They Live by Night
Legendary director Nicholas Ray began his career with this lyrical film noir, the first in a series of existential genre films overflowing with sympathy for America’s outcasts and underdogs. When the wide-eyed fugitive Bowie (Farley Granger), having broken out of prison with some bank robbers, meets the innocent Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), each recognizes something in the other that no one else ever has. The young lovers envision a new, decent life together, but as they flee the cops and contend with Bowie’s fellow outlaws, who aren’t about to let him go straight, they realize there’s nowhere left to run. Ray brought an outsider’s sensibility honed in the theater to this debut, using revolutionary camera techniques and naturalistic performances to craft a profoundly romantic crime drama that paved the way for decades of lovers-on-the-run thrillers to come.
Nicholas Ray’s debut feature They Live by Night makes its way into the Criterion Collection, presented here on dual-layer Blu-ray disc in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 2K restoration scanned from the safety fine-grain positive made from the original negative.
It’s yet another win in the Criterion/Warner relationship, They Live by Nightlooking to have received an extensive amount of work. Restoration wise this is about as clean and free of damage as one could hope, and I was fairlyu hard pressed to find any sort of damage. There was the odd spec during a few scene transitions and I noticed a slight pulse closer to the end, but otherwise there isn’t much of note. It’s clean, it’s stable, and almost looks new.
The digital presentation itself is also terrific. There are a few shots that can look a little out-of-focus (a close-up during the film’s finale looks particularly blurry) but other than these few moments the detail levels are high and the image is crisp. The black-and-white image presents strong tonal shifts and superb contrast. Black levels are rich and shadow details are still easy to make out so those darker shots look really good. Film grain is fine but still noticeable and rendered astonishingly well, never coming off noisy or blocky. As one would hope the end result we get looks like a projected film and an extraordinarily clean one at that.
The film is accompanied by a lossless 1.0 PCM mono audio track. It sounds of the time, a bit flat and one-note but rarely edgy or harsh. Dialogue is easy to hear, music sounds decent, and other than the occasional background hiss I didn’t notice any significant damage. It’s a decent presentation.
Sadly, despite being Nicholas Ray’s first film, this edition only comes with a handful of special features. They do port over a previously recorded audio commentary featuring film scholar Robert Muller and actor Farley Granger, which was recorded in 2007. I can’t say I was too enamored by the track but it’s enjoyable and informative enough. Muller essentially talks about the film’s production, Ray’s unusual—for the time—way of filming it, the film’s look and so on, while Granger answers a number of questions, confirms some things Muller says, or just shares his own stories about Ray, producer John Houseman, or the film itself. Amusingly there are a few times where Muller will talk up a scene and how Ray constructed it, while Granger is unable to recall a single thing about it. Again I enjoyed listening to it, and I’m especially happy that Granger was able to participate to offer first-hand accounts, but I can’t say there was much that was all that revelatory.
Criterion then provides one new supplement, an interview with Imogen Sara Smith, who talks about Ray’s first feature, this era of post-war noir, and how this film broke many of the conventions of the genre and played a part in starting a new subset of films, the “lovers on the run” genre if you will. She covers the film’s production from its original source novel to its completion, the film only to be shelved by then RKO owner Howard Hughes (Hughes had a tendency to do this and this along with other management eccentricities aided in the studio’s spiral that would eventually close it down in 1957). But she also looks at the genre rules the film breaks and then sets up for films going forward, while also talking about Ray’s visuals and use of sound, which apparently earned the film some fans within Hollywood before it was finally officially released. It’s only 21-minutes long (and a breezy 21-minutes at that) but I found Smith’s comments and analysis far more interesting than Muller’s comments in the lengthier audio commentary.
Criterion then digs up 6-minutes’ worth of audio from an interview between the film’s producer, John Houseman, and Gideon Bachmann. The interview was conducted in 1956 and after this period Houseman’s film career would venture into many other areas, particularly a rather lucrative acting career with a number of great roles, becoming “America’s favourite old fart” (according to Bill Murray in the film Scrooged at least). While that would all come later he had still accomplished quite a bit and during this excerpt Houseman talks about the unusual road that led him to the film business and becoming a producer, mentioning how he learned to gauge what audiences wanted, giving his production of Julius Caesar as an example. I wish there was more but even then the 6-minutes we get here is rich and deeply fascinating.
The final supplement then appears to be carried over a from a previous Warner DVD release. ”They Live by Night”: The Twisted Road is more of 6-minute appreciation featuring Molly Haskell, filmmakers Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone, and film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini. It’s not a terribly in-depth piece and it’s curious why Criterion would have bothered with it when they have a tendency to not port over every feature from older releases (like Blow-Up’s lack of the original Warner DVD’s audio commentary), but it basically features the five explaining what sticks out about the film and what makes it a landmark to them.
An insert is also included, featuring an essay on the film and Ray’s then-unique vision by Bernard Eisenschitz, offering another decent scholarly piece to sit with Smith’s contribution. Despite those solid contributions and Houseman’s interview excerpt the release otherwise does feel a bit light on content, despite the included commentary and especially because this is Ray’s first film.
The features, despite some really good ones, do leave a bit to be desired but it’s the presentation that’s the true selling point here. The restoration has been thorough and it has been encoded beautifully on this disc. Highly recommended.