THEY LIVE BY NIGHT A-
USA (95 mi) 1948 d: Nicholas Ray
Take it easy, but take it.
—Chicamaw (Howard da Silva), becoming Chicagoan Studs Terkel’s famous radio sign off line
Despite his legendary auterist status, embraced and idolized by the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd in the 50’s and 60’s, including Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut, Ray remained a director at the margins of the American studio system, a quintessential film maverick offering a return to poetic lyricism through much more personalized films, despite working within various genres, becoming a master at conveying loneliness through alienated characters draped in a sense of melancholy, providing an alternative vision in their continuing quest for a better world. While this is ostensibly a lovers on the run film, with morally ambiguous film noir shadings, what distinguishes it are the idiosyncratic touches that basically reconfigure what we are seeing, signaling a shift in the noir genre by introducing rural outlaws instead of urban criminals or private eyes, using the road movie as an American symbol of that elusive freedom, while offering prophetic revelations. Adapted by Ray from the 1937 Edward Anderson Depression novel Thieves Like Us, filmed again by Robert Altman in THIEVES LIKE US (1974), this film debut has a distinctly spare look about it with a drawn-out sense of fatalism, using naturalistic performances, shot by George E. Diskant, who also shot Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952), becoming one of the better doomed lover stories about a couple of innocents who never had a chance at life, framed in a black and white world of criminality, where consequences await those who pursue a life of crime. The film is also noted for displaying an equally unusual sound design, including train whistles and brief snippets of blues or folk songs representative of Southern traditions, even Christmas songs. In the 1930’s, Ray had worked with John and Alan Lomax traveling through the South while recording folk songs for the Library of Congress, so he brought this familiarity to his first picture. Farley Granger is Bowie, a handsome young kid on the run with a couple of seasoned bank robbers, where all three break out of prison together, headed by T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and his psychopathic partner Chicamaw (Howard da Silva). While temporarily holed up, Bowie meets Chicamaw’s niece Keechie, Cathy O’Donnell, the girl next door in William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), initially dressed in overalls and cap, looking plain and ordinary, boyish even, without an ounce of feminine allure, which becomes markedly different over time. But the awkward interest they take in one another develops quickly through an intense yearning expressed through an unpretentious series of personal questions for each other, where their closely guarded selves open up ever so slightly. Both Granger and O’Donnell teamed up again in Anthony Mann’s crime thriller Side Street (1950). Despite warnings from Keechie that nothing good can come from robbing banks, Bowie feels he owes these guys his help, like some sort of apprentice, and basically does what they ask, but after a successful heist, he screws up with a car crash afterwards, leaving his gun and traceable fingerprints behind, where the newspapers start calling him the ringleader, which aggravates his veteran partners, a kid getting top billing, but also brings the cops down upon them in greater force. In an interesting move, they each split up, where the camera only follows Bowie and Keechie, where a hardened crime story turns into a tender youth romance on the run, featuring close-up shots of the couple gazing into each other’s eyes, filled with heart rendering moments and melodramatic twists.
Described in his memoir Front and Center by John Houseman, who produced this early work:
From his year’s apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright, Nick had acquired a perfectionism and a sense of commitment to his work which were rare in the theater and even more rare in the film business. But in his personal life he was the victim of irresistible impulses that, finally, left his career and personal relationships in ruins. Brought up in the Depression, one of a generation with a strong anti-Establishment bias, he had been taught to regard hardship and poverty as a virtue and wealth and power as evil. When success came to him in its sudden, overwhelmingly Hollywood way and he found himself, almost overnight, living among the rich and powerful with a six-figure income of his own, he was torn by deep feelings of guilt, for which his compulsive, idiotic gambling ($30,000 lost in one night in Las Vegas) might have been a neurotic form of atonement.
