Archive for They Live By Night

Sleeper Hit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Robert Altman’s THIEVES LIKE US sort of trundles into rickety existence with a bunch of scenes sort of recognizable from their vague equivalents in Nick Ray’s debut THIEVES LIKE US, only less incisive, more diffuse and goofy and realistic. You don’t really know why you’re watching until a dog comes panting along a railway bridge, its soft puffing exactly like that of a tiny hairy steam train. Keith Carradine, forced by barely-explained plot contingencies to sleep rough, gathers the compliant hound to his bosom. “You’ll be my blanket,” he says, rolling into a nook under the train tracks. BONK — the dog bumps its head on the overhead sleeper.

“Sorry,” ad libs Carradine, and wins our affection. He can rob as many people as he likes for the rest of the movie, his canine apology makes him one of us.

This residual goodwill proves very handy as the film, one of Altman’s most low-key, minor-league ’70s works, soon reverts to trundling, and Carradine’s character does little to ingratiate himself. Farley Granger in the original is impossibly naive, but what to Nick Ray is innocence, to Altman is stupidity. He doesn’t try to seduce us, as Arthur Penn & co did in BONNIE AND CLYDE, but that leaves the film to be defined mainly in the negative, for all the conventional things it resists doing, rather for any bold new ground it positively breaks.

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The use of old-time radio shows on the soundtrack seems unusually obvious for Altman — hearing The Shadow or something doesn’t seem to provide a new layer the way the tannoy announcements do in M*A*S*H. But the constant presence of Coca-Cola in the film is intriguing — we see it being promoted, the heroes drink nothing but, and in the final scene, every extra seems to have their own bottle. This is, I believe, before Cola got into movie-making, so I don’t think it’s mere product placement. Altman clearly has something on his mind. It’s like the fizzy drink version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

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This boy…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2011 by dcairns

Watching THEY LIVE BY NIGHTS (LES AMANTS DU NUIT, according to my rather bluish French DVD) as a mini-tribute to the late Farley Granger, was struck all over again by how this, the first Nick Ray movie, really doesn’t move, cut, frame or talk like anything else from the period. From the dynamic (and hazardous-to-shoot) opening helicopter shot, which doesn’t say “1949” at all, to the terse dialogue, leaving everything important unspoken (we wait the whole film for an “I love you”), which seems like it may have been written with ’30s zip in mind, but is delivered more ponderously, emphasising the ellipses.

Farley, of course, is a minor miracle — arguably too sweet and innocent for someone who’s been in prison seven years on a murder rap, but Ray didn’t have a problem with occasional sentimental distortions for dramatic effect. Granger, and Cathy O’Donnell, never had this poetic effect again, despite reteaming in Mann’s SIDE STREET. She plays the first half with no makeup, which also seems very un-49, although Fiona noted that she’d discovered a comb and lipstick by the halfway mark — a little transformation akin to Natalie Wood’s move from sharp reds to soft pinks in REBEL.

Of course, knowing what we now know about Ray and Granger, dressing O’Donnell as a boy in her first scene takes on a deliciously subversive flavour.

You know, I’ve never watched Altman’s THIEVES LIKE US, because I’m slightly afraid of what it might do to my experience of this movie. Altman had the freedom and courage to go the distance with realism, but what I love about the Ray includes how close to a poetic form of reality he can get, within so many studio strictures.

New York Noir

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2010 by dcairns

Like THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, SIDE STREET, shown in Film Forum’s Anthony Mann retrospective, stars Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, and like that earlier and better film, it begins with an aerial shot, but there the resemblance mostly ends. The problem here seems to be MGM’s ideological antipathy to the true noir spirit, with its shades of gray, its sense of doubt and anxiety about society and human nature, and its commitment to sex and greed as persistent driving forces in human nature. All of which is anathema to Louis B Mayer, despite the fact that he was personally a more loathsome figure than many a noir bad guy.

So Granger and O’Donnell’s tendency to overexpressive sentimentality is fully indulged here, in contrast to the way Nick Ray kept them in check and made them earn the audience’s affection. Anthony Mann, no slouch in the noir stakes, compensates somewhat with shrewd casting and violent, percussive cutting and angles — I lost count of the number of faces thrust savagely into the lens. Although the cops, introduced via a NAKED CITY-lite opening VO, are angelic upholders of order, he casts Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw — the first, a doleful stringbean zombie, the second a granite torpedo with ground-glass-rasping vocal cords. Since Granger is meant to be an innocent man on the run, lovable MGM cops represent a minimal menace, but by this casting Mann reclaims some tension.

The set-up — in a moment of weakness, squeaky-clean mailman Farley steals what turns out to be a huge wad of dirty money, proceeds of a blackmail scheme with murder mixed in. The loot gets swiped before he can repentantly return it, and he hares around the city trying to recover it, pursued by cops and crooks as bodies pile up like pretzels (best body award goes to Jean Hagen, typically luckless in her choice of beau). It’s a very basic premise but it does allow for pleasing cameos and a pacy, crisscross narrative rhythm. Mann himself disliked the film save for the climactic pursuit through a weirdly deserted early morning Manhattan, the concrete canyons making a monolith maze for pursuers and pursued.

Honorable mention to James Craig, finding his level as a stupid brute of a bad guy, and to the two audience members who provided relief from a non-smouldering love scene by getting into a wrestling match over a mobile phone that hadn’t been switched off. I think violence does seem a suitable response to somebody taking a call during a movie… Crime Does NOT Pay!