Day Three of Noirvember: From Page to Screen
They Live By Night (1948), directed by Nicholas Ray, tells the story of two noir-crossed lovers (if you will) – Bowie and Keechie, played by Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. One of my many favorite noirs, it has as its core the relationship of the young couple, who are orbited by a mélange of ruthless, self-centered, and dangerous characters.
The film was based on the book Thieves Like Us, written in 1937 by Edward Anderson. The author was raised in Texas and Oklahoma and worked as a journalist at several newspapers throughout the Southwest as a young man. He later earned a living through a variety of vocations including prizefighting and working as a deckhand on a freighter. He also developed an affinity for fiction writing, selling his first piece, a prizefighting story called “The Little Spic,” to a sports pulp magazine. After that, he hit the road, making his way around the country like a hobo, using his experiences in his first novel, Hungry Men in 1935 – after its publication, the Saturday Review of Literature proclaimed him the heir to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Following the release of Thieves Like Us – his second and final novel – Anderson unsuccessfully tried his hand at screenwriting in Hollywood, was fired from a job at the Los Angeles Examiner, and wound up back Texas. There, he wrote a column for a local paper and died at the age of 63 in near total obscurity.
Meanwhile, RKO producers Dore Schary and John Houseman (who, incidentally, I first discovered through his role on TV’s The Paper Chase in the early 1970s) purchased the rights to Thieves Like Us from Edward Anderson for $500. They assigned Nicholas Ray to the project – he’d previously worked with Houseman and Elia Kazan in the New York Theater. They Live By Night was his directorial debut. After filming was complete, though, Schary left RKO for MGM, and Howard Hughes took over the studio.
“[Hughes] saw the film and he hated it. Hated it,” Farley Granger recalled years later. “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].” Both Granger and O’Donnell were universally praised by critics; in a typical review, the critic from Variety called them “a gifted team of young players,” and the review in Motion Picture Herald noted their “exceptional skill.”
If you haven’t seen They Live By Night, hunt it down and check it out. And give Edward Anderson’s book a look, too. You only owe it to yourself.
And join me tomorrow for Day Four of Noirvember!