N. B. Those who wish to avoid prior knowledge of the story, particularly its climax, should put off reading these notes till after seeing the film. Hopefully, then, they will want to see the film again!

When shooting started on They Live by Night, Nick Ray told his cameraman George Diskant: “Every mistake in this film is going to be mine. Everything that’s done here is going to be mine. I want to find out if film is for me, and if it’s not, I’ll go back to Broadway.” As a result of this experience, he “fell in love” with film (1).

John Houseman, credited as producer on They Live by Night, had been involved in the development of the project from the outset. However, during shooting he was immersed in the first English-language production of Brecht’s Life of Galileo, with Charles Laughton, and directed by Joseph Losey. This was staged at the Coronet Theater in Hollywood, at which Houseman and colleagues were inaugurating a new series of productions. Nevertheless, he was close enough to the project to write, on the first day of shooting:

I realized that our association had undergone a subtle but drastic change…. Suddenly there was a new balance. Until then, though I had complete faith in his taste and talent and frequently accepted his judgements, Nick had functioned as my assistant. Overnight this was changed. From the first instant of shooting, Nick Ray emerged as an autonomous creator with a style and work patterns that were entirely and fiercely his own. (2)

Houseman concluded: “the whole feeling about it, as you can tell from comparing it with Altman’s picture [the much later Thieves Like Us (1974), based on the same source material]… that was Nick talking” (3).

Altman’s adaptation certainly seems much closer to Edward Anderson’s original novel (4). So too, however, does the screenplay Ray (hereafter Nick) gave me to read over forty years ago. Though I failed to clarify the status of this document, I certainly remember it as a screenplay, not a treatment. This suggests it was the result of the involvement of Charles Schnee, brought in by Houseman to “transfer” Nick’s original treatment “into a screenplay”, which could be used to estimate budget, and presumably provide a basis for scheduling (5). Nick did tell me that, whenever he was uncertain, or felt in trouble during production, he went back to his original treatment. Never, when talking about They Live by Night, or a project in which Houseman tried to interest him early in pre-production, Two Weeks in Another Town (directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1962), did he refer to Schnee by name, or say anything which suggested he found merit in the work he had done. Even Joan Crawford – according to Gavin Lambert, Nick described her “as one of the worst human beings he’d ever encountered” (6) – fared much better in his conversations with me!

In Anderson’s novel, both central protagonists, the young lovers Keechie and Bowie, are killed in a police ambush, like their real-life counterparts Bonnie and Clyde earlier in the 1930s. The novel’s account of their death is not directly narrated, but described in a newspaper report, one of several Anderson uses to advance the story, or in this case end it. This also indicates the deal Mattie has done with the authorities, betraying the lovers to secure the release of her husband from prison. Nick turns this into a scene of great beauty, in which it becomes clear that Mattie’s husband is not going to forgive her for the betrayal, despite the fact that it obtains his release.

Newspaper reports have a reduced role in both movies, but radio broadcasts are used to great effect. In Nick’s film, they are the source of most of the music accompanying the action, but at the climax, they take on the role of narrator, describing the failure of the final bank raid – which is not shown –and then T-Dub’s death. When Bowie (Farley Granger) returns to Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) the radio has also informed her of the subsequent death of Chicamaw. The one time Altman uses a news broadcast in this way, reporting T-Dub’s death and Chicamaw’s arrest, the radio’s reception breaks up. Altman also has the radio intervene in the narrative: just before the car crash, a crucial incident in the plot, Bowie takes his eyes off the road as he leans forward to change the radio station away from a news report on Sea Biscuit. On the whole, however, Altman mainly uses broadcasts which evoke the feel and atmosphere of the 1930s: advertisements, thriller and drama series, and two political speeches (one by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and one by one of his opponents, Father Coughlin, a neo-fascist priest with a regular radio programme). Establishing the period is clearly more necessary in Altman’s film – made nearly four decades after the novel was published –than it was in Nick’s, made when memories of the ’30s would have been alive for many in the audience.

