Criterion Corner: They Live by Night (#880)

Being a self-confessed Criterion junkie, I have once or twice bought a Criterion release by mistake. I managed to order Persona twice (which, to be fair, makes perfect sense, considering the film). I once bought a DVD version of Le Samouraï from some Amazon reseller that turned out to be a Korean bootleg – and it didn’t even work. And I ordered They Live By Night (1948) after attending a lecture on Ida Lupino, where the lecturer showed a scene of the film that made it look intriguing and thrilling.

Turns out that film with Ida Lupino was They Drive by Night, of which there isn’t a Criterion release. As that great American philosopher said so memorably: D’oh. On the plus side, the Ida Lupino lecture was by Johannes Binotto, who joined us for our recent podcast on Lupino.

And while we’re talking about the pluses of me ordering the wrong film: They Live by Night is very good.

One of the reasons why I’m not as much into films from the Golden Age of Hollywood as my co-baristas Julie and Alan is that I find a lot of the dialogue to have a certain stagey quality that can become too melodramatic for my liking at the one end of the spectrum and rather wooden at the other. Obviously that’s an overly broad criticism that falls flat on its face with so many of these films, especially the good ones, but there is something about the idiom and style (and, possibly, the censorship) of this era of Hollywood filmmaking that tends to keep me at a distance to a larger extent than, say, the Hollywood cinema of the ’70s. I will absolutely seek out the films that I’ve been told are standouts for one reason or another, the Wilders and Capras and Mankiewiczes, but when I think of the classic cinema I find most exciting, I’m more likely to think of Kubrick, of Forman and Pakula, of early Scorsese and Coppola and Spielberg. I’m thinking of the films made around the time that I was born, I guess, even if I only saw many of them much, much later.

So, when I watch a film from, say, the ’40s or ’50s, I will go in with a certain set of expectations. I’ll expect the men to wear suits and hats and the women to wear dresses, I’ll expect dialogues to be devoid of explicit language and gunplay to be quick and clean. Blood barely exists. (I can only imagine what it must have been like for cinema audiences raised on films like The Big Sleep to see something like Taxi Driver – the two films are roughly as far apart as Pulp Fiction is from the present day.) These are also the things that I expected from They Live by Night, knowing next to nothing about it, other than that it was based on a novel that was adapted again in 1974, this time by Robert Altman, using the novel’s original title, Thieves Like Us.

Turns out I was wrong in this case. Remember what I said about how I expect a certain stagey quality of classic Hollywood? There is indeed a whiff of the stage to They Live by Night as directed and co-written by Nicholas Ray (who’d later make Rebel Without a Cause), but it’s less the genteel, bourgeois drama that many a black-and-white Hollywood movie is based on. Instead, They Live by Night made me think of playwrights like Arthur Miller, whose Death of a Salesman would come out only a year later. There is a naturalism, albeit a lyrical one, to the film – and there are traces of it in much later films, such as In Cold Blood (1967) and even Terrence Malick’s debut, Badlands (1973).

They Live by Night tells the story of a young man, Bowie (Farley Granger), who escapes from prison with two older bank robbers. While it’s clear that he is much more squeamish than they are about using violence, it turns out that he served his prison sentence because he’s killed someone. While the three are laying low, he meets Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), a young woman who is as frustrated with her life as he is with his.

Again, in Hollywood films of the era, I find that young people are not often portrayed in way I find particularly convincing. Children are often precocious and twee, and adolescents tend to be played by actors that look and sound considerably older than the characters they portray, a tradition that survived well into later decades. And once characters are adults, they often take on a weirdly middle-aged quality. Granger and O’Donnell not only look the part, they also play characters that come across as convincingly young, inexperienced and naive. The effect is almost uncanny: obviously there is a difference in the language, hair and clothes, but to all extents and purposes, Bowie and Keechie could exist in films several decades later than when They Live by Night came out and they wouldn’t feel out of place.

The naturalism of the characters is helped along by the plot. It is clear early on that They Live by Night is on a trajectory straight towards tragedy, but it does not sentimentalise Keechie and Bowie, nor are they overly romanticised. They are young and in love, but they are also immature and naive, having little idea and no real plan on how to make a new life for themselves. Their tragedy isn’t that they’re doomed lovers but it’s a combination of their personalities, their naivety and insecurities, the people in their lives and the society they were born into. There is something silly about their grand plans and proclamations, their belief that they are each others’ salvation – and what makes this tragic is how harshly their world punishes them for this silliness. They don’t have a chance to grow up and mature and find out whether they would actually be right for each other or not. The film finds a note of social realism that is in no way undermined by the style and the conventions of 1940s cinema.

Verdict: Considering that I never meant to get They Live by Night in the first place, I am very glad that I made this particular mistake. The film strikes a note that I’ve not often seen in US movies from the ’40s and ’50s. There is an earnest sweetness to They Live by Night that never turns sentimental or overly idealised; the film’s naturalism, which suits the story well, is subtly heightened by the lyricism of the storytelling, and the actors – first and foremost O’Donnell and Granger – handle both aspects deftly. If viewers like me have certain preconceived notions about black and white Hollywood cinema, it’s films like They Live by Night that might provide an effective challenge to these notions.

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