In the '30s, three prisoners flee from a state prison farm in Mississippi. Among them is 23-years-young Bowie, who spent the last seven years in prison and now hopes to be able to prove his innocence or retire to a home in the mountains and live in peace together with his new love, Kitty. But his criminal companions persuade him to participate in several heists, and soon the police believe him to be their leader and go after "Bowie the Kid" harder than ever.
Cathy O'Donnell ... Catherine 'Keechie' Mobley
Farley Granger ... Arthur 'Bowie' Bowers
Howard Da Silva ... Chicamaw 'One-Eye' Mobley
Jay C. Flippen ... Henry 'T-Dub' Mansfield
Helen Craig ... Mattie Mansfield
Will Wright ... Mobley
Marie Bryant ... Nightclub Singer
Ian Wolfe ... Mr. Hawkins, Wedding Chapel Proprietor
William Phipps ... Young Farmer
Harry Harvey ... Hagenheimer, Banker
Nicholas Ray is mostly known for his work, "Rebel WIthout a Cause", but his first work, a dazzling, moving (if sentimental) film noir, is far better. Unjustly out-of-print, "They Live By Night" may have its minor flaws, but the stark, beautiful camerawork, stolid dialogue and (perhaps above all) exquisite performances make up for it. It has none of the often phony emotions and annoying characters that are found in "Rebel Without a Cause."
Bowie, the innocent, sympathetic outlaw hero of "They Live By Night" is a wonderfully drawn. By no means is he the cliched nice-guy-in-a-bad-situation; though essentially good-hearted, he can be frighteningly callous at times. Farley Granger, working with excellent direction, he gives us glimpses of a violent yet passionate nature, struggling against the condemnation of society. Cathy O'Donnell is also entrancingly tender, yet we can vaguely see that her character is trapped in a hopeless relationship with Bowie. She is also sadly obscure, which plainly has nothing to do with her talent.
The one significant fault of this film is over-restraint. At times, Ray's understated direction can be extremely effective, such as when he is dealing with violence. But at other times the characters' (and especially Keechie's) emotions are so tightly controlled that some of the impact on the audience is lost. Still, despite a few faults, "They Live By Night" is a wonderful film, and if ever you can find it, sell your hair but GET IT!!!
This was the first pairing of Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell and it was successful enough so that the two worked together two years later in "Side Street. I heard that this movie was sort of a early "Bonnie and Clyde," and it was, but only to a degree.
Granger and O'Donnell didn't really dominate the screen until after 40 minutes but after that, it was mostly them. Frankly, I enjoyed the first 40 minutes best when Howard da Silva and J.C. Flippen shared the screen time. They were great film noir characters in this movie (and they did come back in the second half, livening up the film again.) I liked their names in here: da Silva was "Chicamaw." and Flippen was "T-Dub." In most of the second half of this movie, it went from a noir to a romance. but that's not surprising knowing the director was Nicholas Ray.
This is the best I've ever seen O'Donnell, who never impressed me much but she's impressive here with a fine performance and a nice '40s look to her. She had a strange character name, too: "Keechie." Granger ("Arthur Bowers") does a nice job, too. For an uneducated thug, he sure comes across as a really nice guy. It's kinda of weird. He reminded me of John Dall in "Gun Crazy" (1950). Some of the camera-work also reminded me of "Gun Crazy."
However, one major detail should be noted: unlike "Gun Crazy" and "Bonnie & Clyde," the two lovers in this movie did NOT rob banks together. O'Donnell's character never gets involved in any crime, so comparing this film to those doesn't really fit. Most of "Keechie's" time is spent living in a remote cabin lodge, and suggesting periodically to her husband that he go straight - a far cry from the women Peggy Cummins and Faye Dunaway played.
Like a lot of good film noirs, this also has some very good supporting actors who play weird people, and say weird things. Some of the dialogue in this movie is fascinating because it's so odd. One example is the guy who marries the couple for $20. Another is Keechie's father.
This is a odd little "B" noir/melodrama and definitely one that film noir fans should check out.
Nicholas Ray's first film is a fascinating, enveloping example of a filmmaker getting as much as he can out of so little. His film was made under the radar at RKO, despite having John Houseman as a producer. While also having a cast of really unknowns, he also uses it to his advantage to tell a small story very well. It's close to being one of the more 'text-book' examples, in the story's core, in the history of B-noir (film-noir that didn't get the hype of The Big Sleep or Out of the Past, star vehicles as much as unique thrillers). Bowie (Farley Granger, soon to be a Hitchcock stock-player) escapes from jail with the help of a couple of bank robbers who make him, as they say, "an investment." He meets a girl, Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell), daughter of a farmer they pass by, and he becomes friends with her, so to speak. She agrees to leave town with him and they also decide, almost on a whim, to get married (for twenty bucks no less). But soon, very soon, fall in love, however, despite the checkered and now notorious past catching up to Bowie.
Obviously, if you're looking for stellar, "method" acting, look elsewhere in the main performances. But they do have enough of a pull in their chemistry on screen- sometimes rough and spelling of their doomed relationship, other times tragically tender- to back up the best aspects to the film. The true pleasures in seeing They Live By Night are the details that Ray lays in the scenes, bits of life probably taken from the book the movie's based on. Godard once proclaimed that Ray "IS cinema". If this statement does hold validity to a degree, it shows for certain even in Ray's debut in the scenes with the secondary platers. Such as the wedding scene, or in general with the dialog in the script (i.e. "Between him and the chicken, I'd bet on the chicken", or "I'm the black sheep" "the only thing black about you are your eyelashes), or even with the strengths in Ray's camera as a simple storyteller. In a sense this cuts right to the chase with the theme of doomed youth, years before Rebel Without a Cause yet with the given desperation of the noir films.
While generally less seen than Ray's other films (though more attributable to being less available on video), it's likely one of his best; a powerful mix of the bittersweet tale of a criminal and his love that would decades later meld with other crime-film elements into a work like True Romance.
* Filmed in 1947. The film's release was delayed by two years because Howard Hughes was in the process of buying RKO.
* The opening sequence was filmed from a helicopter. Although helicopters had been used in filming by 1947, mainly for aerial views or landscapes, this is one of the first times an action scene was filmed from the sky. The most difficult thing about it was to keep the actors in focus. It took them four takes; they eventually chose the second one.
* The opening helicopter shot was the first scene that Nicholas Ray ever directed.
* Farley Granger personally recommended 'Cathy O'Donnell (I)' for the role of Keechie.
* Robert Mitchum lobbied unsuccessfully for the role of Chicamaw. He told Nicholas Ray that he was very familiar with bank robbers and chain gangs, and even cut and dyed his hair black (in the original treatment Chicamaw was an Indian). He was rejected because he had recently been nominated for an Oscar, and a supporting role was considered unworthy for a rising star.
* It is rumored that Nicholas Ray made 'Cathy O'Donnell (I)' work at a gas station for two weeks so that she would look convincing in her role.
* Nicholas Ray's first directing credit.
* The movie has a very unusual prologue before the opening credits showing a very romantic Granger and O'Donnell with subtitles.
* In the opening scene Bowie (Farley Granger) has a hurt leg; later on in shooting Granger really did fall and hurt his leg. Howard Da Silva had to carry him to the hospital.