Tuesday, June 27, 2017

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT: Blu-ray (RKO. 1949) Criterion Collection

With the emphasis of Charles Schnee’s screenplay squarely situated on the hopelessness of young love torn asunder by circumstances beyond their control, director, Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1949) must rank among the most innovative, cynical, bleak, yet queer and tenderly fragile cross-pollinations of film noir meets Hollywood romance from the postwar period. Ray, who later in his career, would more fully deconstruct and exploit the imperfections of that euphoric elixir we laughingly call ‘love’ in movies like In a Lonely Place (1950) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is working with some very fine material here that he diligently helped to craft for Schnee; also, under the auspices of RKO – a studio noted for taking chances on unknowns and producing some exceptional ‘film noir’ (gritty, cheaply made melodramas later lumped together as such by French film critics). Yes, it’s still an archetypal ‘youth on the run’ yarn, unexpectedly told with atypical subtlety and finesse by Ray with an uncanny grasp of his lovers’ ‘destin funeste.’ The vitality of Ray’s expressionist-documentarian style has not aged even a smidgen since; the tone of this, his earliest chef-d'oeuvre, offering us a prelude into his formidable tenure; constantly in flux from daringly dark and apocalyptic to gently uncertain, and, with an overriding arc of sadness as its main staple. Ray makes no apology for They Live By Night’s lack of a saleable – even a redemptive - ‘happy ending’; steadily advancing with his ‘of the moment’ camera-eye precision on an already inevitable and inexorably sorrowful fait accompli sans compromise. Moral judgement set aside – our empathy is riding shotgun with the likes of a common hood because he is both young and handsome, Ray’s delicate balance in crime vs. compassion possessing all the merits of intense dynamism and extreme moderation; his command of cinema space as well as cinema language awe-inspiring, even at a glance. Lest we remember – this is his first movie in the director’s chair.
It has oft been noted we are all a product of our times and upbringing and, at least in hindsight, They Live By Night offers hints and flashes of the Norwegian-born Ray’s impassioned livelihood in New York’s radical theater; his anti-establishment railing clear-cut, decisive and divisive when considering his card-carrying membership in the Socialist/Communist movement (oddly to have gone virtually undetected by HUAC in the 1950’s). After aspirations to become an architect were dashed, Ray succumbed to a sort of fractured artistic Bohemianism, his intuitiveness, intelligence and sensational energy creating a synergistic quality on the set that translates spectacularly; a sense, not only of the damned, but immediacy for this motley, though hardly hard-hearted ensemble of prison escapees, rummies and otherwise socially disenfranchised and morally wounded creatures of habit. There is no escape for our lovers, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) and Bowie (Farley Granger), much as they would wish for it in some alter-reality. Alas, within the scope of theirs, perpetual squalor, struggled, bitterness and heartache are the only quantifiables. Glimmers of something better flicker within the peripheries of the screen. Yet these shimmering mirages of the mind’s eye are perhaps the cruelest temptations of all because they lure, yet ultimately never satisfy.    
We have a chance meeting with John Houseman to thank for They Live By Night; Houseman and Ray striking a kinship with formidable advantages to both for many good years yet to follow. Testing his prowess in radio, in 1946 Houseman encouraged Ray to pursue author, Edward Anderson’s novel ‘Thieves Like Us’. Ultimately morphing into They Live By Night, Ray’s contributions to the screen adaptation would go largely unnoticed (and never credited as such) though at least half the ideas in this movie are his. Houseman heavily promoted Ray and under producer, Dore Schary’s auspices, Ray was allowed to prosper artistically as, arguably, he never would again; crafting They Live By Night largely to his own likes without studio intervention – even in the final cut. With its groundbreaking cinematography, George E. Diskant employing the first ever overhead helicopter shot, and the potency of Ray’s creative pistons firing in unison, this picture ought to have gone over like gangbusters. Alas, They Live By Night was to become the unwitting bastard child of some very bad timing; Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO delaying its official release by nearly two years in America; its Euro-debut, playing in only one theater in the U.K., if to rave reviews.