Nick’s original treatment was unusual in the emphasis it gave to sound, going way beyond the several effective sound cues in the novel. The result is a remarkable audio track, in which speech, sound-effects, music, and off-screen sound are woven together, sometimes to amplify the visuals, sometimes to comment on them (7). Such interaction is present at the very opening of the movie, when the song “I Know Where I’m Going” is played over the introductory shot of Bowie and Keechie which, accompanied by the titles: “This boy… and this girl… were never properly introduced to the world we live in… To tell their story…”, was devised as a means to offer the audience a way into the film. Already there’s irony in the use of the song: they haven’t been introduced to the world, so how can they know where they’re going?

Despite evocations of the ’30s and the South, Nick’s adaptation is much more their story, the story of Bowie and Keechie, than is the novel or Altman’s film. In They Live by Night Chicamaw is killed much earlier, and a great deal of the new material Nick introduced features the young lovers. In his biography of Nick, Bernard Eisenschitz cites Jean Evans, Nick’s first wife, who remained a friend, and who said of the project: “There was a lot of our relationship in the characterisation of the girl…. He was a very tender man. Emotional. Chaotic emotions.” (8) Connie Bessie, another love who remained a friend, described the film as their story, hers and Nick’s.

The witnesses Eisenschitz quotes testify that the production was a positive experience. Farley Granger describes Ray and John Houseman as “among the few people who fought for me in my career” (9). He also recalls Nick’s approach to directing: “He was very private. He’d sort of take you aside and talk to you. He’d never direct you in front of the others, so it became very personal.” (10) On the first morning of shooting in the studio, there was an unexpected and uncharacteristic blockage in Cathy O’Donnell’s performance. Nick took her on a long walk around the studio before he had succeeded in shooting even a single take. His behaviour stirred up the not entirely sympathetic interest and gossipy instincts of the studio trusties: what does this tyro director think he’s doing? He hasn’t got a shot in yet! In fact, he and Cathy talked through the very private and personal cause of the blockage, and were thus able to overcome it.

Sherman Todd, the editor, was on the set during filming, and encouraged Nick not to be limited by the “rules”. It was he who suggested that all the fades and dissolves should be done in the camera. His assistant, Gene Palmer, recalled:

we saw scenes that we hadn’t seen before, because he’d put cameras right in a car and drive around when they went to rob the bank…. Did a lot of things with sound; great creating mood, too. He made everybody part of a team, we felt like we contributed something. He would listen to what you had to say, whether he used it or not; and he was very compassionate with people too, even if they were new or inexperienced. (11)

One whom Nick listened to was a grip from another studio, who solved the problem of the “infinite boom” (camera crane). Nick wanted to follow the protagonists in an extended high-angle shot, which for him suggested the inescapable long arm of fate or destiny. Nobody could tell him how this might be achieved, till this grip came in and asked: “Have you thought of using a helicopter?” “No”, Nick replied, “but I have now!”

The studio didn’t know how to handle the film, and despite very favourable reviews in the trade papers after being previewed under the title Your Red Wagon, its release in the USA was delayed for over two years – from October 1947 to November 1949, when it finally appeared under the title They Live by Night. By then, Nick’s second and third features had been released; in all, he had completed four films, helped out on one, and had started working on his fifth, In a Lonely Place (1950). In the same period, his film without an audience had helped forward the careers of both Granger and O’Donnell. (12).

They Live by Night was released some months earlier in the United Kingdom as a semi-experimental film. It received two or three important favourable reviews (one by a future collaborator, Gavin Lambert) (13). I think I remember seeing it at a local cinema when it first came out (I definitely remember a film with a superstitious young male protagonist who states that breaking a mirror will lead to seven years’ bad luck). In those days, St Albans, the small cathedral city around 22 miles north of central London where we lived, supported three cinemas. Now there are none, though there are plans to re-open the Odeon in 2012. I haven’t been able to track down the population figures for that time, but the electorate in 1950 totalled 61,644. There were two mainstream cinemas not far from the station, showing films such as My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946). The third, older and smaller, was in the centre of town. Its programming tended to be slightly off-mainstream, and it was there we saw They Live By Night, if we did see it!

In both adaptations, Keechie survives, carrying Bowie’s child. In the Altman, Mattie restrains her from running out to join Bowie in their motel cabin, which is being riddled with bullets by the ambushing lawmen. Then she is shown at a railway station, on the way out of Mississippi, where the film is set, to Texas, which is the principal setting of most in the action of both the novel and Nick’s film. It is clear she plans to build a new life with a new life history, one in which she finds no forgiveness for Bowie: “He crossed me up once too often”.

For me, the ending of They Live by Night is one of the most beautiful sequences in all cinema. Woken by the ambush, Keechie runs out of her motel cabin, and crouches over Bowie’s body. She grasps the letter of farewell he planned to leave her, and clutches it to her chest. As she straightens up, her movements, sometimes facing, sometimes turning away from the camera, complemented by soft cuts to slightly different camera positions, make it seem as if the discourse itself is caressing her as a lover might. Then she walks away, the camera tracking behind her, following her in close-up as she reads the letter aloud. For some moments her words are effectively a voiceover. She turns back to look towards Bowie, and towards the camera, for the letter’s final words: “I love you, Bowie”, which she speaks with such delicacy and intensity that they become simultaneously her last words to Bowie as well as his to her. The close-up of her face melts into the blackness of the final fade-out. These are the most extraordinary moments in what is, throughout the film, a magnificent performance by Cathy O’Donnell.

Later in Nick’s career, his decision to shoot several slightly different angles on the same action, a major source of beauty here, left him vulnerable to attack. Whilst Wind Across the Everglades (1958) was being shot on location, studio head Jack Warner telegraphed after watching the rushes: “Continuous changing angles slight but same action extremely costly and time consuming”. Writer/producer Budd Schulberg concurred: “We felt he was just shooting somewhat aimlessly. There seemed to me to be too many angles that didn’t make that much of a difference.” (14) Who knows what difference they might have made if Nick’s methods had received support? But, by then, Nick was living through one of the dark nights of his soul, and was no longer the lovable and obviously creative artist who had made They Live by Night. I knew him later, when he was fighting to resurrect his career.


  1. Susan Ray (ed.), I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993, pp. 152-3.
  2. Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, trans. Tom Milne, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1993, p. 98. An exemplary biography and a major source originally published as Roman Américain: les vies de Nicholas Ray, Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1990.
  3. Eisenschitz, p. 95.
  4. Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us, Avon Books, New York, 1974. Anderson’s novel was first published by Frederick A. Stokes in New York in 1937. The 1974 edition was produced to tie-in with the release of Robert Altman’s film of the same name.
  5. Eisenschitz, p. 95.
  6. Gavin Lambert, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson – A Memoir, Faber and Faber, London, 2000, p. 74; this is cited within an account of personal conversations between the author, George Kaplan, and Ray mainly between December 1969 and September 1970 in Chicago and New York.
  7. Eisenschitz, pp. 101-2.
  8. Eisenschitz, p. 18.
  9. Eisenschitz, p. 96.
  10. Eisenschitz, p. 100
  11. Eisenschitz, p. 101.
  12. Eisenschitz, pp. 102-3.
  13. Eisenschitz, pp. 103-4.
  14. Eisenschitz, p. 325.

They Live by Night (1949 USA 96 mins)

Prod Co: RKO Radio Pictures Prod: John Houseman Dir: Nicholas Ray Scr: Charles Schnee, adapted by Nicholas Ray from the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson Phot: George E. Diskant Ed: Sherman Todd Art Dir: Albert S. D’Agostino, Al Herman Mus: Leigh Harline

Cast: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, Will Wright

About The Author

George Kaplan is a freelance writer. He claims five as his Erdös-Bacon number.

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