RKO Radio Pictures, 95m 43s
The feature film debut from revered director Nicholas Ray, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is roughly equal parts film noir, road movie and tragic romance. Its influence on GUN CRAZY (1950), PIERROT LE FOU (1965), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), BADLANDS (1973) and many other movies cannot be underestimated. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT had been known alternately as THIEVES LIKE US, YOUR RED WAGON and THE TWISTED ROAD before its eventual release in the US. In terms of self-awareness of the dark genre it reflects, the final title treatment stands as one of the most appropriately entitled examples of genre filmmaking.
After a most unusual prologue for what ultimately is a downbeat story, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT commences properly with a prison break in its later stages. The newly free men include lifers Elmo "One-Eye" Mobley, AKA Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva), the square-jawed Henry "T-Dub" Mansfield (Jay C. Flippen) and 23-year-old pretty boy Arthur "Bowie" Bowers (Farley Granger). The three wind up staying with Chickamaw's alcoholic brother (Will Wright), where Bowie begins to get acquainted with Chickamaw's plain but undeniably attractive niece Catherine "Keechie" Mobley (Cathy O'Donnell). Wrongly imprisoned, Bowie explains to Keechie he served seven years before his escape, and his history prior to incarceration would have dismantled any young man's future. His pop was killed over a pool game, and his mother ran off with the guy who offed her husband! Keechie can empathize to some extent, since her mother did not hang around either.
After the three escapees pull off a successful bank job, Bowie's hard luck continues when his gun is discovered at a crime scene featuring his prints. That incident sets him and Keechie on the run in the forlorn hope they can find happiness. Naturally the young couple would prefer to leave Chickamaw and T-Dub in their dust, but the past has a nasty habit of hunting down hapless film noir protagonists. As the story progresses, Bowie remains indebted to the men who engineered his escape from the big house. Though Bowie describes T-Dub as "steady" in the early moments of the film, later T-Dub none too gently reminds "The Kid" who sprung him from prison. Repeated compositions of Bowie symbolically imprison him in cage-like surroundings. He may have fled the joint, but the recurring images that oppress him suggest he is not really free, and perhaps never will be.
Such film noir sensibilities are the essence of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, which advances the genre by way of creative cinematography, unforgiving social themes and imperfect characters whose poor decisions follow them. The great Robert Mitchum was interested in the role of Chickamaw, but was considered a leading man by the time THEY LIVE BY NIGHT was in pre-production. That was probably just as well, since Howard Da Silva makes a lasting impression as the one-eyed brute Chickamaw, whose blindness in one eye never is explained. Is his bad eye the result of WWII combat, or perhaps a battle scar from a previous crime? After he shoots a pesky cop, it might be assumed the latter. One would think he would sport glasses in an effort to conceal his most identifiable trait, but perhaps such matters of practicality would be pointless in the noir world, where a character's true self almost always finds expression. Interestingly, Chickamaw is shot dead (off camera) when he attempts to go it alone on a liquor store holdup. Thus the fatal flaw of criminals is shown to be their inability to stick together. The criminal code seems incredibly self-centered as the fugitives are ratted on by some of those closest to them. First Chickamaw's older brother sings like a canary after his daughter runs off with Bowie, later Mattie (Helen Craig) sells out to get her husband out of prison.
At the core of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is the plight of poor, unworldly southerners like Bowie, a young man who has no idea why anyone could become fascinated with horseback riding or the peculiar game of golf. Bowie and Keechie are married by bargain-basement wedding master Hawkins (Ian Wolfe) for $20, with a $5 surcharge for a wedding ring. The cheapness of the proceedings is telling since money consistently brings the newlyweds nothing in the way of happiness. The "trigger-happy hillbilly" Bowie learns he is not welcome at fancy clubs, cannot relocate to Mexico, and leaves money with the woman who betrays him. Early in the film, Bowie speaks of no wild ambitions; he just wants his own service station, a familiar dream of the film noir protagonist (i.e. OUT OF THE PAST , 99 RIVER STREET ). But there is nothing like that in the cards for Bowie, who has to endure one of the great film noir lines from Hawkins, who tells him, “…I won’t sell you hope when there ain’t any.”