Ray’s fatalism evolves into an incandescent dance of despair as our twined lovers are perennially plagued by an even more all-pervasive kinetic misery, perfectly encapsulated in Albert S. D'Agostino and Al Herman’s Depression-era art direction. Within it, Ray typifies the ephemerality of the moment and life itself; painting a grotesquely unflattering portrait of the American experience in a landscape dotted by makeshift shanties, decaying backwaters overwrought in wild creepers, lonely, dusty bus stops and derelict rural communities having seen far better days. To this milieu, Ray introduces two archetypes: the mousy autist and the unrefined convict; each, already marginalized within a world that has moved on, or perhaps, more accurately, is limping in the opposite direction. Keechie and Bowie know better. They just cannot afford it. Their achingly naked (metaphorically speaking) affair is thus predicated on a mutual awakening to basic human need, rather than the matured sexual frustration Ray would investigate more astutely in 1950’s bone-chilling, Born to Be Bad. Ray’s particular bent in quixotic resignation herein is rife for multiple interpretations; our paramours systematically dealt delicate blows, gradually eroding their innocence one thin layer at a time, repeatedly dulled, then at last, obliterated.  
They Live By Night is the antithesis of ‘the road picture’ – popularized and usually frothy/light in American movies coinciding with the introduction of the automobile and perhaps best indulged by Frank Capra’s iconic and Oscar-winning, It Happened One Night (1932). In Ray’s movie this pride of ownership is subverted almost immediately as the three prison escapees, Bowie,  Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) brutalize, then leave for dead the poor young farmer (William Phipps) whose jalopy they have just commandeered; the car, as catalyst for their speedy getaway from the law. Ironically, Bowie and Keechie spend a good deal of the plot traveling from outpost to outpost while never actually getting anywhere. Even as they plot to cross the border into Mexico, the trajectory of their plight begins to coil into ever-tightening concentric circles of inescapable doom. Ray is blessed to have Cathy O’Donnell and Stewart Granger as his leads: two fresh faces – good to look at – but more important, as yet unknown to audiences even as each had already appeared on the screen: she, as Wilma Cameron, the empathetic/devoted fiancée to Harold Russell’s disabled war vet in The Best Years of Our Lives (1948), and, Granger only slightly in the lead with two undistinguished Lewis Milestone war flicks to his credit: The North Star (1943) and The Purple Heart (1944). And although Granger would achieve ‘lasting fame’, playing first a neurotic killer, then amiable hero respectively in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), then Strangers on a Train (1951); neither he nor O’Donnell would go on to have ‘great’ careers; a sad waste of each actors’ talent.
In his 1955 article for Cahiers du cinema, noted French film critic, François Truffaut concluded, “Ray’s very great talent resides in his absolute sincerity, his acute sensitivity.” He also called They Live By Nightunmistakably (Ray’s) best film’, as much a part of the noir movement as in many ways marking an absolute departure from the precepts of all those ‘then’ contemporary detective-driven melodramas classified under the same umbrella. Also atypical, Granger’s Bowie – arguably, the picture’s male protagonist – is not cut from the world-weary ilk of a Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer. Instead, he is a wet-behind-the-ears frightened and desperate boy, falsely accused of murder, yet repeatedly weak, particularly when suffering from an angst-propelled acute attack of conscience; chronically manhandled by T-Dub, and, finally, horrendously mangled in the movie’s climactic botched getaway. They Live By Night may not have inaugurated the trend in rural noir (1945’s Detour, the earliest contender, as most noir before and since takes place within a dystopian landscape of lower west side urban blight and decay or moodily lit nightclubs where the elite go slumming with high class B-girls, gamblers and mafia hoods). But it nevertheless refined this split from the norm, laying its curious commentary about ‘the simple folk’: hicks in the sticks who are just as morally bankrupt and greedy as their urban-dwelling counterparts.
Farley Granger would later recount how he came to be cast: a casual party guest at Saul and Ethel Chaplin’s home, noting Nicholas Ray from across the room, knocking back a few too many while favoring him with a penetrating stare. Inquiring about Ray’s ‘odd behavior’, Granger was promptly informed by Ethel that the director was in something of a snit over his latest picture and had, after some consternation, practically decided to offer Granger the part. When John Houseman arranged for the screen test, Granger was again approached by Ray to pick an actress he felt comfortable with as his co-star; Granger pointing to Cathy O’Donnell who had made the test with him. Both Granger and O’Donnell were under contract to Samuel Goldwyn, hence a little finagling was in order to secure their services. At one point, studio brass attempted to discourage Ray from casting either actor because of their lack of experience. But this only deepened Ray’s resolve to secure their contract loan outs. It also appeared as though RKO contract player, Robert Mitchum would be cast as Chickamaw. Desperate for the role, the actor even shaved and dyed his pate black, as Chickamaw is a Native American in the novel. Alas, Mitchum had already made a splash in pictures – deemed too high profile to be featured in such a minor role. Hence, Howard Da Silva stepped in, having already proven his mettle in The Cradle Will Rock (1937) produced by Houseman. Other cameos went to ‘friends’ Ray knew from his tenure in the New York theater: Marie Bryant as the nightclub chanteuse, Curt Conway, a dapper fellow inside the night club, and, Will Lee, as the jeweler.
