They Live By Night: The Nicholas Ray Blogathon
The following post is Shadows and Satin’s contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blogathon, which is being hosted September 5-8, 2011, by Cinema Viewfinder. (Watch out for spoilers: you’ve been warned.)
An acclaimed, Oscar-nominated director, Nicholas Ray was perhaps best known for his film Rebel Without a Cause (1955); he debuted as a professional director nearly a decade earlier with the 1946 Broadway musical, Duke Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday. But his foray into film directing was on They Live By Night (1949), the first of six films noirs he helmed (not counting another two on which he was uncredited). Ray, who was no slouch behind the typewriter, also adapted the story for the film, from the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson.
This feature, described by author Foster Hirsch as “the most sentimental and soft-hearted entry in the classic noir canon,” is one of my favorites from the film noir era. It centers on the Depression-era lives of Catherine “Keechie” Mobley and escaped convict Arthur “Bowie” Bowers, a young couple who find that – to paraphrase Al Roberts in Detour (1945) – fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you for no good reason at all.
Edward Anderson’s novel was bought in 1941 by RKO for $100,000. According to producer John Houseman, he gave the book to Nicholas Ray to read (after numerous writers had tried and failed to make a screenplay from it) and Ray “fell madly in love with it . . . So he sat down and wrote the treatment. I’d come home at night and we’d go over it; I’d edit it a little, that’s all, and it was very, very good.” Houseman hired Charles Schnee to write the screenplay, and he and Ray worked together to turn Ray’s treatment into a completed script by mid-1947.
The casting of the luckless Bowie Bowers was serendipitous. It all started at a party Ray attended at the home of Gene Kelly which had, among its guests, Farley Granger, a young actor under personal contract to Sam Goldwyn. Up to that time, Granger had appeared in just two films, The North Star (1943) and The Purple Heart (1944), both starring Dana Andrews. But there was something about Granger that caught Ray’s eye. As the story goes, during the festivities, Ray stared so intently at Granger that the young actor asked fellow guest Ethel Merman about his odd behavior and learned that Ray was interested in him for his directorial debut. In a 2001 interview for my second book, Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, Granger told me, “[Ray] called me and said he wanted me to take a test. We did the test, and they wanted us, but most people didn’t want to get involved with Goldwyn because he was such a pain in the neck. Dore Schary – the head of RKO – said, ‘We have all these young guys under contract here, I don’t want to go and borrow someone from Goldwyn.’ But Houseman and Ray insisted . . . Nick was just a joy to work with – he was a wonderful director.”
Ray asked Granger if he could name any actresses with whom he’d like to work on the film, and he recommended Cathy O’Donnell who, like Granger, was under contract to Goldwyn and also a screen novice – her sole appearance had been in the 1946 William Wyler-directed hit, The Best Years of Our Lives. After a test, O’Donnell was given the role of the tough, no-nonsense Keechie.
With the two starring roles cast, Ray and Houseman added supporting players Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, and Will Wright, and filming started on June 23, 1947. The first scene shot was the opening of the film, shown under the credits, which tracks an old jalopy driving recklessly through a field and turning onto a highway before it blows a tire and skids to a stop. Ray used a helicopter to film the brief scene, which is considered to be the first use of a helicopter to shoot action in a film.
The jalopy is populated by four men – we learn that three of them are escaped convicts who have commandeered the vehicle from the fourth, a luckless farmer who is beaten by one of the cons and abandoned beside the disabled car. The convicts are hardened criminals, Chickamaw Mobley (Da Silva) and Henry “T-Dub” Mansfield (Flippen), and the impressionable, less-experienced Bowie Bowers. After ditching their getaway car, the escapees hide out at the home of Chickamaw’s brother, Mobley (Wright). While there, Bowie meets and falls for Mobley’s daughter, Keechie, with whom he shares his plans to seek a pardon and “get myself squared around.” Keechie, however, berates Bowie for his continued association with Chickamaw and T-Dub, telling him, “Fine way to get squared around – teaming with them. Stealin’ money and robbin’ banks. You’ll get in so deep trying to get squared they’ll have enough on you to keep you in prison for two lifetimes.”
