Young, Incredibly Handsome Farley Granger in They Live By Night

“They Live By Night” from 1948 was the featured film on TCM’s Noir Alley on Sunday, 7/2/2017. Eddie Muller (“your guide through the gutter”) gave some fascinating background on the film. It was based on a 1937 novel by Edward Anderson entitled “Thieves Like Us”. “Some critics,” Muller said, “compared Anderson’s prose to the best of Hemingway and Faulkner.” Nonetheless, Anderson parted with the rights to Rowland Brown (2-time Oscar nominee for Best Story for “Doorway to Hell” and “Angels with Dirty Faces”) for just $500. Brown wrote a stellar script for the film but, unable to get any backing, sold it to RKO for $10,000. Years later, producer John Houseman decided it would be the perfect vehicle to launch the directing career of his friend, Nicholas Ray (who later directed 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause”). “They Live by Night” was a hit in the UK, a year before it was released in the USA in 1949.

Farley Granger starred as Arthur “Bowie” Bowers, a young man who escapes from prison after serving 7 years for murder. This was Farley Granger’s third film. He was roughly the same age as Bowie (23) in the film. At one point, he says he was 16 when he was tried, convicted of murder and sentenced all on the same day. That means he was denied due process of law, according to a newspaper article he was shown by, T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), one of the older convicts he escaped with. Chickamaw (Howard da Silva) is the other escapee.

Cathy O’Donnell plays Keechie, a young girl who lives with her drunken father, Mobley (Will Wright). Chickamaw is her uncle and it is to their place that the escapees go. Keechie and Bowie learn that one thing they have in common is both their mothers ran off with another man. Bowie’s mother ran off with the man who killed his father.

“Fine way to get square. Stealing money and robbing banks. You’ll get in so deep …
they’ll have enough on you to keep you in prison for two lifetimes.”

After Bowie confides his plans for the future to Keechie, she tries to convince him to go back to prison and press his case for release from there, rather than go out and rob a bank with her uncle and T-Dub but Bowie believes his only chance for freedom is to get a lot of money and a lawyer. So help rob the bank he does, and he gets himself in even more trouble than Keechie predicted. Trouble or not, the two fall in love, run off together and get married on an impulse at a $20 marriage mill run by Hawkins (Ian Wolfe), $30 if you want the Wedding March. (That’s when you find out their real names. Keechie’s is Catherine). Hawkins helps them get a car for a fee, of course, and offers to help them get to Mexico for another fee. They decline but later, Bowie remembers this when they treat themselves to a night on the town. They talk about it in this great highlight with Marie Bryant performing “Your Red Wagon.”

It’s too late for an escape to Mexico at this point because Bowie has been dubbed “Bowie the Kid.” He’s believed to be the leader of the gang. Even other criminals don’t want him around.

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell were simply perfect, portraying both the effects on their characters of the rough world they were born into and the deep yearning for normal lives when the masks were dropped. Granger was always quite the good-looker but the vulnerability and sweetness he projects in this film made him twice as appealing. O’Donnell’s fresh-faced beauty shines the most in the few happy moments she and Bowie have together. This role brought Granger to the attention of Alfred Hitchcock and he soon found himself co-starring with Jimmy Stewart in “The Rope” (1948), loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murder. Only a few years later, Granger would land the role he is most well-known for: Guy Haines in 1951’s “Strangers on a Train.”

Eddie Muller said “They Live by Night” has been called the “Romeo and Juliet of noir.” We didn’t quite see that. This isn’t the story of two opposing factions that could live in peace if they weren’t so pig-headed. This is the law vs. the lawless. Bowie refers to himself as a black sheep who is no good for Keechie more than once. When he says it to her, she replies: “The only thing black about you is your eyelashes.” Yet, there are a few moments where you see Bowie’s baser nature and you know he ain’t carrying that .45 around just for show. If you haven’t seen this gem, you can still catch it on TCM on Demand until July 9th. It’s also available on Amazon for a whole lot less than it cost Bowie and Keechie to get married.

Eddie Muller mentioned a 1974 remake, directed by Robert Altman, starring Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall in the lovers’ roles. They used the book’s original name, “Thieves Like Us,” for that one. Maybe we’ll catch it sometime, but it sure seems like Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell would be a hard act to follow.

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