US / 85 minutes / color / Modernciné, Gravitas Dir & Scr: David Guglielmo, Nick Chakwin Pr: Rebekah Sindoris, David Guglielmo, Nick Chakwin Cine: Alexander Chinnici Cast: Freya Tingley, Tom Williamson, Timothy V. Murphy, Justin Arnold, Paul Rae, Carla Toutz, Christopher Douglas Reed, Larry Fessenden, Roy Frumkes, Bonnie Root, Ryan Harper Gray.
David Guglielmo, one of the co-directors of No Way to Live, approached me a few weeks ago with the suggestion that I might like to write about it for this site. I accepted his kind offer of a screener with I hope my usual impeccable courtesy but also some hesitation, because it’s a sad fact that not all of the independent noirish movies that come this site’s way are altogether wonderful.
In this instance, though, I needn’t have worried. No Way to Live is a first-rate movie that I enjoyed a great deal—far more than I’ve enjoyed many movies with major-studio budgets, which this I gather didn’t. It’s also, to clear matters up at the start, not a neonoir in the stylistic sense of the term: rather, as you might expect from a piece in which the main character has the surname Thompson and one of the supporting roles has the name Big Jim, it’s a movie that very much has its roots in the classic noir tradition, albeit with a greater degree of frankness about sex and racial prejudice than was generally deemed permissible in the 1940s and 1950s.
Paul Rae as Earl.
It’s 1958, and in the small town of Crawfordville, Florida, vacuum-cleaner salesman Monty (Williamson) is trying unsuccessfully to make a sale to householder Earl Thompson (Rae)—in fact, Earl is seeing him off the property at the point of a double-barreled shotgun, Monty being black and Earl being both white and a bigot.
Tom Williamson as Monty.
It’s clear to us that Monty’s eye has been caught by Earl’s pretty daughter Nora (Tingley). That night, as Monty attempts to spy on Nora through her window, he gets his foot caught in one of the gator traps with which Earl has surrounded the house.
Freya Tingley as Nora.
At Nora’s insistence, and much against Earl’s better judgment, the pair bring Monty indoors to convalesce from what’s a pretty serious injury. Love—or something like it—sparks between the two young people; Monty’s ardor is undimmed even after he discovers a terrible secret:
Nora: “He makes me do it. I got no choice. D’you think that I want to? He’s been having his way with me ever since my mother died.”
Monty and Nora run away, after she’s stolen from under Earl’s bed an old blue suitcase containing $10,000 in cash.
As we guess long before Monty does, Nora took the opportunity to murder Earl before she slipped out of the house. Led by Detective Frank Giddins (Murphy), with Detective Bradford (Gray) and hick local sheriff Big Jim (Arnold) assisting, the cops investigate. During the investigation we learn that Nora is not in fact Earl’s daughter but his wife, now widow. We later find out she was in effect sold to him as a child bride when she was just thirteen.
Meanwhile, the two youngsters are on the run and—in between coping as a “mixed-race couple” with the omnipresent racism of that place and time—taking the opportunity to do a lot of what two youngsters on the run generally do in movies like this. Despite all her protestations of eternal love for him, however, Nora has already decided it’s time to ditch Monty, preferably terminally; she even lines up wastrel Jerry (Fessenden) to murder him.
Jerry (Larry Fessenden) readies to shoot Monty (Tom Williamson) in the back.
Nora has had from the outset, you see, a plan that only slowly emerges into the light. What she doesn’t realize is that Monty too has had a plan—that in his way he’s every bit as cunning as she is, and that he’s been withholding from her all sorts of secrets that profoundly affect her.
Theirs aren’t the only plans. Big Jim has been planning for years to bed Nora if only she’d give him the chance, while Giddins has been developing a plan to blow the whole case wide open . . .
Big Jim (Justin Arnold) tries to woo Nora (Freya Tingley).
There’s a love for classic film noir evident in just about every frame of No Way to Live, together with lots of echoes of later noirish road movies like David Lynch’s WILD AT HEART (1990) and perhaps more particularly Tamra Davis’s GUNCRAZY (1992). The screenplay’s full of pace and surprise, not to mention some moments of unexpected cuteness and humor, as when Monty and Nora, lacking fizzy wine with which to celebrate their new freedom, make do with Alka-Seltzer.
And there are some really great performances. Freya Tingley (who I was astonished to discover is Australian, so convincing is she as the Florida belle) delivers a major act as the Lolita-style femme fatale, but she’s if anything outshone by Tom Williamson as the wholesome, loyal, everything-on-the-surface young adventurer who proves to possess an inner darkness. Timothy V. Murphy as the deceptively genial, wide-eyed Detective Giddins dominates the screen during his scenes.
Justin Arnold as Big Jim.
But it’s tempting to see this as an ensemble piece, with fine contributions coming from the supporting cast, even those whose screen time is minimal—such as Carla Toutz as Nora’s mother Celia Weaver, Christopher Douglas Reed as bigoted store-owner Cain, and Roy Frumkes as Nora’s long-suffering lawyer, Thomas Chasen. Indeed, there isn’t a weak link in the chain of actors on display here.
Carla Toutz as Celia Weaver.
Christopher Douglas Reed as bigoted shitface Cain.
Lawyer Thomas Chasen (Roy Frumkes) despairs of his client, Nora (Freya Tingley).
No Way to Live isn’t a perfect movie (as if there could be such a thing). There’s an unexplained hiccup in the storyline when Nora wakes to discover she’s been taken to the orphanage where Monty was reared; furthermore, Jerry somehow knows—by magic, perhaps?—that this is where Monty has taken her. There are two quite separate earlier explanations in the script as to why, in the later stages of the movie, Nora should find herself infuriatingly pregnant. And there are moments during the lovers’ time on the run when things seem to flag a bit, as if the scripters weren’t quite certain where they were going to take things next.
Those are really quite tiny criticisms, especially bearing in mind the egregious plot holes you often find in multiplex blockbusters. No Way to Live, which refreshingly doesn’t require you to leave your brain at the door, is a very satisfying piece whose 85 minutes seem to fly by.
UPDATE: Contrary to my earlier understanding, you can get this movie on DVD/blu ray from the usual online suspects. And here are some places you can go stream it: