Film Noir’s “Romeo & Juliet”: “They Live By Night” (1948)

Opening Title Cards: This boy… and this girl… were never properly introduced to the world we live in… To tell their story… They Live by Night.

Chickamaw (Jay C. Flippen), T-Dub (Howard Da Silva) and Bowie (a young Farley Granger in his 3rd role) have just escaped from prison somewhere in the Midwest. Though Chickamaw and T-Dub are hardened criminals (bank robbers), Bowie is just 23 y.o. and has been locked up since age16 (wrongly convicted of murder). Instead of rotting behind bars, Bowie, when given this chance by these older men, believed his best path forward was to help in their upcoming heists. He wanted to make enough money to hire a lawyer to clear his name of the murder conviction. The plan is to hide out with Chickamaw’s alcoholic/older brother, Mobley, until they have enough money to make other arrangements. Also w/ them is Mobley’s daughter, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell- a waifish girl-next-door), who doesn’t much like her life. She and her father have small/run-down farm.

This unique film (now loved by critics and noiristas) is based on Thieves Like Us (1937), a novel by struggling journo Edward Anderson. It was identified by critic Thom Andersen as an example of film gris, a sub-category of film noir w/ a left-wing narrative. This was the debut of director Nicholas Ray and filmed in 1947; its release was delayed by 2 yrs. b/c Howard Hughes was in the process of buying RKO. Though well-liked by many Hollywood insiders, the film lost money at the box office. It was appreciated more in Europe, particularly France. Robert Mitchum lobbied to play Chickamaw and Jane Greer auditioned for Keechie; they’d soon be working on Out of the Past.

They Live by Night combines youthful innocence, first love, and the gritty world of crime. It’s not glam like many film noirs; this is a world of Greyhound buses, roadside diners, motor inns, etc. Granger asked to audition w/ O’Donnell (a close friend of his from MGM Studios); their onscreen chemistry is obvious. We see a romantic prologue showing Granger and O’Donnell (both newbies in the movie biz) w/ subtitles before the opening credits. The film’s opening action sequence was shot by a helicopter camera placed on a mount. Aerial helicopter photography was rare at that time; this is one of the first times an action scene was filmed from the sky. Bowie is the gang’s driver; he dreams of someday running his own garage/gas station. After he’s injured during a getaway, Keechie nurses him back to health. She doesn’t think much of him or his lifestyle; Bowie feels little shame in his role. There is something about Keechie that appeals to Bowie; both were abandoned by their mothers and inexperienced in romance. They form a strong emotional bond and begin to dream of a life together (where he won’t have to be on the run).

[1] Farley Granger is best remembered for his Hitchcock roles, and he gives a good, multifaceted performance. It’s clear from the get-go that despite the company he keeps and despite his time in prison, he’s really a scared, uncertain kid. Cathy O’Donnell is all but forgotten… extremely convincing and appealing

[2] Bowie, the innocent, sympathetic outlaw hero of “They Live By Night” is a wonderfully drawn. By no means is he the cliched nice-guy-in-a-bad-situation; though essentially good-hearted, he can be frighteningly callous at times. Farley Granger, working with excellent direction, he gives us glimpses of a violent yet passionate nature, struggling against the condemnation of society. Cathy O’Donnell is also entrancingly tender…

[3] In a sense this cuts right to the chase with the theme of doomed youth, years before Rebel Without a Cause yet with the given desperation of the noir films.

…a powerful mix of the bittersweet tale of a criminal and his love that would decades later meld with other crime-film elements into a work like True Romance.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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