Popular fare in the Classic Hollywood blogger/watcher/TCM devotee community, Noirvember, affectionately Frankenstein-ing the month and film genre, entails a month’s watching of gumshoes, sharp-shooters, femme fatales, and crooked outsiders in pictures from around the world. Or, if you’re like me, this Noirvember entailed a month’s watching of Anne Bancroft, Farley Granger, and Yakuza films. Admittedly, I’ve never been a genre obsessive, but it did not take me long to realize that this month would not be devoted to much else. This Noirvember I’ve also spent time revisiting Anne Bancroft’s early Hollywood pictures of the noir persuasion, which I will be taking a look at here for those interested in her oft underseen noir side. Formalities out of the way, here are the ten noirs that were notable to me this month.
10. The Naked Street, 1955. Directed by Maxwell Shane. Rewatch.
Anne Bancroft and Farley Granger in The Naked Street (1955).
Starting off with the worst, The Naked Street (1955), directed by Maxwell Shane. Alright, this is not a good noir, but I’m including it on this list because I did rewatch it this month for the first time in over two years, and this is more or less a note to all of the Anne Bancroft or Farley Granger completionists out there. An entry in the string of b-noirs Bancroft was making in the mid-50s and the last picture Farley Granger would make at 20th Century Fox, this is a stunningly unremarkable film that not even its stellar cast could save. Anthony Quinn (did I mention he stars, too?) leads as the incorrigible mobster Phil Regal with a soft spot for his demure younger sister Rosalie (Anne Bancroft). When Regal finds out his sister is with child and death row resident Nicky Bradna (Farley Granger) is the father, his character begins to heavily resemble the brutish strongman he plays in La Strada (which, to put this puzzling film even more into perspective, was released a year earlier. Anthony Quinn, you’re better than this!). Nonetheless, he uses his racketeering prowess to spring Bradna from jail so he can marry Rosalie before she can have their child; shockingly, the marriage doesn’t work out, Bradna fools around with other girls (over Anne Bancroft, really?), Regal finds out, and unleashes that Zampanò wrath again. Not much else happens.
Understandably, Farley Granger hated The Naked Street, holding no reservations about the film in his autobiography, Include Me Out: My Life From Goldwyn to Broadway, stating, “All I have to say about my final movie at 20th Century Fox is, ‘Thank God for Tony Quinn and Anne Bancroft.’” My sentiments exactly, Farley Granger. However, I count this as a notable picture in my Noirvember 2020 catalog largely due to the off-screen friendship between Bancroft and Granger. Remembering his time making the film, “Tony was a unique actor, as was Anne, and we all struggled to inject some kind of drama into a script that was preachy, trite, and pedestrian. Anne and I would spend our lunches talking about the theatre and life in New York. This was her tenth film, and she was not happy about any of them. I felt that she was too special and too good for Hollywood to ever figure out how to use her well and suggested that she go back to the theatre,” there is something incredible to be said about this mutually inspiring friendship, one of Bancroft’s first in Hollywood. Fortunately, a few years and a few more banal pictures later, Anne did leave Hollywood for the theatre, finding wild success and a renewed sense of confidence in her craft. Granger did the same. At least some stirring of passion came from this picture, if it wasn’t the action on screen itself.
My engaged interest in this film does not stretch further than Granger’s own sentiments, and being that he was in the picture, I will let him have the definitive say in the matter. Truly, do not take this as a suggestion. My investment in Bancroft and my rekindled love for Farley Granger has thrusted me into an odd consideration of this film again, and I have taken it upon myself to warn anyone who entertains the thought of spending a dull 84 minutes of exactly what they’re in for. To use Farley Granger’s own words, The Naked Street is “preachy, trite, and pedestrian,” and completely not worth your time, unless, like me, you enjoy entertaining the thought of Bancroft and Granger engaging in lunchtime chatter in between scenes.
Let it be known that there are much, much better Farley Granger and Anne Bancroft noirs on this list.
9. La tête d’un homme (A Man’s Neck), 1933. Directed by Julien Duvivier.
Harry Baur and Valéry Inkijinoff in La tête d’un homme (1933).