Despite Keechie’s warning, Bowie joins with his comrades in a local bank robbery, but he is injured after crashing the car he’d purchased with his ill-gotten gains. When Chickamaw takes Bowie back to Mobley’s home to recover, his relationship with Keechie deepens and the two later get married, settling in a remote mountain cabin. After several months of an idyllic existence, however, they are found by Chickamaw, who forces Bowie to take part in another bank robbery. But the gang’s luck has run out, in more ways than one, and Bowie becomes the focus of a nationwide manhunt, labeled “Bowie the Kid.” With Keechie now expecting the couple’s first child, she and Bowie go on the run, seeking refuge at a motel run by T-Dub’s sister, Mattie (Helen Craig). Unwilling to further expose Keechie and his unborn child to danger, Bowie plans to continue on alone, but Mattie double-crosses him and contacts police. After returning for one last look at his sleeping wife through the window of their motel room, Bowie is surrounded and gunned down by the cops, and as the film ends, Keechie poignantly reads a letter penned by Bowie during his last hours: “I’m gonna miss you. I’ll send for both of you when I can. No matter how long it takes. I’ve gotta see that kid. He’s lucky. He’ll have you to keep him squared around.”
Filming on They Live By Night completed in October 1947 (working on it was “a wonderful experience,” Granger recalled). But despite an excellent preview, the studio didn’t seem to know how to market the film, and the takeover of the studio by Howard Hughes made the situation worse.
“Dore Schary left RKO to go to MGM, and Howard Hughes came,” Granger said. “He saw the film and hated it. Hated it. Because it had no tits and ass in it. He shelved it, and it sat there for two years. Finally, it opened in a little theater in London and got terrific reviews. That just shows you how things can get screwed up in [Hollywood].”
The film was finally released in the United States in November 1949, after having its name changed several times — from Thieves Like Us to The Twisted Road, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, and Your Red Wagon (the latter is the name of a song that Bowie and Keechie hear during a rare night on the town — it was sung by Marie Bryant, who’d appeared in Ray’s Beggar’s Holiday). The film’s final title, They Live By Night, was chosen from an audience poll. Although the film wasn’t exactly a hit at the box-office, it was universally hailed by critics – in Motion Picture Herald, William Weaver admired Ray’s “outstanding” direction, and the reviewer for Variety applauded the film’s “first-rate job of moody storytelling,” stating that Ray had demonstrated “a complete understanding of the characters.” And Bosley Crowther raved in the New York Times: “This well-designed motion picture derives what distinction it has from good, realistic production and sharp direction by Nicholas Ray. Mr. Ray has an eye for action details. His staging of the robbery of a bank, all seen by the lad in the pick-up car, makes a fine clip of agitating film. And his sensitive juxtaposing of his actors against highways, tourist camps and bleak motels makes for a vivid comprehension of an intimate personal drama in hopeless flight.”
These reviewers weren’t alone in their praise – years after the release of They Live By Night, critic Francois Truffaut called it Nicholas Ray’s best film, and Steven H.Scheuer labeled it “perhaps the best debut film of an American director, and I’m not unmindful of Citizen Kane.” And in his 2007 autobiography, Include Me Out, Farley Granger listed They Live By Night as one of his favorite films. (Did I mention? It’s one of mine, as well.)
Nicholas Ray went on to helm such noirs as Knock on Any Door (1949) and In a Lonely Place (1950), both starring Humphrey Bogart (who requested Ray as director on the former after a private screening of They Live By Night). He also directed a number of varied features including the John Wayne war film Flying Leathernecks (1951), the cult classic western Johnny Guitar (1954), and the religious epic King of Kings (1961), as well as the aforementioned drama of teen angst, Rebel Without a Cause (1955). But of all of Nicholas Ray’s accomplishments on celluloid, They Live By Night is a standout, featuring taut direction, searing characterizations, shrewd writing, and inspired acting.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing this first-rate feature, see it. And if you’ve already experienced it, see it again.
You only owe it to yourself.