By Tony Williams.
Again Criterion have provided us with a welcome reissue of a classic film noir now in a new 2k digital restoration with valuable feature material including the 2007 audio commentary by “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller and Farley Granger, now sadly no longer with us. (Though available on older DVD sets of the film, the commentary is still a welcomed extra.) With Nicholas Ray acclaimed as the “Poet of Nightfall” by Geoff Andrew in his 2008 book, long revered by the French, cinematically canonized by Jean-Luc Godard in his epic statement, “Nicholas Ray is the Cinema”, and the subject of recent critical studies such as Steven Rybin and Will Scheibel’s Lonely Places, Dangerous Ground: Nicholas Ray in American Cinema (2014) and Will Scheibel’s American Stranger: Modernisms, Hollywood, and the Cinema of Nicholas Ray (2017), this DVD reissue is very welcome. As Joanne Laurier wrote in her recent review of the film it is a “refreshing antidote” to a contemporary cinematic institutional mode of representation “Largely dominated by bombast, trivia, and social indifference.” The film’s status is indisputable but, as always, the focus here will be on the DVD and its featurettes since in an era of dreary mainstream blockbusters, it is important to return to achievements of the past, learn what was once possible, and engage in a spirit of inquiry and self-education far away from certain academic establishment postmodernist postures and mandarin egotistic aggrandizement attitudes antithetical to the process of discovery and enlightenment.
Having consulted “(Leave it to) DVD Beaver” in terms of learning about the technological aspects of this new 2k digital restoration, what can the potential purchases who already has VHS and earlier DVD versions of this film expect? Naturally, the 2007 audio-commentary that was available beforehand remains valuable especially in terms of feedback from the late Farley Granger whose voice does not totally reveal the ravages of time as with those later DVD commentaries by Michael Powell and Marius Goring on the achievements of The Archers. Referring to Ray and Hitchcock as “the two best directors I ever worked with” and making his own type of “Look Back in Anger” joke against Howard Hughes as “the great Howard Hughes”, Granger speaks highly of the support he received from the older generation of actors in the film, one of whom (Howard Da Silva) won the role of Chickamaw against his competitor Robert Mitchum. He has nothing but praise for Nicholas Ray: “He was wonderful. He was a really terrific director.” Granger and Muller both agree that the film was important for the influence it had on future directors rather than the public who had to wait two years for the mercurial Hughes to release it and it was the British audience that appreciated it more at the time of its initial release. Muller again repeats the story that Hughes protected Ray from the blacklist but when I met Terry Moore (secretly married to Hughes at the time) during the Memphis Film Festival some years ago, she stated that the story was untrue and that Hughes barely knew Ray. Since Ms. Moore is still with us some fact-checking is needed here. However, overall this is a good audio-commentary especially in terms of valuable contributions from the late actor who foreshadowed James Dean’s teenage role in Rebel Without a Cause (1954) in several ways.
One recent DVD feature addition is the 20-minute presentation “Outside of Time” by Imogen Sara Smith, author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City (McFarland, 2011). The title of this presentation refers to the fact that They Live by Night is a film “outside of time” because it was the first directorial film by a talent who came from outside Hollywood to bring something fresh to the system. Ray came from a comfortable background and had a troubled youth and was like Orson Welles, who also came from outside the Hollywood system to direct eventually his first film, more than coincidentally shot at RKO. Although Smith does not mention this, one also thinks of Robert Aldrich who came from a wealthy background and began his apprenticeship at RKO about the time Welles was shooting Citizen Kane (1). I do not know if Aldrich had a “troubled youth” but he certainly did not want to follow the banking arena of the Aldrich family of Rhode Island nor the political career of his cousin Nelson Rockefeller. Sketching the pre-production circumstances behind the film’s eventual genesis Smith notes the role of the original source novel Thieves Like Us (1937) by Edward Anderson, the influence of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), the legend of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow who died three years before the appearance of Anderson’s novel and Lang’s film, and Ray’s influence on later films such as Gun Crazy (1949), Tomorrow is Another Day (1951), Pierrot le Fou (1965), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Badlands (1974), all dealing with the fugitive romantic couple in various ways. As well as moving noir to the country, Ray also brought a Romeo and Juliet nuance of the style thus revealing the individual cinematic approach he would try to bring to most of his future productions. It is also a premature Road Movie with the ironic recognition that the vehicle not only promises mobility but acts as an isolating structure for those within the interior. This supplement is a really interesting addition to this DVD reissue and also raises questions as to similar parallels in other national cinemas especially French Film Noir of the Occupation and specifically Jacques Becker’s second feature as a director Goupi Mains Rouges (1943) that also amalgams noir with the countryside in a veiled anti-Vichy manner (see http://sensesofcinema.com/2014/cteq/goupi-mains-rouges/). Smith’s work raises some interesting issues as well as relevant international avenues worthy of exploration.
A six-minute audio extract from Gideon Bachman’s Film Form Radio Program features the film producer John Houseman who mentions the possibilities of a certain type of cinema in the late 40s and 50s that attempted a more complex artistic process in the commercial realm that differed from pre-war and Cold War Hollywood. Houseman does not use these exact terms, but in view of Joanne Laurier’s recognition of that brief historical moment that made such a cinema possible in her fine article cited above, the conclusion is obvious. After all, Houseman had to be on his guard in 1956 during the Cold War.
The final item is a short 2017 documentary “They Live By Night: The Twisted Road” featuring contributions by Molly Haskell, Oliver Stone, Christopher Coppola, and well-known film noir specialists Alain Silver, James Ursini, and Glenn Erickson. Finally, Ray biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, whose Nicholas Ray: An American Journey still remains the standard work on the director’s life, contributes a fine essay for the accompanying booklet titled “Dream Journey”. It is aptly titled since Bowie and Keechie still remain eternal fugitives both in terms of their “last romantic couple” tragic destiny as well as foreshadowing the plight of their so many optimistic young successors who would begin their own American Dream Odyssey only to discover, ultimately, its false premises. Whether in relation to the older generation or a failed American system, the only conclusion is that it was the climactic fade to darkness encompassing the last remaining victim who believed in another type of fulfilling destiny that the society will never allow them to achieve. Maybe Howard Hughes and HUAC recognized this and acted to destroy the potential of a new type of cinema that provoked its audiences to enquire, think, and attempt to make things much different than they actually were both in terms of the present and future.
1) See also Tony Williams, “Welles, Toland, Aldrich, and Baroque Noir Expressionism.” Film Noir: Light and Shadow. Eds Alain Silver and James Ursini. Milwaukee, WI.” Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2017, pp. 182-209.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the English Department of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh UP, 2016).