They Live by Night (1948)

They Live by Night is a 1948 an essential stop on the American film noir tour. 

Not just directed by Nicholas Ray, but his directorial debut, and starring Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger, is a tale of young love on the run; another film noir staple.

The story is psychologically bound to emergent teenage culture: after an unjust prison sentence, a young innocent gets mixed-up with hardened criminals and a violent escape.

First to note here is how and why the trope of the young lovers on the run was created and developed; because the idea sprang into being on the doorstep of film noir. It is no accident that Nicholas Ray, responsible for many of the finest and most intelligent items in the film noir cycle, went on to direct Rebel Without A Cause.

The similarities between They Live By Night and Rebel Without a Cause are many. The driver in both cases, is young love, certainly doomed love, and the puzzle as to why two such young and innocent people should fail to find the happiness that they believe can be achieved. The happiness in question is something of a myth in itself, and ironically is part created by the cinema itself.

Although Farley Granger's character is supposed to have been in prison since he was 16, he is certainly never portrayed as bad or violent, and the sort of person who might commit murder, or even manslaughter, that is what we are asked to take on board.

We never find out much about Granger's past misdemeanours in fact, and perhaps we don't need to; the emphasis is on in this case, and in the case of Rebel Without a Cause, on the fact that young people can wind up in trouble even if they fly close to the wind, or even accidentally fall foul of the system.

An early signal and possible territorial indicator that we are in film noir is the terrific girl-as-mechanic motif, which never seems to wear thin. By which it could be argued that even if eighty years have passed, girls in oily overalls are still seen as incongruous, and the garage remains a masculine environment.

It can be a lot of fun however, as it is in Impact, with Ella Raines. Or as here, in They Live by Night, it can be a signifier of more serious malfunction, not simply in one role but in many.

The shift which film noir brought to the moral landscape of America in the 1940s comprises of so many complexities brought up through the cracks, suggested a richer, wilder and more dangerous life ahead for the world. Film noir even birthed the teenager by discussing generational stress, often by attaching it to murder.

In a motion picture in the 1930s, a bad guy would appear and hurt, kill or steal from a good guy. By the time the film noir reels are rolling, that has all changed, and by the later 1940s it had become quite common to see middle class people as well as young people placed fatefully into situations where they become the bad guys against all judgement and will. 

What's exciting about film noir in its best is that it presents all this in a language of dreams, often using new techniques specific to the camera technology, or more realistic attitudes derived from the stage.

At heart however, there often pumps a doomed love, and one of the merits of They Live by Night is that this doomed love is a young love, plenty more innocent than that inspired by the femme fatale, which is in fact an all-flooring murderous sexual urge. The absolute charm of both Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger, brings a special purity to this story. 

Yes, there is a typical tale of descent, but to be framed in the lives of these so young and innocent, signals something far stronger than the run-of-mill tale of noir one might expect.

This young couple, who will cinematically bring to mind both Gun Crazy (1950) and Badlands (1973), get married in a hurried bus-stop kind of fashion in a characterful ceremony expressing what criminal and vagrant America may look like, down to the crummy coffee. 

This said, the parallels with Gun Crazy even extend as far as the photography, and both emphasise real-time bank heists, action filming with vehicles, and action inside automobiles too, all of which brings total excitement to the overall feeling.

Boy meets girl meets fast car in They Live by Night (1948)

Secondary to the money, is the theme of love in They Live by Night, which is unusual for a film noir, so unusual in fact as to be style-bending, and enough to make this film unique. Combine with this the fact of Nicholas Ray's debut also being a rural noir, there is something of a powerful idyll at the heart of this story.

A story which incidentally, from the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson, a popular and tough depression-era crime novel, took a long time to make. The first treatments and scripts for Thieves Like Us were even doing the rounds in 1941, although it was deemed too violent and too criminal at that time. In fact when Nicholas Ray began his treatment, he emphasised that love aspect, and so emerges this unique true-love film noir.

Thieves Like Us was made once more and with this title, by Robert Altman in 1974.

This true love in fact roves perilously close to respectability at one point in They Live by Night, possibly our heroine and heroes happiest grasp at the dream, the dippy heights of American love. This was RKO however and at a crucial point in its history, was purchased by Howard Hughes, a transaction which caused the delay of many a movie.

