Classic Film Talk: ‘They Live By Night’ (1948)

Today we reminisce about

They Live By Night (1948)

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Directed by Nicholas Ray

Starring: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva

* Published specifically for The Noirathon hosted by Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films *

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“The Three Mosquitoes” – Bowie, Chicamaw & T-Dub

Synopsis

An old jalopy is racing down the road with four occupants inside when it suddenly pulls over without warning. Upon exiting the vehicle, the two men from the front seat start beating the man who was sitting between them while the remaining man from the back seat looks on. The “middle man” ends up being knocked unconscious and the three others hastily leave the scene on foot. They do not get very far before the younger member of the group, Bowie (Farley Granger), has to stop because he has injured himself and is unable to continue walking. He stays behind, hiding behind a billboard until nightfall when it will be safe for the other two, Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), to send for him. Bowie waits patiently until he is finally picked up by a reserved young woman by the name of Keechie Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell) who also happens to be Chicamaw’s niece. She takes him to her father’s gas station where the others are hiding out. It turns out that the trio have recently escaped from State Prison and the two elders plan on using the young Bowie to help them in robbing a local bank. They christen themselves The Three Mosquitoes.

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In the time it takes for Chicamaw and T-Dub to organise the robbery and to wait for morning, Bowie and Keechie get to know each other better. They are curious about one another, both being quite young and inexperienced with the opposite sex. Bowie states that he had spent the last 7 years in prison after being convicted of murder at the age of 16. His wish upon escaping confinement was to see a lawyer in Tulsa who could seek justice for Bowie through due process. He believes there is a chance that his sentence could be overturned because he was so young when the incident happened and that he did not receive a fair trial. Keechie sympathises with him, believing that the authorities will not keep people in prison if they are truly changed. Although she is only around 18 years old, she is an apt young woman who has spent many years taking care of her father’s business, not to mention his health due to his severe alcoholism. She has endured her current situation out of necessity, not out of affection.live-by-night

Jay-C-Flippen-Cathy-Odonnell-They-Lived-ByWhen the moment finally comes, The Three Mosquitoes head to nearby Zelton, Texas, where they plan on committing the robbery. In order to make their stay appear to be more legitimate, they take a 6-month lease out on a house outside of the city and plan for the perfect moment to make their move. Everything goes smoothly on the big day and the trio end up with a large payday that they split in three. T-Dub uses his money to help his sister-in-law, Mattie, in their attempts to get his brother/her husband out of prison. Bowie and Chicamaw splurge by purchasing a car and some new clothes, feeling as if they were on top of the world. As they are taking their joyride, Bowie gets into an accident after a truck pulls out in front of him. He ends up being heavily injured in the crash and is unable to immediately leave the scene. Chicamaw comes to his rescue but not before a police officer shows up demanding that the two men accompany him to the station, ignoring Bowie’s dire need of medical care. Enraged and impatient, Chicamaw takes his gun and seriously wounds the officer, taking Bowie away as fast as possible back to the Mobley gas station. It is a safe haven to hide out but also to recover from his injuries. He nurses back to health by Keechie who subsequently falls in love with him.

Bowie’s condition improves and he decides that it is time for him to move ahead with his plans to travel to Tulsa. However, they are thwarted upon learning that the police has pinned the officer’s shooting on him after finding his gun and fingerprints in the wrecked car. Newspapers all around the country have also created a certain amount of buzz around the young man by nicknaming him “Bowie the Kid: The Zelton Bandit”, making him a notable outlaw when in reality he is hardly that. Seeing his dismay and acknowledging her own unhappiness in life, Keechie decides to go along with him. They travel by bus for a while before they have a short layover where they get a bite to eat and freshen up. Not far from the café is a house where $20 marriage ceremonies are performed. Even though Bowie thinks that quickie weddings are cheap and distasteful, he knows it is the only way that he and Keechie can ever be legally united. After they are married, they purchase a car from an acquaintance of the justice of the peace who himself seems to have a past with the law. He advises that they go to Mexico but the couple instead decide to go to the mountains to rent a long-term cabin and live as newlyweds.

