From the moment the RKO logo fades out, 1948’s They Live By Night doesn’t display the typical Noir trappings its title would lead you to believe. We see a prologue of our leads, Bowie & Keechie, setting up the love story as that dissolves to the titles. Not city streets and slick new cars at night, but country roads and a jalopy. The shot was the first time in a film helicopter photography had been used to cover action, not just a location.
Farley Granger plays Bowie, a young fugitive wrongly convicted of murder, who has escaped from prison alongside bank robbers Chichamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen). The three plot to heist a bank, with Bowie wanting the money to hire a lawyer to overturn his conviction. Following the successful heist, T-Dub goes his own way while Chichamaw and Bowie get themselves suits and cars. While trying out their new rides, Bowie wrecks, and goes to a hideout to recover where Bowie meets Chichamaw’s niece Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell).
While Bowie convalesces, he and Keechie fall in love. Both are tired of existences tied to crime, so they flee to start an honest life of their own. But in a Noir, that’s easier said than done. After they move and settle down, Chichamaw shows up and coaxes Bowie into doing one more job with him and T-Dub.
As far as debut films go, They Live By Night is one hell of a freshman outing. Nicholas Ray was given his first directing job with the insistence and backing of RKO producer John Houseman (who would go on to fame as an actor in his own right decades later). “Thieves Like Us”, the novel which They Live By Night was based on, was purchased by RKO for $10,000. Houseman gave the book to Ray, who immediately took an interest.
Initially, RKO didn’t see any commercial potential in the project and shelved it. But a regime change in 1947 got the film the green-light with Houseman producing and Ray directing, and production began in June. When completed in October, RKO shelved it again. Confused on how to market They Live By Night, it wouldn’t see release to theaters until 1949. During the two years it was shelved, several in Hollywood saw the film privately. Based on his own viewing, Alfred Hitchcock cast Granger in his underrated 1948 film Rope. Humphrey Bogart was so impressed that he hired Ray to direct his independent production Knock on Any Door.
Ray brings an outsider’s perspective and angst to his young characters, themes he would revisit in Rebel Without a Cause. The cast is excellent, especially Da Silva who plays Chichamaw with an unsettling cataract eye.
Criterion Collection brings They Live By Night to blu-ray in a rich 2K restoration made from a 35mm safety fine-grain positive dubbed from the original camera negative. Bonus features are quite solid in this edition. An audio commentary from 2007 featuring TCM Noir Alley host Eddie Muller and the late Farley Granger is included from the previous DVD release. This is a great track, it’s lively and enjoyable. Granger happily shares memories of making the film.
Additionally, a new interview with critic Imogene Sara Smith is included, as well as a short piece from that 2007 DVD. Audio excerpts of a 1956 interview with producer Houseman round out the bonus material. All told, it’s an impressive package from Criterion that should please fans of the film.
They Live By Night is a proto-typical “couple on the run” film. Watching it you can see the foundation for several imitators since. A strong debut for Nicholas Ray, and one of the more unique Film Noirs available.