They Live by Night (1948)

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*. This one has a surprisingly strong critical reputation, I think mainly because it was Nicholas Ray’s first film. Personally, I find it slightly awkward, uneasy, and dull.
*. I don’t care for the two leads. Individually, Granger and O’Donnell are fine, but they have no chemistry at all. I guess part of this is meant to reflect the fact that they are naïve youngsters who don’t know nothin’ ’bout kissin’, but they just don’t seem comfortable together, or even appear to like each other. And that’s a big problem because this movie really foregrounds the romance over the crime elements.
*. Despite their lack of chemistry, and despite the fact that this film lost money (after it was initially shelved for a couple of years by RKO), the two were paired again the next year in Side Street. Go figure.
*. The novel the story is based on, Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us (Altman would remake it under that title later), is a very different beast.
*. It’s not surprising that the novel was changed so much, as it was a property that had kicked around for ten years before John Houseman (yes, that John Houseman) and Dore Schary got a hold of it. There are a lot of story elements in the film that are not in the book, like the bus trip, the scene in the diner, and the wedding. In the novel, Bowie and Keechie are never married.
*. In his DVD commentary Eddie Muller thinks this was all driven by the Production Code, but I think it shows more where Ray’s eye was wandering. The crime story just interested him far less than the romance. The first bank robbery is shown from Bowie’s point of view, so we only see T-Dub and Chickamaw running out of the bank and into the getaway car, and the second robbery is elided entirely (we’re just given a brief recap on the car radio). Meanwhile, the prison break scene at the end of the novel is left out entirely.
*. As a result, Muller calls this perhaps “the most romantic, soft-hearted film noir ever made.” And it’s a softness in the middle.

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*. I mean, I like Farley Granger as an actor, but did he belong in these movies? In both this movie and Side Street he’s kind of a wimp. He certainly gets slapped around a lot.
*. Was he just a pretty boy (in David Thomson’s dismissive phrase)? Hitchcock might have thought so, and cast him in a pair of movies (Rope and Strangers on a Train) where he appeared as dilettantes out of their depth playing at murder. That’s like the character he plays here as well, and it’s not the Bowie of the novel.
*. In fact, several of the characters are changed quite a bit from the book. In Anderson’s novel Bowie is a much stronger, simpler, more laconic character, and Keechie a total doormat. Here Bowie is younger and more innocent, while Keechie looks like one of those pained, hard-bitten housewives standing on the porch of their dustbowl shacks in the photos of Walker Evans.
*. Well, Anderson’s novel was typical of American crime fiction of the time and Ray’s film typical of the Hollywood crime film. Some of it was the Code, some of it was Ray, but the adaptation resulted in the same tired story of the bad guy trying to go straight (and start a new life with his girl), but being dragged back in to his old ways. This is not the story we get in the book.
*. An interesting opening plays almost like a trailer for the movie we’re about to see. Then we cut to that nice aerial work, which apparently was one of the first helicopter shots ever. Unfortunately, I think it gets repeated too often. But I guess they probably figured that since they’d rented the helicopter they might as well get their money’s worth.
*. Used cars were mighty expensive back in the day. Fifteen hundred dollars? You could buy my car today for a third that price, and it’ll take you coast to coast. Thing were cheaper in 1937, the year Anderson’s novel came out. The car they mention buying in that scene only costs them $325.
*. What are we to make of Keechie’s speech about a good woman being like a good dog? Here it is: “A woman only loves once. I guess a woman is sort of like a dog. A bad dog will take things from anybody. But you just take a good dog. His master dies, he won’t take food from anybody. He’ll bit anybody that tries to pet him. There was a man up home, and after he died his dog wouldn’t eat or drink. Then he just died too. Just goes to show you, don’t it?” Amazingly, this is not presented as being at all ironic. Even in 1948 I think it might have seemed a bit much.
*. Keechie does have one great line where she strongly suggests she’s gone and had an abortion. Bowie is angry to hear that she’s pregnant (“Well that’s just fine! That’s all I need!”) and she coolly responds “You don’t see me knitting anything, do you?” Alas, they couldn’t let this stand, and so later we find out she’s keeping her baby (“No matter what, I’m going to have it.”).
*. Muller mentions that this was a way of getting around a topic dealt with more directly in the novel, but I don’t remember any mention in the novel of Keechie wanting an abortion. It’s a subject that is nowhere addressed in the book.

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*. The supporting cast really steal the show. Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen are perfectly cast as a pair of tough hoods. They look like hard men. And Helen Craig is even more impressive, wearing another care-worn, granite face. Oddly enough, Craig seems not to have done much film work outside of this.
*. There are a number of very nice little touches. I particularly like how Herman, the brother-in-law who acts as witness at the wedding, has a cold so he can’t kiss the bride; how Bowie starts to draw a map of the bank on the sofa cushion; the dust that’s all over their getaway car; and the way Bowie flicks his rear-view mirror down so he won’t see where he’s abandoned Chickamaw to his fate, standing in the road behind him. If you do enough little things right, sometimes the big things take care of themselves. Sometimes.
*. I wish they’d handled the deep focus better. There are countless shots here with a face in the foreground communicating with another face stacked behind it, but at best you only get one face in focus and many times neither face is clear. This got to be very annoying. I think it should be one of the fundamental rules of filmmaking that if you can’t make something work, technically, then you should avoid doing it at all.
*. This was Nicholas Ray’s first film. On the commentary Eddie Muller says it ranks alongside Citizen Kane as one of the great directorial debuts of the 1940s. I’m less impressed, though he certainly does a capable job. Ray was a hero to the French New Wave, but that particular cultural cachet is a vanishing asset. I think Ray meant something specific to the French filmmakers of that period, something that is less meaningful today.
*. It’s not a bad little movie, but today it’s probably best known for what came after: Rebel Without a Cause (Granger traded in for Dean, but the same doomed teen romance from Ray), and Bonnie and Clyde (another folk tale of Depression-era gangsters). I’m not sure the “noir” label really applies to it that well, and if that’s your thing you’ll probably prefer the same actors in Side Street.

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