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Category Archives: August 1948

Superman (15 chapters) (July 15-Oct. 21, 1948)

Superman Chapter 10
Superman (15 chapters) (1948)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr
Columbia Pictures

Here it is, folks — the very first live-action Superman film.

Superman, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes of the 20th century. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. His popularity grew quickly, leading to a second comic series, simply titled Superman, in 1939, a radio serial — The Adventures of Superman — in 1940, a series of Max Fleischer cartoons (1941-1943), and a third comic series, which debuted in 1941 as “World’s Best Comics,” but was changed after the first issue to World’s Finest, and featured stories about Superman and Batman & Robin, as well as other DC Comics superheroes.

Aspects of all of those source materials can be seen in the 15-chapter serial Superman, which was produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures and directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr. Katzman produced a ton of cheapjack serials for Columbia, and he was sometimes known as “Jungle Sam” on account of all the action-adventure pictures he made that were set in tropical locations.

I’ve reviewed a few of Katzman’s serials on this blog already — Jack Armstrong (1947), The Sea Hound (1947), and Brick Bradford (1948) — but I’ve barely scratched the surface of his voluminous output. To be honest, I really don’t want to dig any deeper. Katzman produced some fun low-budget sci-fi pictures in the 1950s, but all of his serials that I’ve seen so far have been tedious, cheaply made, and poorly acted, and Superman is no exception.

In 1948, the Max Fleischer animated shorts about Superman were still the most impressive cinematic versions of the character. They were gorgeously animated, full of vibrant color, packed with action, and even featured the talents of Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman on the radio. In short, they were comic books come to life.

In fact, they were so impressive that Katzman’s black and white serial Superman features an animated Superman in all of the flying sequences. It’s a very different approach to a flying superhero than the practical effects featured in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), which for my money is the greatest serial ever made.

Adventures of Captain Marvel featured a dummy that zipped along a wire, which sounds cheesier than it is. The effect actually works quite well, thanks to simple techniques like reversing the film so the dummy can fly upward, shooting in silhouette, and creative editing. The animated flying sequences in Superman, on the other hand, are well-done for what they are, but the technique of turning live action into animation and back again was always jarring for me.

If you’re a Superman fan, this serial is a must-see for its historical value, but it’s just not that great. The low-budget black and white filmmaking is less vibrant than the Max Fleischer cartoons, the storytelling is less inventive and involving than the radio show, and the physical appearance of Superman just isn’t as impressive as it was in the comic books.

At the beginning of every chapter, the Superman comic magazine flashes on screen, then Kirk Alyn bursts from its pages and stands there for awhile looking as if he’s not sure what he should do next.

Alyn was a 37-year-old actor who’d had bit parts in a bunch of B movies, but this was his first leading role. Alyn has the right face and the right hair to play Superman, but his body, mannerisms, and physical presence all feel wrong. (This is another area where Adventures of Captain Marvel excelled. Tom Tyler looked very much like the Captain Marvel of the comic books, and his physicality was impressive.)

Alyn fares a little better as Superman’s alter ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. I like the slightly alien edge he gives the character, but in some scenes his alien peculiarity just seems like bad acting.

My favorite actor in Superman is Noel Neill, who was so good as Lois Lane that she went on to play Lois in the Adventures of Superman TV series with George Reeves that premiered in 1951. The same honor was not accorded to either Tommy Bond (who plays cub reporter Jimmy Olsen) or Pierre Watkin (who plays Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White). I actually really liked Watkin as Perry White, but I thought Bond was obnoxious and irritating as Olsen, and not just because he’s the guy who played Butch in the Our Gang comedies.

Also, Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside don’t make for a very convincing Metropolis, but California locations are to be expected in any serial.

The antagonist of the serial is called The Spider Lady (Carol Forman), a master criminal who wears a slinky black cocktail dress and a black domino mask. The Spider Lady is after a MacGuffin called a “reducer ray,” and like every good serial villain, she has an army of disposable goons who carry out her cockamamie plans in chapter after chapter. She also has a henchman named Hackett who is introduced in Chapter 6, “Superman in Danger.” Hackett is a brilliant but deranged scientist who has broken out of prison. He’s played by Charles Quigley, who starred in The Crimson Ghost (1946), and other serials.

