Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray
Based on a Novel by: Edward Anderson
Starring: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, Will Wright
Country: USA
Running Time: 95 min
Year: 1948
BBFC Certificate: PG

The ‘couple on the run’ (or ‘couple on the lam’) genre has long been a staple of cinema from Hollywood and beyond. The most famous films are probably Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands and a little more recently, True Romance, but one of the cornerstones of the genre is Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night. It wasn’t the first of its kind, Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once was released about a decade previously for instance, but it had a big impact on filmmakers, helped by admiration for the film held by the Cahiers du cinéma writers. You can see hints of They Live by Night in French New Wave titles they produced like Pierrot le Fou and À bout de souffle (a.k.a. Breathless), then later this spilled into Bonnie and Clyde, which proved a turning point in Hollywood in general.

So, They Live by Night has a lot to answer for (made all the more impressive by the fact the film’s release was delayed by two years due to new RKO boss Howard Hawks not warming to it) and to celebrate its achievements, Criterion are releasing the film on Blu-ray as part of their illustrious collection in the UK. I thought I’d see how it stood up after the many imitators that have followed.

Based on the novel ‘Thieves Like Us’ by Edward Anderson (which would be adapted again by Robert Altman in 1974 under the original title), They Live by Night begins (after an odd trailer-like series of captions cueing up the film’s theme) with a trio of criminals hurtling along a country road after breaking out of prison. The men include the unhinged Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva), the slightly more level-headed T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and the young Bowie (Farley Granger), who’s been in the slammer since he was a teenager. The trio are sheltered by the drunken Mobley (Will Wright) and his daughter Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell).

Bowie and Keechie quietly start to hit it off though the latter seems quite hostile. She’s disgusted by the criminals her father is involved with but sees an innocence in Bowie that reveals itself when the pair talk further. Soon after, Bowie goes off on another bank job with the pair of older criminals. The job goes as planned, but Bowie and Chickamaw get in a car accident shortly afterwards and the latter kills a police officer who comes to their aid. The injured Bowie is then put in the care of Keechie and their love blossoms. Longing to live an honest life, the couple go on the run but their past and the police are never far behind.

They Live by Night is a fine example of both a ‘couple on the run’ movie and a film noir. It has all the style of the latter, with some beautifully atmospheric, shadow-laden lighting by George E. Diskant (who would go on to work on several classic noirs, such as On Dangerous Ground, The Narrow Margin and Kansas City Confidential). There’s some innovation on screen too, with several helicopter shots utilised to great effect. Before then, helicopters were only used to capture landscape photography for establishing shots, not action.

Ray’s experience assisting Elia Kazan on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn helped prepare him for They Live by Night, his directorial debut. You can see a bit of Kazan’s influence in the strong, natural performances. The central pair of Granger and O’Donnell are fantastic. The chemistry between them is electric and they both display a nice balance between tough and innocent. The subtle transformation O’Donnell undergoes from young ‘tomboy’ (for want of a better phrase) to strong woman is well executed too. Their romance is sweet but never gets sappy due to the believable performances and sense of doom that hangs over everything.

Backing up the star couple is a group of excellent character actors such as Da Silva, Flippen and Wright, and Ray makes the most of them and others in smaller roles. There are several memorable minor characters in fact that bring added life to the film, such as the chirpy cabin owner Lambert (Byron Foulger) and money-grabbing proprietor of the quickie-marriage business (Ian Wolfe).

After a fairly punchy opening act, the film adopts a slightly more deliberate pace than most noirs, and treads water a touch as the romantic drama takes over the criminal elements. It doesn’t drag though and allows its characters to breathe in this way.

Overall then, They Live by Night strikes an effective balance between tough noir and touching romance. It’s not as taut as some noirs but it nails the emotional aspects. Beautifully shot too, it’s a fine debut from Ray.

They Live by Night is out on 20th April on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The restored picture is fantastic – crisp, clean and richly textured. Audio is decent too.

There are plenty of special features included in the package:

– New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Audio commentary featuring film historian Eddie Muller and actor Farley Granger
– New video interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith
– Short piece from 2007 with film critic Molly Haskell, filmmakers Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone, and film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini
– Illustrated audio interview excerpts from 1956 with producer John Houseman
– PLUS: A new essay by film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz

The commentary is very good. Granger doesn’t have a great deal to add to it, but Muller makes up for this with a treasure trove of information about the film. Smith’s interview is similarly illuminating, if a tad short, and the featurette with multiple contributors is also brief but worthwhile. So not the most stuffed package Criterion have released, but a decent one nonetheless.

I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to review.

They Live by Night - Criterion
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