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT

They manage to have a few happy months together before Chicamaw shows back up on the scene, broke and looking for a new payday. Bowie is not interested in doing another robbery but is forced to do so after Chicamaw reminds him that he and T-Dub helped him get out of prison. As their “investment”, Bowie owes it to them to do more jobs. Keechie is distressed to know that Bowie is leaving but he promises her to be back soon. The robbery does not go as planned due to the bank being more prepared than the one in Zelton. T-Dub is killed and afterwards Chicamaw loses his cool, jealous of Bowie’s growing reputation in the papers and handicapped by a strong addiction to alcohol. After they part ways, Chicamaw is also killed, making Bowie the last of The Three Mosquitoes. He and Keechie are once again go on the run, this time heading east of the Mississippi in the hopes of being able to lead a more normal, decent existence.

Is there any chance at all for this young couple to be redeemed?

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Background

This film marked the directorial debut of 36-year-old Nicholas Ray who had very limited experience in Hollywood although he had a lot of theatre experience. His most prominent work had been in writing and directing episodes of the CBS radio programme “Back Where I Come From” with partner and renowned ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, which they did from 1940-1941. In 1944, Ray worked as an assistant to director Elia Kazan on the film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and directly after on Robert D. Webb’s The Carribean Mystery, for which he even wrote additional dialogue. Both of these endeavours were uncredited but gave him a solid entry in the world of filmmaking. He would continue to dabble in writing throughout his career, continuing to adapt scripts without credit and occasionally write songs such as “Lonely Boy Blues” for his 1958 film Wind Across the Everglades.

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Nicholas Ray

RKO purchased the rights to the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson in 1941 from director-writer Rowland Brown who had bought the rights in 1937 for a mere $500. Brown had wished to make the movie himself and put Joel McCrea in the lead role as young Bowie despite McCrea already being over 30 years of age. A screen treatment was prepared by Brown who unfortunately got nowhere as the studios refused to give him a green light on the project. They considered Brown washed up even though the year before he had received a second Academy Award nomination for his original story, Angels with Dirty Faces, which was turned into an extremely successful film directed by Michael Curtiz. Eventually, RKO hired Brown as a consultant on the film and simultaneously hired John Houseman (later also known for his acting work) as a producer. Houseman gave the book to Ray who was immediately enchanted and worked on a revised treatment that earned the go ahead for the picture as well as a job for Ray as director.  11111ModRay single-handedly chose Goldwyn player Farley Granger to star as Bowie, studying him for some time at a distance while they attended the same party. Granger underwent a screen test and suggested that he play it opposite a rising young starlet also signed with Goldwyn named Cathy O’Donnell. The couple enchanted Ray and Houseman, arranging their loan from the ever difficult Samuel Goldwyn and trying to calm the nerves of Dore Schary, who was then head of production at RKO. After filming was completed, they hit a snag when Schary was ousted after Howard Hughes bought and took over the studio. Because Hughes did not like the film, he managed to delay its release in the U.S. for over two years.

