Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tonight's Movie: They Live By Night (1948) at the TCM Classic Film Festival

On Day Three of the TCM Classic Film Festival I saw my third film noir of the weekend: THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948), the directorial debut of Nicholas Ray.

I wouldn't class the film as one of my favorites of the weekend -- it was too much of a heart-tugging downer for that -- yet I have found the movie has "stayed with me" and I'm really glad I saw it. It's a deeply memorable film with a number of unforgettable moments, anchored by the poignant performances of Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell as young lovers on the run.

Prior to the film, Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation interviewed Susan Ray, Nicholas Ray's widow. A portion of the interview can be seen in the festival video gallery under the Saturday listings. (Photo courtesy of TCM.)

One of Susan Ray's more notable comments, simultaneously funny and poignant, was when she discussed her husband's fascination with young people, saying "He didn't like old people...he'd probably have nothing to do with me at this point." She said he "loved the juice and potential of youth."

They also discussed that Robert Mitchum wanted to play the older crook in the film, Chickamaw, but the studio decided he was too big a star for the supporting role, which went to Howard Da Silva.

Muller and Ray mentioned the film's unusual opening sequence, which can be seen on the TCM site; it moves from a gorgeous, too-brief prologue which sets up the film's love story to an exciting car chase shot from a helicopter.

Granger and O'Donnell play Bowie and Keechie, who according to the prologue "were never properly introduced to the world we live in." Bowie has escaped from a prison farm and meets Keechie, the niece of another escapee. After taking part in a robbery, Bowie goes on the run with Keechie; they marry and attempt to live a normal life, but the threat of Bowie being caught is ever-present. When Keechie announces she's having their baby, Bowie simply says "He'll have to take his chances same as us." Eventually, of course, the law catches up.

Granger and O'Donnell are achingly young and beautiful in this, particularly in their later scenes. This was one of the earliest roles for both actors; after production, the release was delayed for a couple of years. O'Donnell's best-known previous work was as Wilma, who marries disabled veteran Harold Russell in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1945), while Granger had debuted in THE NORTH STAR (1943) and also appeared in THE PURPLE HEART (1944).

One of my favorite scenes was when Keechie wakes up and stretches, saying she feels like a kitten; it felt very "real" and was one of a number of simple yet memorable moments.

In addition to the unique opening, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is notable as the leading man is sympathetic and sensitive, yet he's also a weak type who is far too willing to do the wrong thing. Granger's Bowie seemed to pave the way for John Dall's even more disturbed character in GUN CRAZY (1950). It's thus noteworthy that Granger and Dall costarred as a murderous team in Hitchcock's ROPE (1948).

The film is also interesting for its portrayal of a very poor, rural lifestyle; the superb black and white photography by George E. Diskant at times almost looks like a documentary of the Depression-era South. We were fortunate to see the film in a beautiful 35mm print at the festival.

The supporting cast includes Howard Da Silva (very creepy as the one-eyed Chickamaw), Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, Will Wright, Ian Wolfe, Byron Foulger and Teddy Infuhr.

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT was based on the book THIEVES LIKE US by Edward Anderson; the screenplay was by Charles Schnee. The film was produced by John Houseman. It runs 95 minutes.

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is available on DVD in the 10-film Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4. It can also be purchased on a "double feature" disc with SIDE STREET (1949), which also starred Granger and O'Donnell. The THEY LIVE BY NIGHT DVD has a commentary by Eddie Muller along with Farley Granger; I just started listening to it and was interested to learn that Granger had recommended O'Donnell to Nicholas Ray.

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT has also been shown on Turner Classic Movies.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

"Keechie" becomes more beautiful as the film progresses and love makes her blossom. Even a doomed love. You are so right in that this movie stays with you.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Robby Cress said...

Thanks for the recap Laura and for the link to the TCM video. This is one screening I would have really liked to have attended. I like the comment by Ray's widow about his fascination with young people. It really makes sense that even towards the end of his career he was still surrounding himself with much younger experimental artists.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Great post Laura. That's funny that Robert Mitchum wanted to be in the movie. They Live By Night is one of those films I always think I have seen but really haven't. Must watch it soon!

1:23 PM  

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