Nicholas Ray makes his directorial debut with the wonderful They Live By Night, a 1948 film noir based on Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us. Featuring a screenplay by Ray and Charles Schnee, this picture is often credited as being one of the first “couple on the run” outings. François Truffaut considered They Live By Night Ray’s finest work, dubbing him the “poet of nightfall.”
As such, this really couldn’t be a more ideal motion picture. Ray and cinematographer George E. Diskant often take the road less travelled through the incessant twilight, working with aerial photography, tilted close-ups and other interesting and innovative camera angles. It never feels like trickery, however, as everything from the opening shot onward works together to weave this tragic tale.
Farley Granger stars as Bowie, a young man imprisoned as a teenager for a murder he didn’t commit. He escapes at the age of 23 with the help of bank robbers T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva). Bowie works with the bank robbers on their next job, meeting Chicamaw’s niece Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) along the way. He is smitten and so is she.
After the successful bank heist, Bowie has a ton of money. After recovering from a car crash, he sets out with Keechie to make a life. They get married. Unfortunately, the police are still searching for Bowie after the robbery. What’s more, Chicamaw and T-Dub want to pull the young man back for yet another job because they’ve already blown through their dough.
Crime can really put a damper on young love. Keechie and Bowie spend the majority of their time looking over their shoulders and jumping at every knock at the door. They hide away for a while and construct some semblance of domestic life, but even that comes undone after a plumber makes a crucial discovery.
Ray’s film is sympathetic to its characters and values the notion of romance. Keechie and Bowie have to find love and romance when they can, which makes the scene in which they finally have a date in the daylight a treat. They speak of having dinner in a real restaurant with the glee most couples set aside for a major vacation, but there’s still that layer of hesitation to contend with.
Keechie and Bowie’s romance is tremendously handled because it manages to be sweet without running into clichés. They set up Christmas in their new digs and are excited for the holiday, but cruel fate steps in and asks if they have anything to drink. The past is inescapable, as it is in most films noir, and this time there are two victims dragged into its whirling waters.
At his core, Bowie is a dreamer. He was set on a bad path in life and he stands as Ray’s earliest example of disaffected youth. How many options does he truly have? What possibilities await him in the world? Granger ensures that Bowie remains acutely aware of his own destiny, but he never loses confidence or faith.
Keechie is more pragmatic. She knows that life with Bowie is doomed. She clings to every moment she can and confirms that she’s going to keep the baby when it’s revealed that she’s pregnant. She will love Bowie how and while she can. She will drink him in, take him into her private world and create a life out of whatever pieces she can find.
They Live By Night begins with superimposed text that reads “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” That statement sets the stage for Ray’s exploration and he subsequently builds his case, confirming that Keechie and Bowie are not prepared for a life of crime and all the violent consequence that comes with it.
Ray’s They Live By Night perfectly explores the worlds of love and fate. It lays a vicious backdrop, to be sure, but it concentrates on its characters and details their struggle to find happiness even in fleeting moments. It’s about how life is constructed in pieces, how the past is never actually in the past and how the present has clouds all its own.