Nicholas Ray’s debut feature is a straightforward lovers-on-the-run ‘romance-noir’ with strong chemistry between the two leads.
Dir. Nicholas Ray
1948 | USA | Drama/Romance/Crime | 95 mins | 1.37:1 | English
Not rated – likely to be PG
Cast: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva
Plot: An escaped convict, injured during a robbery, falls in love with the woman who nurses him back to health, but their relationship seems doomed from the beginning.
Distributor: Warner Bros
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Making a quick transition from theatre to cinema, Nicholas Ray’s debut feature is a great start to his prolific career as a studio director (he made more than 15 films in the first ten years of his career).
Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel, ‘Thieves Like Us’ (which was also adapted by Robert Altman in 1974), They Live by Night centers on a Depression era crook-turned-fugitive named Bowie (Farley Granger), who meets a woman named Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) while on the run with two veteran bank robbers.
Falling in love with her, Bowie realises that he could possibly lead an ‘ordinary’ life like anyone else, free from crime and the fear of being arrested. Trying to dissociate himself from the two older men after getting his stash of money, Bowie also hopes to run away from a life of petty crime.
“We move fast. Can you take it?”
Ray gives us two naturalistic performances, taking advantage of strong chemistry between the leads, particularly O’Donnell whose Keechie is such a lovely and unforgettable character.
Some have regarded They Live by Night as a film noir, though it doesn’t quite have the usual elements e.g. femme fatale, cynical worldview, heightened use of shadows etc. associated with it. Perhaps one could see it as more of an impressionistic take, with Ray trying to find light and love in a soft-hearted type romance-drama.
As far as lovers-on-the-run pictures are concerned, Ray’s film is a rather straightforward one with a predictable denouement, though it features one of the most delicate last lines ever uttered in a Classical Hollywood picture.
Even though it is not as talked about as, say, the later Bonnie and Clyde (1967), nor is it as poetic as Badlands (1973), They Live by Night remains influential for pushing the noir genre into a less trodden path, away from grungy cities and hardboiled detectives.