They Live By Night opens with our introduction to Bowie, in prison since he was a teen and unfairly sentenced for a murder he did not commit. Bowie has just escaped from a Texas penitentiary (the novel uses Huntsville, the film does not comment) with two seasoned cons, Chickamaw and T-Dub. After abusing and leaving for dead the poor farmer whose jalopy they have stolen in their getaway, the men abandon the overheated vehicle in a nearby field and hurry on foot to their shanty town fill station rendezvous where they are met by T-Dub’s sister-in-law, Mattie (Helen Craig); a bitter hag who demands they become embroiled in a daring bank robbery to help her barter for her own husband’s release from prison. Bowie agrees to these conditions, hoping to use his share of the loot to pay for an attorney to fight for an overthrow of his prior murder conviction. Chickamaw, the craziest and most volatile of this threesome, promises his brother, Mobley (Will Wright) has stashed enough money somewhere to meet all the expenses of their pending heist. Wounded in his escape, Bowie is left by his cohorts and told to lay low behind a roadside billboard until they can return for him under the cover of night. Instead, the men send Mobley’s teenage daughter, Keechie. Although professing a sort of world-weary contempt, she is almost immediately attracted to him by instinct, identifying another essentially kind soul and kindred spirit, despite Bowie’s self-professed arrogance towards her.
Keechie has spent most of her life watching over Mobley; a rummy – easily swayed and as easily taken advantage. Without parental guidance she desperately yearns to be understood. Conversely, Bowie shields his more tender intelligence beneath a thin veneer of braggadocios criminality, merely to get by in the company he keeps. Miraculously, the bank heist goes off with narrowly a hitch; well…almost. Unable to leave well enough alone, Chickamaw and Bowie go on a spending spree. Chickamaw indulges in strong drink, causing Bowie to wreck his car on a busy street in the quiet hamlet of Zelton. When a suspicious policeman arrives to investigate the accident Chickamaw fires his pistol, then speeds away with an unconscious Bowie in the backseat. Chickamaw abandons Bowie to Keechie’s care and goes to join T-Dub in another town. Used to tending to wounded things, Keechie nurses Bowie back to health. To illustrate his gratitude, he gives her a watch he bought in Zelton. Genuinely affected, Keechie confides to Bowie that she loves him. The two decide to run away together. Alas, newspaper headlines scream that Bowie’s gun and fingerprints have been identified in the abandoned car. He is a wanted man and a cop killer. He cannot go to Oklahoma as originally planned. Instead, he and Keechie conspicuously board a bus together and, on an impulse, are wed inside a grungy roadside chapel by the very shady ‘justice of the peace’, Hawkins (Ian Wolfe), who also sells them a ‘hot’ convertible.
The young couple drives to an isolated mountain resort where Keechie once stayed as a child; setting up house inside the ramshackle cabin where they naively daydream about the hour when they can simply live together without reprisals. All goes according to plan - briefly; Keechie and Bowie skulking into town, easily fitting into the backdrop of this bucolic society undetected. However, as Christmas approaches, they are paid an unexpected, and very undesirable visit by Chickamaw. Having gambled and boozed away his share of the money, Chickamaw bullies Bowie into helping him and T-Dub rob another bank. Overcome by dread, Keechie gives Bowie his Christmas present – a watch she bought for him; begging him not to partake of this second heist. But it’s no use. Bowie must comply with his former cohorts or face being exposed by them and framed as the sole perpetrator of their crimes. Alas, the trio’s ‘good fortune’ from the first crime does not carry over. T-Dub is shot dead in a police ambush and Chickamaw is badly wounded. The press have a field day, running on the misguided notion Bowie – nicknamed ‘the Kid’ – is the gang leader, triggering Chickamaw to boil over with covetous ferocity.
Utterly disgusted with his viciousness, Bowie dumps Chickamaw by the roadside, hurrying back to the cabin. There, Bowie learns Chickamaw was shot dead for attempting to break into a liquor store. He also discovers Keechie is pregnant. Fearing capture, Bowie and Keechie head east. After several long nights of travelling the backroads undetected, they begin to relax. Alas, the lovers are identified by a gangster (Curt Conway) in a nightclub, forcing them into retreat once again. In tandem, Bowie’s plan to carry them to Mexico are foiled when Keechie becomes ill, driving Bowie to seek asylum inside a seedy motel run by Mattie. Naively believing Hawkins will be able to help them cross the border, Bowie has underestimated Mattie, who plots to turn Bowie over to the police in exchange for the release of her own husband. As Hawkins thoroughly refuses to aid in their escape, Bowie elects to go it alone, beseeching Mattie to look after his wife and unborn child. Having already set Bowie up for an ambush, Mattie encourages him to write Keechie a farewell note. Knowing the police will be waiting for Bowie at the cabin, Mattie awaits the inevitable. Bowie is gunned down and Keechie, having discovered his note, rushes to her slain husband’s body, reading aloud the words he could never say to her whilst he lived: “I love you.”