Superman Chapter 6

I love serials — even the bad ones — and I certainly enjoyed aspects of Superman. But every superhero movie is only as convincing as its lead actor, and Kirk Alyn just isn’t up to the task. I’m sure in 1948 it was thrilling for plenty of kids to see their hero come to life on the big screen. It was a time when Superman was such a mythic, larger-than-life figure that the actors who played him were never credited. When Bud Collyer made an announcement about something that wasn’t a part of the radio show’s serialized story, he was still introduced as “Superman.” Similarly, in the cast of characters list that flashes on the screen at the beginning of every chapter of Superman, Kirk Alyn is the only actor whose name isn’t listed. The first name in the credits is simply SUPERMAN.

Still, I wonder how many children in 1948 were somewhat disappointed by Kirk Alyn (perhaps in ways they couldn’t verbalize). After all, he doesn’t have the impressive voice of Bud Collyer, and he’s so much scrawnier than the strapping hero of the comics. Worst of all, he flits around like Peter Pan, and his cape frequently gets in the way during the action.

Rope (Aug. 28, 1948)

Rope
Rope (1948)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Warner Bros. / Transatlantic Pictures

Did you know that actor Dick Hogan’s last role was playing a symbolic male orgasm?

It’s true. Hogan — previously mentioned in this blog for his role in Shed No Tears (1948) — was cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope as murder victim David Kentley.

It’s an important role, but a thankless one. As Kentley, Hogan has no lines, and is offscreen for most of the film’s running time.*

After the film’s opening credits have rolled, we hear his scream, then see him with a rope wrapped around his neck at the moment he is dying. He’s being murdered by a pair of thrill-killers named Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) who consider themselves “superior” and most everyone else — including their friend David — “inferior.”

Rope is based on a 1929 play written by British playwright Patrick Hamilton. Brandon and Phillip are thinly veiled versions of Leopold and Loeb, the infamous thrill-killers who in 1924 murdered a 14-year-old boy in an attempt to commit a “perfect crime.”

Leopold and Loeb were law students at the University of Chicago. Both came from wealthy families, and both had muddled ideas about Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman” and their own superiority.

Long story short, their crime was far from perfect, and they were arrested and put on trial. Leopold and Loeb were represented by Clarence Darrow, who was a staunch opponent of capitol punishment. The jury found them guilty and the judge sentenced the two young men to life in prison for murder, plus 99 years for kidnapping. Loeb was killed by another inmate in 1936, but Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958, after 33 years in prison. He died in 1971 of natural causes.

Dick Hogan

But back to the fictionalization of their crime, and that symbolic male orgasm I mentioned at the beginning.

I’m sure some will accuse me of “reading too much into” the film or seeing something that isn’t there, but I think anyone who reads up on the Leopold and Loeb case and then immediately watches Rope will find it impossible not to notice the homosexual undertones. Also, Hitchcock is one of the most self-aware filmmakers of all time, and he was fascinating by unconventional sexuality.

The very first scene — the murder — is a symbolic orgasm shared by the murderers; strangled, intense, and shameful.

The murder is a stand-in for a sexual encounter between Brandon and Phillip. Phillip doesn’t want to turn the lights on right away. “Let’s stay this way for just a minute,” he says, and Brandon lights up a post-coital cigarette. “We couldn’t have done it with the curtains open in the bright sunlight.”

This is about as explicit as a film from 1948 could be when exploring gay sex and gay desire.

Add to this the fact that the two young men are most in danger of being found out by book publisher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), who was the boys’ headmaster in prep school. The theme of naughty little boys possibly being found out and punished by a boarding-school authority figure is just one of the many skillful pieces of homosexual innuendo that Hitchcock sprinkles throughout Rope.

Granger, Stewart, and Dall

Rope is one of Hitchcock’s most impressive technical stunts. He filmed the action in long takes, like a play. Most of the cuts are necessitated by the length of film reels, and are done as seamlessly as possible (e.g., an actor passes in front of the camera, darkening the frame for a moment to facilitate a cut). Most of the action of Rope takes place during a dinner party at Brandon and Phillip’s apartment. They’ve arranged a buffet on top of the trunk in which David Kentley’s corpse has been hidden.

I don’t normally like films adapted from plays, but I love Rope. Stage plays are very different from screenplays, and I think the problem with most play-films is that something seems very, very “off” about the dialogue and the way the characters appear, disappear, and reappear in physical space. By filming Rope exactly like a play, however, Hitchcock ironically created a very exciting movie that works extremely well. There’s a creepy sense of intimacy created by the single setting and the actors all playing off each other without a cut every few seconds. And of course, the fact that every line in the film is colored by the viewer’s knowledge that the corpse of David Kentley is hidden away under everyone’s nose.

The way the film moves from day to night is eerie and impressive, too. The backdrop of the film is an enormous window that looks out over Manhattan, and as the film moves forward in time the sky grows darker and lights come on in the buildings and smoke curls from little smokestacks.

Rope should be seen at least once by everyone who has any interest in how films are made. And for people who love Hitchcock’s gruesome playfulness and gallows humor, it’s a film to be savored over and over.

*Interestingly, Hogan has a speaking role in the film’s trailer, but never utters a word in the film itself. Hitchcock’s films always had some of the most inventive trailers, and Rope is no exception:

Red River (Aug. 26, 1948)

Red River
Red River (1948)
Directed by Howard Hawks
United Artists

Howard Hawks shot Red River in 1946, but its release was delayed due to legal difficulties. The eccentric Howard Hughes contended that parts of Red River were taken from his “lust in the dust” western The Outlaw (1943), which starred Jane Russell and her magnificent breasts.

Anyone who’s seen both Red River and The Outlaw can tell you that any claim of story infringement is spurious, but there was bad blood between Hughes and Hawks (Hawks had worked on The Outlaw as an uncredited co-director), and it took until August 26, 1948, before Red River finally had its premiere.

So while Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948) was the film that introduced many moviegoers to Montgomery Clift, Red River was his first acting role in a feature film.

Clift was a born movie star. He was achingly handsome, rail-thin, and blessed with a uniquely vulnerable type of masculinity. On screen, he had a presence that seemed completely natural. Red River is a phenomenal western that works on a number of different levels, but one of its most important aspects is the relationship between Clift and the film’s star, John Wayne.

Wayne and Clift were on opposite ends of the spectrum in every way imaginable; politically, professionally, physically, and sexually. But it’s this contrast that makes Red River work so well.

Wayne and Clift

Red River is the story of a cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail up from Texas. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a big, tough cattleman who took his land by force.

When Dunson was first establishing his grazing land with his best friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), the woman Dunson loved (Coleen Gray) was murdered by Comanches, and he never loved another.

The sole survivor of the massacre, a young man named Matt Garth (played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn) came wandering through the land, leading a cow. Dunson’s bull mated with Garth’s cow, and from this union eventually grew a herd of more than 10,000 longhorns.*

Fourteen years pass, and Garth grows up, now played by Montgomery Clift. The Civil War has ended, and Dunson is no longer able to sell beeves to the impoverished southern states. He decides that he’ll drive his entire herd north to Missouri, where they’ll fetch a fortune. He’s spent his life building his empire, and he wants to pass it down to Matt Garth, his protégé.

The only problem is that Dunson’s greatest strength — his unbending will — is also his greatest weakness, which eventually puts him at loggerheads with the more even-tempered and empathetic Garth.

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift

Borden Chase, who wrote the Saturday Evening Post story on which Red River was based (as well as the screenplay for the film with Charles Schnee), drew liberally from Mutiny on the Bounty in crafting his story.

Despite the fact that his middle name was “Winchester,” this was Howard Hawks’s first directorial credit for a western, which is remarkable considering he’d been directing films since the 1920s and had more than one masterpiece under his belt.

In addition to his own estimable talents as a director, Hawks had some of the finest crew members who ever worked on a Hollywood western when he made Red River. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is epic. Editor Christian Nyby’s cutting drives the film forward with relentless intensity. And cinematographer Russell Harlan had toiled away for years working on B pictures (mostly westerns) before finally breaking into A pictures with Lewis Milestone’s war movie A Walk in the Sun (1945). He went on to become one of the best cinematographers in the business, and his work on Red River is proof.

Red River is one of the greatest westerns ever made. As I said above, it works on a number of different levels. At its most basic level, Red River is a rousing adventure film about men on a dangerous mission, struggling against the elements and against each other. But on a deeper level, it’s a timeless myth about fathers and sons.

