They Live by Night (1949)

95 mins | Film noir | 5 November 1949

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HISTORY

The working titles of this film were Thieves Like Us , Your Red Wagon and The Twisted Road . FD , DV and Var reviewed the film as The Twisted Road , which also was the British release title. The film's opening credits are interrupted by the following written statement, superimposed over a close-up shot of actors Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger: "This boy...and this girl...were never properly introduced to the world we live in...to tell their story..." The NYT review speculated that Edward Anderson's novel was "no doubt inspired by the two or three real-life sagas that we've had of 'boy bandits' and their brides." It is not known to which "real-life" events the review refers. Nicholas Ray, an established stage director, made his screen directing debut with this picture. The NYT review said of Ray's work on the film: "...this well-designed motion picture derives what distinction it has from good, realistic production and sharp direction by Nicholas Ray. Mr. Ray has an eye for action details." In a modern interview, Ray mentions They Live By Night as one of his favorite films.
       MPAA/PCA Collection files at AMPAS and RKO production files contained at the UCLA Arts--Special Collections add the following information about the writing of the screenplay: Writer/director Rowland Brown, who controlled the rights to Edward Anderson's novel, wrote the first drafts of the picture's screenplay in 1941. (Modern sources claim that, in 1941, Brown sold the book's rights to RKO for $10,000. Production file notes indicate that RKO had read ... More Less

