They Live by Night
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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.
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 cinéma (1988-1998), for their singular strangeness and beauty, marking for him what he
calls “a true beginning of artistic montage”. (2)
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?
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.
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”.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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:
know where I'm going
I know who's going with me
I know who I love
But the dear knows who I'll marry.
the title of the song does work its way, unmistakably and pointedly, into the
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)
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,
am I going with this?
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
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.
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.
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.
that’s why I’ve never forgotten one of these films, while I immediately forgot
Jacques Rancière (trans. Emiliano Battista), Film Fables (London: Berg, 2006), p. 95.
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.
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.
© Adrian Martin August 2014