THEY LIVE BY NIGHT
(The Twisted Road)
Director: Nicholas Ray
Production: RKO Radio; black and white; running time: 96 minutes; length: 8,597 feet. Released in UK as The Twisted Road , 1948; US Release, 1949.
Executive producer: Dore Schary; producer: John Houseman; screenplay: Charles Schnee, from the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson; photography: George E. Diskant; editor: Sherman Todd; art directors: Albert S. D'Agostino, Al Herman; music: Leigh Harline.
Cast: Cathy O'Donnell ( Keechie ); Farley Granger ( Bowie ); Howard da Silva ( Chicamaw ); Jay C. Flippen ( T-Dub ); Helen Craig ( Mattie ); Will Wright ( Mobley ); Ian Wolfe ( Hawkins ); Harry Harvey ( Hagenheimer ).
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* * *
Jean-Luc Godard once declared that "the cinema is Nicholas Ray." In a like part-for-whole spirit we might well declare that They Live By Night is Nicholas Ray. Both director and film achieved cult status quickly, yet both remain elusive "strangers" to the critical traditions which do them honor.
They Live By Night was produced by John Houseman at RKO in 1947, was held back from distribution when the studio was purchased by Howard Hughes, was twice retitled, was first released in Britain in 1948, and was finally marketed to American audiences in 1949 as a film about "Hot-rod teenagers living on the razor edge of danger." Perhaps because of its baroque production and marketing history, They Live By Night was included for showing (as François Truffaut reports) in the "Festival du Film Maudit" put on by André Bazin and the Objectif 49 ciné-club at Biarritz in the late summer of 1949, effectively granting the film cult status. Likewise, though Ray had just begun his career as a Hollywood director—by contrast with Cahiers du Cinéma favorites like Hawks and Hitchcock—he was already an auteurist cult figure, especially so because Ray and the Cahiers critics (Rohmer, Truffaut, Godard, Rivette) were 1950s cultural contemporaries. As a result, Ray's films were less "reviewed" than "previewed" in the pages of Cahiers ; and because Ray was not explicitly "neglected," he has not yet inspired the full measure of scholarly attention devoted to more obvious "reclamation" projects. In that sense he remains a stranger to film criticism.
The odd point to make against this "Ray as auteur cult figure" background, then, is that They Live By Night is perhaps Ray's least neglected, most written-about film. Yet even here a note of "strangeness" intrudes because the attention paid to Ray's first feature often has less to do with the Nick Ray cult than with the film noir cult or the Robert Altman cult, the latter occasioned by Altman's Thieves Like Us (1974), derived from Edward Anderson's 1937 novel of the same title which Ray had adapted in making They Live By Night . Moreover, the aura of "strangeness" which lingers about They Live by Night is only heightened on these accounts because both it and Thieves Like Us are typically taken as members of a "limit case" subgenre of film noir . Where "primary" instances of the genre focus on "haunted or brutal or stupid" male characters (gangsters and/or detectives) at hazard in an equally haunted or brutal urban shadow-scape, the "country thieves" sub-genre shifts focus to an "outlaw couple" (Bowie and Keechie in Ray's film), typically presented more as victims than as denizens of the underworld, who seek to escape their film noir destiny by automotive flight to the countryside. (In They Live By Night "nature" is the Capra-esque auto-camp where the honeymooning Bowie and Keechie hide out to avoid the law, and to avoid Bowie's bank-robber cohorts, Chicamaw and T-Dub, who need Bowie to pull off another job.)
That They Live By Night fits so neatly under the film noir rubric has occasioned some interpretive neglect. John Francis Kreidl's Nicholas Ray (1977), for example, barely mentions the film. Given the fact that much of Ray's critical reputation rests on his innovative use of color and of the wide CinemaScope screen, this makes some sense. Yet the consensus is fairly clear that They Live By Night , despite being shot in black and white and in the standard Academy aspect-ratio, remains a strong example of Ray's elusive yet forceful mise-en-scène, which we might describe, in the light of Robin Wood's analysis of Ray's Bigger Than Life , as a unique combination of the "ethnographic" and the "architectural."
The "ethnographic" element of They Live By Night evokes Ray's typically sympathetic concern for "sub-cultural" groups set within or against a larger (usually American, usually contemporary) society. The "persecution of the innocents" narrative of They Live By Night certainly accords with this description, though so too does Ray's transcendent, Griffith-inspired close-up treatment of Bowie and Keechie. Yet the romanticism implicit in this graphic valorization of Bowie and Keechie's innocence is set in thematic place by a narration strategy, both visual and temporal, which asserts a broader, more abstract (in that sense "architectural") perspective on their plight.
