Big Screen Berkeley: ‘They Live by Night’

They Live by Night
They Live by Night screens at the Pacific Film Archive Friday as part of its last series before it closes in preparation for its relocation

Cinema is knee deep in films about star-crossed lovers on the run from the law. From Bonnie and Clyde to Badlands to Natural Born Killers and beyond, ‘bad kids in love’ has been a reliable Hollywood trope for decades — and it all began with They Live by Night (1948), screening at Pacific Film Archive at 8:45 p.m. on Friday, July 17 as part of the series ‘The Cinema According to Victor Erice’.

Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell star as Bowie and Keechie, two youngsters brought together by fate after convicted killer Bowie breaks out of prison with Chickamaw (Howard DaSilva) and T-Dub (the magnificently monickered Jay C. Flippen). Keechie is the daughter of Mobley (Will Wright), T-Dub’s alcoholic brother, who’s arranged for the purchase of a getaway car for the three escaped felons.

Now mobile, the trio promptly decide to pull off another heist in order to supplement their considerably depleted nest egg. Hitting a bank in fictional Zelton, Texas, they make a successful getaway – but not before Bowie is recognized by the local jeweler (Will Lee) who recently sold the love-struck youngster a bauble for his new sweetheart.

The heat now definitely on, Bowie and Keechie are compelled to hit the road — but not before stopping for a (Breen Office-required) quickie wedding at a roadside chapel. Now suitably wed, the honeymoon couple head off for Lamberts, a remote holiday hideaway. Will they be able to live there in peace and contentment — or will they the long arm of the law extend all the way to the back of beyond?


Personally selected for the series by Spanish director Erice, They Live by Night marked the directorial debut of Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause). It was more than an assured debut — it’s a mini-masterpiece of the noir genre, beautifully shot by George Diskant (who primarily worked in television, and rarely distinguished himself) and sensitively acted by the incredibly likeable Granger and O’Donnell.

It’s Charles Schnee’s screenplay, however, which is the film’s true highlight. Overflowing with hardboiled dialogue, it also includes this wonderful exchange between the man who runs the holiday camp and his ten-year old son: Dad – “Just-married people like to be alone”. Son — “I should think so”. I’d love to know how producer John Houseman got that little zinger past Joseph Breen!

Incidentally, with their new home scheduled to open in early 2016, ‘The Cinema According to Victor Erice’ will be the final series to screen at the ‘old’ Pacific Film Archive. To mark the occasion, PFA will be holding a two-day closing celebration on August 1 and 2: in addition to live music, general fun and gifts for PFA members, there will be special screenings and even a visit from Victor Erice himself, coincident with a 6:00 p.m. screening on Aug. 1 of his well-regarded drama El espíritu de la colmena (Spirit of the Beehive).

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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