It’s sad for me to think that one of the greatest actors of the golden age recently passed away, and, in the eyes of the media, passed relatively unnoticed. The star I’m referring to is Farley Granger. He passed away shortly after Elizabeth Taylor, and while magazines and news programs did many homages to her career (she really was a great star) Mr. Granger went overlooked. I haven’t seen a single homage to him since Mach 27 of this year when he passed away.
Granted, Mr. Granger isn’t a household name. He didn’t exactly have leading man looks. He was thin and had a nervousness about him that would never put him on par with Cary Grant or Gary Cooper in terms of popularity. He did manage to make a huge amount of films and three of which were spectacular: Strangers on a Train, Rope (both by Hitchcock) and the one I’m writing about here: They Live By Night. Those three alone are enough to make Mr. Granger sorely missed.
They Live By Night is the first movie Nicholas Ray ever directed, and it’s the best movie he ever directed. Mr. Ray would go on to make several more famous films, such as Macao, Johnny Guitar, Bigger Than Life, and the very famous Rebel Without a Cause. They Live By Night, as I’ve already stated, is better than those; more thrilling than Macao, more tense than Johnny Guitar, bigger than Bigger Than Life, and a lot more rebellious than Rebel Without a Cause (which is kind of tame if you really look at it).
Not only that, but it’s credited as the first movie to prominently feature footage shot with a helicopter. One of the first scenes of the movie shows a gang of crooks making their getaway in an old jalopy as the camera follows them from above.*
The story of They Live By Night concerns a group of convicts recently sprung from prison meeting up at a rural farmhouse to plan a bank robbery. The youngest and most innocent of the escapees is Bowie Bowers (all of the characters have interesting names) played by Mr. Granger. His cohorts are named Chickamaw and T-Dub. At the hideout, Bowie falls in love with Keechie, played by Cathy O’Donnell, a great actress, here made up to look drab and plain.** Both Keechie and Bowie are painfully awkward around each other at first, which is part of what makes this an endearing romance.
The bank heist they put together goes awry–as they usually do in movies. In the process of fleeing the authorities, Granger is knocked unconscious in a car and wakes up with a deadman slumped over nearby and with a gun next to him. He has no recollection of killing the man, but is led to believe he did, as the reporters who later arrive also do.
You might be wondering what makes this films so special–there have been tons and tons of heist films produced by Hollywood, especially in the 30s through 40s. This one is different for one for its characters; these aren’t slick gangsters or criminal masterminds. The characters act like they dropped out of high school and shower once a month. There’s definitely a Faulknerian quality to it, with its use of rural settings, violence, and indecorous dialogue (similar to Light in August).
What’s more, there’s a line of philosophical questioning that persists throughout the film. As you watch it, pay attention to how many times they say that other people are “thieves like us.” For one, that’s the name of the book the story was adapted from, by Edward Anderson. Also, the phrase will make you wonder, what sets one kind of thievery apart from another? You will find yourself likely empathizing with the criminals (a lot of old crime movies will make you do that) as you realize that they are just “thieves like us.”
*Orson Welles would later do a scene like this involving a long tracking shot utilizing a moving crane wheeling through a New Mexico border town at the start of Touch of Evil.
**To see Cathy O’Donnell all dolled up in sequins and pearls, watch Macao.
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