They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948)

by Douglas Buck December 21, 2017 4 minutes (791 words) 16mm Cinémathèque québécoise, part of the Films noirs, films d’angoisse series

Time to head back over to the Cinémathèque for another entry in the film noir genre (or style; whichever you academic overlords prefer to refer to it as), in another lacklustre 16mm dupe, unfortunately, but at least on the big screen, with the wonderful satisfaction of a respectfully quiet crowd, this time with Nicholas Ray’s impressively assured debut, another worthwhile go at the Depression-set rural outlaw couple crime spree tale not uncommon to the film noir (including another brilliant entry in this series, Fritz Lang’s 1937 You Only Live Once) which continued on to great influence across the American cinematic landscape (Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands and True Romance, to name just a few that come immediately to mind).

With both Lang and Ray’s films, like many film noir, providing such an unsparingly harsh look at the social conditions across America and the desperation – and crime — it leads to, it really hit me watching these again, how it makes sense that these critical —and very popular at the time— cinematic views of America would play such a big part in the god-awful emergence over the next decade of the red-baiting McCarthy Hearings and the Hollywood blacklist, created to openly crush creative voices of establishment dissent as un-American and communist. Yet where Lang’s filmic approach is more iconic and larger than life (and with overt spiritual transcendence at the end), Ray’s vision is poetic, but more gritty, earth-bound and clearly indie filmmaker in spirit.

In a cinematic act of self assurance, a daring signature statement right out of the gate, Ray immediately rejects the notion of Hollywood Pablum by – in the very first, almost self-reflexive shot of his feature film career – presenting us with what almost appears a publicity image of the two teenage lovers, with an entirely black screen behind them, brimming with happiness (with an accompanying familiar romantic orchestral score), when words stressing innocence appear (“This boy… and this girl…”) before suddenly turning ominous in their portent – “were never properly introduced to the world we live in…” followed by a kiss-ending clash of music as they look off in sudden fear… and the image dissolves to an almost minute-long breathlessly audacious aerial shot of our main male characters (including one of the lovers) on a prison escape, holding the driver hostage. After that, the grandiose score almost entirely disappears, and an uncaring world is presented through a taut, occasionally violent narrative with characters who see little choice but to respond back with cruelty and crime. I only realized recently that the film was based on a book whose title is used perfectly in the film, stated by one of the escapee convicts about a respectable person the gang thought they could trust who they discovered is in fact a con man – what do you expect, he says, they’re all just “thieves like us”. Robert Altman remade the book again in the 70’s, right there in the middle of his most creatively interesting and experimental decade. It’s one of the few Altman films I haven’t seen, which now moves it all just that much closer to the top of the viewing list.

That the main hero, Bowie, played by Farley Granger, is only 23 years old and already forever marked by the circumstances in his life – from his alcoholic mother marrying the man who killed his father as an act of having some money and a roof over the head for the boy, to him doing time for accidental murder and falling in with the a gang of sociopathic criminals that appear to be nothing more than older versions of Bowie, their humanity slowly having been stripped away by circumstances – really shows what a startlingly tough movie it is, even coming out as it does from the particularly hard-edged filmic milieu.

That it’s a world where everyone is forced to morally compromise in order to survive, whether it be the criminals on the run betraying each other for money or security, or one of the women betraying them to get her husband released from jail, is shown again and again. A subtle, yet brilliantly clever example that manages to further subvert and tear down the glossy Hollywood illusion is the moment that a song number arrives, something popular to Hollywood at that time and usually a narrative-stopper, there to display the talents of a celebrated talent… but in this case, as the black bar singer plays her poignant number to the crowd, we see her walking amongst them collecting dollar bills in her hands as she passes. It’s not by choice or love she’s playing, it’s out of need. She, like all of them, do whatever it takes to survive.

_They Live By Night_ (Nicholas Ray, 1948)

This review is archived under the “Buck a Review” column, written by Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. To read more of Buck’s smart and snappy reviews, click on the column sidebar link.

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