I have to file a strong dissent on this one. While Nicholas Ray’s THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is pretty much universally loved by critics and scholars of film noir, it’s a movie which has always left me cold.
The film starts strongly, with a much admired helicopter shot of three escaped convicts hightailing cross-country with a kidnapped motorist. They ditch their hostage and his car once it blows a tire, and they take off on foot. There are two older men — seasoned cons — and a much younger man, a kid named Bowie. The kid has a bum foot, so the older fugitives leave him behind a road sign and tell him they’ll send help. Once night has fallen, help arrives in the form of a girl named Keechie — the tomboy niece of one of the convicts. When the boy meets the girl it’s pretty much love at first sight.
These opening scenes all work. Bowie is played by Farley Granger — film noir’s resident misunderstood youth — and the convicts are played by Howard da Silva and Jay C. Flippen. That’s a killer trio by anyone’s estimation and all three are excellent — especially da Silva as a blustering, one-eyed mass of insecurity named Chicamaw ‘One-Eye’ Mobley. One-Eye doesn’t much like that the papers use his nickname, which he resents. He likes it even less when they start referring to the kid as the leader of the gang.
If the movie had stayed with the conflicts between these three mismatched criminals, I probably would have enjoyed it. Alas, it doesn’t. Instead, it focuses on the romance between Bowie and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and this is where it loses me. They fall for each other right away, have some discussions about their screwed-up childhoods — Bowie explaining how he wound up in jail for murder, Keechie expressing contempt for her degenerate drunk of a father — and then, in short order, they get married and take off for a honeymoon. Unfortunately for them, both the cops and Bowie’s convict buddies are hot on their trail.
Because the relationship between Granger and O’Donnell sits at the center of the story, how you feel about it determines how you feel about the film as a whole. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is essentially a juvenile delinquent romance utilizing the film language and tragic fatalism of noir to help it tell its story. There’s nothing wrong with that combination on paper, but the young lovers — Keechie in particular — have been softened considerably from Edward Anderson’s source novel, THEIVES LIKE US. The resulting romance is the same old soppy Hollywood melodrama full of soft-focused, dewy-eyed close-ups and page after page of yearning speechifying. And I’ll be honest, I just find O’Donnell to be a lot to handle. She’s a regular fixture in noir, but she’s usually cast as a dollop of creamy innocence. Her work here isn’t as syrupy as her turn in SIDE STREET, but it’s pretty bad. More than almost any other actor I can think of O’Donnell embodies the female-virgin ideal that one finds in a lot of movies from the forties and fifties. One of the great virtues of noir, however, is that you don’t usually have to spend much time with this kind of emotionally-stunted woman-child. One of the reasons that noir has emerged as the most durable genre of the classic era is that it doesn’t worship at the altar of sexless virtue, and Cathy O’Donnell always seemed to have wandered in from Louis B. Meyer’s imagination.
(The notable exception to the argument above is her work for William Wyler on dramas like THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and DETECTIVE STORY, leading me to think that the fault rests with the writers and directors rather than O’Donnell herself.)
Stories of misunderstood youth were, of course, a specialty of Nicholas Ray. He directed KNOCK ON ANY DOOR in 1949 and then made the ultimate 50s teen rebellion flick, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in 1955. These films are interesting and important, but they’re also relics of their time in a way that Ray’s noirs of the same era (IN A LONELY PLACE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND) are not. His teen pictures are rendered campy by the movie conventions of their era, while the noir pictures still play for adults and still have an edge. The exception to this is THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (his debut film) which tries to have it both ways. There’s no denying that Ray broke ground in the area of onscreen youth angst with this material, and THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is certainly an antecedent for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.
But, god, is it soppy.