Thursday, February 11, 2010

#69: They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948)

Released: June 1948

Director: Nicholas Ray; Screenplay: Nicholas Ray and Charles Snee based on the novel “Thieves Like Us” by Edward Anderson; Cinematography: George E. Diskant; Music: Leigh Harline; Producer: John Houseman; Studio: RKO

Cast: Cathy O’Donnell (Keechie), Farley Granger (Bowie), Howard Da Silva (Chickamaw), Jay C. Flippen (T-Dub), Helen Craig (Mattie), Will Wright (Mobley)

When I first saw this debut film from maverick filmmaker Nicholas Ray, I wasn't sure exactly how much I liked it. Having seen countless “lovers on the run” films over the years, I was unsure of how this one stacks up against other greats – Bonnie and Clyde, Gun Crazy and other similar movies. I’m still not of the opinion that it ever reaches the level of either of those films, but comparing it to them can be a bit misleading. They Live by Night takes a slightly different angle on the general storyline, resulting in a much more sensitive, romantic tale.

Based on a novel that would later also be adapted for Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, the screenplay from Nick Ray and Charles Snee plots an ill-fated romance from its reticent beginnings to its tragic conclusion. Escaped prisoner Bowie (Farley Granger) falls for the young, naïve Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), who is the niece of his partner Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva). After escaping from jail with Chickamaw and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), he decides to serve as the wheelman in their planned bank heist. Whereas Chickamaw and T-Dub plan this as the first in a long line of jobs, Bowie hopes to use his cut to retain a defense attorney to overturn his original sentence. When Bowie is hurt in the aftermath of the heist, he is returned to Keechie’s home where the young girl nurses him back to health. Falling for each other, the two young lovers decide to leave their past lives and start anew. Unfortunately, Bowie has been identified as one of the men involved in the bank job and a legend has begun to grow around him. Soon, he is being credited with pulling off jobs throughout the country, when in fact he is doing nothing but planning a marriage and normal life with Keechie. When Chickamaw tracks the newlyweds down, it means that they are on the run not only from the law but from their past associations. Chickamaw manages to convince Bowie to come along for one last job, to help his now-broke former partners. Feeling an obligation toward the two men who helped him escape from prison, Bowie reluctantly leaves his pregnant wife and attempts to finally free himself from his past.

The most striking aspect of the film is how it manages to be both tender and menacing. Once Bowie and Keechie go on the run, it essentially turns into a full-on romance story. Although it shows its datedness at times (the “I don’t know much about kissing” bits can be a little corny), the affection that quickly develops between the couple feels genuine. You can’t help but root for these two dreamers, both of whom are portrayed as victims of circumstance – Keechie for the family she is born into and Bowie for having a knack for getting situations into plans that quickly spiral out of his control. So when they finally arrive at something like a honeymoon getaway, it is striking to see their ideal family life shattered by the reentry of Chickamaw. Chickamaw, played brilliantly by Howard Da Silva, is like the bad penny in their lives, the man who neither of them can completely outrun. He is made all the more menacing by the fact that he seems to recognize this power – he knows that they will never be free so long as he is able to hound them, and he uses this leverage to manipulate Bowie. Da Silva is brilliant in this evil role.

This is also a fun one to watch knowing what Nicholas Ray would go on to do in his career. Many of the themes and techniques that Ray would explore throughout his later work can be seen here in his first outing as a director. Ray was a master at conveying a sense of isolation or exile. Similar to what he would do with his landmark Rebel Without a Cause seven years later, in They Live by Night he explores how outcasts try and make their own way in the world. The isolation that they experience along the way – whether true or imagined – can be seen in later work like Rebel, On Dangerous Ground, or even In a Lonely Place. The loneliness is handled differently in each case, but the tremendous sense of isolation is palpable in all of them. And one need only watch the opening aerial shot, following the prison-break getaway car, to recognize the storytelling through the camera that Ray would excel at throughout his career.


  1. There's a strong generation-gap quality that adds to the romantic flavor of the young people's story. It's a fine film but I actually like Granger and O'Donnell better in Anthony Mann's Side Street.

  2. A great film, this is Ray's first feature and the impressive opening scene is the first sequence in a Hollywood movie shot from a helicopter. Ray's use of mis-en-scene to portray entrapment is fascinating, and the wonderful work of DP George E. Diskant renders an elegiac mood of tragedy.

    Indeed think the movie transcends noir. The two young protagonists have no way out as they do not have the maturity to make the decisions they are forced to make, and this is telegraphed by Ray at the film’s opening as sub-titles over a scene of the two lovers in the throes of gentle passion: ” … this boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in … “.

  3. Ray always had an affinity for the outsider here the young couple are not only outside the law but from their former “partners in crime.” I agree fully with Tony’s comments of Diskant’s contributions and of course Ray’s vision as you state below.

    “Ray was a master at conveying a sense of isolation or exile. Similar to what he would do with his landmark Rebel Without a Cause seven years later”

  4. I love this film too, and actually reviewed it recently, by coincidence. It's really something special in the way it becomes more of a romance than a true noir. It has such a dark, shadowy, romantic atmosphere. The cinematography is simply stunning, capturing the aching quality of this doomed love in shot after shot of the lovers pressed together within the frame, as though trying to shrink away from the world into a comfortable space with only each other for company. And yes, once Chickamaw shows up, it completely destroys the fragile illusion of happy domesticity that the couple had made for themselves.

  5. Thanks for the comments guys... this is another case where it might be possible for a movie to rank a little higher outside of just a "noir" classification.

    Ed - I saw your review and purposely avoided commenting because I knew this one was coming up in the countdown! Yours was an excellent piece and I thought it was funny that we both put pieces up on it so close together.

  6. A great film by a great director. Everyone basically touched upon all the strength's of this movie. I love the dream-like mood/vibe that permeates throughout. When it comes to couples on the run features I would rank this right alongside Gun Crazy. As you mentioned above it does tell it's story differently and is able to convey heartbreak when the inevitable conclusion occurs.....M.Roca

  7. I agree with Tony that this debut film for Nicholas Ray 'transcends noir' though it comfortably sits between the parameters of this genre for all sorts of reasons. George E. Diskant's almost existential cinematography, dark and moody, carried over a few years later in ON DANGEROUS GROUND, where he again collaborated with Ray in another study of isolation. Leigh Harline's score provides the proper aural accompaniment of the film's themes. I like your proposition that the film tries to be 'tender and menacing' at the same time.
    Who would have thought that Howard da Silva would years later be famous for playing Benjamin Franklin in the musical 1776 on stage ond on screen? Ha! In any case, you are quite right Dave that he is brilliant here as Chickamaw, but the cast here is ideal. It's true that this film presents themes and idea Ray would use later in his career.

    Another masterful review of one of my favorite entries so far in the countdown.