“I’m just a black sheep. There’s no getting away from it.”
It has all the trappings of film noir, with George E. Diskant’s dim, portentous cinematography, with its fatalistic philosophy, and with its pervasive criminal element. But make no mistake, They Live by Night, Nicholas Ray’s 1948 debut, now available on a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, is a love story at heart. This much is clear from its starry-eyed opening, with Cathy O’Donnell’s “Keechie” Mobley and Farley Granger’s “Bowie” Bowers united in soft close-up, gazing adoringly at each other as the following words show onscreen: “This boy … and this girl … were never properly introduced to the world we live in … to tell their story …” Then there’s panic. They look away, startled. The title of the film appears and we are introduced to the dangerous domain of these young lovers, a domain steeped in action, dread, and treachery. This is just the primer, though, a way to establish where these two are coming from. It is their beginning and it will be their end, but as far as Ray is concerned, it is a mere flashy, cold-blooded bookend to what matters most.
Working from Edward Anderson’s novel, “Thieves Like Us,” Ray and screenwriter Charles Schnee quickly lay out the basic narrative motivation of They Live by Night. Bowie and cohorts Chicamaw “One-Eye” Mobley (Howard Da Silva) and Henry “T-Dub” Mansfield (Jay C. Flippen) are a trio of lifers newly escaped from prison. Back in circulation, they contact some compliant family members, which gets Keechie into the picture (she is Chicamaw’s ambivalent niece), and they set to work on a prospective heist. With his diagrams and comparatively thoughtful demeanor, Bowie is the brains of the operation, as opposed to Chicamaw and T-Dub who provide the gruff muscle. But he is never a suitable fit. Early on, Ray suggests the young man’s disconnect by having him either in the backseat of their car or walking a few paces behind the others. At the same time, Granger’s Bowie looks continually shocked and appalled by his unlawful plight, as if he had only recently stumbled into this life of crime (he is a killer, though, so he is no innocent). And after Bowie injuries his foot, his gimpy hobbling emphasizes his external fragility, symbolically extending his internal strain.
Surrounded by these visibly hardened convicts (Chicamaw’s glass eye, about which he is surprisingly sensitive, was likely not a naturally-occurring disfigurement), Keechie and Bowie gradually withdraw from the felonious arrangement. It was Granger, here in just his third film, who proposed the fresh-faced O’Donnell for the role, and their charmingly timid chemistry is immediately appealing, even if it takes their characters a while to accept what the viewer notices right away. With Keechie dressed in soiled coveralls and Bowie doing his best tough-guy routine, there is an awkward unease as the virginal juveniles test these waters of unfamiliar flirtatiousness (they look and behave like juveniles, although Bowie is 23 and Keechie at one point refers to him as “just a kid,” implying she is even older). Getting past the initial suspicion and condemnation (she decries his criminal transgressions), as well as their hesitant physicality, the two eventually connect through shared aspirations. Left alone, their sweetly reticent courtship—at once tender, stern, and unsure—is sealed by a coy inquisitiveness, as he asks about any “fellas” in her life, and by a latent sexuality, as she rubs his back and he remarks how much she has “filled out” since her teenage years.
With that, they’re off. Following low-key and slightly dubious nuptials, the two begin a naively expectant life together—“We know where we’re going,” Keechie declares, full of hope but not convincing anyone. Bowie’s corrupt past steadily recedes, and steadily diminishes in terms of the film’s focus, yet there remains an ever-present fact of the genre that the law is never far away, nor are Chicamaw and T-Dub. Still, for a few fleeting days, Ray gives Keechie and Bowie a place of their own; he allows them tranquility, joy, intimate firelight conversations, and pleasant convertible drives. It shapes the central crux of They Live by Night, an affectionate portrait of pure, passionate liberation, which Ray would seldom repeat as his career continued (there are some momentary echoes in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause). On the other hand, this sensation culminates in a contrasting final scene, a disastrous and heart-rending blast of reality, something Ray returned to time and again.
