Film Noir Classics Collection, Volume 4

Written by Joe D on August 21st, 2007


Young Nick Ray

I just got the 10 film set Film Noir Volume 4. the first film I watched was Nick Ray’s They Live By Night. This was Ray’s first film and it’s a very impressive debut to say the least. I have been wanting to see this movie for years! i couldn’t ever find a copy of it so when I saw it as part of this collection I grabbed it. I was not disappointed. This movie is excellent. The acting is great especially the scenes between Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. Their innocence and emotional transparency is moving, beautiful.

Young Farley

I recently watched a giallo starring Farley Granger called Amuck. It also starred the lovely Barbara Bouchet. A cool movie and interesting to compare to They Live By Night if only to see Farley as an innocent on the run in the rural south versus a decadent rich semi aristocrat in Venice.
A friend of mine took a film course Nick Ray taught at SUNY Purchase in the mid 70’s. He said on the first day of class Ray shows up with sunglasses so black they looked like they were spray painted, his hair was shocking white, as white as the snow he was chopping on the desktop and shovelling up his nose. “From now on this class will meet at midnight!” Ray barked, and they did meet at midnight from then on, making a class film with Ray directing.

Young Cathy O’Donnell

They Live By Night does bear comparison with Citizen Kane. Both were made at RKO, both were by first time directors and Night was produced by John Houseman who had been Welles producing partner at the Mercury Theater. There is a sense of experimentation in them both, a refreshing breaking of rules, unconventional angles, fresh ideas. Greg Toland asked to shoot Kane. He knew Welles had never made a film, he also knew Welles was a super talent uninhibited, full of crazy ideas, and Toland knew with his skill he could realize them. We have that dynamic of an unorthodox talented newcomer here in this film. Years later around the time of 55 Days at Peking Ray saw Bunuel’s Nazarin. He was blown away, excited by the film. He arranged for it to be distributed in the US. Ray asked Bunuel how much the film had cost. Bunuel replied” 50,000 dollars.” Ray responded” I wish I could make a film like that, with that freedom.” Bunuel said” Why don’t you do it. Make a film for $50,000.” Horrified Ray answered ” I can’t do that! Everybody would think I was washed up!”
The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Great character actors, great faces. Jay C. Flippen, the frog faced tough guy who started in vaudeville was never better. Howard Da Silva plays a one eyed psycho and is thoroughly despicable.

Flippen & DaSilva

She made a deal with the Devil, I mean the F.B.I.

Helen Craig, a tough broad that will do anything to get her husband out of jail,is as traitorous as a rabid rattlesnake. Great!
The filmmaking is top notch, the locations, the sets, all superb. The attention to detail is so real, so alive, it’s like they got real tools from a working garage for the gas station and the diner feels greasy and neon lit in a truly unique but real way.

The magic of Neon
I must comment on the fact that one of the two credited art directors is Albert S. D’Agostino. I am a huge fan of his work and I’m planning on posting about him soon. Also we share similar last names. He was the head of the art department at RKO, my favorite studio.And this is the earliest use of a helicopter shot I can think of, very cool.

Ultra Romantic Imagery

There are some beautiful shots and wonderful lighting effects, a close two shot of Farley and Cathy in the flickering firelight, shots through windows with neon signs, the creepy shot of Farley leaving the pseudo justice of the peace’s office, heavy with tragic foreboding.

Heavy with Tragic Foreboding

But one shot that really stood out to me is the final shot of the film. It’s a Close Up of Cathy, she’s framed in a doorway, highlights in her hair, her face suffused with a soft light, slowly the light on her face fades out, this was done on the set with a dimmer for as her features get darker and darker the highlights in her hair stay the same, a beautiful in camera effect. I believe the script says something like “she is swallowed by darkness.”

She is swallowed by darkness

I saw another film from this set at the Film Noir Festival at the American Cinematech 2 years back, Crime Wave, an excellent noir by Andre de Toth. I’ll write about that one soon. But so far it’s thumbs up for this collection. Check it out!