Thoughts & Discussion

The standout performances in this film come from the talented young leads. Cathy O’Donnell was 24 when she made the film although she could easily pass for a girl of 16. Farley Granger was 22 and had recently returned from serving in the Navy during World War II. Together they had a chemistry that could be likened to two people who had known each other for a very long time. Not only that, they made a very attractive couple. The moments they share together are very tender and it is during those times that they can just be themselves, youngsters with their lives ahead of them instead of being condemned to fates that they did not wholly merit. As a couple, they believe that they can right several wrongs and that somehow society will forgive them enough to allow them to lead a normal, happy existence. It is remarkable to see how much maturity they gain from the start of the movie to the end, making their tragedies all the more difficult to process.They-Live-by-Night-O'Donnell-Granger-happyPersonally, I was rooting for Bowie to turn around his life and did not consider him in the same class of criminals as Chicamaw and T-Dub. Admittedly part of the reason for this is that I was taken with Granger’s performance of the character. That actor makes Bowie very humane and likeable, even in the moments when he is at his “worst”. I was most impressed towards the finale when he stands up to Mattie in order to protect Keechie and their unborn child. He was not violent with her but was rather stern and insistent, knowing that it was time to cash-in for some favours. This is undoubtedly one of Granger’s strongest and most heartfelt performances; one than can surely not be missed. The same goes for O’Donnell who gives a multi-dimensional interpretation of Keechie, going far beyond the reaches of her previous best known incarnation in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives.they-live-by-night-lgMany traditional film noir aspects are respected in the making of They Live By Night. The setting is not exactly pinpointed though it is suggested. You never really know where they are unless the characters have given you some sort of clue as to their geographic location. A lot of action takes place at night, once again with a generic feeling of darkness without knowing specifically what hour it is. For example, when Bowie and Keechie go to get married, it seems to very late as no one is out and about in the streets. Nonetheless, the justice of the peace is ready and waiting as if he were running as Las Vegas Chapel. The characters are also active during the day such as when they are scoping out Zelton for the robbery although when they become more wanted, they start hiding out more and hence the title of the film, living more at night. Contrary to certain other noirs of the time, there is relatively little bloodiness/violence in this film. The ever-present threat is of Bowie and Keechie getting caught even though they are not actively being chased until the very end. This feeling is symbolically represented through the many aerial shots, starting from the very beginning when the fugitives are in their getaway car.they_live_by_night_paakuvaDirector Robert Altman re-made They Live By Night in 1974 under the original title of novel, Thieves Like Us. The overall result is much different from the 1948 version as it focuses more on it occurring in the Depression Era and has certain modified elements to the storyline. It has a very similar feel to the 1967 Arthur Penn directed picture Bonnie and Clyde. My personal opinion is that the original Nicholas Ray vehicle is the superior cinematic rendition in every way possible and that this novice director got it pretty much perfect for his first time behind the camera. Words cannot express how beautiful a film this is and how the combined passion of the filmmakers and thespians make this an unforgettable masterpiece.

Trivia

  • Chicamaw and T-Dub pay Keechie’s father $1500 for a cheap used car and plain clothes, which equates to $17,500 in today’s money if using the reference year 1947. Considering that the film is set during the depression and using the median year 1935, this would amount to over $28,000.
  • We first hear Bowie’s name 30 minutes into the film.
  • Bowie’s first name is Arthur and Keechie’s first name is Catherine.
  • It is mentioned that Bowie hails from the Ozarks and that his father was killed in a pool hall by the man with whom his mother ran away from the family.
  • Farley Granger was really injured in the scene where he has to stop walking with the others and hide behind a billboard. He had sprained his ankle after tripping on a gopher hole during filming.
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Director Nicholas Ray between scenes with Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger

Sources:

blackmaskmagazine.com/blog/edward-anderson-depression-blues/

Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway by Farley Granger with Robert Calhoun, 2007.

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17 thoughts on “Classic Film Talk: ‘They Live By Night’ (1948)

  1. I agree. They Drive by Night is a beautiful film, and heartbreaking. The criminal element as represented by Chicamaw and T-Dub are unrepentant and expertly played. Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell are lovingly and achingly portrayed.

    Why, oh why did Howard Hughes buy RKO? Studio bosses often trusted their own instincts, but the best of them would listen to other opinions and think about other people’s careers. There was no need to delay the release of this, and other movies at the studio.

    I like the use of the song I Know Where I’m Going in the score, especially over the opening credits. You just know it is played for its irony and melancholy.

    – Cafta Woman

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your always insightful and kind comments, Paddy! 😀
      It’s amazing how well cast this film was, especially when you consider that most of the major parts were chosen by Ray himself with Houseman’s help. Da Silva and Flippen both had successful experiences in the stage that Ray likely recognised. I love this film more as time goes on.