A bisexual director whose affairs and addictions were reflected in existential films about outsiders and rebels, Truffaut indicated Ray’s films brought a “European sensibility” and an uncommon degree of realism to classic Hollywood fare, describing Ray as “the poet of nightfall,” suggesting his films are “about people whom society was opposing and whom society was crushing, and who were almost doomed to be defeated by society.” The film introduction is telling, expressed in a prelude sequence, showing romantic images of the couple in love kissing onscreen while alerting viewers that “This boy... and this girl... were never properly introduced to the world we live in...” What immediately follows is an aerial view of an action shot, certainly atypical of the times, capturing a speeding car cutting across a barren rural landscape, revealing an outlaw gang making their escape, placing the film in a noirish crime setting, making this is the first scene Nicholas Ray ever directed. The film radically reconceptualizes what it means to operate as a romantic couple within a film noir universe, where all attempts to leave a life of crime behind ends in a failure to recapture their lost innocence. Yet the strength of the film lies in the creation of a passionate yearning for a better life, beautifully captured by a depth of emotion in their shared closeness, where it’s easily the first time something this good has happened in their young, undeveloped lives. The stark economic poverty of the Depression mirrors their starving emotional centers that crave love and all it entails, offering a hopeful alternative to a life of crime. Cathy O’Donnell is not your typical lead actress, lacking star power beauty, but she has a gentle kindness and human warmth, where fragility is her femininity, something inexpressible while living in the company of outlaws, where everyone is hardened and rightly suspicious of others. Farley Granger, who went on to star in Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), has matinee idol good looks, yet he’s a sympathetic figure, initially imprisoned at the tender age of 16 for a murder he didn’t commit, now only 23 and still a kid, where he seemingly has his whole life in front of him. Once they separate from the others, their innocence is reflected in their behavior, a bit giddy to be in each other’s company, like a drunken revelry, treasuring those small moments of intimacy. 1946 marked a postwar turning point, entering a golden era in Hollywood history, no longer interested in escapist fantasies, developing a taste for problem pictures and film noir settings, reflecting the frustrations of those returning from war, where so many of the film noir protagonists are war veterans. Filmed in 1947, the film was not released until two years later, released a year earlier in England, as it was postponed while Howard Hughes was in the process of buying the RKO Studios, wary of the projects already in production as they didn’t reflect his own personal stamp of approval, showing little interest in the film, finally released after two subsequent Ray films had already played in theaters.
What’s memorable about this film is the moody tone, which shifts from the criminal milieu of hardened cynicism to romantic adolescents dreaming about their place in the world, where the two couldn’t be more opposite. But they give it a try in a beautifully developed interlude sequence, getting married on a whim and leading a short life of domestic tranquility, living in some idyllic remote mountainside cabin in the woods that may as well be a million miles from anywhere. But Chicamaw interrupts their marital bliss, claiming they made an “investment” in choosing Bowie to break out of jail with them, refusing his request for freedom, pressuring him back into criminality, which is all they really know. In an interesting twist, they don’t show the subsequent robbery itself, just the downbeat aftereffects, as the tone of doom and gloom is everpresent as the radio announces the updated news reports. By the time Bowie gets back to Keechie, his face is plastered all over the newspapers, even in the isolated mountain regions, where they quickly make an escape, sleeping by day, traveling only by night, where they soon learn they can’t trust anyone. Their dialogue comes in short bursts, as neither one talks much, or reveals much, seemingly banal exchanges, yet they’re so tuned into each other’s wavelength where they have a certain timeless charm about them, beautifully expressed by an exchange of watches that are never actually set to any real time, operating in a world all their own where they set their own rules. When they go out for a night on the town, “just like other people,” it’s curious how they separate themselves from the conventional world, showing a distinct disinterest in people walking in the park, riding horses, or playing golf, revealing how they’ve cultivated their own path living as outsiders, existing in their own world, where freedom is largely a figment of their imagination, always dreaming of escaping to Mexico, including a dreamy nightclub sequence that includes black jazz singer Marie Bryant singing “Your Red Wagon,” your red wagon - YouTube (3:59), “where you get burned when you play with fire,” all of which feels completely outside the time and place where they happen to be, yet psychologically the world is closing in on them as they know of no place left to go, a predecessor to GUN CRAZY (1950), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and BADLANDS (1973). The betrayal at the end is a bleak reminder of the anti-Communist purges of the Hollywood blacklist during the Red Scare, filmed just as HUAC was reopening its hearings, foreshadowing circumstances where Ray himself, a devout leftist and former Communist party member in the late 30’s, would name names before the committee in the early 1950’s, yet surprisingly he was not hounded and remained free to continue working uninterrupted, largely protected by a close friendship with RKO movie mogul Howard Hughes. What’s interesting are the familiar themes expressed in Ray’s later work REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), like doomed romance, the rhapsodic intimacy of young love, adolescent flights of fantasy, a safe place protected from the outside world, the ineffectual family structure, or having no reliable friends to turn to, where the depths of alienation are so deep that all these kids ever talk about is being just like other people, just like real people. All they want is to have a chance in this world. But by the end, the framing of the two lovers is like a practice run-through of the final scene in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, as the scenes of haunting emotional devastation have an eerie familiarity about them.