A little too Romeo and Juliet-ish in its denouement, especially for a left-winger like Nicholas Ray, They Live By Night is nevertheless as persuasive, edgy and philosophical as Ray’s later movies would ever get; a real testament to his clear-eyed vigor to make a picture as close to his own precepts as possible, if not true to Edward Anderson’s original novel, on which several artistic liberties under Hollywood’s Code of Censorship have been ‘liberally’ applied. In the novel, Keechie and Bowie are never married. And her acknowledgement of his love at the end of the movie, part requiem/part defiant mourning, is a bit of closure never expressed in the book. Forced to abandon his plans to shoot Bowie’s initial prison break with T-Dub and Chickamaw, Ray concocted the even more ingenious opener; daring – and first of its kind – overhead helicopter tracking shot.  Ray’s desire to use the novel’s original title, Thieves Like Us was also vetoed by the Code, who suggested no honor among thieves was possible, or rather, should be implied. Indirectly, the film’s title went through several permutations; Your Red Wagon, The Twisted Road, and finally, They Live By Night. The end result is a far more streamlined and refined narrative, taunt and very much a subliminal commentary on HUAC’s blacklists and witch-hunting practices Ray absolutely abhorred. There is nothing in the historical record to suggest Nicholas Ray became an informant for HUAC – ‘naming names’ – outside of a thinly veiled ‘confession’ he is supposed to have made to Jean Evans. True, or pure conjecture. We may never know. Whatever his sins, Nicholas Ray would carry them to his grave. Arguably, he also paid dearly for them while he lived.
They Live By Night arrives from Criterion via their continued alliance with Warner Home Video. Aside: I sincerely hope Criterion gets more Warner/RKO/MGM product from the thirties, forties and fifties to fatten out the rather tragic void that persists for classics on Blu-ray; particularly as Warner’s formidable girth of true classic movie-land magic has yet to be properly mined in 1080p, with their most recent focus on B-grade filler coming mostly from Warner’s own archive. Can it really be the middle of 2017 with still no hi-def plans for bona fide classics like The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Dinner at Eight (1933), National Velvet (1944), Marie Antoinette (1938), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Pride and Prejudice (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956) among far too many others?!?! But I digress.
Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio in a new 2K transfer derived from a 35mm safety fine-grain positive made from the original camera negative, They Live By Night looks resplendent on Blu-ray. To be fair, there are minor fluctuations in density, clarity, shadow delineation and depth. But overall, the image looks very fresh and as appealing, with darker sequences boasting superb nuances in gray scale and contrast.  This is 1080p done right, folks, and we champion Warner’s efforts in conjunction with Criterion; a very clean image with zero traces of edge enhancement and narrowly a speck of dirt to be found anywhere. It has been a long time since a movie of this vintage has so impressed me on Blu-ray. Criterion gives us a PCM mono audio, nicely cleaned up with inherent limitations perfectly preserved. Dialog is always crisp with occasionally minor and largely forgivable variations. Extras include Eddie Muller’s audio commentary: a Q&A with star, Farley Granger recorded for Warner’s old DVD release. New to Blu is a twenty minute interview with film critic, Imogen Sara Smith, fairly in-depth and covering much more than just the movie.  We also get a 1956 audio only interview with producer, John Houseman, and, the rather disappointing video essay, The Twisted Road, barely clocking in at just over five minutes, with film historians, Molly Haskell and Glenn Erickson, filmmakers, Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone, and film noir specialists, Alain Silver and James Ursini. If ever there was a sound bite junket produced with thrift instead of integrity, this is it.  Last, an enlightening printed pamphlet analysis by film scholar, Bernard Eisenschitz.  Bottom line: They Live By Night remains a potent and evocative noir masterpiece. Nicholas Ray’s unorthodox approach to the material and the performances throughout, highlighted by Stewart Granger and Cathy O’Donnell result in a shockingly frank and tragic love story as timeless as those ‘other’ popularized immortal lovers from Shakespeare’s time. While extras left me wanting, the Blu-ray presentation of this feature is practically flawless. Very highly recommended!  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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