Saturday, December 01, 2007

Nicholas Ray, "They Live by Night" (1948).

As I've worked my way through the 4th box set of Warner Brothers' Film Noir DVDs, I've found the definition of the genre stretched mightily. Some film critics have pointed out that Noir really isn't a cohesive genre at all, but rather a style. Val Lewton's 1940's horror film productions (such as Cat People and The Body Snatcher) have been characterized as having been shot Noir-style (I've recently purchased a collection of these films, but haven't broken into it yet), and there are plenty of modern movies that have earned the label "neo-Noir". The Coen Brothers' Blood Simple is an apt example. So I really shouldn't be surprised that, in the mad rush to capitalize on a popular trend in DVD release, that different studios and production companies are applying the tag of Noir with an obvious lack of discretion.

At first I was fairly disappointed by what I saw as deception in the modern marketing of these old films. If you scour through the archives of this blog, you can probably find some carping on this theme. But the truth is that there have been several films that I would have never taken the chance on had they not been sold as Noir. A perfect example of this would be Joseph Mankiewicz' House of Strangers (1949). Starring the legendary Edward G. Robinson, it is the story of the Italian patriarch of a family of bankers, and the tragic consequences and misunderstandings that result from a mad drive to establish material success. House of Strangers incorporates very few elements of Noir. Twentieth Century-Fox only gets away with its categorization of the film because its star participated in some of the finest examples of Noir (Key Largo [1948], Scarlet Street [1945] and Double Indemnity [1944]) . Regardless, in this case I was happy to be fooled- I loved the movie.

The same thing applies (in part) to They Live by Night (directed by Nicholas Ray). Warner Brothers was certainly on more solid ground when it decided to include the film as part of a Noir set than Fox was with House of Strangers. Ray's film does incorporate the activities of a small pack of thieves and their attempts to elude capture. There is a striking lack of condemnation in the treatment of the characters' sins, as well as a heaping dose of moral ambiguity. It might even be argued that it contains a typical femme fatale. These are all aspects that I expect in the classic Noir genre (or should I say 'style'?). Still, the success of They Live By Night rests on an identification the viewer is likely to make with the young couple at the film's center. Farley Granger is an undeniably troubled youth, who chooses to be in the company of some truly 'bad actors'. But he also embodies a strange innocence that seems out-of-place considering the circumstances of his life.

Granger's love interest (played superbly by the beautifully endearing Cathy O'Donnell) may be initially skeptical of becoming involved with an escaped con- but eventually she demonstrates a level of pure sweetness that is uncommon, if not entirely absent, within Noir films. As the lovebirds take to the open road, the depiction of their relationship would seem more appropriate in a romance-comedy. This doesn't make They Live by Night a failure. To the contrary, the decision to focus on the naive and unsullied nature of the coupling serves to engage us fully in their collective fate. Our level of involvement with Granger and O'Donnell makes the bittersweet ending all the more effective. While the finale is a sad one, it skirts the deep pessimism that we are used to finding in our favorite Noir. The fatalism is tempered with a hint of hope.

Perhaps it's not such a surprise that They Live by Night resists classification. This was Nicholas Ray's first film. Later on in his career, the director would become famous for having made Rebel Without a Cause (1955). That story of teenage angst and rebellion would carry faint traces of Ray's film debut. The filmmaker would put his instincts for melodrama to good use. There's no denying the directorial talent displayed in They Live by Night. Despite some mild disappointment in finding some traditional components of Noir lacking, I had no trouble enjoying the film. I found myself becoming emotionally involved in the plight of the leads- an unusual response for me when it comes to stories of love-on-the-lam. There's a heart at the center of this nominally fatalistic film that betrays an undercurrent of idealism. Still it has enough resemblance to its Noir kin that it can be considered a first cousin.

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