Red River will be shown on TCM this Friday, March 1, 2013, at 10:15 PM ET.

*If you’re a fan of sexual innuendo in old movies, the scene in Red River in which Matt Garth and gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland) compare revolvers is a classic. Many see a gay subtext, which could be there, but gay men hardly have a monopoly on comparing phalluses to see whose is bigger. I think the sexual bonding between men in Red River goes much deeper. Remember that the herd being driven up the Chisholm Trail in Red River are all descended from the union between John Wayne’s bull and Montgomery Clift’s cow. Even though Dunson and Garth are not blood relations, they are bound together.

Pitfall (Aug. 24, 1948)

PitfallOne man’s domestic bliss is another man’s prison.

John Forbes (Dick Powell) has what some men only dream of — a home; a steady job with the Olympic Mutual Insurance Company; an attractive, intelligent, and loving wife (Jane Wyatt); and a son (Jimmy Hunt) who thinks his dad is the greatest guy in the world.

And yet, he’s dissatisfied. It’s a formless sort of dissatisfaction. He grumbles about how fast his son Tommy outgrows his shoes. He tells his wife Sue that the world won’t end if he doesn’t show up at his desk every morning at 9 o’clock. He asks Sue what became of those two young kids they were … the two young kids who were going to build a boat and sail around the world.

As Sue drives him to work he tells her, “Sometimes I get to feel like a wheel within a wheel within a wheel.”

“You and fifty million others,” she responds.

“I don’t want to be like fifty million others,” he says.

“But you’re John Forbes, average American, backbone of the country,” she says with a smile.

“I don’t want to be an average American, backbone of the country. I want somebody else to be the backbone and hold me up.”

Later that day — a day shaping up to be like any other — he goes to the apartment of Miss Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a beautiful but world-weary blonde who received gifts from a man convicted of embezzling.

It’s just part of his job. He doesn’t care one way or the other that one of the gifts he’s recovering is an engagement ring. But Mona sees right through him, and tells him, “You’re a little man with a briefcase. You go to work every morning and you do as you’re told.”

Her words get to him, and he softens towards her. They share a few afternoon drinks in a dark cocktail lounge. They go boating. And he never once mentions his wife or son.

Scott Powell and BurrOne thing I loved about Pitfall is that its characters are real adult people leading real adult lives. They’re not overblown film-noir caricatures, and their actions all have realistic consequences.

Mona is not a femme fatale who sees in John Forbes an easy mark. Aside from being unusually attractive, she’s an average woman who hates that she was involved with a man who was not only stupid enough to embezzle money to spend on her, but stupid enough to get caught. And she gets involved with John Forbes not because she has a dastardly scheme, but because he’s kind to her and she thinks he’s a decent guy. (Mona Stevens has a lot more in common with Ann Sheridan’s character in Nora Prentiss than she does with Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity.)

But Pitfall is not just a tale of marital infidelity and post-war suburban malaise, it’s a noirish thriller, which means there are some nasty surprises lurking.

One of them takes the form of the angry loser who embezzled for love of Mona — Bill Smiley (Byron Barr), whose prison term is nearing an end. The other takes the hulking form of a creepy private detective who is obsessed with Mona — J.B. “Mac” MacDonald (Raymond Burr).

Pitfall has all the ingredients of a great film noir, but director André de Toth mixes them together in interesting ways, and avoids over-the-top contrivances. Cinematographer Harry J. Wild’s solid but unpretentious shots of Los Angeles anchor the film, the actors all deliver really good performances, and Karl Kamb’s screenplay (based on Jay Dratler’s novel The Pitfall) is full of wit and intelligence.

Race Street (Aug. 22, 1948)

Race StreetYou know what would be a great drinking game for a designated driver to play? Watching Race Street and taking a shot every time George Raft changes his expression.

Raft had no range as an actor, but he did play well with others. When paired with good performers, Raft had real chemistry with them. For instance, my favorite scene in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932) is when Ann Dvorak does a sexy, playful dance to try to get a reaction out of Raft. He remains stone-faced, but there’s always a twinkle in his eye.

As an actor, Raft got a lot of mileage out of that twinkle in his eye. Even though he mostly played his characters as expressionless tough guys, his eyes always made it seem as if he was taking in everything around him.

