May 9, 2005
They Live by Night (1949)
Grade: 48/100

Director: Nicholas Ray
Stars: Farley Granger, Cathy O'Donnell, Howard Da Silva

What it's about. Bank robbers T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), Chicamaw (Da Silva), and Bowie (Granger) hide from the law in a safe house where Bowie meets Keechie (O'Donnell), a good girl with bad relatives. Naturally, romantic sparks fly between the dreamy leads, but the Production Code ensures that Bowie's criminal deeds will continue to come back to haunt him. By the way, the title is not to be confused with the Humphrey Bogart movie They Drive by Night.

How others will see it. Devout film fans will note the resemblance between They Live by Night and Thieves Like Us, a 1974 remake that is somewhat superior to the original. The 1974 version is better because the star-crossed lovers are stupid and naive, which is appropriate to their actions. Granger and O'Donnell, on the other hand, act mostly like saints forced to play out the hands of sinners. The incongruity of the attractive, good-hearted leads and their nefarious crime spree will not be lost, even on forgiving viewers.

There's some fun in watching Da Silva, a familiar character actor with a meaty role here, playing a goofy cigar chomping, one-eyed career criminal. But the film's real selling point is the appeal of the leads, especially Granger, whose matinee looks led to a pinnacle of filmdom, the lead in two Hitchcock movies, Strangers on a Train and Rope. Middle-aged mothers will especially be drawn to Granger, who acts like an abused puppy dog in need of maternal TLC.

How I felt about it. In the movies, criminals are not a happy bunch. They enjoy only two things: counting money and spending money. Like a gambler whose real desire is to lose it all, they are most uncomfortable when they are finally in the clear. Chicamaw is the one most eager to rob the next bank. T-Dub is also anxious to follow his lead.

Bowie is the exception, since his character wants to go straight, if only the fates weren't against him. But then, his character cannot be taken seriously. Hitchcock probably cast him twice partly because there is a black comedy to his exaggerated seriousness, a quality that an insightful director could mine more ably than a mainstream American director bent on laying the dramatic groundwork for Rebels Without a Cause.