Everybody loves a good double-crossing and dirty deed. With French director Julien Duvivier’s La tête d’un homme (which does translate to A Man’s Neck, not A Man’s Head), a disturbed early French film noir, one might have have a viewing experience akin to the anxious sensation of a clamped neck in a guillotine’s scaffolding. When short-on-change gambling addict Willy Ferrièrre (Gaston Jacquet) announces in a Montparnasse cafe that he would pay a generous sum for any person to kill his wealthy aunt so he can claim her inheritance, two men overhear him, two men take this seriously, but only one of these men, Joseph Heurtin (Alexandre Rignault) actually gives him a note as physical evidence of taking up his offer. Later that night, as Heurtin breaks into the wealthy aunt’s house only to find her D.O.A., but with his fingerprints all over the job. The other man, later identified by the name of Radek (Valéry Inkijinoff) who took up Ferrièrre’s offer (and actually carried it to fruition) is in the house, too, but Heurtin is the one who takes the heat for the crime. As the leading suspect, Heurtin tracked down by Inspector Maigret (Harry Baur), but convinces him of his innocence and is granted escape; Radek starts blackmailing Ferrièrre and it becomes increasingly obvious to the authorities that there are more people involved in this case than originally expected, and the rat race to find the man who hired Radek to kill one wealthy aunt ensues and drives the film home with sharp-shooting precision.
Polished and incisive, La tête d’un homme feels like watching every single noir trope play out for the very first time, exactly like watching your favorite dime store crime novel come to life. Duvivier’s early exercise in film noir is like anxiously watching a ticking time bomb in pure, immobile shock; though it’s not a decidedly creative or nuanced noir, the language of the genre is there, and it is beautiful watching a genre in its infancy assemble itself from its pithy source material. Stirring and unsparing, La tête d’un homme is the noir to watch if you enjoy the sensation of hair rising on the nape of your neck.
8. Secret Beyond the Door, 1947. Directed by Fritz Lang.
Joan Bennett in Secret Beyond the Door (1947).
Of course, I couldn’t let a Joan Bennett-Fritz Lang noir slip through the cracks! Secret Beyond the Door is an oft underseen collaboration between the two maestros of film noir that deserves due credit. Marrying a man you barely know is always cause for trouble, such is the case of Celia (Joan Bennett) who, after the death of her dear brother, is whisked away in a hasty marriage to the wealthy and (seemingly) charming Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave) after their brief encounter in Mexico. Moving to his opulent and tragic East Coast mansion, home of murders that may or may not be Mark’s doing, Celia quickly realizes that the whole mood of their affair has shifted and that she might not have married the man she thought she did. If these plot beats sound familiar in writing, it’s because they are. Another noir I watched for the first time this month was Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard (1944), an adaptation of the French folktale, “Barbe bleue,” originally written in 1697, which is a much more literal rendering of Charles Perrault’s classic tale of an affluent man who murders his wives in succession and the endeavor of the most recent wife to escape the fate of her antecedents. This is a loose adaptation of the classic tale, but Lang loves romance, so Secret Beyond the Door is a meditation between a perilous folktale and the sunken sleepiness of a Hollywood film noir.
As one of my favorite film directors, one who I have spent a significant amount of time with, I feel confident in saying that Fritz Lang’s work takes an increasingly American feel deeper into his occupation in the country; though Secret Beyond the Door holds inflections of German expressionism that marks his early silent film work, it does carry that stiflingly American inclination towards structure over imagination, which is likely why you don’t hear about this film as much as you do The Woman in the Window (1944) or Scarlet Street (1945), his earlier collaborations with Joan Bennett. However, this is still an immensely watchable film and a more-than-solid noir; the aforementioned German expressionism flare presents itself in Lang’s brilliant use of atmosphere in an expansive and calamitous mansion (really doubling down on that “doors are secret passageways” visualism). Joan Bennett is tops as her usual frustratingly cool leading lady (I wouldn’t exactly call her a femme fatale in this, however), and I found it interesting to see what Lang made of an oft-retold blend of fantasy (offering space to his expressionist flame) and smothering reality. A great watch for those who like their movies how they like their dreams.
7. Caught, 1949. Directed by Max Ophüls.
Barbara Bel Geddes and James Mason in Caught (1949).
