Nicholas Ray Retrospective: They Live By Night (1948)

Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell star in Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night.

We’ve reached a saturation point when it comes to new content, particularly with movies and television. My backlog of films and shows to catch up with from even the past year is massive, and it keeps growing. Finding the time to look back at past greats is harder than ever. It’s also much easier, though. 

A perfect example is the work of Nicholas Ray, who directed nearly 30 films during a lengthy career. I’ve only seen two of his pictures — In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause. While those movies represent his best-known work, there’s a lot more to uncover. During this series, I’ll dive much further into Ray’s output and write about each film on this site. I’m starting back at the beginning with his debut feature They Live by Night. If this experience gives any indication, I’m in store for plenty of interesting material during the upcoming weeks.

In his first project, Ray displays a confidence that makes it easy to stick with the action. The striking helicopter shots of the escaped prisoners bring an epic feel that’s rare for the time period. It’s a grand way to introduce what’s essentially a pretty small story. Reportedly the first use of a helicopter to shoot an action scene, the sequence helps distinguish this movie from the typical crime film. Ray incorporates several other helicopter shots into the mix, and it also makes the camera feel like an ominous watcher. We’re observing the characters from afar and aren’t on their level.

Not Part of Our World

This gloomy atmosphere stems from a strange introduction that precedes the helicopter footage. We see Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) in love while title cards explain that “This boy...and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…” Throughout the film, characters talk about being real people and finding regular life. Because of the prologue (and our knowledge of the genre), we know it’s a fool’s errand. Even with the best of intentions, there’s little chance for the young couple in this rotten world.

Circling back to the escape, our vantage point above the convicts builds a distance at the start. It’s also just a cool shot. When the getaway car fails, we quickly see what kind of guys we’ve joined. They don’t murder the innocent driver but do beat him convincingly. These aren’t vicious killers but are hardly innocents either. T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) are veteran bank robbers, and Granger’s Bowie is their young understudy. Those guys are too far gone to reform, but Bowie still believes there’s a chance for a normal life.

Bowie and Keechie share a meet cute while he’s recovering from an injury at her father’s house. Both have an innocence that the older characters are missing. Her dad is a drunk that can do little without grabbing the bottle. It’s the naïve innocence that draws Bowie and Keechie together, and Granger and O’Donnell are the right choices for these characters. Even when he’s acting tough, it’s hard for Bowie not to seem like a kid. Keechie is upbeat but has seen the rough edges of people through his father’s experience. Her eyes convey more reality than what she says.

Farley Granger and his fellow hoods flee the law in They Live By Night.

A Bad Influence

This world’s rough edges appear in the form of Chickamaw, a one-eyed and angry guy with few social graces. Whatever you do, don’t mention his eye. He takes a strange interest in Keechie, drinks heavily, and smokes cigars. There’s a surprisingly nasty moment with their associate Mattie (Helen Craig) that happens with Chickamaw off-screen. Her behavior in the aftermath strongly implies that Chickamaw tried to rape her. There’s nothing explicit due to the Production Code, but it’s pretty easy to read between the lines.

Da Silva plays Chickamaw like a sexually frustrated subhuman that needs to rob banks for satisfaction. To quote Heat’s Michael Cheritto, the action is the juice for him. Ray makes this explicit later in the film when he faces down Bowie. The crazed look on Chickamaw’s face resembles a monster, especially due to his missing eye. I recognize Da Silva mostly from his goofy turn as Ben Franklin in the musical 1776, so this is quite a different side of the big guy.

His counterpart T-Dub seems like the friendlier associate for Bowie, though he’s really just subtler. Flippen’s hardened face makes T-Dub seem older than the actor’s late 40s age would seem. Bowie looks at him like a father figure, but it’s all business for the long-time criminal. When he reveals his true colors to Bowie, the friendly mask disappears. Bowie is an investment, not a friend of a protégée. There’s no escape from guys like T-Dub and Chickamaw once they’ve entered your life.

I must take a moment to express my love for all the different character names within this movie. Bowie and Keechie seem fitting for the innocent young couple, while Chickamaw and T-Dub match the images of the grizzled criminals. Other names like Mattie, Mobley, and Hagenheimer fit nicely too. If these characters were named John, Sally, and Bob, it wouldn’t have the same effect. Using uncommon names also contributes to the idea that these characters aren’t part of the regular world. They’re on a different plane and won’t connect to everyday society.

Singular Thinking

Bowie is a character type we often see — the idealistic young criminal blinded by love. He can be tough but doesn’t have the grit to overcome life on the run. Keechie is more interesting because of the piercing facial expressions from O’Donnell. Her singular approach is naïve but with some rough edges beneath the surface. She spent her young days working as a mechanic in a cold household. This is a fantasy life for her, and Bowie better not lose it.

One scene that solidifies her worldview is her comparison of women to dogs. It’s a cringe-worthy moment that feels especially prescient in the time of Trump, but it helps explain Keechie’s approach. She’s all about building this life with Bowie and has few aspirations beyond their family. What’s less clear is whether her comments are meant to be cute or as an expression of love. That’s a frightening concept but not outlandish in this late ‘40s noir world.

Keechie is on board to escape to new life with Bowie, and the glowing look on her face when he tries to hold a stranger’s baby reveals other aspirations. It’s all part of the American dream! The trick is that Bowie seems really uncomfortable with the baby and might not fit with family life. Keechie may have chosen the wrong guy, even if he means well. An escaped convict is not usually the right choice to elope with and start a family.

Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger are Keechie and Bowie in They Live the Night.

A Fantasy Life

The closest that Bowie and Keechie come to finding that dream is a run-down cabin in the woods. They buy fancy items and convert it into a place that resembles a comfortable home. The cash from the bank robbery makes it easy to slide into this happy dream. They’re married and in love! What can go wrong? Ray shoots the pair with regular close-ups of their smiling faces, and it’s almost possible to believe they’ll be okay. The cracks are still there at each step, however.

There’s something off about the late-night wedding, and it isn’t just its cheap price. Bowie and Keechie are happy in love, but the reaction from the wedding chapel owner Mr. Hawkins (Ian Wolfe) tells a different story. He recognizes that they won’t succeed here and should get out of the country. Presenting his pal in Mexico is a scheme, but Hawkins probably only mentions it when the patrons fit. When a desperate Bowie circles back later to accept his offer, it’s too late. Hawkins drops his fake business persona and tells Bowie there’s no hope. This bitter and honest take is the last straw in destroying the couple's fantasy.

The cabin owner Mr. Lambert (Byron Foulger) also seems friendly, but it’s mostly an act. A suspicion lurks beneath his smiling face, and it’s only a matter of time before they contact the authorities. Each step along the way, an apparently happy moment is undercut but something fake. Bowie and Keechie spend a night on the town and enjoy an energetic performance from a singer played by Marie Hill. Ray also focuses on the way she grabs tips while singing for the audience. There’s always an ulterior motive. The magical night also ends when a drunk stumbles into the couple’s table. There are no happy endings in this realm.

No Daylight

The previous cracks were just the set-up for the ultimate fall during the final act. Chickamaw and T-Dub enter the picture (and quickly fail), and it foretells Bowie’s eventual fate. The normally exciting revelation of Keechie’s pregnancy brings no joy and only nastiness on both sides. Keechie’s “you don’t see me knitting anything!” reveals how even her idealistic self is gone. They’re forced to travel by night however they can, and that’s no way for a pregnant woman (or anyone really) to live.

The film’s title connects to this part of the movie, where traveling during the day is too dangerous. They Live By Night does imply some type of life for this couple. The desperate final scenes make it clear that living anywhere is impossible. Even other criminals want no part of Bowie due to his fame. One hood sees him in the restroom and offers him a gun but also orders him to leave town. Mattie is their last safe haven, and she makes a deal with the cops to save her husband. It’s all over.

They Live by Night is familiar because many more recent films have used a similar formula. Despite that fact, it still retains its charms thanks to interesting techniques from Ray and the way the lead actors (especially O’Donnell) dive into their parts. Ray’s shots from inside the car are quite striking even today. He also creates a subtle feeling that the walls are closing in on the couple. Bowie is frequently shot from behind a fence or bars, and it shows that he’s still in prison even while on the run. There’s plenty to like in this story, which represents a remarkable debut for a talented filmmaker.