They Live By Night (1949)

Laughing Gravy
Balcony Gang, Foist Class
Laughing Gravy
Balcony Gang, Foist Class
Joined: September 1st, 2005, 4:44 am

April 21st, 2018, 6:13 pm #1



They Live By Night
(1949) Dir. Nicholas Ray
RKO-Radio
95 min. / B&W / 1.37:1
Blu-ray: Criterion

After seven years in prison, 23-year-old "Bowie" Bowers (Farley Granger) busts out with the help of his older, crankier friends T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chickamaw (Howard da Silva) and they commence to rob a few banks, but once Bowie meets shy, beautiful young Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) he wants to settle down and find a place in the world for them. Unfortunately, neither the law - who pin every heist on the "Babyface Bowie" Gang - or his two ex-partners will allow that.

Oh, sure, young couple on the run, doomed as doomed can be, some gunplay, some violence, dark city streets - I thought I knew what to expect. Boy, was *I* wrong. Nicholas Ray, in his directorial debut (he also adapted the novel into the story that became the screenplay, and rewrote parts of it as he shot it) gives us perhaps noir's greatest love story.

The Depression-era novel by Edward Anderson was called Thieves Like Us and its title referred to the fact that the government and the bankers were as crooked as the folks that got locked up, only they had "law" on their side and besides, they were better at thieving. The censors struck down that sort of talk, but the film makes it clear that in the world these characters inhabit, there's no way out but to extort your way out. In any case, the focus is on Bowie and Keechie, who just want to find a place they can live in to see what "normal" life looks like; they spend one day dressed up in a park and simply marvel, wide-eyed, at the sun-lit world they've never known.

Million-dollar Dialog:
Bowie: "I wish we could go into town and see a movie together. I always wanted to hold hands with the girl in the movie."

Produced by John Housman under the Dore Schary regime at RKO and filmed in 1947; Howard Hughes took over and put the film on the shelf. It apparently had one viewing in London in 1948 and was finally tossed out to the public at the end of '49, where it lost money. Didn't seem to hurt anybody's career, though. And all these decades later, the moral of the film is probably more true now than it was then: the deck is stacked but you have to play the game if you even can't win.

The cast is uniformly terrific; the cinematography by George Diskant gives us some startling shots from a camera in a helicoptor; Ray in his first feature gives us a tremendous, thrilling love story that just happens to take place in a dark world of crime; and Criterion's presentation of it is impeccable. One of the great ones. I loved it.

You can find the DVD version of it on Warner Bros.' Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 4.
"I'm glad that this question came up, because there are so many ways to answer it that one of them is bound to be right." - Robert Benchley
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Frank Hale
Balcony Gang, Foist Class
Frank Hale
Balcony Gang, Foist Class
Joined: October 7th, 2005, 2:02 am

April 21st, 2018, 6:41 pm #2

Mr. G: "the deck is stacked but you have to play the game if you even can't win".


You've reminded me of the three laws of thermodynamics:

1) You can't win.

2) You can't break even.

3) You can't get out of the game.


I haven't see the film, but I read the book last year in one of the Library of America volumes. Pretty downbeat as I recall. I hadn’t realized the connection to this film.

Think I have it, so I'll track it down and watch it.

BTW, that would properly be Farley, not Stewart, Granger in your review.
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Laughing Gravy
Balcony Gang, Foist Class
Laughing Gravy
Balcony Gang, Foist Class
Joined: September 1st, 2005, 4:44 am

April 21st, 2018, 8:27 pm #3

Thanks. I'm home sick as a dog. I'm surprised the review made any sense at all.

It was filmed as Thieves Like Us but Howard Hughes changed the title. (There's a 1974 adaptation of the novel that keeps its title; Robert Altman directed).
"I'm glad that this question came up, because there are so many ways to answer it that one of them is bound to be right." - Robert Benchley
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