I really went back and forth between including this or the aforementioned The Reckless Moment (1949) in this list, but I have more to say about this film, so it’s this Mason-Ophüls collaboration for the books. Caught is a tragedy of obsession and the suffocating presence of love, or lack of it. Something of a social-climber, young model-with-moxie Leonara Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) hastily marries (this is quite a popular theme, no?) disturbed magnate Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan); neither do it for love. As one might expect, this becomes criteria for their estrangement, and after bathing in riches for a short while, Leonara separates from Smith and finds a job in a medical clinic under the oversight of the charming (dreamy, gorgeous, smoldering, etc. etc.) Dr. Larry Quinada (James Mason). The two kindle a flame but after a brief reconciliation with Smith, Leonara becomes pregnant with his child; baiting her with this unfortunate lapse in judgment, Leonara suffers between the clutches of her captor and the man who she truly loves.
Now, if you have never had the great fortune of catching James Mason in a noir, this is definitely one to consider. He has his convictions (smartly pivoting him from the stock “knight in shining armor” character, ready and willing to whisk Leonara away from her deranged ex-husband), but he is ultimately the perfect foil for Robert Ryan’s power-hungry Smith Ohlrig. He is generous with the time and resources he has, offering Leonara compassion for the first time in her life. Similarly, Barbara Bel Geddes shines as a woman whose only vice is wanting a better life for herself, who perilously falls into the keep of a man who can offer her one, only not on her own terms. She’s similarly great in Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon (1949), which also almost made it to this list, as Robert Mitchum’s tough-skinned, gun-wielding right hand man and love interest (that film is great too, if you enjoy the hybridization of western and noir). Ophüls’ brief love affair with the Hollywood noir marks some of the greatest staples in the genre, and Caught is every indication as to why: power play and a misunderstanding of love makes for great material, and Ophüls perfectly charges the film with sharp pace, interesting characters, and damning interrelationships. Caught engagingly fills the noir space in his expansively accomplished filmography and Hollywood history alike.
And while I do not need to tell you that he’s hot (both because it’s obvious and I try to keep things professional here), James Mason is hot and has a voice to inspire angels.
6. Ossessione (Obsession), 1943. Directed by Luchino Visconti.
Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai in Ossessione (1943).
It’s The Postman Always Rings Twice but in wartime, fascist regime Italy. And in my opinion, everything that falls flat for me in Tay Garnett’s American-made 1946 adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel of the same name, is made lush and dreadful in Visconti’s vision. This is the second adaptation of Cain’s novel, the first being Pierre Chenal’s Le Dernier Tournant (The Last Turning) from France in 1939 (I, however, have not seen Chenal’s adaptation so I will not be comparing the two). I’ve always found Cain’s material akin to the vulgar richness of Lolita (particularly Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant adaptation from 1962), and Ossesssione absolutely revels in that vulgarity; the sickly verve of guilt lingering in infidelity and murder that makes for a staggering exercise in film noir.
(Mild spoilers ahead if you’ve never seen Ossessione or any adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice). Massimo Girotti (swoon) plays the the gruff vagabond Gino Costa who takes residence at a small inn owned by Giovanna Bragana (Clara Calamai) and her older husband Guiseppe (Juan de Landa), who she is disgusted by. In a whirlwind affair rife with departure and denial, Giovanna persuades Gino into her conspiracy to kill her husband and frame it as an accident, so that the two can be together. After the murder, tensions and resentment about the scornful act rise between Gino and Giovanna; Gino spends time away from Giovanna as he begins to feel trapped and a pawn in her scheme to rid of her husband, but the two ultimately rekindle their passion and Giovanna announces to Gino that she is pregnant with his child. Authorities now fully involved with the accident (murder) that killed Guiseppe, the two become doomed beyond reconciliation.
I know many consider The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) to be a classic Hollywood noir essential, but I have never exactly taken a shine to that accolade, always favoring the popular work of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) that occupies relatively the same space (murderous femme fatale asks a deadly deed of a male co-conspirator sworn by love); Ossessione, however, is a grimly romantic vision of Cain’s novel with a context that provides the source material a much-needed exigency. Gino and Giovanna are framed as hopelessly intertwined in the barb of love’s undying flame (with convincing and flagrant chemistry), which provides interesting and decadent foreground for a story that is riddled with highs and lows; though the murder first drives a wedge between them and neither can fully be atoned for their crime, they are resolved to this fate together, no matter what lies in the wake of their tragedy. In a time and place where censorship was king (more so than in America), Ossessione is adult in feel and flavor, with the kind of filmmaking that suggests this as a story that needs to be told. For your next Noirvember, mind this superior version of The Postman Always Rings Twice.
5. A Colt is My Passport (拳銃コルトは俺のパスポート), 1967. Directed by Takashi Nomura.
Joe Shishido as Shuji Kamimura in A Colt is My Passport (1967).