The other thing Raft brought to the table as an actor was a whiff of real-life criminality. He was well-known for his associations with gangsters like Owney Madden, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel, which added another dimension to roles like the one he plays in Race Street.

In Race Street, Raft plays a bookie named Dan Gannin. Gannin hides his illegal betting operation behind a respectable facade as an investor. Despite his criminal endeavors, he has an easy friendship with a police detective, Lt. Barney Runson (William Bendix). Lt. Runson knows that his friend Dan is a bookie, but they’re childhood friends, and not much trumps that.

Gannin’s other childhood friend in the film, a fellow bookie named Hal Towers (Harry Morgan), needs a little more taking care of than Runson, and when he begins running afoul of thugs in a protection racket, it’s easy to see that things are going to get complicated for Gannin, who is the standard “nice guy who just wants to go straight” character we’ve seen in a thousand crime movies.

On the distaff side of Gannin’s life is his beautiful sister Elaine (Gale Robbins), a leggy dancer and nightclub singer with whom he’s opening a nightspot called the Turf Club. There’s also a new lady in his life, a brunette named Robbie Lawrence (Marilyn Maxwell).

Race Street was directed by Edwin L. Marin, who directed a bunch of B pictures for RKO with George Raft, including Nocturne (1946), which I enjoyed quite a bit.

As I said above, Raft isn’t the most engaging actor in the world, but he turned in watchable performances when he had a good supporting cast and a decent script, and Race Street succeeds on both counts. I especially liked William Bendix in this film. Bendix was as good at playing comic buffoons as he was at playing sinister villains, and he could do everything in between.

Race Street also has plenty of beautiful footage of San Francisco. A lot of it’s obviously stock footage, but it’s integrated into the film well. This is clearly a B movie, but no studio made B-grade film noirs as well or as consistently as RKO Radio Pictures.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (Aug. 11, 1948)

Mr. Peabody and the MermaidIrving Pichel’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is an enchanting little fantasy that’s perfect for chasing away the winter doldrums.

This movie is an old favorite of mine. I first saw it on TV when I was a kid and absolutely loved it. It was a lot of fun to revisit, and was just as charming and funny as I remember.

Mr. Arthur Peabody (William Powell) is a dignified Bostonian on the verge of turning 50, that dreaded age that says, “if you’re not already having a midlife crisis, you’d better start now.” Mr. Peabody and his slightly younger wife, Mrs. Polly Peabody (Irene Hervey), go on vacation to the British Caribbean (now commonly referred to as the British Virgin Islands), and Mr. Peabody has a life-changing experience. While out fishing, he hooks a mermaid.

The mermaid is played by the beautiful and doll-like Ann Blyth. She’s listed in the credits as just “Mermaid,” but in the film, Mr. Peabody decides her name is “Lenore.”

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is book-ended by scenes of Mr. Peabody talking to a psychiatrist, Dr. Harvey (Art Smith). No one but Peabody ever sees the mermaid, so naturally his wife and everyone else all assume that he’s crazy.

The film is coy about Lenore’s existence, but she does seem to exist in physical reality. Mrs. Peabody see the mermaid’s fins sticking out of a bubble bath and scolds her husband for cleaning a fish in the tub. The mermaid also spits water on a man before darting back into the water, and when a woman whom the mermaid considers a rival for Mr. Peabody’s affection goes swimming, the mermaid bites her on the leg.

But there’s still a sense of unreality about “Lenore,” and not just because she’s a mythical creature. Lenore never speaks, but seems to understand everything Mr. Peabody says to her, and adores him. She’s his middle-aged fantasy come to achingly beautiful life.

There are parallel stories about Mrs. Peabody’s flirtation with a handsome chap, Major Hadley (Hugh French), and the beautiful adventuress, Cathy Livingston (Andrea King), who sets her sights on Mr. Peabody. The film wrings a lot of humor out of this situation, as Mrs. Peabody thinks Mr. Peabody is dallying with Miss Livingston while in fact he’s trying to keep the mermaid’s existence secret while planning on running away with her to the Florida Keys.

Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is a lovely escapist fantasy, and is currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon. Highly recommended, especially if you’re sick of cold weather and aren’t going on vacation anytime soon.

Blyth and Powell

They Live by Night (Aug. 5, 1948)

They Live by Night
They Live by Night (1948)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
RKO Radio Pictures

This movie grabbed me with its first frame and never let go.

They Live by Night is unlike any other movie I’ve seen so far from 1948. Obviously I know what lay ahead for its director, Nicholas Ray, but even if I didn’t, this is the kind of film that would make me sit up and take notice of his name, and look forward to seeing everything he directed next.

Come to think of it, my knowledge of Ray’s filmography is pretty spotty. In high school, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) was one of my favorite films. I watched it over and over, but never thought to explore more of Ray’s films. Years later, I saw In a Lonely Place (1950) and loved it, but didn’t make the connection that it was the same director who made Rebel. But now I’ve got so many Nicholas Ray films to look forward to!

Like all innovative films made more than 50 years ago, They Live by Night doesn’t contain anything we haven’t seen in hundreds of films since, but when viewed in its proper context, it’s exhilarating. Just look at the opening of the film. Unlike nearly every other film of the era that began with a title card followed by a credit roll, They Live by Night begins with shot of two deliriously happy young lovers as the following words flash on the screen: “This boy… and this girl… were never properly introduced to the world we live in… To tell their story…” And suddenly the music becomes grim and portentous, we cut to a shot of a speeding car, and the film’s title appears. The speeding car is filmed from a helicopter, and it’s the earliest instance of action shot from a helicopter that I’ve seen in a film. It’s just one of the innovative ways that Ray creates tension, drama, and excitement with filmmaking techniques that are common practice now, but that were revolutionary at the time.

They Live by Night was based on Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us (1937). Farley Granger plays a young man named “Bowie” Bowers (his first name is pronounced “Boo-ee,” just like Jim Bowie). When the film begins, he’s an escaped con running from a murder sentence, and his luck will only get worse as the film goes on.

Except for one thing. He falls in love with a young woman named Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and while they’re on the run together, they’re happy as only two young people in love can be happy.

There are obvious comparisons to be drawn with Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). They Live by Night shares the Depression-era setting with Bonnie and Clyde, and it’s visually similar to Gun Crazy, but unlike both of those films, Keechie isn’t an active participant in any criminal activity and the film focuses more on her romance with Bowie than it does on Bowie’s crime spree.

Ray makes so many surprising and smart choices in this film. He doesn’t show most of Bowie’s bank robberies, which focuses our attention on Bowie’s romance with Keechie. His crime spree across Texas is a matter of grim necessity, and all he wants to do is escape. This has the effect of making a radio news report about Bowie’s growing infamy surprising to the audience. Ray makes it easy to forget much of the time that Bowie is a criminal, which make the intrusions of hard reality into Bowie and Keechie’s lives all the more shocking.

Ray also has a knack for depicting life in a way that feels authentic. Even minor characters with just a few lines feel like fully realized, three-dimensional people. When Bowie and Keechie go to a nightclub on a date, the African-American singer Marie Bryant does a rendition of “Your Red Wagon” and collects dollar tips from the crowd, which she folds and clasps between her fingers. Most Hollywood productions would never show a nightclub singer taking tips — it would ruin the illusion of glamour. But the nightclub in They Live by Night looks and feels like a real place. When Bowie goes into the men’s room, he has a brief conversation with the African-American bathroom attendant. In a lesser film, the attendant would be comic relief, and in a lower-budget film, he wouldn’t exist at all.

They Live by Night features top-notch work by all of its cast and crew. Leigh Harline’s music (with uncredited assistance from Woody Guthrie) is phenomenal. George E. Diskant’s cinematography is some of the most beautiful and most noirish I’ve ever seen (they really do live by night in this movie), and Sherman Todd’s film editing is soothing when it needs to be and jarring when it needs to be. Todd and Ray made a lot of risky choices in the editing room, but for my money, they all paid off.

Ray filmed They Live by Night in 1947, but RKO wasn’t sure how to market the film, and it ended up premiering in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948. It wasn’t released in the United States until November 1949, and didn’t end up being a financial success, but it had been screened privately in Hollywood for many actors and producers, which led to Ray’s next film, Knock on Any Door (1949), with Humphrey Bogart, as well as to Farley Granger being cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).

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