They Live by Night (Blu-ray Review)10 Jul, 2017 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Stars Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen.
Though it deviates from Edward Anderson’s 1937 source novel in key respects, director Nicholas Ray’s screen debut has it all over Robert Altman’s eponymously titled take on the author’s Thieves Like Us, which isn’t to knock one of the better-but-not-best releases of a great movie year (1974). They Live by Night’s Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell seriously outmatch Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as in-love Depression protagonists on the lam from small-town cops and even semi-normal living, a major factor in why Ray’s version (and let’s not forget that John Houseman produced) is a much more heart-wrenching experience. But Night also has the eye-opening freshness of a debut salvo from a filmmaker paying no heed to “you can’t do that” warnings — and premier noir expert Eddie Muller is correct (on a commentary carried over from the old Warner DVD) that Ray’s take is second only to Citizen Kane as the Hollywood directorial debut of the 1940s.
Of course, one can argue over which of two years from the ’40s that Night represents, given the film’s spotty distribution history at RKO once Howard Hughes took over and launched seven or eight years of mayhem that table-set the studio’s demise. Though there’s ample evidence that Hughes liked Ray from the number of instances in which he often used the latter for mop-up duty on other directors’ imperfect movies, he didn’t like Night, which was shot in 1947 but not released until ’49 (and late ’49 at that). Fortunately, someone had found a way to wangle a 1948 commercial engagement in London, where the critical raves were significant — as they were as well in the private viewing rooms of Hollywood heavies, where you couldn’t have a party without showing a movie. Even then, it took years before Night caught on as even more than a cult item. The Ray mystique had something to do with it, as, perhaps did the direct line you can draw from Granger’s “Bowie” character to the bewildered teen that James Dean plays against a much more affluent backdrop in the director’s subsequent Rebel Without a Cause.
Night isn’t easy to peg, which I suppose explains why it attracts occasional naysayers — though “novel” or “fresh” better describe its disinclination to spin a doomed-lovers saga in a familiar manner. The first thing we see after the RKO logo is a tight, beautifully composed dreamy close-up of the two leads in what almost looks like a storybook kind of opening — capped by a sudden ominous musical note to indicate that indeed, they are doomed and that the emphasis of this grim-for-its-day noir is going to be on romance. Only then do the opening credits follow before we relaunch with an almost unheard of helicopter shot for the day: one of a moving convertible in which we can see the actors (who aren’t static figures but in motion as well). So in give-take the first two minutes, we’ve seen a couple things I can’t ever recall from any pre-1947 Hollywood release. There are notable innovations in the use of sound as well, throughout.
As for Granger’s Bowie character, he’s been in the pen since his middle teens on a bad-luck murder conviction, and now he’s in his early 20s. Broken out by his older cons who are part of an extended clan (a fine gene pool here), these anti-mentors term Bowie an investment they expect to participate in any future bank robberies that constitute their normal life cycle. Disapproving is one clan member’s head-on-straight daughter and sole moral voice of reason (O’Donnell), who nurses the wounds Bowie suffers after the gang’s “jobs” while projecting quiet disgust over what they do. The completely inexperienced twosome fall in love and marry (the Production Code mandated this for couples who cohabitated regularly) and attempt to break away. Good luck — though, again, the movie’s very opening has already cast a telltale pall over the remaining 90 or so minutes.
Granger didn’t have the most range of any actor who kept working for as long as he did, but this is clearly the performance of his career; on the commentary with a hard-working Muller, where the actor seems a bit out of it four years before his death, Granger says that Ray and Hitchcock (two films) were the best directors with whom he ever worked — and this is someone who had the lead in the magnificent Senso for Luchino Visconti. O’Donnell, underused by Hollywood even before her untimely death, needs no such critical qualifications (see also The Best Years of Our Lives). And even when Ray tries to make her look semi-plain in the movie’s first half, it’s something of a losing battle; she has the kind of looks that sneak up and bite you in the behind when it counts.
The supporting cast delivers as well. Howard Da Silva’s single-eyed dipso cohort is one sociopathic tinderbox, and, again, I don’t recall many pre-1947 Hollywood’s with the nerve to thrust a character’s bum eye as much in our faces (this is a movie that really knows how to move in for the kill on occasional use of close-ups). And though it sometimes seems as if Will Wright and Ian Wolfe combined for feature roles in about half of Hollywood’s output in the 1940s, I don’t recall them ever being more memorable as they were here — and this is before we even mention obscure-to-me Helen Craig. She steals a lot of Night’s second half playing perhaps the saddest of the clan’s sad sacks, who ultimately can’t live with an act of treachery she commits under desperate circumstances (and to no credit at all from even the person she’s trying to help, albeit in part for purely personal reasons).
By the time Night was released, Ray had already made two other (inferior) pictures that beat it to theaters: A Woman’s Secret and Knock on Any Door (where John Derek is the Granger-Dean equivalent, though to a far less satisfying degree). What’s more, Ray had also been an uncredited director for some of Goldwyn’s Roseanna McCoy, another Farley Granger rural romance for which I have a soft spot but was a big flop nonetheless. This was not exactly the best way for a directorial career to get out of the gate, but speaking purely chronologically in terms of theatrical placement, I suppose it did enable Ray to claim Night and In a Lonely Place as consecutive works, with each enduring as an all-timer.
Criterion has now released both films (just as the Library of America has published both source novels), with film critic Imogen Sara Smith moving from her print-essay duties on the Lonely Blu-ray to an on-camera appearance for Night — as she places it along with Detour and Gun Crazy in the intriguing canon of non-metropolitan “on the road” noirs. (By the way, am I the only one who thinks Smith bears a more than a middling resemblance to O’Donnell? Caught this senior citizen’s attention, all right.) The essay by film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz does a similar job of pressing the right buttons when it comes to explaining why I love the movie so much — and speaking of love, I’m going to throw a little added love to Criterion for managing to bring out two of my favorite American movies of all time (Night and Ghost World) in consecutive months. In other words, life is good, assuming the Yankees can fix their middle relief pitching.