Deck the halls with blood and foul play. Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is my Passport is stunningly assured filmmaking, offering a little of everything in a polished, well-balanced package. Hit man Shuji Kamimura (Joe Shishido) is hired by Yakuza boss Sensaki (Eimei Esumi) to kill mob rival Shimazu (Kanjūrō Arashi) who has become greedy in his business dealings; Kamimura accepts the job and executes the act with the remarkable ease of consolidating murder into getting a job done. He is a truly lonely man plagued by the skeletons in his closet, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by his sharp-shooting precision alone. After the deed is done, Kamimura, accompanied by his faithful driver Shun Shiozaki (Jerry Fujio), has an elaborate plan to prove the success of his hit Sensaki, eliminate the evidence, then flee Japan; these plans are foiled, however, by complications on Sensaki’s end. In a tailspin for survival, Kamimura and Shun hide out in a motel frequented by the Yakuza, where they meet the repressed waitress Mina (Chitose Kobayashi), who irrevocably affects the trajectory of Kamimura’s journey.
Takashi Nomura seamlessly blends French New Wave and spaghetti western influences into this stylish, melancholy noir while also telling a story that chews plenty of scenery and opens the floor to existentialist dread. Plagued by the ghosts of his past in a profession that begs indifference and estrangement from all things emotional, Joe Shishido’s Kamimura is the perfect leading man. Not that he needs have an American counterpart, but if you are keen on name recognition, Kamimura has a similar feel to Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Markham (alias Jeff Bailey) in Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947); however, Kamimura does not seek to escape his past, or his profession, he only seeks to survive with the existing terms and how they have irrevocably shaped him. This is a compact, neat, and satisfying neo-noir that draws from both its genre predecessors and the movements that were shaping the current landscape of filmmaking from around the world at the time. If you are looking to shake up your noir watchlist, or perhaps save a spot for next year’s Noirvember fare, this is not one to miss.
4. Strangers on a Train, 1951. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rewatch.
Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951).
“We talk the same language.”
It almost feels like cheating to put a Hitchcock film this high on my list. However, since this was the month of Farley Granger, Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock’s second queer-coded collaboration with Granger, was to be expected. To double-down on my confidence in the high-ranking of this picture on this list (which was a rewatch at that), this November I have fortuitously rekindled my relationship with the master of suspense, and have decided that he is one of the only directing giants oft-recognized out of the cinephile reach who I definitively have an opinion on (he’s good!).
Strangers on a Train opens on the titular train, wherein titular strangers engage in a famously awkward conversation, one of Hitchcock’s favorites to have on screen: what constitutes the perfect murder? Perfect strangers though they are, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is no stranger to the public as an amateur tennis star in an adulterous relationship with a senator’s daughter, which is why second stranger Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) initiates said awkward conversation. Guy is unnerved but doesn’t entirely reject Bruno, an unfortunate saving-of-face that justifies bringing his side of their “deal” to exchange murders (Bruno to Guy’s wife Miriam who won’t grant him a divorce and Guy to Bruno’s father who he resents) to fruition. Miriam (Kasey Rogers) now dead at Bruno’s hands (in a carnival sequence comparable to sweat-down-your-back, wake-in-fright nightmares), Guy has an incorrigible mess on his hands with a psychopathic murderer who has claimed him as a friend; what’s more is that Bruno is holding Guy up to his half of the deal, with more dirt against him than lets on. Through a stomach-churning tennis match, dinner party conversation, and yet another carnival sequence, Strangers on a Train culminates in the most bristling end scene to come of Hitchcock’s pantheon of bristling end scenes (a bold but true opinion).
Alright, it’s queer-coded. Farley Granger has spoken about the subtext of Rope (1948) in such LGBT retrospectives as The Celluloid Closet from 1995, but Strangers on a Train has always crossed me as a much more inflicted way to brace homosexuality on screen, much deeper a reflection than Rope. Played for its subtle, more reflective side of homosexuality by proxy of murder (though that is certainly simplifying things), Strangers waxes poetic about out-of-body experiences, and seeing the darkest parts of yourself in someone else. Farley Granger is beautiful and brilliant, feeling the role of Guy with every part of him, mirroring the stilted genius of Robert Walker’s corrupt Bruno. This is almost like watching a Shakespearean tragedy see itself to completion, again, with the end scene acting as an orgasmic atonement for the cluttered darkness of the human psyche. Only, of course, homosexuality is that very darkness. Not to be a reductivist, but it was 1951, and god bless Farley Granger for breathing light into that darkness. Strangers on a Train is an intelligent film noir and cautionary tale of what might happen when we take too kindly to the oddness of strangers; the untold parts of ourselves become too transparent to keep, and must be expelled accordingly.
3. Nightfall, 1957. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Rewatch.
Anne Bancroft and Aldo Ray in Nightfall (1957).
Arriving in Hollywood in 1951 and swiftly signed to a two-year contract with 20th Century Fox under the hand-selection of Darryl F. Zanuck, Anne Bancroft spent the remaining few years of her first Hollywood stay freelancing after her first (and only) film contract was up. Before her chance-of-a-lifetime role in William Gibson’s Two for the Seesaw, Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall was the most complex and career-defining role Anne had to her name by 1957.
Emerging from Los Angeles nightlife, James “Jim” Vanning (Aldo Ray) bums a light from a stranger (later revealed as an insurance investigator on the prowl for a missing $350,000 from his company) and wanders into a bar where he strikes an unlikely conversation with fashion model Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft). As she asks him to borrow five dollars in a pinch, Marie offers reason for conversation and the two share dinner together. Leaving the bar, Marie is thanked by two men waiting outside, John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond), for distracting Vanning; the two men then whisk Vanning away and demand that he tell them where their money is, but Vanning swears he doesn’t know. Having taken a generous beating and feeling slighted by the underhanded company of Marie, Vanning returns to her and demands answers; she demands them back. The puzzling affair is revealed in a flashback of Vanning’s unfortunate run-in with John and Red during a hunting trip in Wyoming turned awry, wherein Vanning is actually proven to be the innocent party. Now in an involved romance, Vanning and Marie flee to Wyoming to retrieve the mentioned loot; in Wyoming, Vanning comes face-to-face with the insurance man, Ben Fraser (James Gregory), who has been investigating his missing cash but believes in Vanning’s innocence. Also shacked up in the wilderness, John and Red have other plans of fatal intervention.
Anne Bancroft plays Marie Gardner with the distinct feel that she is more than a fashion model, more than a frightful dame in damning connection with a murder-robbery plot. In one scene where Vanning confronts Marie about her put-on at the bar that led to a ruthless beating from John and Red, she rises from her bed and answers the door with her hair in rollers, no makeup on, face lightly but visibly cloaked in sweat. She has no reservations about showing her natural appearance in the presence of a man she barely knows; in fact, her scorned reaction to Vanning’s presence all but speaks for itself. She is a woman whose daytime fare as a model has afforded her to live alone in a minimally but carefully decorated apartment in the heart of Los Angeles. There is a certain bravery and aptitude to Marie’s implied life that Bancroft pays such a mind to with the small details she has at her disposal; in that very scene, she presents as a tactful woman who has provided for herself who won’t be compromised or taken a fool by anybody. Needless to say, Bancroft is damn good with the material provided; creating this exigency reveals a kind of tact that Hollywood could not appreciate or fully understand. While not as rich a role as to come on the stage (Two for the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker), Bancroft’s sincere conviction as Marie in Nightfall sees the modern woman she so-loved playing to fruition, setting the precedent for many roles of the same persuasion to come.
Anne Bancroft photographed on location in the High Sierra region of California during the filming of Nightfall (1957). Photo from my collection.
Nightfall is a sleek low-budget outfit staggered by changes-of-pace that merit its #3 ranking on my Noirvember list. Alright, I’ll say it: I am a huge sucker for the “Wyoming” landscape. Snow and the extension of wilderness into the unknown makes for an exciting departure from the classic Hollywood noir setting of city nightlife (not like the picture doesn’t begin in this ecosystem, if you’re still aching for a taste of the familiar); this shifting landscape also helps to warmly invite narrative inconsistency, with a generous half of the picture being told in flashbacks, often disorienting reality from Vanning and the viewer alike. Another notable featurette of the film is its fashion show: a tense, Hitchcockian galleria of beautiful Jean Louis gowns (gracefully modelled by Bancroft). This seemingly oddly-structured break from direct action smartly gives way to believable exigency, the feeling (and reality) of being watched, for the film’s final unfolding of events to ensue with agency. Running at just under 80 minutes, Nightfall, with its charged simplicity and nonlinear narrative structure, lends the the kind of ambiguous modernity that was registering at the time it was made. This is not escapist fare, rather a reminder for the everyman and woman that being in the wrong place at the wrong time can look just as cold.
