#880 They Live By Night
1948 // USA // Nicholas Ray
Criterion Collection (LINK)
The Beginning of an Outsider
Nicholas Ray’s debut feature They Live By Night starts by showing a boy and a girl enjoying themselves in a cheerful and romantic mode, with an overlapping statement “This boy … and this girl … were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” By that it not only states the theme of the film itself, but also introduces the life-long theme found in Ray’s films, the predicament of outsiders against a relentless world, which happens to mirror Ray’s bumping career inside the studio system. The obstacles against Ray’s full creative vision emerged right at the beginning during the conceptualization of the film itself. The treatment of the story is adapted from the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson, Ray was given a chance to write the script for his first directorial effort. But the Production Code Administration rejected Ray’s treatment as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘enormously dangerous,’ in large part because of the ‘flavor of condonation’ attached to the character of the young criminal Bowie.”
The censorship is directly responsible for the toned-down, yet still tantalizing, finalized screenplay written by Charles Schnee. Unfortunately, when the film is finished in 1947 after editing and numerous revisions, it is shelved by Howard Hughes, the new owner of the production company RKO, until eventual premiering in London in 1949. It became a rare occasion that a director’s first film is premiered after his second and third production hit screens. Strictly speaking, it won’t affect our judgement of the film itself since quite often we won’t follow an auteur’s oeuvre chronologically, unless we aim to scrutinize one’s works analytically. However, retrospectively Ray indeed hit his marker right from the beginning. The two young lover, Bowie (Farley Granger), a young man sentenced for prison as he accidentally killed a man when he was sixteen, met a level-headed girl Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) who lives with his alcoholic father in a secluded provincial house when Bowie follows his two cell mates and escapes from prison. Bowie’ accompanies, the one-eyed macho Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and the commanding T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), are the actual mastermind behind the prison escape and the subsequent bank robbery.
The three hide in the house of Chickamaw’s brother Mobley (Will Wright), and Keechie, Mobley’s daughter, reluctantly helps them. Keechie and Bowie start to develop a mutual affection and support as they understand each other as an outsider from the “normal” society. Both are portrayed in a sense of innocence and at times naive. Even though Bowie has blood on his hand and now he’s involved in bank robbery as an accomplice, he fantasies in obtaining enough money to hire a lawyer to evict his conviction as he unknowingly misinterpreted a newspaper clip (a young criminal is freed because of no due process of law) he read in prison and has been keeping in his pocket ever since. When the couple marry at a $20 wedding hall impulsively but sensibly, their outsider statuses are bonded and no matter how hard they try to live in peace, they cannot merge with the “normal” world. Bowie is unwillingly dragged back to the criminal world under the brutality of T-Dub. He is stuck in-between the world we are living, represented by the justice symbol of the police and the media that mistakenly takes him as the leader of the three-man gang, and the criminal world that still treats him as a novice and expels him out of their jurisdiction since he is “too hot”.
The distancing from the entire represented world in the film is signified immediately during the opening aerial shots. Helicopter is used to shoot a running car with Bowie inside in multiple occasions, a technique firstly used by Ray in filming, as God’s point of view. The black-and-white cinematography by George E. Diskant is intimidating in a confined environment while stimulating in open area. Perhaps the connotation of complex guilt and sympathetic criminals are unacceptable by censorship, or the family and social issues (single and irresponsible parent, deceitful and uncaring world) accountable for the couple’s indictment, instead of moral failure of individuals, are too on the nose for the moralists, thereby Ray’s first film and first film-noir has a relatively tamed sensibility in comparison to his subsequent ferocious films like In a Lonely Place (1950) or Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Nonetheless, They Live by Night is a solid film that evokes contemplation of the cause of lost youth, now the boy and girl are properly introduced, so does Ray.