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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Nicholas Ray’s ‘They Live By Night’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Nicholas Ray's 'They Live By Night'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out. This is Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“They Live By Night”
Dir: Nicholas Ray
Criticwire Average: —

A typical story of lovers on the run told in atypical fashion, Nicholas Ray’s debut film “They Live By Night” captures both the beauty and the unnerving terror of young love in the face of impossible odds. Adapted from the Edward Anderson novel “Thieves Like Us” — and adapted decades later under that title by Robert Altman — the film begins with a young Bowie Bowers (Farley Granger) as he escapes from prison with the help of two bank robbers Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen). Bowie was wrongly convinced of murder and decides to rob a bank with Chicamaw and T-Dub so he can pay for a lawyer to prove he’s innocent. However, after being injured in a car accident, he lodges with Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), the daughter of a gas station owner. Though the two had crossed paths earlier right after Bowie’s escape, they fall in love with each other honestly and impulsively, and the two decide to marry, book it out of town, and then live on the straight and narrow. But try as they might, their criminal past and the law are on their tail, and there’s only so long a boy and a girl never properly introduced to the world we live in can last on their own.

Though “They Live By Night” is one of the first lovers-in-peril films preceding “Bonnie and Clyde” by almost twenty years, the thin narrative may still suggest a predictable, humdrum movie for modern audiences, but what “They Live By Night” lacks in “originality” it makes up for with sheer formal beauty. While it may be best known for the helicopter shot over the opening credits featuring Bowie, Chicamaw, and T-Dub driving away from prison (the first time a helicopter has been used to shoot action), “They Live By Night” operates on strange, slightly off-beat poetic rhythms for the entire film, the result of a young director working outside of Hollywood tradition. Working under producer John Houseman (best known for his collaborations with Orson Welles) and RKO Production Chief Dore Schary, Ray had complete creative control over “They Live By Night,” often experimenting with the sound design and the visual schema on the fly. Through cinematographer George E. Diskant’s Expressionist photography, Sherman Todd’s lyrical editing (specifically the way his controlled style allows for some sequences with many quick dissolves and some with very few cuts entirely), and Granger and O’Donnell’s stylized yet emotionally raw performances, “They Live By Night” assumes a hotbed of anxiety and passion, a film so eerily tense that even sweet moments feel “off,” or almost unnaturally nervy, like when the wedding chapel proprietor Mr. Hawkins (Ian Wolfe) walks Bowie and Keechie through their shotgun wedding. “They Live By Night” also often assumes the instability of Bowie and Keechie’s relationship, like how most of the violence is off-screen but seen through Bowie’s eyes to further illustrate his unease, or maybe my favorite moment, when a stranger cheerily strikes up a conversation with Bowie just as he’s waiting to drive the getaway car for a bank robbery, as if the relatively placid outside world actively tries to interrupt Bowie’s own constructed world, one in which him and Keechie live happily ever after with their newborn child.

But that’s “They Live By Night” through and through: two kids try to escape the traps they’ve chosen or been born into, get away with it for a little while, but then ultimately realize it’s futile. Again, it’s a familiar story, but Ray elevates it to poetic heights just by the way he treats Bowie and Keechie’s relationship via Granger and O’Donnell’s performances. Both Granger and O’Donnell had limited acting experience, and while it may be tempting to write off their acting as stilted or wooden, their performances capture a raw lack of self-consciousness that’s rare in any actor, but that rawness is ensconced within a firmly melodramatic approach to the material. The result is a strange acting style that seems forced but is really just another strange, yet sincere element added to the proceedings. However, “They Live By Night” isn’t all just uncanny atmospherics, there’s a profound beauty as well. When Granger and O’Donnell share the frame, they project a closeness that’s both enchanting and painful, because you buy their intimacy, but you, along with them, know it’s doomed. When Bowie and Keechie go see a nightclub singer perform during a lovely pause in the film’s action, it’s as if the two of them want to linger in that perfect moment forever, but it’s then that a stumbling drunk bumps into Keechie and Bowie almost gets into trouble yet again. The sad truth is that that perfect moment doesn’t exist for Bowie and Keechie. All they have is a past that’s gaining on them, an uncertain future receding into the distance, and a baby on the way. When Bowie makes a last-ditch effort to try to gain passage to Mexico through Mr. Hawkins’ connections, he refuses to help him because though he describes himself as a thief like Bowie, he won’t sell him hope when there isn’t any. The film ends the way it was all going to end, but up until that moment when Bowie gets gunned down, there’s a heartbreaking reality pulsing through the poetic artifice that’s impossible to resist. After all, they may be thieves, but they’re just like us.

More thoughts from the web:

Fernando F. Croce, CinePassion

Nicholas Ray arrives: Luminous lyricism (lovers in close-up, twined) promptly invaded by kinetic despair (the camera descends from above as it rushes along with a trio of fugitives), a continuous dance. The Depression-era setting crystallizes a specifically American sensitivity to transience, to makeshift sanctuaries scattered amid open spaces filled with shabby chapels, cafes, bus stops, neon signs and disembodied hotel cabins. (When the boy crawls out from behind a giant billboard, it’s an image that could make the very young Godard decide on his aesthetic right there and then.) A jailbird (Farley Granger) and a wallflower (Cathy O’Donnell) comprise the wounded couple at the center, half-bright kids tentatively blooming while discovering intimacy, emotion, life’s many shadowy grids. The dream of domesticity is a dead end and the outlaw alternative family (Jay C. Flippen and Howard Da Silva, “thieves like us”) is rejected, the dark open road is the only option for the reluctant criminal and his beloved. “Someday I’d like to see some of this country we’ve been traveling through.” “By daylight? That’d be nice…” A cinema of anxiety and sensuality, with a streak of instability (the Christmas bauble that shatters in the delinquent’s hand, the crowbar that narrowly misses the boy’s head but seems to crack the lens) and a peculiar combination of the folksy and the Cocteau-abstract (Helen Craig suggests a fleshier, wearier María Casares). A wealth of volatile filmmaking coups: The camera lies in the backseat as the protagonist drives up to the bank, a sudden black screen states a car crash, an off-screen gun blast and a puff of smoke sum up a policeman’s shooting, and that’s just the robbery. And yet, there are moments when Granger and O’Donnell appear so achingly naked that you could reach into the screen and touch them. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club

