Sunday, June 18, 2017

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT: Nicholas Ray's "little" classic hits Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection

Who'd have thought that a relatively small, kids-on-the-run movie, with leading actors who were newcomers (or nearly so) and a first-time director with no reputation to speak of, would down the decades quietly burn itself into the canon, ending up as a Blu-ray disc as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection? Back in 1948, when THEY LIVE BY NIGHT was released, Nicholas Ray (shown below) had made none of the several groundbreaking movies -- from In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar to Rebel Without a Cause -- that would put him permanently, if always a bit bizarrely, on the map.

Watching today this fascinating, moving and entertaining melodrama that broke new ground visually and aurally at the time of its release is a rather grand experience. In addition to viewing the Oscar-caliber supporting performances from Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen (shown left and center left, respectively, two photos below), we are also treated to two wonderful and memorable lead performances from Farley Granger (below, left, who would go on to make Hitchcock's Rope the same year) and Cathy O'Donnell (below, right, from The Best Years of Our Lives), who are as exceptional here and as they would ever be.

Ray combines bank robbery, thriller, romance, film noir and social justice into one unusual genre-jumping movie that, if it's no outright masterpiece, remains one of the most impressive directing debuts of its own time and even now (up there with the likes of The Usual Suspects), while the filmmaker's genuine concern for all his characters shines through, as always.

While it is now indeed a "period piece," the movie simultaneously seems to exist in its own special time and place: something that critic Imogen Sara Smith notes in her excellent critical appreciation of the film, which is part of the Criterion disc's Bonus Features and is "must" viewing. Ray's film is -- by turns -- exciting, sweet, charming, moving and surprising, even featuring, toward the finale, a first-rate musical number that exists beautifully on its own, while commenting on a number of themes to which we're being treated.

They Live By Night is first of all a romance between two genuinely nice-but-problemed kids, neither of whom have had anything approaching a helpful or normal childhood. We root for them both and especially as a unit because they work together so well. Mr. Ray allows us to understand this without piling on the sentimentality. If the finale must end in a kind of tragedy, even the character who betrays these two is given a measure of understanding and respect.

The new Blu-ray transfer is very good, as you would expect from Criterion, with new 2K digital restoration and uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The audio commentary is from a decade ago and features Farley Granger and film historian Eddie Muller, and the remaining "extras" include a new essay from film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz and just so-so audio excerpts from a 1956 interview with producer John Houseman.

The new Blu-ray, running 95 minutes, in black-and-white with an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, hits the street this Tuesday, June 20, as part of The Criterion Collection and will be available for purchase and rental.

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