The working titles of this film were Thieves Like Us , Your Red Wagon and The Twisted Road . FD , DV and Var reviewed the film as The Twisted Road , which also was the British release title. The film's opening credits are interrupted by the following written statement, superimposed over a close-up shot of actors Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger: "This boy...and this girl...were never properly introduced to the world we live in...to tell their story..." The NYT review speculated that Edward Anderson's novel was "no doubt inspired by the two or three real-life sagas that we've had of 'boy bandits' and their brides." It is not known to which "real-life" events the review refers. Nicholas Ray, an established stage director, made his screen directing debut with this picture. The NYT review said of Ray's work on the film: "...this well-designed motion picture derives what distinction it has from good, realistic production and sharp direction by Nicholas Ray. Mr. Ray has an eye for action details." In a modern interview, Ray mentions They Live By Night as one of his favorite films.
       MPAA/PCA Collection files at AMPAS and RKO production files contained at the UCLA Arts--Special Collections add the following information about the writing of the screenplay: Writer/director Rowland Brown, who controlled the rights to Edward Anderson's novel, wrote the first drafts of the picture's screenplay in 1941. (Modern sources claim that, in 1941, Brown sold the book's rights to RKO for $10,000. Production file notes indicate that RKO had read the novel in galley form in Dec 1936, but had apparently rejected it.) When Brown's script was first submitted to the PCA in Apr 1941, PCA director Joseph I. Breen deemed it "unacceptable," claiming that it contained too much criminal activity and "loose sex." A revised script, written by Robert D. Andrews , was submitted in Oct 1941 and was rejected for the same reasons as the previous draft. RKO did not submit the script again until Sep 1944, when it was rejected for a third time. From Aug 1946 to May 1947, when Ray was working on the script, the PCA rejected three more versions of the story, stating each time that the adaptation dwelt too much on the characters' crimes and not enough on morality.
       The title of Ray's adaptation, which included a detailed treatment, was Stranger Here Myself . (The line "I'm a stranger here myself" figures prominently in Ray's 1954 picture Johnny Guitar .) In Dec 1946, Breen met with RKO representatives to discuss how to change the script and suggested, among other things, that the "loyalty and honor among thieves" aspect of the story be downplayed. Breen advised adding a "note of treachery" to the plot and eliminating "Bowie's thoughtless acquiescence" in the crimes. In addition, Breen suggested that the character of "Hawkins" be changed from a corrupt judge to a justice of the peace. All of these suggestions were eventually incorporated into the final script, and on 10 Jun 1947, the script was finally approved by the PCA.
       Contemporary news items and RKO production files add the following information about the production: They Live By Night , which was made over two years before its U.S. release, was Granger's first film following his discharge from the military. RKO borrowed Howard Da Silva from Paramount for the production, and Granger and O'Donnell from Samuel Goldwyn's company. Although CBCS lists Suzi Crandall as "Lulu," Erskine Sanford as "Doctor" and Frank Ferguson as "Bum," those roles were not included in the final film. (According to modern sources, Lulu was "T-Dub's" girl friend.) HR production charts credit Art Smith as a cast member, but he did not appear in the final film. Modern sources note that Smith was replaced by Will Wright. Among those tested for parts in the picture were Guy Madison, Jane Greer, Michael Steel, Bill Williams and Jeff Donnell.
       They Live By Night was George Diskant's first effort as a director of photography. Some scenes for the film were shot in the San Fernando Valley, including Canoga Park, Van Nuys and RKO's eighty-acre ranch in Encino, in Culver City, Newhall and Rancho Santa Anita in Arcadia, and in Griffith Park and Benedict Canyon in Los Angeles. Second unit shooting was done in Providencia and Flintridge, CA. The film's opening action sequence was shot by a helicopter camera, placed on a gyro-stablized mount. At the time of this production, aerial helicopter photography was quite uncommon. During production, Granger broke his ankle while making a leap from a freight train. The total budget of the production was $808,397. The picture was first released in Great Britain in late 1948, where it was a "surprise hit," according to LAT .
       Modern sources add the following information about the production: In addition to uncredited writers Brown and Andrews, Dudley Nichols contributed to the script. In Mar 1946, RKO turned the entire project over to producer John Houseman. Houseman, who had worked with Ray on two Broadway productions and at the Office of War Information, had earlier brought the novel to Ray's attention, and by Apr 1946, Ray had completed a treatment of the story. After Houseman convinced RKO to hire Ray as a screenwriter, Ray wrote a second treatment, submitted in Aug 1946. The project was then shelved until early 1947, when Dore Schary became RKO's head of production. Ray then worked with screenwriter Charles Schnee on the script, the first draft of which was finished in May 1947.
       Having read the script, RKO leading man Robert Mitchum asked to play one of robbers, but was told by the studio that he couldn't play a criminal, or die, in a picture. Ray tested folk singer Pete Seeger, who did not make his motion picture debut until 1964, for a role. In the modern interview, Ray recalls that he made Cathy O'Donnell work in a gas station for two weeks prior to rehearsals. Several scenes were cut in the final editing stage, including one in a dance hall in which a young couple explains the southern expression "your red wagon" ("it's your business"). Modern sources list Gene Palmer as an assistant editor. The film lost $445,000 at the box office. In 1974, Robert Altman directed Thieves Like Us , a second version of Anderson's novel, starring Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall and released by United Artists. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
26 Jun 1948.
---
Daily Variety
24 Jun 48
p. 3.
Film Daily
28 Jun 48
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Aug 46
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
7 May 47
p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter
9 May 47
p. 18.
Hollywood Reporter
10 Jun 47
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Jun 47
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Jun 47
p. 17.
Hollywood Reporter
30 Jun 47
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
5 Aug 47
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
15 Aug 47
p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter
19 Aug 47
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Jun 48
p. 3.
Los Angeles Times
10 Nov 1949.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
1 May 48
p. 4146.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
26 Jun 48
pp. 4213-14.
New York Times
4 Nov 49
p. 33.
Variety
30 Jun 1948.
---
Variety
21 Sep 1949.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Dore Schary Presentation
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCER
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Helicopter photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
COSTUMES
MUSIC
Mus dir
VISUAL EFFECTS
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
Scr supv
Helicopter pilot
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson (New York, 1937).
SONGS
"Your Red Wagon," words and music by Richard M. Jones, Don Raye and Gene DePaul.
DETAILS
Alternate Titles:
Thieves Like Us
The Twisted Road
Your Red Wagon
Release Date:
5 November 1949
Premiere Information:
London opening: August 1948
New York opening: week of 3 November 1949
Production Date:
23 June--21 August 1947
Copyright Claimant:
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Copyright Date:
31 December 1948
Copyright Number:
LP2685
Physical Properties:
Sound
RCA Sound System
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
95
Length(in feet):
8,582
Country:
United States
PCA No:
12567
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

When the car they have commandeered blows a tire, escaped convicts Henry "T-Dub" Mansfield, Elmo "One Eye" Chickamaw Mobley and Bowie Bowers start on foot for Chickamaw's brother's place. Having hurt his ankle during the escape, Bowie is forced to stop and hide until Keechie, Chickamaw's niece, picks him up after dark. The plainly attired Keechie, who helps her alcoholic father in his gas station, disapproves of her uncle's criminal ways, but is immediately attracted to Bowie. While Mobley is procuring a car for the fugitives, which they plan to use in a bank robbery, Keechie and Bowie talk about their lives. Bowie reveals details about his troubled youth and how he was found guilty of murder when he was only sixteen. Sure that he did not receive a fair trial, Bowie tells Keechie that he intends to use his share of the robbery money to hire a lawyer in Oklahoma. Chickamaw and T-Dub, meanwhile, arrange with T-Dub's sister-in-law Mattie to use their share to get T-Dub's brother Richard out of jail. Having volunteered to be the "getaway" driver, Bowie scouts Zelton, the Texas town where the robbery is to take place, and buys a woman's watch from the local jeweler. After T-Dub and Chickamaw successfully hold up the bank, Chickamaw and Bowie go on a spending spree, buying nice clothes and a second car. Half-drunk and charged up, Chickamaw, who like his brother is an alcoholic, causes Bowie to crash his car on a busy street. When a suspicious policeman arrives on the scene, Chickamaw shoots him, then speeds away with the unconscious Bowie in the second car. ... +


When the car they have commandeered blows a tire, escaped convicts Henry "T-Dub" Mansfield, Elmo "One Eye" Chickamaw Mobley and Bowie Bowers start on foot for Chickamaw's brother's place. Having hurt his ankle during the escape, Bowie is forced to stop and hide until Keechie, Chickamaw's niece, picks him up after dark. The plainly attired Keechie, who helps her alcoholic father in his gas station, disapproves of her uncle's criminal ways, but is immediately attracted to Bowie. While Mobley is procuring a car for the fugitives, which they plan to use in a bank robbery, Keechie and Bowie talk about their lives. Bowie reveals details about his troubled youth and how he was found guilty of murder when he was only sixteen. Sure that he did not receive a fair trial, Bowie tells Keechie that he intends to use his share of the robbery money to hire a lawyer in Oklahoma. Chickamaw and T-Dub, meanwhile, arrange with T-Dub's sister-in-law Mattie to use their share to get T-Dub's brother Richard out of jail. Having volunteered to be the "getaway" driver, Bowie scouts Zelton, the Texas town where the robbery is to take place, and buys a woman's watch from the local jeweler. After T-Dub and Chickamaw successfully hold up the bank, Chickamaw and Bowie go on a spending spree, buying nice clothes and a second car. Half-drunk and charged up, Chickamaw, who like his brother is an alcoholic, causes Bowie to crash his car on a busy street. When a suspicious policeman arrives on the scene, Chickamaw shoots him, then speeds away with the unconscious Bowie in the second car. Chickamaw leaves Bowie with Keechie and goes to join T-Dub in another town. After Bowie awakens, Keechie nurses him, and he presents her with the watch he bought in Zelton. Touched, Keechie admits her feelings to Bowie and offers to run away with him. Reading in the newspaper that his gun and fingerprints were found in his abandoned car, Bowie, whom the press has dubbed "The Kid," realizes that, even though he now has money, he cannot go to Oklahoma as hoped. Instead, he and Keechie board a bus together, finally stopping in a small town where, on an impulse, they decide to marry. Hawkins, the shady justice of the peace, not only performs the ceremony, but sells them a "hot" car as well. In their new convertible, Bowie and Keechie head for a remote mountain resort, where Keechie had once stayed as a child. The newlyweds set up house in a rundown cabin and dream about the day when they can live openly together. As Christmas approaches, however, Bowie is paid a surprise visit by Chickamaw, who has gambled away his loot and now wants Bowie to help T-Dub and him rob another bank. Fearing the worse, Keechie gives Bowie the watch she had bought him for Christmas and begs him not to participate in the robbery. When Bowie meets with T-Dub, who was unable to get his brother out of jail, however, he is bullied into joining the robbery. During the robbery, T-Dub is killed and Chickamaw, wounded. Once again, the press describes Bowie as the gang's leader, causing the alcohol-deprived Chickamaw to explode with envious fury. Finally fed up with Chickamaw's viciousness, Bowie dumps him by the roadside and drives back to the cabin. There he learns that not only was Chickamaw killed while breaking into a liquor store, but also that Keechie is pregnant. The nerve-wracked couple then abandon their cabin and head east. After days of driving at night, Keechie and Bowie feel safe enough to spend a pleasant day together in public. When Bowie is recognized by a gangster in a nightclub, however, the couple makes plans to flee to Mexico. On the way, Keechie becomes ill, and she and Bowie stop at a motel owned by Mattie. While Bowie drives back to see Hawkins, whom he believes can help him cross the border, Mattie makes a deal with the police to give up Bowie in exchange for her husband's release. After Hawkins refuses to help Bowie, saying that he "can't sell hope where there ain't any," Bowie returns to Mattie's place and tells her that, to protect Keechie and their unborn child, he is leaving by himself. Mattie encourages Bowie to say a final goodbye to Keechie, and he writes her a farewell note before heading for their cabin. As he is about to enter the cabin, however, the police descend on him, provoking him to draw his gun and be shot. Bending over Bowie's slain body, Keechie finds his goodbye note and sadly reads out loud the words he could never say to her while alive, "I love you." +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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