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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).

The Best Years of Our Lives (Nov. 21, 1946)

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives premiered in New York City on November 21, 1946, and in Los Angeles a month later, on Christmas day. It was a hit with both audiences and critics, and was the biggest financial success since Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The film swept the 19th Academy Awards, winning in all but one category in which it was nominated. The film won best picture, Wyler won best director, Fredric March won best actor, Harold Russell won best supporting actor, Robert E. Sherwood won for best screenplay, Daniel Mandell won for best editing, and Hugo Friedhofer won for best score. (The only category in which it was nominated and did not win was best sound recording. The Jolson Story took home that award.)

There are several reasons for the film’s financial and critical success. It perfectly captured the mood of the times. In 1946, returning servicemen faced an enormous housing shortage, an uncertain job market, food shortages, and a turbulent economy (price controls were finally lifted by the O.P.A. around the time the film premiered). Combat veterans also faced their own personal demons in an atmosphere in which discussing feelings was seen as a sign of weakness. By telling the stories of three World War II veterans returning to life in their hometown, The Best Years of Our Lives held a mirror up to American society.

The biggest reason for the film’s success, however, is that it’s a great movie. Plenty of films made in 1945 and 1946 featured characters who were returning veterans, but none before had shown them in such a realistic, unvarnished way. The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t try to wring tragedy out of its characters’ personal situations. It’s an overwhelming emotional experience precisely because it doesn’t strain for high emotions. The film earns every one of its quietly powerful moments. Hugo Friedhofer’s score is occasionally overbearing, and a little high in the mix, but at its best it’s moving, and a fair approximation of Aaron Copland’s fanfares for common men. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography is phenomenal. Every image in the film — the hustle and bustle of life in a small American city, the quietly expressive faces of its characters, and the interiors of homes, drugstores, bars, banks, and nightclubs — is fascinating to look at. (Toland was Orson Welles’s cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and he was an absolute wizard.)

The actors in this film are, without exception, outstanding. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, an infantry platoon sergeant who fought in the Pacific, and who returns to his job as a bank manager. Myrna Loy plays his wife, Milly, Teresa Wright plays their daughter, Peggy, and Michael Hall plays their son, Rob. Dana Andrews plays the shell-shocked Fred Derry, a decorated bombardier and captain in the Army Air Forces in Europe, who returns home to his beautiful wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married immediately before leaving to serve. Now that the war is over and they are living together, they realize they have very little in common. Harold Russell plays Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both his hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk.

Russell was a non-professional actor who lost his hands in 1944 while serving with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division. He was an Army instructor, and a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling while making a training film. Russell’s performance is key to the success of the film. An actor who didn’t actually use two hook prostheses in his everyday life wouldn’t have been able to realistically mimic all the little things that Russell does; lighting cigarettes, handling a rifle, playing a tune on the piano. More importantly, Russell’s performance is amazing. From the very first scene that the camera lingers on his face as he shares a plane ride home with March and Andrews, I felt as if I knew the man.

Russell is so convincing as a man who has quickly adapted to his handicap that it’s gut-wrenching to watch as his exterior slowly breaks down, and we’re drawn deeper into his world. Homer Parrish has a darkness inside him, and he carries with him the constant threat of violence; bayonets adorn the walls of his childhood bedroom and he spends his time alone in the garage, firing his rifle at the woodpile. His next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) keeps trying to get close to him, but he pushes her away. In a lesser film, this all might have led to a violent and melodramatic finale, but it merely simmers below the surface, informing his character. Instead, the most emotional scenes with Homer take place in smaller ways, such as when we see that he is not as self-sufficient as he seems, and needs his father’s help every night to remove his prostheses before he goes to sleep.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a great film, and should be seen by everyone who loves movies and is interested in the post-war era. It’s long — just short of three hours — but it didn’t feel long to me. The running time allows its story to develop naturally as the characters enter and re-enter one another’s lives. It also felt more real than any other movie I’ve seen this year. (I can’t think of another movie that wasn’t about alcoholism that featured so many scenes of its characters getting realistically drunk.) And despite all the personal difficulties its characters face, it’s ultimately an uplifting film, full of quiet hope for the future.

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