2. Tokyo Drifter (東京流れ者), 1966. Directed by Seijun Suzuki.
Tetsuya Watari in Tokyo Drifter (1966).
Rolling in my top two pick with another Nakkatsu-produced Yakuza film and one of the most colorful neo-noirs I have ever seen: Tokyo Drifter, a film that wonders if we can ever really let old habits die. When crime boss Kurata (Ryūji Kita) decides to put his crime syndicate days behind him, he has to dispatch his dedicated and dutiful enforcer, Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo (Tetsuya Watari). With a name that suggests his aptitude as a crime ring devotee, Tetsu finds it difficult to adjust or enjoy life outside of his previous profession. After turning down an offer from rival Yakuza boss Otsuka (Eimei Esumi), Tetsu is seen as a threat to the gang’s racketeering plans and has a price put on his head. Usurping death and revealing deceit, Tetsu becomes the titular drifter who spares no one but his old girlfriend Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) in the end.
Seijun Suzuki’s living, breathing masterpiece is a genre staple, a breathtakingly stylish portrait of late ‘60s Japan, a damn good film. Tetsuya Watari, who passed very recently, is brilliant as Tetsu in this prolific highlight in his string of Yakuza films, many in collaboration with Suzuki. As one the leading titles of the Yakuza film sub-genre, one does not exactly have to search high and low to understand exactly why, or exactly what makes this film special. The day and nightlife of its contemporary Japan are bright and expansive, opening a whole different world to Tetsu that he might have otherwise neglected in his oft-occupied crime underworld. Still, it proves near impossible for an old dog to learn new tricks, and Tetsu is just as confined to an impersonal and hard-boiled trade as he was under the leadership of Kurata, only now, he can call his own shots. A drifter on his own self-assigned escapade. Another incredibly noteworthy contribution to Tokyo Drifter is the staggering Chieko Matsubara, who dazzles as the breezy center in a world of corruption. It is interesting to see how a shifting cinema zeitgeist affected the whole world, as films from the late 1960s have a certain flavor of confidence and certainty for being so unique and novel to their respective time period. Tokyo Drifter bodies this new life perfectly, building on the traditional noir beats and adding new, jazzy color to a genre that Suzuki proves to be more flexible than meets the eye.
1. They Live By Night, 1948. Directed by Nicholas Ray.
Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in They Live By Night (1948).
You only love once.
When I was fifteen (maybe sixteen), my brother gifted me a DVD set of James Dean’s three films on Christmas Eve. At that point, I had only seen East of Eden (1955), but even with that formative education, I was completely smitten with the idea of Dean. A few hours after receiving the gift, I watched Rebel Without a Cause (1955) for the first time. I will never forget that it was on a Christmas Eve, on a holiday, when I could have been involved more in my family’s affairs but favored the teenage wasteland of a kind of Hollywood movie I had never seen before; afterwards, the film became a living, breathing part of my teenage zeitgeist, sharing the unfortunate fare of being an expression of my unequivocal angst with the likes of The Graduate (1967). I never looked at people my age or movies about people my age quite the same way again after watching Rebel Without a Cause; it all seemed so futile, to care as much to be sensitive to new love when it was all but fleeting and tragic. But at the same time, it encouraged me to be more of a teenager, more romantic and less achingly aware of myself. Rebel Without a Cause, to this day, carries a conflicted tone and memories for me: missed chances, teenage love I never experienced, my dignified insistence on being “above it all” even though I wasn’t, a penalizing reminder of how being young and tragic looks better on James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo than those from around my block. Nicholas Ray is perhaps best remembered for his seminal work on Rebel Without a Cause, a puzzling figure of Hollywood pratfalls and distinguished sincerity, now only remembered in his art. Rebel Without a Cause blends everything that makes They Live By Night aesthetically significant and affecting, down to the prepossessing casting of both pictures. But where Rebel Without a Cause is a flagship for all past seasons and their hauntings, They Live By Night is distinctly current: you must act on this love/chance/escape now, or you won’t live to see the daylight.
