaws doomed to a tragic end; in this case an ambush  that foresees Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde.” Like “Bonnie and Clyde”, the young couple are also betrayed to the police by someone they thought they could trust, in this case, Chickamaw’s sister-in-law Mattie (Helen Craig) who Bowie pleads to for help late in the film. During the filming Ray continually worked on the screenplay, written by Charles Schnee, making sure his vision would remain intact. Ray reflects a world with few honest people, even the justice of the peace is corrupt, everyone “are thieves like us”, as Bowie tells Mattie toward the end of the film.

The critics at the time were generally dismissive, Bosley Crowther called it, “a common little story about a young escaped convict” and later on states the film “is misguided in its sympathies for a youthful crook.” He lthen addsh”They Live By Night has the failing of waxing sentimental over crime.” To be honest, the ever straight laced Crowthers does give the film credit for “good production and sharp direction by Nicholas Ray.”

The film’s beginning is unique in two aspects; first we see Bowie and Keechie in close up kissing as the opening credits come on. When the film proper begins we are in an open field, the three prison escapees are in a car on the run. This is all viewed from a helicopter shot high above. I believe this to be the first, or at least one of the first times this technique was used in an action scene giving  the film a fresh documentary touch. We also see the owner of the car taken prisoner by the three fugitives and severely beaten by Chickamaw.

“They Live By Night” (released in England as The Twisted Road) is an astonishing directorial debut, a dark lyrical poetic love story, it has been called a weepy noir, and like their counterparts in “Gun Crazy”, “Bonnie and Clyde” and even “Romeo and Juliet” the lovers are doomed to a poignant fate.  Ray’s background prepared him for the details of this depression era drama. He was a devotee of Southern folk music and worked with Alan Lomax and knew many folks singer of the era like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, he even had a weekly radio show. He met John Houseman during this period who was influential enough to get Ray his first gig as a director. Ray was also associated with the Group Theater as an actor where he met and befriended Elia Kazan who would invite Ray to study his filmmaking style during the production of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

The cast consist of one superb performance after another from Farley Granger as the sensitive unlucky Bowie and Cathy O’Donnell as the melancholy rural Keechie looking for an escape from nowhere, to character actors Jay C. Flippen and Howard Da Silva as Bowie’s two hardened partners. Granger was at a party when he met Ray who took a liking to him; both he and O’Donnell were under contract to Sam Goldwyn at the time. Robert Mitchum was interested in playing Chickamaw but was deemed a rising star at the time and the role too limited for his newly found status, as a result Jay C. Flippen got the part.

A few aspects of the film have dated somewhat; Bowie admitting his virginal inexperience with kissing and Keechie saying things like “a good woman is like a dog” (they are loyal). Still, these bits aside, the film’s tug and pull between romance and violence continues to work. T-Dub and Chickasaw remain two vivid characters given some nice touches especially when Chickamaw reappears in Bowie and Keechie’s lives destroying a Christmas ornament and in the process their dream of a regular life.

In 1974, Robert Altman made a new version of the film under its original source material’s name, and remained closer “in tone”, as Pauline Kael states in her review, than Ray’s more sympathetic view. Kael called the seventies film “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films – a masterpiece.

****1/2

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13 comments on “They Live By Night (1948) Nicholas Ray

  1. R. D. Finch says:

    John, a great post on a film I like very much, especially your customary well-researched and informative background on the movie. Interesting observation about the opening helicopter shots. In “Visions of Light,” a documentary on cinematographers from the early 90s, I heard the claim (I think it was made by James Wong Howe) that the closing shots of “Picnic” were the first shot from a helicopter, a claim clearly belied by this film. Your comment about Ray taking a shine to Granger is most interesting–at some points the movie almost seems to be a valentine to Granger, especially in those loving close-ups dominated by his full, sensuous lips! One of my favorite parts of “They Live by Night” is the section at the deserted holiday camp that takes place just before Christmas–a sort of idyllic interlude before the tragic conclusion. I also found your remark about Kael and “Thieves Like Us” interesting. As much as I like the Ray film, I like Altman’s version even more. Even so, Altman clearly patterned certain aspects of his version on Ray’s.

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D., thanks of some great thoughts on this film. I like the Altman film too very much (currently on my DVR waiting to be watched), it is one of Altman’s best IMO beautifully acted and exquisitely photographed. I saw “Visions of Light” way back in the 90’s on VHS, a must see documentary for anyone serious about film. The film is a bit of an oddity, and then again are not most of Ray’s films, as a noir focusing on the romantic aspects of the story.

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  2. Judy says:

    Great review, John – sadly this is yet another one I haven’t yet seen, but I do want to as I very much admire the Rays I have seen.

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Even though this was Ray’s maiden voyage, it remains one of his best, in my estimation among the top three with ON DANGEROUS GROUND and IN A LONELY PLACE. A brooding sense of foreboding permeates THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, and Ray harnesses the adolescent us-against-the-world feeling of doom and gloom and wraps the entire picture in it like a cloth. It matters not what Bowie and Keechie try to do, they can’t live in isolation. They live at night because the daylight offers exposure. The term ‘Thieves Like Us’ which was used as the title of a much later Robert Altman film, takes on a catch phrasing for the characters here. This is a quintessential noir for all sorts of reasons, most of which you elaborate on here in this outstanding review.

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam, thanks so much for your excellent thoughts on this film, one I much admire. I agree this is one heck of an accomplishment for a first film. It has so much going for it.

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  4. Sam Juliano says:

    For the record, I much prefer this film to Altman’s version.

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  5. […] John Greco again has hit pay dirt with a superlative review of Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night at “Twenty Four Frames.”: https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/they-live-by-night-1948-nicholas-ray/ […]

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  6. Dave says:

    Haha, John, seeing your response to R.D. earlier reminds me – I have Altman’s THIEVES LIKE US sitting on my DVR right now too!

    As for They Live By Night, as I said in my countdown, I’ve really come around on this one (along with another Nick Ray, ON DANGEROUS GROUND). The more Ray films I watch, the more I love the guy’s work. He is technically brilliant without being flashy, if that makes sense. And a great storyteller in general.

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    • John Greco says:

      Dave, Ray is a unique talent and each of his films are interesting at the very least if not always successful. For me, this is one of his best. Thanks my friend!

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  7. Jay Kanter says:

    A wonderful review.I have seen this film over 5 times and it still holds up.Mr.greco next should review ‘Side Street’

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks very much. I appreciate your comments and “Side Street” is always a possibility, certainly another good film. Thanks again!!!

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  8. […] Photos: via Libri, Jonathan Rosenbaum, New Granada, Mubi, Derek Winner, Twenty Four Frames […]

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