This is why They Live by Night was first released in London in 1948, and didn't see an American audience until a year later when Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger were paired once again in Side Street.

In order to maximise impact, They Live by Night was released a short while before Side Street, and it must have been a thing for both actors to be simultaneously starred together on the silver screens at the same time.

Young love lives by night - - Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger

Love is light and love is dark in They Live by Night. And it's a film which begs a question: who? The answer to the question who loves by night, must surely be the young lovers, all young lovers, these new styled young lovers in fact, the teenage young lovers, those who may well be rightly afraid of the middle class lives which call and beckon them - - those American lives.

What's under the tree? Farley Granger and Howard Da Silva in They Live by Night (1948)

Hoods and heists. What They Live by Night truly gets down to is the dramatic portrait of a criminal gang breaking up; the crazy criminal mind as typified by the hubris of Howard da Silva as Chicamaw Mobley; and outright bullying amid an all-American wrestle for money. Because if They Live by Night is about anything, it has to be about money. Not even the young couple; not even the innocent boy charged and jailed for murder; it's a movie about money.

A great combination of elements form They Live by Night, and one of the most unique of these is the dreamy, almost misty rural photography, often focused on the automobiles. The automobiles are the primary tools of both crime and romance, and there are a range of getaway cars, stolen cars, in-car love scenes and in-car crime and action scenes.

There is also aerial photography, as filmed from a helicopter, surely an unusually ambitious and precarious technique in 1947, but pulled off nonetheless.

Vehicular photography in They Live by Night (1948)

The effective supporting cast of They Live by Night present a criminal world, but also an adult world for the poor teenagers at its heart. As in many film noirs, there are truly bad people; bad faith actors; villains people who want to steal; people who want to hurt; those who can never find love; those who will always be criminals; and although there are plenty good film noirs about that class, they are not the subject here. 

Here the criminals bully and coerce, carry out their plans and drag in the semi-innocent; because that is what Farley Granger's character is supposed to represent. It's just a case of whom he chooses to hang out with.

Gang on the run in the wilds in They Live by Night (1948)

Big cigar bully Howard Da Silva as Chicamaw "One-Eye" Mobley in They Live by Night (1948)

Big cigar bully Chicamaw "One-Eye" Mobley was played by Howard Da Silva, although Robert Mitchum was said to have been keen on the part, which incidentally is supposed to be acted by a native American; something likely lacking in Howard da Silva's performance, perhaps for the good.

Reminding us as well that the principals in They Live by Night played characters with incredibly colourful and evocative names:

Cathy O'Donnell as Catherine "Keechie" Mobley

Farley Granger as Arthur "Bowie" Bowers

Howard Da Silva as Chicamaw "One-Eye" Mobley

Jay C. Flippen as Henry "T-Dub" Mansfield 

The power of crime though, is but nothing compared to the power of love. And love is what is beautifully and truly captured in They Live by Night (1948); which we may often as well call They Love by Night; because love is what Farley Granger and Cathy O' Donnell's characters do, and the entire detail of the film, in its photography and acting, and scripting and lighting, is spent making that love realer and realer.

Helen Craig, brilliant as Mattie in They Live by Night (1948)

One final film noir signpost points to a later Nicholas Ray production, the classic Rebel Without a Cause; that era-defining statement about the new teenage life, as consumer, petty criminal, lover, and outsider. And both will have to end badly. And for what? For the plain crime of being a teenager.

Could it be that this is where the sensation, the thrill, the agony and the ecstasy of being a teenager was born? In film noir?

Consider another emergent theme: generational stress. It's amusing as it ever was in They Live by Night, to see the table thumping old folks gord-darning it about the tearaway young folks, and how they should behave. 

Gord-darned teenagers!

Once again see Rebel Without A Cause. Film noir is literally where the teenager came alive. The themes of film noir are well suited to this: vulnerability, passion, fate and of course the noir itself, the dark side of love, the dark side of family, the dark side of the city, or in this case the wild, open life of a rural runaway; the dark side of employment, unemployment, and much more; are all film noir to the core.

Visit Cathy O'Donnell on Wikipedia

They Live by Night on Wikipedia

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Watching They Live by Night, observe these strange opening moments; although viewers may think they are watching the trailer for the film, at the head of the film, the truth is that this is an instinctive act of framing from a truly great film noir director, in his debut, Nicholas Ray.

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