Bresson and Ray on Money and Its Corruptions in 'They Live by Night' and 'L'argent'

by Brice Ezell

11 September 2017

Nicholas Ray's debut and Robert Bresson's farewell to cinema may be split by decades and operate in different genres, but they come together in examining the fatalistic implications of money changing hands.
They Live by
Night
Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, Farley Granger, William Phipps (IMDB) 
cover art

They Live by Night

Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Farley Granger, Cathy O'Donnell, Howard Da Silva

US DVD: 13 Jun 2017

cover art

L'argent

Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Christian Patey, Vincent Risteruuci, Caroline Lang

US DVD: 11 Aug 2017

The grisly events of Robert Bresson‘s final film, L’argent (Money), happen because someone buys a photo frame with a forged dollar bill. Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) and Bowie (Farley Granger), the doomed couple at the center of Nicholas Ray‘s debut feature They Live by Night (1948), meet when Keechie happens to find herself in Bowie’s escape path after he flees prison.

Happenstance moments like these define L’argent and They Live by Night: so much comes about as a result of a single, small moment. L’argent aspires to a broad but quietly made point about the contagion effect of capital; They Live by Night, like most great film noirs, pits individual desire against the omnipotent force of fate. Even as these two films participate in discourses larger than themselves, they remain rooted in the particular. Bresson and Ray, now rightly regarded as cinematic artists of the first order, know how to locate the smaller frames within the bigger picture.

The Criterion Collection has championed both directors’ work for many years now. Prior to the new editions of L’argent and They Live by Night, Bresson was represented by Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Pickpocket (1959), Au hasard Bathazar (1966), and Mouchette (1967). Two films of Ray’s, In a Lonely Place (1950) and Bigger than Life (1956) entered into Criterion’s roster quite recently.

Indeed, the preponderance of Bresson in the Criterion Collection is predictable: in the history of film, few command the reverence scholars and filmmakers have for Bresson. In his essay for L’argent‘s Criterion edition, Adrian Martin quotes Olivier Assayas, whom he says can be forgiven for this hyperbole: “I still consider Bresson the greatest filmmaker ever; I have complete admiration for every single frame of his films, every single moment.” Ray has not been subject to such breathless hagiography, but since his passing in 1979 he has become a cult favorite amongst the film-obsessed. The late Roger Ebert dubbed him the “iconoclast of films about wounded men”, an appellation that They Live by Night justifies.

The dawn of Ray’s career and the twilight of Bresson’s have little in common superficially. They Live by Night locates itself in the noir tradition, with chiaroscuro lighting abound. L’argent, shot in color, takes a more naturalistic approach to its story. Ray gets his actors to lean in to the melodrama of They Live by Night‘s lovers-on-the-lam plot, whereas Bresson employs his famed technique of “modeling, not acting”, resulting in performances that appear flat. For all these distinctions, Ray and Bresson share a connection in the film world, spiritual as it is on the former’s part, given that many members of the French New Wave (nouvelle vague) count Ray as an influence on that most essential of film movements. Ray and Bresson, however unlikely a pair they may seem, initially were and still are in conversation.

With They Live by Night and L’argent, the conversation between these two filmmakers focuses on the role money plays in shaping, and ultimately destroying, human life. L’argent, whose source material is a Dostoyevsky novella, traces the path of the aforementioned forged dollar bill, whose existence begins with an act of deception at a photo shop and ends with two bodies bloodied by an ax. Drawn from a pulp novel by Edward Anderson called Thieves Like Us, They Live by Night finds Keechie and Bowie’s love undone by that most fatal of heist film conceits: “the one last job”. Money, for these filmmakers, corrupts life and sets it on a path to ruin where it otherwise might have gone on just fine.

In They Live by Night money, encapsulated by “the one last job” storyline, clashes with the melodrama of Keechie and Bowie’s flight from the law. Any beautiful thing about their relationship is tainted by Bowie’s dire financial circumstances. In perhaps the film’s best scene, the young couple gets married in an unglamorous chapel—the kind, one expects, would do well in contemporary Las Vegas—due to their need to be swiftly on their way. The shoprunner at the chapel (and that is the best title for what he does) sells Keechie and Bowie a car at an enormously inflated rate, recognizing their troubled situation without either of them having to say a word. Two relatives of the shoprunner serve as the couple’s only witnesses.

What in any other film would have been a tender moment, no matter how trying the circumstances, is in They Live by Night a reminder of money’s pervasive presence. In heist films, the protagonist’s desire for “the one last job” gets spurred either by ego or real monetary need. Bowie, who looks at Keechie with the kind of longing that gives Ray’s movie some of its most melodramatic moments, has no ego.

Today, They Live By Night stands as a formative work for numerous genres and tropes. Any film employing “lovers on the run”, “one last job”, or the “young criminals” devices owes a tip of the hat to Ray’s debut. Ray, like Orson Welles before him, employs a theatre practictioner’s eye for unique camera angles. Yet while the seams that connect They Live by Night to the other works it influenced are important and obvious, the film doesn’t exhibit the skill and confidence of Ray’s later features, particularly the superb 1950 film, In a Lonely Place, where he strikes the best balance between noir’s moral ambiguity and the romantic yearning of melodrama.

In his first film, Ray gives the latter too much space. The legacy of They Live By Night dwarfs the film itself. Criterion’s decision to resuscitate the film from relative obscurity makes sense given the movie’s intersections with major film movements and for the seeds it planted, but Ray would go on to best his unassuming first statement, with both In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Christian Patey in L'argent (IMDB)

Christian Patey in L’argent (IMDB)

Bresson remains as quiet and meditative as he always was on his final feature. L’argent could have been a far more sensational work in the wrong hands. Any picture concluding with a double homicide runs the risk of training the camera on lurid details for too long. Bresson, of course, was never one for such filmmaking. He left the film world as he occupied it, making quiet but powerful movies that feel like meditations. Where Ray invests in the narrative of They Live by Night, Bresson largely bucks any narrative concerns. Using non-professional actors that “model” rather than perform, Bresson shows little regard for psychologically mining his characters. Instead, with his camera Bresson follows the forged note that gives L’argent its name to its logical conclusion.

At 84 minutes, L’argent is brief but impactful. Even in his later years, Bresson shows a mastery of frame composition that puts him in the upper tier of auteur filmmakers. L’argent‘s most distinct filmmaking feature comes in how Bresson shoots rooms. The camera rarely rests on a straightforward shot of a room, with a flat wall in the background giving Bresson’s camera the feeling of being in the center of things. Bresson sets up his cameras so that they capture rooms at an angle; corners, rather than walls, shape L’argent. Combined with the frequent use of frame-within-a-frame—should anyone want to know how to shoot through a window, L’argent is a fine place to start—Bresson’s direction gives this film the feeling of a labyrinth. As the viewer follows the path of the cursed forged money, she gets further lost in the maze that Bresson constructs with the angular interiors that make up the landscape of L’argent.

The “modeling, not acting” approach is a non-excisable part of Bresson’s filmmaking, but in L’argent it has the effect of limiting the emotional impact of the events brought about by the forged money. The human element of L’argent‘s intersecting storylines is never lost on the viewer: anyone can sympathize with a man wrongly accused of a crime trying to do right by his family, as in the case of one of the main storylines. Yet the dour faces of Bresson’s “models” pushes the viewer’s attention away from those human stakes and turns it toward the overarching theoretical claim of the film: money paves a trail that leads to blood.

Bresson’s immaculate filmmaking successfully sinks this point in, but barring Bresson’s style there’s little that differentiates L’argent from a Marxist theoretical exercise. Luckily, Bresson’s talent is more than enough. Like Ray, he knows where and how to point his camera when things go bad with money, as they inevitably do.

* * *

Even though L’argent is the superior film of these two, both Ray and Bresson receive equal treatment from Criterion when it comes to packaging and extras. Austere and evocative artwork envelops the plastic Blu-ray cases of each film, inviting unfamiliar viewers who might have otherwise passed these movies by to flip over the Blu-ray case to find out what’s inside. Detailed interviews and analysis pieces form the centerpieces of L’argent and They Live By Night‘s Criterion-exclusive bonus features. An exploratory essay by James Quandt called “L’argent, A to Z” probes the depths of Bresson’s final feature, and a short but informative contextualizing video provides the They Live By Night bonus features with a broad historical sweep that historically situates Ray’s debut.



They Live by Night

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L'argent

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