Director Ray makes a great first impression with ‘They Live by Night’

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They Live By Night


They Live by Night

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Screenplay by Charles Schnee

U.S.A., 1949

Young love is a powerful thing, even dangerously so when it blinds people from reality. When the hearts of two youths are intertwined as they are between the protagonists in They Live by Night, a sense of invincibility can slowly and surely take over all the senses. Just as the emotions blindly dictate the lovers’ conduct, the stark realities of their real world circumstances inexorably drag them closer to impending doom. What better material for a brilliant young director to explore for in a debut. If at the time the name Nicholas Ray did not stir the passions of movie connoisseurs, They Live by Night and its tragic love story certainly planted the seeds of many great things that would follow.

Somewhere in the state of Mississippi, a trio of dangerous criminals have escaped the penitentiary. They go by the names of Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva), T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and 23 year old Bowie (Farley Granger), the youngest of the three,. The latter has just spent the past 7 years of his life behind bars for murder, a revelation which belies his brash good looks. Together, they arrive at the home of some friendly contacts, Mobley (Will Wright) and his daughter, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell). Every gang member has some history or another with crime, their speciality being bank heists, or ‘charges’ as they ironically name them.  While potential target has come to the trio’s attention,  Bowie’s senses are aroused by more than just money once his eyes rest on the initially stern and reserved but beautiful Keechie. She returns the curiosity, albeit in very small doses, playing things very carefully at first. The more time spent together, the more obvious their feelings for one another become. Keechie eventually persuades  Bowie to forgo his life of crime once the bank robbery is accomplished, yet ominous omens overshadow their lives however hard they may try to put the past behind them.

Discovering a famous director’s first project can produce some interesting finds, provided one is familiar enough with the artists’ oeuvre. Nicholas Ray’s most recognized work is undoubtedly Rebel Without a Cause, starring the unforgettable James Dean and telling the story about teenagers struggling with an individuality they so desperately desire and the societal norms consistently stampeding over them. Other critical acclaimed efforts are Bigger than Life and On Dangerous Ground, both of which also study characters who are good in many ways, but victims of intangible vices which sour their souls. Director Ray was, in essence, a master at crafting tales about people wrestling with titanic internal struggles, the sources of which were both of their own doing but also of the societies in which they lived. Watching They Live by Night, it is possible to detect a similar theme dominating the picture, even though it is handled in more plain, elemental fashion than in his later films.

“Anchoring the film’s emotional pull is Cathy O’Donnell, whose gravitas and conviction as an actress simultaneously stuns and aims straight for the heart..

 

The real battle at the heart of Ray’s picture involves Bowie and Keechie fighting for a future together that does not involve anyone from their past, since everybody they know is essentially crooked. Crime is virtually all they have ever known. Bowie enjoys spending money appropriated through illegal means, but do not ask him how to earn any honestly. This arguably explains his behaviour in the story’s second half, when Chickamaw tracks them down at a cozy little apartment and invites Bowie for another ‘charge’ against a bank. Keechie can plead all she likes, Bowie nevertheless accepts to challenge. After all, how else is he to acquire further funds? At that stage, after his own pistol is found near the body of a cop that Chickamaw actually shot and the media somehow mistaking Bowie for being the de facto leader of the gang (despite that he was ever only the driver), so many variables are stacked against him that giving in to vice  seems like the most logical thing to do, this despite that they have tried to separate themselves from people the likes of Chikamaw and T-Dub. Bowie is a product of his own environment, no more and no less, at least according to Ray. The pieces of the puzzle are obvious to see, more blunt than in some of his future efforts. That being said, the director proves his skill at utilizing all of these critical elements in a way that makes the film tremendously gripping and even fresh to an extent, which is all the more remarkable given that they overall plot is nothing original.

Anchoring the film’s emotional pull is Cathy O’Donnell, whose gravitas and conviction as an actress simultaneously stuns and aims straight for the heart. Her character’s evolution is one half of what the entire story is all about, while Bowie’s arc comprises the other. Her introductory scene has the viewer presume that she is quite the ‘femme fatale’ as she greets Bowie from the driver’s seat of her truck, her face mostly hidden in shadow while spitting some witty lines. When light at last graces her face, the revelation of Keechie’s beauty is all the more powerful. O’Donnell’s performance is reserved at first, even cold at times. Her knowledge of the criminal world has driven her to a breaking point and built this personality barrier she protects herself with. Once Keechie and Bowie confide in one another and take off from the dump they lived in, her outlook is suddenly characterized by unbridled positivity, like a child discovering life’s many wonders. O’Donnell is superb in the role and her face, when smiling that unbelievable smile, literally lights up the screen. The energy and optimism emanating from her are contagious, making her not merely a compelling woman for the purpose of plot but, quite frankly, a very desirable woman at that.

“Tragic, romantic, and intelligently…

 

The supporting characters are all distinctive enough to leave their own stamp on the picture, the most memorable being Howard Da Silva’s Chickamaw, an overzealous one-eyed bandit who is quick to pull the trigger when the pressure gets the better of him. Obvious creepy blind eye aside, Da Silva’s presence is intimidating, constantly keeping the viewer on edge. Complicating things is the unpredictability of the character, making it difficult to anticipate the moments when he will snap. He sees Bowie as a friend and dependable ally…at most times and anybody is sorely mistaken in believing that he does not possess the capacity to turn on even his closest partners. Jay C. Flippen, although not the scene stealer Da Silva is, is also quite good as T-Dub, the pseudo leader of the band. It may take a few minutes to acclimatize one’s self to the gang’s snappy banter, yet listening to their exchanges makes the viewer feel as if they are a member of the gang too.

Tragic, romantic, and intelligently directed, Live by Night is early Ray, but even at this young stage in his career, it is clear the man behind the camera had terrific things in store.

Trivia: There is a line of dialogue in the film that is featured in the intro for the Sound on Sight podcast.  Can you find it?

-Edgar Chaput





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