Tuesday, June 2, 2015

They Live by Night

[Sandwiches and sodas. Click any image for a larger view.]

[On the road, again.]

They Live by Night (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1948) seems ahead of its time. The film’s brief prologue tells us that the young couple at the center of the story, Bowie Bowers (Farley Granger) and Keechie Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell), “were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” They are in flight: he, as an escaped convict; she, as a daughter, niece, gas-station attendant, and maid of all work who runs from her family of thieves. The premise might suggest High Sierra (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1949), but Bowie is no criminal: he was wrongly convicted after falling in with bad company. As Keechie tells it, “He’s just a kid.” It seems that neither she nor he has ever danced or kissed. They are absolute beginners. All they know is their mutual devotion.

They Live by Night has been repackaged for DVD as film noir, but I’m not sure the description fits: there are too many moments of comedy (Ian Wolfe as the proprietor of an all-night marriage chapel, Byron Foulger as a manager of rental cabins), too many scenes of domestic happiness. But happiness for Bowie and Keechie is always fleeting: just as a cop in the film predicts, every knock on the door sets their hearts pounding. Thus they are again and again on the move, by day, by night, one or the other driving. And then there are Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen as Chickamaw and T-Dub Mobley, Keechie’s brutal uncles, determined to make Bowie the third man in their criminal schemes. (It takes, T-Dub explains, three men to knock over a bank, “the three mosquitoes.”) Perhaps it’s noir after all. But I prefer to think of the film as the prelude to Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955): the real story here is one of young lovers attempting to flee the world. Leigh Harline’s score — made largely of variations on “I Know Where I’m Going” — underscores the pathos of their journey.

For me the great revelation of this film is Cathy O’Donnell. She has always seemed to me the one false note in The Best Years of Our Lives (dir. William Wyler, 1946): as girl-next-door Wilma Cameron, she speaks with a stagey voice that seems wildly out of place — courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn, who arranged for diction lessons to remove O’Donnell’s southern accent. Here O’Donnell is a far more natural actor, and the difference is extraordinary. No wonder Granger recommended her for the film. The two have a genuine, sweetly erotic chemistry on screen. Granger and O’Donnell co-starred again in Side Street (dir. Anthony Mann, 1949), but there O’Donnell has relatively little to do. My guess is that They Live by Night is her shining moment in film.

They Live by Night is adapted from Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us (1937). A copy sits somewhere in our house, in the stacks of books waiting for shelves not yet built.

[In a bus depot. Keechie skips the nickel candy bars and chooses the cheapest option, “Delicious Fresh Nuts,” 1¢. I like vending machines with mirrors, artifacts of the dowdy world. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.]

A related post
Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) in They Live by Night

comments: 2

stefan said...

I always enjoy your movie-related posts and comments, Michael, but in this case, I really got a kick out of your playful reference to another Bowie--David. His "Absolute Beginners" is one of my favorites and seems to fit perfectly here.

Michael Leddy said...

Since I am under oath, I will have to admit that I wasn’t thinking of that other Bowie at all. I don’t think I even know that title. [Hangs head .]