Tuesday, August 22, 2017

"We're in a Jam!": My first look at They Live By Night

The Wikipedia article on They Live By Night, Nicholas Ray's 1948 movie based on Edward Anderson's 1937 novel Thieves Like Us, offers interesting observations, and I have some of my own. First, Wikipedia:

Bosley Crowther's review of They Live By Night, included the following, according to the Wikipedia entry:
"Although it ... is misguided in its sympathies for a youthful crook, this crime-and-compassion melodrama has the virtues of vigor and restraint ... They Live by Night has the failing of waxing sentimental over crime, but it manages to generate interest with its crisp dramatic movement and clear-cut types."
 Those italicized bits are likely to raise eyebrows today, and, not knowing much about Crowther except his name, I have to wonder if he really hated noir as much as the first boldface bit makes it appear. I give Crowther a possible pass on the second highlighted portion. Though it seems almost as stridently moralistic as the first portion, many of the early film noirs were indeed sentimental, or at least melodramatic. Many American movies that came to be called film noir were, in fact, once referred to as melodramas.

The Wiki article credits They Live By Night with being the first movie to include action scenes shot from a helicopter and, indeed, its opening sequence is stunning, a gorgeous and compelling in medias res opening. A later shot from above, of fleeing crooks, seems heavy-handed, however, a telegraphing that the crooks are being observed and will be caught and come to a bad end. Here the technique has not dated well, probably no fault of Nicholas Ray's or cinematographer George E. Diskant. We're all so much more visually sophisticated than we were 70 years ago.

I'll save my own comments for later; this post grows long. The comments will likely revolved men and the city, women and the country, and the encounters between the first and the second in American crime novels and movies from the middle of the twentieth century. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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