“They Live By Night” is a real gem from the late ’40s, being given new life, by the Criterion Collection, which has really done a great job, rediscovering and saving legendary Hollywood director’s Nicholas Ray’s first film. It’s also the first film noir and Farley Granger’s first big film, too, and quite possibly his best performance. He surprises in “They Live By Night” as Bowie (pronounced “Boo-ee”) the proto-type of the troubled teenager, Ray would immortalize so well with James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.’
Granger is so good in this film that one wonders what his spotty career would’ve been like if it had been released the year it was made, 1947. Instead of being shelved for nearly two years by Howard Hughes who took over RKO Pictures at that critical point, and didn’t show it to the public in the States, until it was a hit in England.
This remarkable, significant film was given zero publicity when it first opened, evidently, and made no money.
Farley Granger’s best known, of course, for his two superlative roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” and “Strangers on a Train.” In “Rope”, he was again a troubled, sensitive, teenaged killer, but this time he was gay, though nobody openly used that word. Arthur Laurents, who wrote screenplay for “Rope” said in an interview, before he passed, that the word “homosexual” was never used on the set, and he doubted that James Stewart even knew that’s what he was playing. But Granger sure did.
One also wonders if his career wouldn’t have been as big as Dean’s, who also was gay, or at least, bisexual, but closeted. He’s so good in “They Live By Night,” you wish we could have had more great performances from him.
His Bowie is a tortured, but innocent soul, having grown up in prison and as the film begins he’s fallen in with a bad lot indeed. “They Live By Night” was based by Ray on a ’30’s crime novel “Thieves Like Us” and definitely pre-figures “Bonnie and Clyde” and was unusually influential on the French New Wave. “Breathless” etc, etc. The Nouvelle Vague’s recognition of its’ importance saved it from obscurity.
But “They Live By Night” breaks genres just as much as starts them. For a crime drama or a film noir, it really is a love story at heart, with Cathy O’Donnell of “Best Year’s of Our Live” giving just as heartfelt a performance of the girl in question as the hillbilly tomboy Keechie, who grows into a woman right before our eyes, on the run from the law, in the arms of Granger’s Bowie. But unlike Bonnie Parker in real life or in “Bonnie and Clyde,” she’s the innocent who doesn’t participate in the gangs’ crimes, as Bowie does. She wants a home and a hearth, Christmas trees and presents. Bowie seems to not care about any of those domestic things.
Innovative debut director Ray used a helicopter shot of the gang, under the opening titles, in their getaway jalopie fleeing a bank robbery. It was the first one of its’ kind. His use of upbeat banjo music and jazz at moments when they had never occurred before in a film’s soundtrack is striking and often imitated later, esp. in Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” A night-club scene with the performance of “Your Red Wagon” sung by an African American chanteuse is a stand-out. It occurs on the day that Bowie and Keechie try to act “like normal people.”
“They Live By Night” is a treat, a thrill, and a delight. Ray makes you really feel for Bowie and Keechie, Granger and O’Donnell’s characters, and you hope they get away, but it’s film noir…so…they’re doomed.
Criterion has done a marvelous job with their DVD and Blu-Ray of it. There’s an interview with John Houseman, who was one of the producers, and an audio commentary with Granger, late in his life.
The film historian Eddie Muller does most of the talking as the tries to pry the reluctant, diplomatic Granger into revealing just what it was like in Hollywood in those heady days.
He gets Granger to say he was “angry, depressed and resentful” of the film being shelved for those two crucial years at the beginning of his career. What a difference it would have made, if the public got to see just how good he could be, in the right role, with the right director!
Hitchcock, of course, did right by him in those two now classic films,
“Rope” and “Strangers on a Train”. But oh! He could’ve done so much more!
Muller also gets him to briefly say that he often had dinners with Ray, and mentions one night in particular at the Montecito hotel, where James Dean “turned up” and “sat in a corner giggling with two Mexicans he had brought with him.” Hmmm…