“This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” With those words, superimposed over images of Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell tenderly kissing, Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece “They Live By Night” — his debut feature, incredibly — declares its allegiance to poetry rather than realism, which is what sets it apart from the dozens of lovers-on-the-lam pictures that would follow in its footsteps. (Decades later, Robert Altman would direct his own adaptation of the same source novel, “Thieves Like Us.”) The film’s story is simple, even skeletal: After busting out of jail, Granger meets a nice (if unusual) girl, O’Donnell, and makes a concerted effort to go straight, which circumstances continually prevent. But Ray inflects every aspect of this primal, tragic narrative with overpowering strangeness and beauty, creating a private world for the couple that reinforces that arresting opening statement. Some of this effect was accomplished simply by doing things nobody had thought to do before — by some reckoning, “They Live By Night”is the first movie that used a helicopter to shoot actors performing, as opposed to merely an establishing landscape. The film shares with “Citizen Kane”the sense of a born director reinventing the medium on the fly, with reckless, thrilling disregard for its established conventions. Basic close-ups are frequently shot at slightly odd angles that emphasize the characters’ emotional fragility, and both Granger and O’Donnell give heavily stylized performances that don’t resemble what any other actor was doing in the 1940s — O’Donnell’s spacey demeanor, in particular, seems to anticipate Sissy Spacek. Together, with Ray’s masterful assistance, they convey the sense of two people thrust into a situation they don’t understand, improvising wildly until there’s nowhere left for them to run. It’s a précis of the human condition, in other words — beguiling and heartbreaking. Read more.

Geoff Andrew, Time Out

Where Altman’s later adaptation of Edward Anderson’s novel (as “Thieves Like Us”) opted for the detachment of hindsight, Ray offers us the poetry of doomed romanticism, introducing his outcast lovers with the caption, “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” Though Ray never shirks from action and violence (indeed, Howard da Silva’s crushing of Christmas baubles as he warns Granger against going straight is extremely menacing), he turns the film to focus upon his misfit innocents, continually contrasting their basically honorable ideals with the corrupt compromises of “respectable society.” Passionate, lyrical, and imaginative, it’s a remarkably assured debut, from the astonishing opening helicopter shot that follows the escaped convicts’ car to freedom, to the final, inexorably tragic climax. Read more.

Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

A key film noir of the ’40s, this was Nicholas Ray’s first film as a director (1949), and the freshness of his expressionist-documentary style is still apparent and gripping. Farley Granger found one of his few effective roles as the gangly teenager propelled into a life of crime; Cathy O’Donnell is his tough-minded lover, following him across the country through a succession of stolen cars and cramped motel rooms. Much of Wim Wenders’s romantic despair can be found here in its original, more extravagant form. The film was drained of its dark poetry when Robert Altman remade it as “Thieves Like Us.” Read more.

Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

Based on a novel by Edward Anderson, which, in turn, was no doubt inspired by the two or three real-life sagas that we’ve had of “boy bandits” and their brides, this well-designed motion picture derives what distinction it has from good, realistic production and sharp direction by Nicholas Ray. Mr. Ray has an eye for action details. His staging of the robbery of a bank, all seen by the lad in the pick-up car, makes a fine clip of agitating film. And his sensitive juxtaposing of his actors against highways, tourist camps and bleak motels makes for a vivid comprehension of an intimate personal drama in hopeless flight. As the young bandit, Farley Granger gives a genuine sense of nervous strain and is wistful and appealing in his brave approach to a piteous romance. Cathy O’Donnell, the girl who played the sweetheart of the handless sailor in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” is also sincerely affecting as his drab but intense little bride. Howard da Silva and Jay C. Flippen are impressive as hardened crooks, and Ian Wolfe is disturbingly shifty as a marrying parson in a Texas town. “They Live by Night” has the failing of waxing sentimental over crime, but it manages to generate interest with its crisp dramatic movement and clear-cut types. Read more.

Max O’Connell, Letterboxd

Kind of remarkable that this can come so close to greatness in spite of two terrible, terrible lead performances. Granger’s a bit less awful here than he is in his Hitchcock collaborations (the metronome scene between him and James Stewart in “Rope” is the classic film equivalent of Oldman vs. Keanu in Coppola’s “Dracula”), sometimes effective in his early scenes with O’Donnell, but he’s just not equipped to meet the film whenever it needs him to go beyond earnestness, a huge drawback for someone as dependent on bigger-than-life (ha) emotion as Ray. O’Donnell’s equally stiff, and that Ray’s energetic direction is able to compensate for the two of them is a testament to the man’s talent. The early robbery scene is tense in spite of Granger’s wooden simulation of panic because of how much Ray roots us in his limited, nervy perspective and makes the folksy, friendly clerk a major threat, if an oblivious one. Also neat to see how much of this plays like a precursor – hell, an older sibling, really – to “Rebel Without a Cause,” what with O’Donnell and Granger’s attempt to break away from the adult world and make their own, not to mention their diving headfirst into adult experience without knowing what the hell they’re doing. Ray handles it with total conviction, and if he had someone of James Dean and Natalie Wood’s caliber, I’d adore this instead of admire it greatly. Read more.

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