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They Live By Night (1949)

by on 2012/03/16

“You stay till tomorrow. Then you go.
I’ll go with you, if you want.”

* * * *

Nicholas Ray is probably best known for his Rebel Without a Cause. Six years earlier, he co-wrote and directed this amazing film, They Live by Night, based on the novel Thieves Like Us. Not only did I enjoy it better than his more acclaimed effort, but I’m also amazed it was his very first motion picture. How many of us get it so right the first time?

It begins with the escape of a small group of convicts: bullying “one-eyed lush” Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva), grizzled veteran T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen), and the young, enthusiastic Arthur Bowers (Farley Granger). Exploiting a network of fellow criminals, the three plan to prey on banks for their fortunes.

During a botched robbery, Bowers is both critically injured and mistaken as the group’s mastermind. He is given over to the care of Chichamaw’s niece, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and the two of them fall in love. They run away together, imagining a brighter future, yet haunted by the law on one side, and old cronies on the other.

The sense of awful inevitability, that they are living on borrowed time, is poignant and painfully bittersweet. We know they’ve made mistakes, but we still see their innocent affection. We too seek validation of their desperate, shared hope. If they lead a good life, they tell themselves, they may find forgiveness, even as the mounting tension between them belies their shared illusion.

Then again, the world they inhabit is vintage noir, and tragedy is hardly a stranger to them. Everywhere they go, they are surrounded by shadows of some sort, nearly every acquaintance is likewise a thief, and the clock is always mere minutes from midnight. The country subs for an urban landscape, the sunlight has its day, and hats and coats are rarely to be found. Nonetheless, the absence of these trappings does little to diminish the dread.

Minor complaints about production include a certain softness in close-ups, and exceedingly shaky aerial camera work, however innovative for the era. Otherwise, I had no serious reservations about anything in the film. The story, script, performances, composition, and editing were effective. It’s among the stronger surprises I’ve come across.

Although it’s easy to understand why everyone compares this feature to Rebel, I was inclined to recognize other inheritors: Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, and Natural Born Killers. But each of those movies sent their couples on a killing spree. They Live By Night stands apart for its heroes’ relative pathos. For many romantics, this difference might well prove more agonizing than their followers’ violence.

* * * *

Not Rated

95 minutes

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