Based on the novel THIEVES LIKE US (1937) by Edward Anderson and written for the screen by Charles Schnee, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT contains impressive location footage that adds a strong sense of the real world to the narrative. But what elevates this film more than anything from lesser crime stories is the positively stunning black and white cinematography. It is difficult to imagine the viewing experience being nearly the same had the film been shot in color. Obviously, that quality is one of the hallmarks of film noir. Cinematographer George E. Diskant handled the camera for an incredible array of noir productions, including DESPERATE (1947), PORT OF NEW YORK (1949), BEWARE, MY LOVELY (1952), THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952). Diskant was teamed with Ray again for A WOMAN'S SECRET (1949), THE RACKET (Ray uncredited, 1951) and ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), the last of which probably is the best of their collaborations. Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger would be matched again in director Anthony Mann's downward-spiral film noir SIDE STREET (1950). Director Robert Altman would preserve the Anderson novel's title for his 1974 adaptation THIEVES LIKE US.
The Criterion Collection's 2K digital restoration of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT presents the film in optimal condition, framed at the original theatrical scope of 1.37:1 and complete with uncompressed monaural soundtrack for the Blu-ray edition. The audio commentary option was ported from the Warner Brothers DVD first released in 2007 as part of FILM NOIR CLASSIC COLLECTION, VOL. 4. The track teams Farley Granger with the ever reliable film noir expert Eddie Muller. RKO boss Howard Hughes did not much care for THEY LIVE BY NIGHT according to Granger. The film sat on the shelf at RKO for two years before a successful screening in London prompted an American theatrical run. Both Granger and Muller have a lot of nice things to say about first-time director Nicholas Ray, whose approach to filmmaking challenged conventions of the day. Ray reached for a sense of authenticity beyond his contemporaries. Despite the obvious presence of various processed shots, at least one dramatic transition from location to soundstage, and Production Code concessions, with THEY LIVE BY NIGHT Ray established himself as a persistently convincing filmmaker capable of informing all four corners of the frame. He also began to build his reputation as a director perfectly willing to drive a film in one direction before switching gears and winding up somewhere completely different than the opening act implied. His film noir classics IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) and ON DANGEROUS GROUND both follow that pattern. Ray’s groundbreaking cinema inspired a new generation of French filmmakers who ignited the New Wave that emboldened cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s. Muller also considers THEY LIVE BY NIGHT the first true road movie, and he credits RKO Production Chief Dore Schary for the vast assortment of noir films that studio would produce. Schary understood film noir material suited RKO very well since interesting stories could be filmed on tight budgets. RKO did not have the type of resources that the major studios possessed.
Another reappearance from the Warner DVD is the succinct featurette "THEY LIVE BY NIGHT: The Twisted Road" (6m 10s) with film critics Molly Haskell and Glenn Erickson, filmmakers Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone and noted film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. The remaining supplemental material is new to this Criterion edition. The most significant piece is "Outside of Time: Imogen Sara Smith on THEY LIVE BY NIGHT" (20m 53s). Smith sees THEY LIVE BY NIGHT as one of the key films of the late 1940s that transferred film noir from the standard urban milieu into country settings and seemingly open highways. An excellent point raised by Smith is the road film under review subverts the notion of the American highway as a metaphor for freedom. These roads lead to nowhere, and the couple's automobile further alienates them from society, as it in effect cuts them off from other people. Smith also references director Fritz Lang's YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937) as an important precursor to THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. Both films borrowed from the exploits of Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow, and Ray seems to draw from the social context of the Lang film that was released a decade earlier than Ray's production. Where the two films most differ resides within the protagonists. Bowie and Keechie are more victims of circumstance than hardened criminals (as the opening prologue states, the two “…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…”). They are less bound by crime than their respective outsider statuses. That feeling of otherness, of course, is one of the noir film's most dominant tropes. Smith notes Ray himself did not fit particularly well into society's institutions, yet he always made the most of the opportunities before him. Though he enjoyed the most creative freedom while making THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, he exercised less control over the more famous films he would direct subsequently, such as IN A LONELY PLACE, JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955).
Also unique to this Criterion release is an edited excerpt (6m 36s) from a radio interview with producer John Houseman, conducted by Gideon Bachmann for his FILM FORUM radio program. Originally broadcast in 1956, Houseman very eloquently describes the role of producer, which from his perspective chiefly involves the creation of an environment in which all contributors can thrive. When it comes to mainstream film production, he says content creators must come to terms with the fact that audiences demand escapist entertainment, though that does not mean theatrical product should not reach for more complexity in an effort to stimulate an audience's intellect.
The packaging includes a fine booklet essay by film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz.