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Nicholas Ray's first feature They Live By Night is the work of a Hollywood outsider. It's definitely Noir by theme and characterization, but is sourced in Edward Anderson's socially conscious Depression-era novel Thieves Like Us. A product of Roosevelt's New Deal public works programs, Ray was brought to Los Angeles by producer John Houseman and encouraged to place artistic goals first. With two young stars borrowed from Goldwyn, Ray made what might be Hollywood's darkest romance since the silent era.
Synopsis: Inexperienced Bowie Bowers (Farley Granger) escapes from jail with hardened criminals T-Dub and Chickamaw (Jay C. Flippen & Howard Da Silva) and is stashed at Mobley's filling station to recover from a wound. He's nursed by Mobley's teenaged daughter Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell). Despite the fact that neither has known anything but hardship and distrust, they begin a friendship. Bowie accompanies his cohorts on robberies and is soon being publicized as a bloodthirsty public enemy; Bowie and Keechie go on the run together and find that the underworld doesn't want loose-cannon hillbillies hanging around. They marry on the road, and Keechie becomes pregnant. When T-Dub and Chickamaw run into trouble, the young couple hide out at a motor hotel run by Mattie Mansfield (Helen Craig), who is bitter because her husband's parole has been denied. Bowie sneaks out to arrange their escape to Mexico.
They Live By Night is the most tender of films noir. It opens with a dreamy shot of lovers kissing by firelight, while the words, "This boy ... and this girl ... were never properly introduced to the world we live in" fade up on the screen. Keechie and Bowie share a sensitivity that transcends their miserable backgrounds. He's been in prison since childhood and she's turned cold and hostile to avoid further abuse from her drunken father. When Bowie returns from a robbery with a gift, we can see Keechie's heart melt. From then on they're like mated animals. Keechie's father is quick to inform on the lovers. The bull-like T-Dub and the hotheaded Chickamaw use threats to force Bowie into more bank robberies.
Ray concentrates on the couple's growing relationship. Keechie and Bowie gratefully accept whatever happiness they can find. Whenever they let down their guard and behave like 'real people', things go wrong. Bowie foolishly flashes his bankroll in front of strangers. A crooked marriage parlor operator (Ian Wolfe) can tell immediately that they're fugitives. The idea of 'honor among thieves' is revealed as a myth when crooks grossly overcharge them, and friends betray them to the police. Their situation is summed up by nightclub singer Marie Bryant's evocative delivery of Your Red Wagon, a creepy jazz tune that insists that one's problems are one's own, and it's no good expecting others to sympathize. Nicholas Ray's fine direction is just what Farley Granger needed -- he was never this good again, not even in his movies for Alfred Hitchcock. The much more natural performer Cathy O'Donnell is simply magnificent.
They Live By Night conjures powerful and memorable images, from its innovative helicopter shots to cameraman George Diskant's unusual character compositions. The lovers' happy faces fill the screen as they dream of the future, until the one-eyed Chickamaw shows up to demonstrate his menace by crushing Christmas ornaments. Not every scene happens at night, but those that do evoke the false sense of security when driving in a car, and the loneliness of being set adrift in a hostile world.
They Live By Night is the second of a string of very good rural bandit - amour fou movies roughly based on the Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow story. Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once is good cinema but forced in almost every respect. Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy has a different blend of violence and out-of-control sexuality, and Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us has its good points as well. Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde is a masterpiece in its own right but openly borrows from Nick Ray. The banker that leaps onto Clyde's running board and is shot in the face is clearly meant to one-up the They Live By Night moment when Bowie shoves the nice jeweler from his car window. A big part of our concern for Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty is the edgy knowledge that their demise will be bloody and graphic. At the end of They Live By Night, we wish we could throw ourselves in front of the police to shield the Romeo & Juliet-like Granger and O'Donnell.
The conclusion is as complex as noir films get, a beautiful distillation of the trauma of criminal life. The hard-faced Mattie betrays Keechie and Bowie in a pitiful bid to free her own husband from prison. The finale is somewhat idealized, but the Madonna-like grace afforded Keechie is emotionally very moving. I've never seen a showing of They Live By Night where people didn't applaud -- even back in college screenings.
The print of They Live By Night is nearly flawless, completely overshadowing the old Image laserdisc from the early 1990s. The nights are inky black and the image has very little grain. The interesting soundtrack highlights the music of Leigh Harline, and we're told that themes by Woody Guthrie can be heard as well.
A fast-paced featurette by Sparkhill, The Twisted Road has on-camera contributions from Molly Haskell, James Ursini, Alain Silver, Oliver Stone, Christopher Coppola and star Farley Granger. Granger returns with Eddie Muller in a feature commentary. The gracious actor is good with generalities but remembers few specific details, and many of Muller's patient questions receive four-word non-answers. Muller gives a fine account of the making of the film. We might assume that the helicopter footage indicates a Howard Hughes influence -- Hughes injected aviation into films whenever he could -- but They Live By Night was produced before Hughes came to the studio.
MGM made noir films but not a lot of great ones, perhaps because the studio's commitment to glamour worked against the noir ethos. Things changed a bit when Dore Schary imported Anthony Mann and John Alton from Eagle-Lion. The director and cameraman made an excellent team on Border Incident, but Alton may already have been working on An American in Paris by the time Side Street came around. Veteran Joseph Ruttenberg's camerawork is just as interesting.
Side Street is a derivative tale sparked by some fancy location shooting, particularly an exciting car chase in the narrow streets of Lower Manhattan. An opening narration imitates Jules Dassin's The Naked City, describing the daily cycle in New York while criminals are doing their dirty work. As if conceived as an elongated version of a moralizing Crime Doesn't Pay short subject, our hero is an innocent dupe who makes one foolish decision and becomes the target of ruthless killers.
Synopsis: Part-time mail carrier Joe Norson (Farley Granger) needs a real job to replace the filling station he lost; his young wife Ellen (Cathy O'Donnell) will have to give birth in the county hospital. Joe's dreaming of buying her a fur coat when he sees an opportunity to filch $200 from a lawyer's office. The file he steals actually contains $30,000 in blackmail money; lawyer Victor Backett (Edmon Ryan) and his partner George Garsell (James Craig) have already murdered the girl who helped them get it, Lucille Colner (Adele Jergens). Ellen has her baby and Joe decides to return the money. He walks into Backett's office and confesses all --- and then discovers that a bartender has stolen his boodle. Before Joe knows what has hit him, Garsell has killed the bartender and framed Joe for the crime. With the police on his tail, Joe's only hope is to find Garsell first. He contacts nightclub singer Harriette Sinton (Jean Hagen) for help, not realizing that she sees through him as well.
Side Street is always explained as a follow-up to the impressive They Live by Night. Like many noir gems, the Nicholas Ray film was a reported box office failure, so it must have been an aesthetic decision to re-team Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell in a story about young lovers in trouble. The couple isn't as compelling here, mainly because their characters have been conceived along MGM 'little people' lines. As in Mystery Street and even the revivalist parable The Next Voice You Hear, Joe and Ellen Norson are 'simple, good Americans' living a working-class life. Trouble comes when Joe is tempted to pilfer some money, an offense that snowballs to life-threatening proportions. Ellen panics too, screaming over a phone for Joe to run, when he should be turning himself over to the police. As in Quicksand, the message is that good lumpen proles need to keep their noses clean and forget about things like fur coats.
The kiddie-lesson moralizing and the plagiarism from The Naked City would cripple the show were it not for MGM's impressive production values. Anthony Mann's strong visual sense -- many tight, odd angles -- is active even without John Alton behind the camera, and he finds renewed dynamism in the New York locations. The final car chase through the canyons of Wall Street is strong stuff for 1950, with the cars taking tight corners at high speeds.
Joe Norson's consistently foolish behavior is more appropriate for a sixteen year-old. He's had a business and lived in NYC all his life yet is a babe in the woods in his interpersonal dealings. He parks a mystery package with a bartender and never thinks that the man might peek inside. He walks into an office that has $30,000 stashed in a file cabinet and expects to find honest men. Joe is too insipid to qualify as a good noir loser character, like Al Roberts in Detour. Instead of hoping he'll get free, we're just as likely to wish that Ellen had fallen in love with somebody sensible. An honest ending would add an epilogue showing Joe Norson back in a menial job, no longer dreaming for anything better.
The venal crooks murder Lucille and several other obstacles in a business-as-usual fashion. Edmon Ryan is excellent as the cagey lawyer and James Craig is suitably ruthless with the ladies. Adele Jergens is a crooked blonde beauty with rotten luck in friends, and up 'n' coming Jean Hagen steals the show with just one scene as an alcoholic torch singer. It's a crime to think that her great role in Singin' in the Rain didn't lead to even better things.
Side Street plays fine on DVD, with crisp B&W location photography that takes us back to the hot sidewalks of 1950 Manhattan. Lennie Hayton's underscore is a definite plus. A trailer is included as well as Richard Schickel's casual, sparse commentary track. Schickel considers the film a great noir and opens by saying that the shots of the tall buildings imply that the city oppresses little people like Joe and Ellen. His remarks about the backgrounds of the filmmakers and actors are informed and authoritative. Sparkhill's featurette Where Danger Lurks has input from Patricia King Hanson, Christopher Coppola, Richard Schickel and Oliver Stone.
The features have chapter stops but no chapter menus. After experimenting with slim cases, Warners is back to using full-sized keep cases for all of its boxed sets.
For more information about They Live By Night/Side Street, visit Warner Video. To order They Live By Night/Side Street, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson