They Live By Night Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
“This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…”
So goes the opening text of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, revealed under the aforementioned boy and girl–Arthur “Bowie” Bowers (Farley Granger, who also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE that same year) and Catherine “Keechie” Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell, William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES)–as they delicately kiss.The scene swiftly cuts to a trio of men, including Bowie, on the lam, having escaped prison and robbed numerous banks. After suffering an injury, Bowie goes solo.
After arriving at a safe place to meet his gang, who have names like Chickamaw and T-Dub (Howard Da Silva, THE BLUE DAHLIA; Jay C. Flippen, BRUTE FORCE) , he’s introduced to Keechie. Keechie seems to be kept around to serve as a gopher, cleaning lady and lookout, but Bowie is quickly attracted and soon the pair run off together in an attempt to leave crime behind. Of course, as the opening text clearly hints, this won’t be an easy goal, and soon Bowie’s betrayed and frustrated partners will come looking. (Even Keechie’s last name, Mobley, suggests Bowie can’t help but be lured to trouble.)
Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel Thieves Like Us (later adapted by Robert Altman in 1974, a version that starred Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall), THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is part noir, part crime and part romance. The film excels in all parts and proved overall to be a landmark “lovers on the run” film and the first great one. This is the film that showed Altman, Terrence Malick (BADLANDS), Arthur Penn (BONNIE AND CLYDE), Steven Spielberg (THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS) and many more how such a story could be both romantic and brutal, even in the same scene.
THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is the directorial debut of Nicholas Ray, who would go on to helm such classics as 1950’s IN A LONELY PLACE, 1954’s JOHNNY GUITAR and 1955’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Ray, along with cinematographer George E. Diskant, offer an environment that is dangerous yet alluring (the shadows created here are some of the deepest in any noir), a tempting picture that displays, as so many films of its kind do, the sort of risks and thrills that can come from barely being a step ahead.
And like the films it inspired, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT wants us to root for the runaways. Both have committed acts of betrayal and ditched their familiar lifestyles, but it’s for their own good and their collective passion–Bowie wants innocence, Keechie wants freedom, they both want love. The melodrama is heavy here, but it adds to the style and tone of the film. So, too, do Granger and O’Donnell, who play their parts wonderfully and have fantastic chemistry.
THEY LIVE BY NIGHT remains, nearly seventy years later, a standout of its subgenre and also one of the finest, most telling debuts in film history.
Video: 1.37:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from a 35 mm safety fine-grain positive made from the original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitty, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management.”
THEY LIVE BY NIGHT looks excellent in this high-definition presentation, with great details, deep blacks and an overall clean image that shows off George E. Diskant’s incredible cinematography.
Audio: English Mono. “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm fine-grain print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX.”
Dialogue comes through nicely, while the sound effects and music sounds quite nice overall.
Audio commentary featuring film historian Eddie Muller and actor Farley Granger: In this 2007 track, Muller gives production details while Granger offers recollections from the set. Some listeners may find the interview portions to be a bit of a failure.
Imogen Sara Smith (20:53): Film critic Smith discusses THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, covering director Nicholas Ray, the film’s production, its film noir elements and more.
John Houseman (6:36): These “illustrated audio excerpts” from a 1956 broadcast of the radio program Film Forum feature producer Houseman discussing his work.
“They Live By Night”: The Twisted Road (6:10): In this 2007 piece, critic Molly Haskell, filmmakers Oliver Stone and Christopher Coppola, and film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini share their appreciation of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT.
Also included with this Criterion Collection release is a new essay by film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz.