A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, May 27, 2017

They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948)

Though usually remembered as a precursor of another, more celebrated lovers-on-the-lam movie, Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), They Live by Night stands on its own, largely because of novice director Nicholas Ray's attention to characterization and detail. This is a film with texture, rising above its melodramatic core by constantly introducing peripheral detail. Instead of opening, as a conventional movie might have, with a dramatization of the prison break by Bowie (Farley Granger), Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva), and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), it begins with an aerial shot of the stolen car speeding across the landscape -- a daring early use of what has become routine in filmmaking, namely, a helicopter shot. Ray continues to fill his frames with the unexpected: As Bowie hides behind a billboard, waiting for Chickamaw and T-Dub to return with another car, a small dog appears and hangs around the young fugitive. Later, when Bowie and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) begin their flight on a Greyhound bus, Bowie is seated beside a woman who is determined to ignore her crying, squirming baby, leaving Bowie to try to quiet the infant. Neither dog nor baby is essential to the scene, but by their very presence they lend a quality of innocence to the boyish fugitive. Bowie and Keechie decide on the spur of the moment to get married in a quickie ceremony conducted by an anything-for-a-buck justice of the peace (Ian Wolfe), who calls on his standby witnesses. After the perfunctory ceremony, the woman witness hugs Keechie, but the male witness declines because he has a cold. Again, the witness's cold is irrelevant to the plot, but it serves to add a subtle note of disorder to the scene, a hint that Bowie and Keechie will always be subject to forces as far beyond their control as the common cold. I don't know whether dog and baby and cold were present in the novel by Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us, on which the film is based, or if they were introduced in Charles Schnee's screenplay or in Ray's revisions of it, but the fact that they were either introduced or retained in the film speaks volumes on the kind of director Ray was: one attentive to the contingencies that bring a film to life. Granger and O'Donnell are incredibly touching in their performances, and the rest of the cast rise about the stereotypes they could easily have become. Anderson's novel was filmed again, under its original title, by Robert Altman in 1974, and I remember liking that movie. But unless another viewing of Altman's version changes my mind, I think They Live by Night is better.

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