They Live by Night (1948)
Passed! It's a life of crime, baby! People are gonna get shot! But even worse, people are going to get hurt. Is that person gonna be you, chickadee? Maybe you can see people turnin' on each other, showing the worst parts of their souls! A life of crime ain't kid stuff (although I totally let my kids be in the room while I watched this.) Passed, baby. Passed.
DIRECTOR: Nicholas Rey
Is it weird that Farley Granger might be stalking me from the grave? I know that isn't exactly sensitive. But I've seen way too many Farley Granger movies. How is his name not thrown around willy-nilly like Clark Gable or anything? He's in a lot of classic films. Like, a lot of them. I never realized it, but he keeps showing up in movies that I wasn't expecting him in. This was a Christmas gift. I love me some Criterions and They Live by Night was in that lovely packaging under the tree. I think I go in blind for a lot of Criterions. I know that, even with my least favorite Criterion entries, I'm going to get something out of it. (I'm talking to you, Last Year at Marienbad.)
Nicholas Rey famously directed a bunch of really good stuff, but I don't find it coincidental that he also directed Rebel Without a Cause. His name lives on as the guy who makes really really good juvenile delinquent films. But there's something odd about how well reputed Rey really is. I love me some Rebel Without a Cause. I oddly might kinda like They Live by Night a little better because the stakes are higher. But at the end of the day, they are JD films. It's so odd how there's almost an element of propaganda to these movies. I know that the studios probably hire Rey to make these movies because kids relate to these movies, but they are kind of heavy-handed morality plays. If I watched a billion of these movies, I'd probably get annoyed pretty quickly. There's something about JD films that always kind of feels false. With Rey, the performances are way better. There's an earnestness to a lot of it. It's like Rey knows the reputation that JD films have. It's like there is the basic template. The boy gets into trouble. He then gets into more trouble leading to his eventual downfall. He's aware of the problems that come with being on the wrong side of the law, but he's kind of sympathetic until he continues to make bad choices. But Rey injects something else. Yeah, the characters are a little tropey. I don't deny that. But there's an art to these movies that I can't really define. JD films, for the vast majority, are pretty cornball. It seems like no one really puts their hearts and souls into these movies like Rey does. They seem like fairly disposable B-movies, mainly because their audience are teenagers. Teenagers have lower standards for things and I'm going to stand by that sweeping statement because why not? But Rey has these characters that I tend to care about. Farley Granger is playing that same role that I've seen him play a million times before. While he plays different parts, there's something kind of uniform about his performance. It feels like I'm being rude about Farley Granger. I'm really not because I get low-key excited when he's in a movie. It's just that he keeps playing this victimized protagonist. In Rope, he's the killer who doesn't want to be involved. In Strangers on a Train, he actually is a victim. This one, he's a guy who just keeps getting buried deeper and deeper into a world that he desperately wants to escape. Yeah, he's typecast, but who cares? He's so good in these roles and I absolutely love the dilemma.
What I kind of dig about movies like They Live by Night is that they are fundamentally a little bit silly, but any kind of investment in the movie unpacks a moral complexity that most people don't give them. Bowie and Keechie (ha! I still laugh) keep getting swept up in these complex moral situations that lead to people dying. They never really want to be part of this world, but they have the philosophy of the ends justifying the means. It is so odd to examine how they view the world. Their entire relationship is almost like a toddler's view on what romance is. Keechie never really had anyone respect her, so they get married while barely knowing each other. Yeah, I buy the romance because to movie asks me to buy the romance. But they have a pretty sweet honeymoon period because it all has to come to a fall. When they are dragged back into a life of crime, I always wonder why they don't run. They have this attachment to a building that is something out of the past. While Bowie's mindset is pretty juvenile because he's been in jail for most of his adolescence, Keechie seems to have never encountered the real world before. Her old home disappoints her. She expects to just stay in this pretty sad building the entire time. They both delude themselves that this is somehow going to work out. It's genuinely naive when they don't take the "pastor" (I have no idea what else to call him) up on is offer to move to Mexico. It's even weirder that it doesn't play out later. The movie really implies that the man recognizes Bowie almost right away, but I'm going to let that go. Their choices are just so bizarre. They have these good hearts, which make them sympathetic characters. Bowie offering his share of the money to the other gang members as a form of reparation humanizes him to us. But he also gets these clear instructions about the right course of action and the wrong course of action. And like most JD films, he chooses the wrong course of action. Everything goes wrong. The confusion of emotions that I experience is as such: the film will follow a moral formula. If you make a bad choice, there will be a one-to-one consequence. Bowie ignoring Keechie's warning leads to his partners dying. Okay. Sure. But then we also get these stories of people honestly trying to do the right thing. They are presented with a handful of pretty bad situations and they have to choose among these terrible scenarios. How can a movie be both complex and so straightforward at the same time? That's why movies like They Live by Night work with me. If you want a straightforward morality tale, you have it. If you want to break down the story a little bit, you can as well.
From a pacing perspective, They Live by Night is pretty impressive. There's a little bit of a learning curve needed to adapt to the film. The language is something that is come to expect from the gangster films of 1948. The dialogue is a little bit stilted, but is delivered earnestly. If you aren't a fan of jargon and dialect, the performances clearly indicate the desired result for these films. We know character intentions pretty well. Like I mentioned with JD films, they really thrive on tropes and archetypes. These archetypes really provide an easy shorthand for most of the characters' intentions. One-Eye, believe it or not, doesn't like when you mention his one eye. He gets mad and flies off the handle. When one character is warned not to drink, of course he's going to drink. These characters are pretty superficial. We have Bowie and Keechie, who are deep in some ways and shallow in others, surrounded by everyone else who is a trope. There's the jeweler, who keeps wanting to make a sale and is overly friendly. Dad's a drunk and will always be discussed as a drunk. The landlord of the motel is teaching his boy how to run the business. These tropes are charming, but it is very simple to make these characters. All of the character, except for Bowie and Keechie, have one single goal and they are constantly pursing that goal throughout the film without exception. It's odd how sometimes a simple movie can actually be refreshing from time-to-time. So the dialogue may be dated, but that quickly fades to the background once you peg what character does what. As part of that formula SPOILER, the main character has to die. Is it because he decides to run without his wife? It's this odd choice. It is expected that Bowie cannot survive the events of They Live by Night. But Bowie actually brings up a way more complicated an interesting scenario than death that I kind of want to explore. He plans to leave Keechie for her own sake. He knows that his life of crime is drawing a lot of attention and he just wants to protect her. So he makes that old bonehead decision to runaway, leaving her with the money. What kind of punishment would that be? The odd thing is, I kind of wanted to see Bowie get mowed down. I know. I'm a real psychopath. But the movie presented this really complex scenario for the main character to endure and I was just cool with that not happening.
I don't know what button movies like They Live by Night press. I don't think many o of my few readers have actually seen They Live by Night. I can't really hope to have a meaningful discussion about it. All I know is that Bowie is a sympathetic character who is kind of the worst. He thinks that he is the good guy in a story where he is kind of the villain. He's better than most because he thinks that he is the hero, but that doesn't outright make him a hero. I love that. I love that the movie doesn't really let him off the hook, despite his intentions. That's the morality I like in my movies. It's never really all that great, but it is pretty darned good.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.