The Best of Film Noir – They Live by Night

They Live by Night – sounds more like a horror book or movie than film noir.  But this classic film is a great example of the genre.

A Note: I have a lot of fellow indie authors that follow this blog, and I wonder if some of them think oh, the film noir post – it can’t teach my anything about writing.  Ah, but that’s where you’d be wrong :).  Many of these movies are based on classic crime fiction, and they are great examples of how to intricately plot a story, and how artfully fleshed-out characters make a story.

Best of Film Noir – An Unusual Noir Hero

Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train) plays Bowie Bowers, a man wrongly convicted of murder.  He escapes from prison with two crooks, and as is typical of film noir, these men will come back to haunt Bowers.  Granger does a fantastic job as a sensitive young man who is ill-prepared for the consequences of his actions.  Robert Mitchum once claimed he was director Nicholas Ray’s first choice to play Bowers, but Ray had Granger in mind ever since Ray and Granger had a meeting at Gene Kelly’s house (ah those old Hollywood guys rubbing elbows – my character Reed Ferguson would’ve loved to be there :)).  Somehow, I can’t see Mitchum in the role.

Best of Film Noir – Cathy Who? as The Film Noir Female

Farley Granger suggested to Ray that Cathy O’Donnell play the role of Keechie Mobley.  Granger had known O’Donnell because they both worked at Samuel Goldwyn Studios.  The role of Mobley ended up being O’Donnell’s most famous role, and it is not the typical film noir female.  Mobley doesn’t deceive Bowie, or trick him in any way.  And she is not sexy in the classic way either.  When we first see her, Mobley is wearing overalls (not at all sexy).  She is vulnerable and innocent.  And O’Donnell plays the role to perfection.  Sadly, she died young, at age 46, on her 22nd wedding anniversary.

Best of Film Noir – So What Makes This Noir?

The dark themes and the low-key black-and-white visual styles.  The doomed characters.  But this is film noir with a twist.  This is the first real example of lovers on the run (the precursor to Bonnie and Clyde).  It’s about the dark side of society, and tragic destiny that the main characters cannot escape, even though we see a touching scene where it seems that they have escaped that destiny.  It’s a love story that goes awry, and it’s spelled out in the most tender of terms, and yet there is an underlying menace that permeates the entire movie.

Best of Film Noir – A Great Opening

I talked in another post about a great opening helping to carry a movie (or novel).  This movie is an example of this.  This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in is the superimposed opening title, and it foreshadows the rest of the movie.  As the plot unfolds, we see how our protagonists do not possess the necessary skills or maturity to handle the decisions they are making.  We wait to see what the big bad world has in store for them, knowing that it can’t be good.  We want to know more – and that is what great openings do for us, whether it’s a movie or novel.

Best of Film Noir – The Book Behind The Movie

They Live by Night is based on the depression-era novel called Thieves Like Us, written by Edward Anderson.  This story, although it might seem dated now, takes a bit of Dashiell Hammett and mixes in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  It fuses well-developed characters with gritty action.  Raymond Chandler considered it a great forgotten novel of the 1930s.  If you write crime fiction, or you just want to study how a great story is constructed, this novel is worth the read.

Some have called this movie the Romeo and Juliet of noir.  It’s a wonderfully soulful movie that is worth your time.  So get your popcorn and soda and settle in for some film noir fun.


If you enjoy film noir, you’ll like my Reed Ferguson mystery series.  Reed is a wannabe private eye who loves film noir and crime fiction, and these mystery novels are consistently well-reviewed: This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, Reel Estate Rip-off, and the short story Elvis And The Sports Card Cheat.

5 Star Review
There is little doubt that Renée Pawlish is a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre.  Quite noticeable…is Pawlish’s adept development of the plot coupled with her ability to contrive clear, concise and playful prose with almost perfect pacing.
Norman Goldman, Bookpleasures Publisher and Editor

About Renée Pawlish

Award-winning author Renée Pawlish writes the bestselling horror book, Nephilim Genesis of Evil, the Reed Ferguson mystery series, short stories and non-fiction ghost stories.
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