Infused by a prevalent and powerful “romanticism,” to quote Imogen Sara Smith, who is interviewed for the Criterion disc, They Live by Night in this way opposes the hard-boiled noirs with which it shares generally outward characteristics. Further distinguishing Ray’s film, as Smith notes, is how it represents the genre moving out of the city and heading on the road. Nevertheless, time-worn tropes do remain, and they are what ultimately do in these tragically sanguine idealists. Shot almost entirely at night, the film lives up to its name as the moments of greatest consequence—as characters wait, reflect, and plan, live, die, and love—prove to be the decisive turning points that are cast against the shadow of a blackened, morally ambiguous milieu. Ray also adopts a resigned viewpoint often associated with noir, where sheer happenstance results in car crashes and murderous clashes. It’s the inevitability of it all that makes the picture feel so hopeless, even as Keechie and Bowie radiate in their youthful optimism. They are trapped and predestined to adversity. It’s a life where everyone is in it for themselves (there is the repeated refrain that others are involved in their own racket, that they are all thieves in their own way), and it’s a paranoid life that encourages solitude (“I’m better off alone,” says Chicamaw. “And I always was.”). It’s a cruel life, spoiled by deceit and betrayal, causing Bowie to bitterly lament that their unborn baby will someday have to take its chances, “same as us.” It’s a classically Nicholas Ray life, though, the type of life that breeds a man like Humphrey Bogart’s Dix Steele in the director’s morose 1954 masterwork In a Lonely Place.
In addition to the Imogen Sara Smith interview, the Criterion release of They Live by Night features a 2K digital restoration, a short documentary about the film (with Molly Haskell and Oliver Stone among others), an audio interview with producer John Houseman, who first gave Ray Anderson’s book to Ray, an essay by Bernard Eisenschitz, and a commentary with Eddie Muller and Granger himself (an historical novelty, albeit one that doesn’t get much out of the star). All supplements touch on many of the same points, including the film’s stunted distribution (despite positive previews, RKO head Howard Hughes sat on the picture for two years) and its later influence on movies like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Robert Altman’s adaptation, Thieves Like Us (1974). There is also the repetitive praise heaped upon the film’s form, particularly Ray’s use of a helicopter for certain shots; the one that plays under the opening credits was apparently filmed on the first day of shooting. While this is admittedly a dynamic and fairly radical approach—to incorporate such a technique into the action rather than being merely a scenic establishing shot—its scarcity throughout the rest of the film hardly seems worth the attention. In fact, there is the sense that those involved give the film more visual credit than it deserves. That’s not to say the picture doesn’t look fantastic—Ray was one of American cinema’s great stylists (Johnny Guitar alone testifies to that)—but the comparisons to Orson Welles and Citizen Kane (1941), as an analogous directorial debut, push the adoration a bit much. They Live by Night is an outstanding first film, and Ray’s pictorial sensibilities had a marked impact on many, many filmmakers, especially those of the French New Wave. But what he does here isn’t nearly as innovative as what Welles achieved earlier in the decade, granted, with a bounty of resources Ray did not possess.
More revelatory is the content of They Live by Night. This is where one sees the essential hallmarks of Nicholas Ray’s cinema. Here he bares an affinity for outcast youth, a fondness that lasted through his dying days, and while the source novel contained Depression-era social criticism, Ray’s look at these two victims of circumstance reflect his own observations concerning tragic contemporary lives marred by abandonment and existential injustice. Like Keechie and Bowie—like many of his most memorable characters—Ray considered himself an outsider, in Hollywood and in broader social spheres, but he stubbornly pushed on. While he surely could not foresee the difficulties and demons that lay ahead, this film gives a thematic glance at where he intended to go with his art. A tortured soul and a compassionate human being, Nicholas Ray was also, as Granger puts it, “terrific…a marvelous, marvelous director.” And They Live by Night is but an introductory sample of his vision.