They Live by Night (1949): Nicholas Ray’s Stunning Feature Debut. Starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell

Nicholas Ray’s first feature, They Live By Night, is one of the most stunning debuts in American film history, though it was under-appreciated bu reviewers and audiences at its initial release.

The emotionally moody tale of tragic love, placed against a cruel world and brutal social forces, is impressively shot by George E. Diskante in the vocabulary of film noir.

Our Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Charles Schnee’s scenario is based on the novel “Thieves Like Us” by Edward Anderson, filmed in 1974 by Robert Altman under Anderson’s original title, starring Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall. (Like the previous version, Altman’s film was a big commercial failure).

The film was initially titled “The Twisted Road,” and then released under the moniker “They Live By Night.”

Thematically, this modern variation on “Romeo and Juliet” is linked to the sub-genre of lovers on the run, which includes Fritz Lang’s seminal picture You Only Live Once” in 1937, with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney; Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra” in 1941 with Bogart and Ida Lupino, and of course, “Gun Crazy” in 1949, directed by Joseph Lewis.

Though shot in 1947, They Live By Night was theatrically released in the U.S. in October 1949, thus becoming Ray’s second film to be seen by critics and audiences.

Among other achievements, the film signaled a shift in the noir genre by dealing with rural characters that are thieves rather than urban gangsters, criminals or private eyes.

In the first scene, two youths, Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) are seen kissing, with a title card reading: “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.”

A decent if also naive guy, he joins a prison break engineered by Chickamaw and T-Dub, two ruthless criminals who have no use for Bowie’s goodness and innocence.  They take him along because they need a third member for a bank robbery.  An auto accident caused by Chickamaw injures Bowie, who recovers in a dark hideout. He is nursed to health by the sensitive Keechie, who immediately falls in love with him feeling that he’s different from his partners.

The couple is soon involved in passionate romance, leading to a legal marriage in the office of a justice of the peace. When Chickamaw asks him to join another bank job, Granger can’t refuse. In due course, T-Dubb is killed and Chicamaw goes off on his own, before being getting killed himself. Sought by the police, Bowie, the remaining fugitive, decides to reform and establish a home for himself and his wife, but this is film noir and his fate has been pre-determined.  Indeed, suiting the mood of a Depression-era tale, the lovers are entangled in a fate they cannot escape, and over which they have no control, until they are inevitably and tragically separated by death.

Ray brings a personal style and singular vision evident from its beginning. After Bowie and Keechie kiss at the opening, a getaway car carrying the three criminals is seen traveling down a dusty road, pursued by police. Rather than shoot with a standard camera set-up, Ray demanded that the scene be photographed from a helicopter, an unusual idea at the time.  This sequence begins the film with dramatic energy, and also conveys a sense of objective fate, as if looking down on Bowie and relentlessly pursuing him.

At the time, most reviewers saw Ray’s work as a typical film noir, and not as a tale of doomed tragic romance, though the director has repeatedly said that he was always more interested in love story and in the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ members of the gang than in film noir per se.

Ray’s inherently romantic approach is punctuated by unexpected moments of unusual violence.  For example, Chickamaw clumsily breaks a Christmas tree ornament, signifying the destruction of the possibilities of normal life for the fugitive lovers.

The film is superbly acted by the entire cast.  Cathy O’Donnell, known to viewers from her part as the self-sacrificing bride in William Wyler’s Oscar-winning “The Best years of Our Lives,” which explains why she received top billing, excels as the frail, Madonna-like holy girl.

Farley Granger, at his extreme handsomeness, is also well cast as the sensitive, vulnerable guy, rendering a different kind of performance from his work for Hitchcock in “Rope” and “Strangers on a Train.”

Reportedly, Robert Mitchum wished to play Chicamaw (who is Indian in the book), shaving his head and dying it black for the role, but because he was a rising star and recent Oscar nominee, the part of a bank robber was deemed too small for him. Mitchum was cast by Ray in another good film, “The Lusty Men,” opposite Susan Hayward.

Instead, the part went to Howard Da Silva, who had appeared in Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 musical “The Cradle Will Rock,” also produced by John Houseman before he went Hollywood.

Ray cast actors whom knew from the New York theater, including Marie Bryant as the black night club singer, Curt Conway as the tuxedoed man at the club who kicks him out of town, Will Lee as the jeweler, and Byron Foulger as the owner of the cabin where the couple hide out.

The collaboration between producer Houseman and scripter Charles Schnee resulted in at least another great picture, Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 Oscar winning  “Inside Hollywood” melodrama. The Bad and the Beautiful.

Made on a budget of less than $1 million, They Live By Night was a commercial failure, declaring a loss of $445,000.

Upon initial distribution, the N.Y. Times critic Bosley Crowther described the movie as “a commonplace little story,” but there’s nothing commonplace or little about it.  Over the years, the movie has developed a cult following and is now regularly shown by TCM and museum series devoted to Nicholas Ray and film noir.

Cast

Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell)

Bowie (Fraley Granger)

Chickamaw (Howard da Silva)

T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen)

Mattie (Helen Craig)

Mobley (Will Wright)

Singer (Marie Bryant)

Hawkins (Ian Wolfe)

Young Farmer (William Phipps)

Hagenheimer (Harry Harvey)

 

Credits

Produced by John Houseman

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Screenplay: Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray, based on the novel “Thieves Like Us” by Edward Anderson

Camera: George E. Diskante

Editor: Sherman Todd

Music: Leigh Harline, Woody Guthrie (uncredited)

Art direction: Albert S. D’Agostino, Al Herman

F/X: Russell A. Cully

Running time: 95 Minutes

Distributed by RKO, the movie world premiered in London in August 1948, and in the U.S. on November 3, 1949.