Ray repeatedly, for example, frames Bowie and Keechie within or against box-like or bar-like architectural enclosures—car windows, a teller's cage, the frame of the "altar" at Hawkin's "marriage parlor," etc.—all of them suggesting a degree of entrapment to which Ray's naive characters remain blind. And Ray's narration also posits a gap between the viewer and his characters by anticipating the film's outcome; we know in advance that T-Dub's sister-in-law Mattie, in the hope of freeing her husband from prison, has informed the police that Bowie and Keechie are holed up in the auto-camp she bought with money from the gang's first holdup.
The question of this difference in knowledge or perspective, and the difference it finally makes, is the substance of the only sustained controversy regarding They Live By Night . Film noir readings of They Live By Night typically assume that the victimization visited upon Bowie and Keechie amounts to an indictment of those who victimize them, just as Lang's depiction of the doomed Eddie and Jo Taylor in You Only Live Once amounts to an indictment of the society whose agents hunt them down, at which point Ray's perspective is taken to reinforce or validate the lovers'. Peter Biskind, by contrast, while agreeing that Ray shares the vantage point of his characters, denies that their perspective is an effective critique of their (and our) society. Especially by contrast with the Anderson novel, Biskind contends, Ray's film downplays social criticism by assigning blame exactly to the naivete of the central characters, a naivete resulting in part from their view that the "normal" life of the culture, touchingly epitomized by the honeymoon utopia of the first auto-camp, is utopia enough.
If They Live By Night is viewed primarily in economic terms, Biskind's case is plausible. A number of the film's secondary characters are sympathetic capitalists sympathetically portrayed (e.g., the Zelton jeweler who sells Bowie the fateful watch). Soon from a more sustainedly feminist perspective, however, They Live By Night can be read as a fairly thorough critique of the alliance between masculine brutality and capitalist alienation, each a cause and a result of the other.
The film's chief figure of this patriarchal symptomology is Keechie's one-eyed uncle, Chicamaw, who is repeatedly associated with money and spending (the flashy clothes, the hot cars), with unnecessary brutality (the farmer he clubs in the opening sequence), and with incestuous sexual aggression (his come-on to Keechie, his brutal and unwelcomed attentions to Mattie). But two moments are crucial to our understanding of this element of They Live By Night . The first is when T-Dub, hitherto the more avuncular of Bowie's two elder partners, confirms the brutality of Chicamaw (Keechie's real uncle). When Bowie tries to beg off the last bank job, T-Dub turns suddenly hostile, tells Bowie he's "an investment" who's "gonna pay off," and then proceeds to slap Bowie about while Chicamaw holds Bowie by the shoulders. The second moment echoes the masculine brutality of the first. Against the background of a pin-up calender with the word "sales" prominent in the shot, a desperate Bowie grabs Mattie roughly by the shoulders, tells her she's "a thief" like him, and that the ailing Keechie is going to stay at Mattie's auto-camp whether Mattie likes it or not ("if you or anybody else don't like it, it's just too bad").
The film's first shot, to the accompaniment of a folk tune (its title and unsung first lines are equally apt and ironic: "I know where I'm going, and I know who's going with me"), is a romantic two-shot close-up of Bowie and Keechie, described in a series of on-screen titles as a boy and a girl "never properly introduced to the world we live in." A last title appears: "To tell their story"; it is followed by a surge of music. Bowie and Keechie both look suddenly up and off-frame, as if startled by some intrusion into the off-screen space of their world. Cut, then, to the credit sequence of They Live By Night , a powerful and aggressive helicopter shot of the car bearing Bowie, TRub, and Chicamaw, over which we see inscribed a variety of "commercial" markers ("RKO Radio Pictures A Dore Shary Presentation"). To propose the film as an "introduction" implies an epistemic gap, a known and an unknown. And to mark the unknown as a commercial product, to mark its introduction as and by a violent sonic and visual intrusion, is to accept a kind of social responsibility barely hinted at by (if finally consistent with) Bowie's eventual apology to Mattie. Though a pregnant Keechie does survive the ambush which kills Bowie, to live on in a perpetual night, the couple of Bowie and Keechie does not survive the "proper" knowledge they are threatened by in the film's first moments. On Biskind's reading this knowledge is not deadly, or nearly deadly enough. In They Live By Night , Ray shows that it is, and shows why. Whether it will continue to be deadly is ours to determine.