Adapted from the 1937 novel by Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us, They Live By Night was originally intended to be released under the same name; however, this title was discouraged, anticipating the misinterpretation: “Thieves Like Us.” That was Howard Hughes’ suggestion, and a sordid reminder of the stifling nature of Hollywood filmmaking during the golden age, even for something so simple. In fact, Hughes’ involvement, discouraging artistic choices and shelving the picture in a great RKO takeover fumble, ensured that They Live By Night would not see a fortuitous American release, despite its distinctly American context. Deviating from its source text a generous amount, They Live By Night tells the story of a young Arthur “Bowie” Bowers (Farley Granger) who, with two seasoned bank robbers Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), escapes from prison amid the rural south during the Great Depression. Planning their next move, the three outlaws hide away with Chickamaw’s brother at his service station, where Bowie meets Catherine “Keechie” Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell), Chickamaw’s sullen niece. Cold and attuned to indifference, Keechie takes a quiet, genuine interest in Bowie, who seems to be a decent young man that simply got mixed up in the wrong trade. On a whim, the two run away together, swiftly marry at a drive-by chapel, and hide out in a mountain cabin while Bowie’s name makes its rounds in local papers as the wrongly-accused shepherd of the robbery he, Chickamaw, and T-Dub committed earlier in the film. Still indebted to the men who helped spring him from jail, Bowie agrees to help pull off one last robbery, much to Keechie’s chagrin. The robbery goes awry, tensions rise between Bowie and Keechie, and the two flee from their hideout as the authorities continue to name Bowie as the ringleader in the now string of robberies. All too quickly, the two young lovers become pinned against the world.
I think I knew my month would veer into unexpected territory a couple scenes into They Live by Night. Having nothing but introductions between them, Bowie watches Keechie light her cigarette against the night. He watches her too intently, his hand slips from against the wall, rattling chains and startling Keechie, thrusting them into terse conversation: their first. Farley Granger is so beautiful in that scene, a kind of beauty that you might take for granted in any other one of his films, but here it’s special because it’s so unprecedented. He’s a rare case of prepossessing, pure of heart, and outlawed all at the same time. Cathy O’Donnell, too, turns on a sunken world-weariness that might come with women from the side streets of the rural country, but she’s a rare case in that she’s so young and already so sad. As their conversation deepens, Keechie learns that Bowie has spent seven years in the can for a murder plot he was mistakenly involved in. Though he’s done time and flies with a crowd like Chickamaw and T-Dub, Keechie responds kindly to him, thinking him different. Decent. There’s never anything smoldering or burning between them, not even in their first few conversations, only a quiet understanding that comes when you truly know someone; a kind of connection that goes beyond dialogue or physical touch. It’s innocence. It’s quite literally spelled out for us:
“This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…To tell their story…”
To wax poetic about this film, Romeo and Juliet each taking the poison in the greatest dramatic irony known to literature, Bowie and Keechie never have the fortune of being star-crossed; they come together in the most desperate of circumstances that would otherwise prove their romance hasty and colorless, if not for the tender interference of being one another’s teacher. They attach to each other and learn to know the world, though limited and grey, through the eyes of another. Though they live their days of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, it’s with the constant accompaniment of fear and desperation. Though they live, it’s only from dusk till dawn.
They Live By Night is rhapsodic and devastating, completely stealing away from the polished romances of Hollywood film noir by paying mind to the unbridled matters of the heart. Nicholas Ray, with his softness towards human calamity and sympathy for the youth of the then-present, considers the stakes in every thought, action, and fear between our two young lovers and measures them out accordingly, with an assured sense of reality. Same is the case in his tenderness towards the teenagers of Rebel Without a Cause: everything is so important because it is. In They Live By Night, the exigency is recognizable, but the subtlety of Bowie and Keechie’s shy resolve till the end of time completes the narrative. They become adults by the end of the line, only it’s too late to enjoy the fruits of their labor. A reserved portrait of romance amid suffering, love against corruption, They Live By Night accounts for those who had that one person who taught them everything.
It wouldn’t be a month of spectacular reconsideration for a genre I’d long neglected if it hadn’t been for this film that knows its conventions so well that it breaks them, creating something that is not boastful or demonizing, but compassionate and sincere. It’s noir that does not fear the ultimately kind and tender. It’s Farley Granger when he, too, was young and naive. It’s Nicholas Ray when he held the courage of his convictions. On the last page of his script, Ray handwrote, “This is a love story, it is also a morality tale in the rhythm of its time.”
It’s been lovely watching. Till next Noirvember.
Calhoun, Robert and Granger, Farley. Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway. St. Martin’s Press, 2007.