They Live by Night

(Nicholas Ray, USA, 1948)


The following text is lightly adapted from the voice-over narration of my audiovisual essay Where I Come From, Where I’m Going (2014), in which They Live by Night is compared with I Know Where I’m Going!. It can be viewed here.


When I was 14 years old, I drew up a list of films I needed to see as a budding cinephile – and then I scoured the columns of the Australian TV guide each week, waiting for them to appear.


So, one night, I set an alarm for three in the morning, tiptoed to the lounge room and watched Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night on my parents’ small, black-and-white television, with the volume turned down very low.


About 100 minutes later, happy and satisfied, I went back to bed. But when I awoke again to go to school the next day, I had forgotten absolutely every detail of the film. It had vanished like a dream in the night. All I knew was that I had liked it, and that it had left a strong, melancholic feeling in me.


I saw They Live by Night perhaps three or four further times over the next thirty-five years. Yet, each time – as if cursed by that initial, nocturnal viewing – I had real trouble holding the details of the film in my memory. It has proven hard, even impossible for me to recall. It turned into a permanent blur.


Intriguingly, I am not the only cinephile to experience weird disturbances of memory in relation to They Live by Night. French philosopher Jacques Rancière recounts how he rewatched the film in order to relive a particular, “amazing” moment – but, as he discovered, he couldn’t find it because “the shot does not exist”. (1)


What Rancière went back to re-find was a powerful, introductory image he had remembered of a singular woman: the character of Keechie, played by Cathy O’Donnell. What he then discovered was really this: a figure of indeterminate gender, her facial features obscured, revealed little by little in the course of the first encounter between her and Bowie (played by Farley Granger).


How different this is to Robert Altman’s casual introduction of the same character, twenty-six years later, in his 1974 adaptation of the same novel, Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us — where Keechie (Shelley Duvall) is simply real, unglamorous, just another piece of the overall mise en scène.


Rancière realised, upon examining Ray’s film, that Keechie is a poetic figure precisely because she is not quite all there: she has been removed from Old Hollywood’s conventions of stereotypical representation, as well as from the later New Hollywood code of realism. That’s no doubt the same reason why Jean-Luc Godard fixed on particular shots of Keechie rising from Bowie’s lifeless body at the end of Ray’s film for his Histoire(s) du cinĂ©ma  (1988-1998), for their singular strangeness and beauty, marking for him what he calls “a true beginning of artistic montage”. (2)


In 2014, I finally decided to really try to get They Live by Night into my head, once and for all – by teaching it. So I started watching it again, pen in hand … and was instantly startled by something I had never before realised was always present in its famous opening moments. Namely: isn’t its music the main, theme song from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)?


I Know Where I’m Going! – a film that has long counted among my all-time favourites, seen and re-seen and studied many times over. A film that expresses for me (I’m not exaggerating) something of the Utopia of what love is, in all its dimensions: emotional, sensual, ethical. A film with truly electrifying moments … How could I have never heard, across all these years, that They Live by Night uses the tune that gives its very title to Powell and Pressburger’s film?


So I started concentrating on the musical score of They Live by Night. It’s no accident: this tune, “I Know Where I’m Going”, appears, in various arrangements and modulations, and in large chunks, no less than eight times across the entire length of the film – including in its prologue and over its final credits. In fact, it is the major – and uncredited – melody in Leigh Harline’s score.


At one point, a Christmas medley is emitted from a radio; it begins with “O Come All Ye Faithful” (or “Adeste Fidelis”), a hymn I used to sing and play on a church harmonium during Catholic Mass, also when I was 14 years old. “O Come All Ye Faithful”, as it happens, can easily be musically superimposed over “I Know Where I’m Going”.


This whole concept built around the song “I Know Where I’m Going” must have come from Ray, who had a well-developed musical sense. His association with the song was no doubt particular, perhaps personal. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Ray had worked with John and Alan Lomax, recording folk songs throughout America’s heartland for the Library of Congress; these experiences also formed the basis for a regular, beloved radio program they made, called Back Where I Come From.


Now, strictly, the folk ballad “I Know Where I’m Going” is of traditional Scottish or Irish origin (and Powell and Pressburger’s film is set in Scotland). But music traditions recognise no national boundaries. In America, “I Know Where I’m Going” was a hit for Burl Ives in 1941 on his debut album. It was recorded by many subsequent performers including Odetta, Harry Belafonte and Judy Collins.


Burl Ives had appeared on Ray’s folk radio program at Christmas 1940. Seventeen years after his first hit, he acted in a film by Ray, the ecological, rural melodrama Wind Across the Everglades (1957). It is said that, each night, he spontaneously entertained the cast and crew with a concert of folk songs. Did he sing to them, I wonder, “I Know Where I’m Going”?


Let us return to the mystery of coincidence of these two films, They Live by Night and I Know Where I’m Going! – both of which play a significant part in my formation as a cinephile. Powell and Pressburger’s movie appeared in 1945. Ray shot his film in 1947; it was released first in London in 1948 — where it garnered a positive review from his future screenwriter and lover, Gavin Lambert — and then in the USA, belatedly, in 1949. There is no sign that Ray saw or knew the Powell-Pressburger film in the 1940s, or ever.


The use of music in They Live by Night is quite remarkable. After its prologue, except for brief bursts of diegetic radio, the film has no music at all for almost 30 minutes; and the score is generally sparsely laid on, for a feature of only 95 minutes. Many scenes glaringly lack the kind of Hollywood underscore music you would typically expect.


The sound and music design devised by Ray is systematic and crystal-clear, once you are listening for it. The bleak, Depression-era milieu of poverty and violence and theft has no real music, except (for example) the banal, functional, mercenary drone of a cheap, quick-wedding harmonium. It is very characteristic of Nicholas Ray’s cinema that the only real music is the lovers’ music, the score that envelops Keechie and Bowie’s fleeting, ever-endangered moments of tender and erotic intimacy.


Who knows why, finally, Ray chose and borrowed, as the melody for this romance, the tune of the folk song “I Know Where I’m Going”? Its standard lyrics do not appear in They Live by Night:


I know where I’m going

And I know who’s going with me

I know who I love

But the dear knows who I’ll marry.


But the title of the song does work its way, unmistakably and pointedly, into the film’s dialogue.


This plot reference, however, is a bit paradoxical: as Ria Banerjee has pointed out, if there’s one thing that these ‘lovers by night’ do not know, it’s where they are going, or how they are going to get there – and in the fatalistic course of the story, they never do get there. (3)


But what Keechie and Bowie do know – and this is what the song’s lyrics essentially say – is that they love each other fiercely, and are pledged to each other, unto death.


Where am I going with this?


The music that connects these films reveals to me the two, Janus faces of the Romanticism which, I realise, is such a predominant part of my own cinephilic personality and experience (and probably not mine alone). In the Ray film, there is a doomed love, doomed by the world interrupting all the time, that nonetheless shines and sings at each, ephemeral moment that it exists on screen.


This is a depiction of love that avoids the codes – social and cinematic codes – and forms itself in the precious cracks, the interruptions or suspensions of the narrative.


Powell and Pressburger’s film, by contrast, is a much tighter narrative machine, and gloriously so. It leads its main characters along a twisted path, bringing them ultimately face to face with a recognition of love’s meaning for them.


In my psyche, I think this was a more palatable, more reassuring, and certainly more optimistic lesson in love than the one formulated by Nicholas Ray.


Maybe that’s why I’ve never forgotten one of these films, while I immediately forgot the other.


MORE Ray: We Can’t Go Home Again, On Dangerous Ground, In a Lonely Place, Party Girl




1. Jacques Rancière (trans. Emiliano Battista), Film Fables (London: Berg, 2006), p. 95. back


2. Jean-Luc Godard and Yousself Ishagpour (trans. John Howe), Cinema: The Archaeology of Film and the Memory of a Century (London: Berg, 2005), p. 16. back


3. Rita Banerjee, “Economies of Desire: Reimagining Noir in They Live by Night”, in Steven Rybin & Will Scheibel (eds), Lonely Places, Dangerous Ground: Nicholas Ray in American Cinema (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), pp. 29-39. back


© Adrian Martin August 2014

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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