Sunday, 25 June 2017

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Ray Debut Gets Criterion Deluxe Treatment

Depression-era novel yields perfect post-war Film Noir.

They Live By Night (1948)
Dir. Nicholas Ray
Scr. Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray
Nvl. Edward Anderson
Starring: Cathy O'Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva,
Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, Will Wright, Marie Bryant

Review By Greg Klymkiw

You know the kid is doomed. That's usually the way it is in the grand tradition of film noir crime pictures, but there's a lot more to it than mere genre expectation. Nicholas Ray's debut feature film They Live By Night is so immersed in despair that the pain experienced by the viewer is matched only by our hope against hope that the sweet, young escaped convict Bowie (Farley Granger) is somehow, someway going to find a way out of the hole that both he and circumstance are digging - deeper and deeper and ever-deeper, right from the opening frames.

But we know, we just know, it ain't gonna be so. In this world, hope is a stacked deck and the dealer holds all the good cards. The wide-eyed look of both fear and expectation in Bowie's eyes as he waits in the darkness of night with a sweet, stray dog is enough to tell us that no matter what brief glimmers of hope get tossed his way, he's going to be swallowed whole by a hard, cruel world that has it in for the disenfranchized in the post-war ennui that pervades the world of the film (but in its universal prescience, stands in so sadly for a world that continues to assault those who are the most vulnerable).

And so it is, like Edward Anderson's depression-era novel (and Robert Altman's great 1974 film version Thieves Like Us), that Bowie breaks out of a life-sentence in stir with the older, though hardly wiser thugs, the one-eyed Chicamaw (Howard DaSilva) and the grizzled T-Dub (Flippen). The three convicts hide out in the ramshackle rural home of old drunkard Mobely (Will Wright) and his daughter Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell). With the financial and moral support of T-Dub's sister-in-law Mattie (Helen Craig), the trio plan a major bank robbery.

The core of the story is where director Ray excels. (Ray's entire career seems devoted from this film onwards to movies focusing upon disenfranchised outsiders - Rebel Without a Cause, anyone?) Thanks to producer John Houseman and RKO studio chief Dore Schary, this might be the only film that Ray had unfettered freedom. The movie charges with passion and energy, unlike Altman's equally brilliant take which focused upon the sheer monotony of life-on-the-lam.

Ill-fated lovers on the lam: Claustrophobia to Flight.
Nicholas Ray brilliantly tosses in every cinematic tool at his disposal to keep us enthralled. The helicopter "God" shots are especially dazzling and his groundbreaking use of sound places us firmly in a world that pulsates with a terrible beauty - at once real and alternately, hyper-real, borderline expressionism (especially in his use of Christmas Carols during the most heartrending perversion of domestic bliss and a knockout nightclub sequence with Marie Bryant performing "Your Red Wagon").

Of course, the film's narrative nucleus is the doomed love story between Bowie and Keechie and, oh, it's a heartbreaker. Not only is Bowie doomed from the first glimpse of him, so too is the love twixt this sad, broken couple. When we first meet them as a pair, the sparks are clear, but so's their downfall. Whatever shards of joy they're going to share, they're ultimately bound to wind up on a clear path to sheer and utter despair.

In many ways, both characters have been prisoners. Bowie was incarcerated as a teenager, railroaded by a system that had no time to mete genuine justice upon a poor abused kid. Keechie has lived her entire life helping her alcoholic Dad in the middle of nowhere. Neither of these people have done anything resembling "living" and what life they're going to experience together is most definitely not bound for glory.

So much of the movie is "on the road" - getaway cars and buses. Flight certainly offers an alternative to the claustrophobia that infused the lives of the film's young lovers, but one of the most astonishing set pieces offers a strangely moving repast for Bowie and Keechie when the couple takes one day - ONE DAY - to live out their lives as a "normal" couple.

When the heist occurs early on, it yields a whack of dough, but the troubles start there. Every step of the way, from this point forward, is a misstep and the movie can do little more than toss a crumb or two of happiness in our protagonists' way, and then, bury it with shovelfuls of cold, grimy dirt.

They Live By Night is a movie that seems to be digging a grave and maybe, just maybe, the best we can do as observers is experience its sad inevitabilities so that we never close our eyes to the plight of those who need more than mere sympathy, but action, so that we can all live in a world that extends something resembling compassion.


They Live By Night is available on the Criterion Collection and comes replete with a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, an audio commentary featuring film historian Eddie Muller and actor Farley Granger, a great video interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith, a short piece from 2007 with film critic Molly Haskell, filmmakers Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone, and film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini, plus a dazzlingly eye-opening (and nicely illustrated) audio interview from 1956 with producer John Houseman in conversation with Gideon Bachmann.