Saturday, October 31, 2009

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT/SIDE STREET (RKO 1948/MGM 1950) Warner Home Video

Warner Home Video delves deeper into noir lore with two gems starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. The first, director Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1948) is a tour de force cautionary morality tale that pits the fragile – if slightly embittered - naivety of youth against the more sullen and corrupting voices of experience. Based on Edward Anderson’s novel ‘Thieves Like Us’, the film stars Granger as Arthur ‘Bowie’ Bowers, the driver for a three man bank robbing crime syndicate fronted by Henry T-Dub Mansfield (Jay C. Flippen) and thuggish Chicamaw ‘One-Eye’ Mobley (Howard Da Silva).
After a harrowing escape from the law, the trio decides to take refuge at an out of the way motel run by drunken Pa Mobley (Will Wright) and his sullen granddaughter, Catherine ‘Keechie’ Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell). The trio also secures the services of Mattie Mansfield (Helen Craig) by promising to spring her husband, Robert (Frank Marlowe) from prison.
Keechie cannot abide a life of crime and, at first, takes an intense dislike to Bowie.

Soon, however, she realizes that Bowie yearns just as much for a legitimate existence far away from his partners in crime. After a fleeting and flawed romance, Keechie and Bowie decide to steal off into the night with Bowie’s third of the group’s robbery monies.

In one of the film’s most tenderly awkward and utterly poignant moments, Keechie and Bowie are married in a dingy chapel before retreating to an isolated cabin motel to begin what they believe is a fresh start and a new life. Unhappy chance for both Keechie and Bowie; the motel’s plumber (Guy L. Beach) recognizes Bowie from a newspaper mug shot and scurries away to warn the police. Worse, disgruntled and psychotic Chicamaw has decided to re-enter their lives by forcing Bowie to help him and T-Dub knock off one last bank. The robbery goes awry and T-Dub is shot dead by the police. Later, we learn that Chicamaw too has been killed while trying to break into a liquor store.

Believing that their troubles are at an end, Bowie and Keechie arrive at Mattie Mansfield’s trailer park to lay low. Unfortunately, Mattie – having grown tired of waiting – has worked out a secret deal with the police to apprehend Bowie in exchange for Robert’s release from prison.

In his debut film as a director, Nicholas Ray hits one out of the park with They Live By Night. His edgy, no holds barred script adaptation – finally written by Charles Schnee – and his quick shot direction move the narrative and the action at breakneck speed, balancing the finer tragic elements of young love destined not to last with the unrelenting brutality of disreputable figures fated to lose everything over greed.

The second film in this set is Anthony Mann’s Side Street (1950); a reunion picture of sorts for Granger and O’Donnell in two very different roles but with a similar outcome in the last reel. From its opening magnificent overhead aerial shots of Manhattan and masterfully conceived prologue to its extensive use of New York landscapes utilized in the best tradition of film noir, Side Street is a spooky, unsettling – if unconventional - masterpiece.

Granger is part time letter carrier, Joe Norson, delivering his mail without a care in the world, living at home with his in-laws (Esther Somers and Harry Antrim) and expectant young wife, Ellen (Cathy O’Donnell). Unfortunately for Joe, he has a moment of weakness on one of his routes and steals $30,000 from spurious attorney, Victor Backett (Edmund Ryan) to provide for his new family.

The money has actually been paid out by wealthy broker Emil Lorrison (Paul Harvey) as hush money to keep quiet Lorrison’s extra-marital affair with call girl Lucille Colner (Adele Jergens). However, having secured the monies, Victor has assigned thug George Garsell (James Craig) to put a definite period to Ms. Colner’s demand for part of the payback.

Racked with guilt and fear – and, not knowing that the men he has stolen from are murderers – Joe decides the money must be returned. One problem, Nick Drumman (Ed Max) the bartender Joe gave it to for safe keeping has decided to steal the cash instead. Meanwhile, Joe is suspected by police captain Walter Anderson (Paul Kelly) of Lucille’s murder, leaving Joe in a race against time to track down Garsell through his gal pal, Harriette Sinton (Jean Hagen).

Side Street is stellar noir entertainment – brilliantly scripted by Sidney Boehm and photographed to dark and brooding perfection by Joseph Ruttenberg. Farley Granger’s career, largely predicated on being cast as the young handsome stud whose emotional stability doesn’t quite match his physical stature, gives a marvelous performance fraught with nervous tension.

Warner Home Video houses both films on a single sided disc. Image quality is not compromised, however, only They Live By Night appears to have been the benefactor of digital clean up. Side Street suffers from a considerable amount of edge enhancement, a softly focused image and weaker than expected contrast levels. Overall, the gray scale on both films is well balanced. Fine details are generally more evident on They Live By Night. Film grain fluctuates from moderate to intense on They Live By Night but is practically none existent on Side Street.

The audio is mono as original recorded and quite adequate for both presentations. In addition to providing two separate and comprehensive audio commentaries (one for each film) Warner Home Video also provides us with two featurettes on the films in which various noir and film historians briefly wax about the finer points of the genre in general and each film in particular. Theatrical trailers are also included. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
They Live By Night 4
Side Street 3.5



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