      I don’t know the exact specifics of why Hughes bought the studio but I’m sure it’s a mix of the following: his love (and sometimes obsession) of film; his money being able to solve problems; a woman. He was just such a very weird fella. I do appreciate him sticking by Robert Mitchum during his time of need but overall he caused so much chaos and created so much damage.
      Thank goodness that Hitchcock saw a screening of this film in the UK and decided on casting Farley in ‘ROPE’, otherwise his career might not have been as prolific.

      I will re-watch the beginning of the film again just to take in the song one more time, especially since it was likely specifically chosen by Ray. He seemed to have had a way with words. 🙂

      Like

  2. Love love LOVE the detail you put into this article as always my lovely! So fascinating from start to finish. I really think Granger is so underrated, and so I must really try to find this film, especially because you’ve recommended it so highly!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, thanks my dear Gabriela! 🥰
      I’m often as taken with a movie’s history as I am with the storyline. This is truly a unique film and you can feel it as you are watching it. I totally agree about Farley being underrated. He was actually quite a dashing leading man and was versatile, very much like Anthony Perkins. Like many other actors of his day, he later concentrated on European productions. One thing that I really liked about him was that he didn’t care about stardom so much and really had a flair for life – eating good food and enjoying trips.
      I sure hope you can see this sometime soon. It’s such a great film and I really mean it when I say that it was perfect. Imagine hitting such a home run on your first try! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Really enjoyed reading this, Erica. Man this film rips your heart in two! Such a moving and thrilling flick. Like you, I also root for this couple and don’t hate them, unlike some of the other characters. I always consider the relationship between Bowie and Keechie to be one of the most real and tender ever put on screen. You totally believe and feel their love and bond. Great performances.

    Thanks so much for joining me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are a darling, Maddy; thank you! 🤗
      It is really an emotional ride. I kept hoping that Bowie could make it to Tulsa and when that didn’t work, for them to at least reach Mexico. You see the walls closing in on them and there is nothing you can do.
      I’m going to watch ‘Side Street’ tonight just to see Farley and Cathy together again. You are very on point with your observations about Bowie and Keechie’s relationship. In some ways, their discovery of one another at the gas station reminded me of Yuri secretly watching Lara in ‘Dr. Zhivago’. That was yet another powerful love story.

      Many thanks again for hosting and coming up with such an excellent theme. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great writeup on a movie I really don’t love. I think I must be the only one. Yes, they are affecting and tender and moving…and so boring. It’s mostly that I can’t warm up to Farley Granger. That deer in the headlights thing just doesn’t do it for me. O’Donnell is nice but also a bit wimpy.

    This is a very good movie, just one I don’t love.But then Ray has never been my favorite director.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Margot! You have a wonderful way with constructive criticsm and I appreciate your frankness. 🙂
      In all honesty, I didn’t fall in love with it the first time I watched it. It is a film that I’ve come to appreciate over time also because I am quite well acquainted with both Farley’s and Cathy’s filmographies. As for Ray, I have always been contented with his filming style and touch. It’s really a question of personal taste and it’s important to hear opinions like yours. At least you gave the film an honest try!

      Like

    1. I’m glad that you appreciate this film as well, Eric! 🙂 Cathy was very sweet and seemed to be such a strong person and dedicated friend/companion. It’s such a loss to us all that she passed on at such a young age.
      Shelley Duvall seemed to be a fitting actress to be cast as Keechie.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger really do have wonderful chemistry in this film. It’s been waaay too long since I’ve seen it. I’ll be watching for it soon, and I’ll have all this wonderful background info you’ve provided – almost like a Bonus Extra on a DVD!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed Cathy and Farley together, Ruth. 😀 They were an idealistic young couple who really complimented one another. Nick Ray really had good intuition in regards to casting and filming practices. I’ve always been so curious about behind-the-scenes stuff and I am constantly fascinated by the things I learn for each film I write about. The connections are endless! Hope you enjoy re-watching this gem when you get the opportunity!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, they seem to be one reckless group of thieves! LOL
    The situation of Bowie is quite sad. It makes me think of youngsters who wish to do well in life but are unable to succeed because they do not have the proper guidance or support.

    Like

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