by Tony Dayoub
I'm still amazed that They Live by Night is Nicholas Ray's directorial debut. It is an innovative and accomplished piece of work from a man whose previous film experience mainly consisted of assisting Elia Kazan on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Of course, Ray had spent some time acting in the Group Theatre, roamed much of the U.S. while documenting folk music for the Library of Congress, worked in radio, and even directed a Broadway musical. So at 36, what he most contributed to They Live by Night was life experience. Perhaps this is why one feels that the movie's young couple on the run is doomed to failure: because Ray takes an almost nostalgic perspective in the way he approaches the story, as if recalling better times. Harsh at some points, yet gauzily expressionistic in others, They Live by Night is a romantic fever dream which, as the cliche goes, burns twice as bright if only half as long.
Its unsettling sense of predestination begins with They Live By Night's atypical prologue, in which a romantic musical theme underscores the image of two young lovers who we'll come to know as Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell). They're gently snuggling and kissing while subtitles read, "This boy... and this girl... were never properly introduced to the world we live in. To tell their story..." The melody suddenly takes a dramatic turn as they both apprehensively turn their heads to something offscreen. Cut to the title card, which reads, "They Live By Night." Now Ray takes an omniscient view, as a helicopter shot—quite unusual in this period—tracks a getaway car carrying Bowie and his fellow escaped convicts, T-Dub (frequent Ray collaborator, Jay C. Flippen) and the one-eyed Chicamaw (fellow Group Theatre disciple, Howard Da Silva). Ray will continue to alternate between this all-seeing, wide-angle view—usually when our protagonists are in danger or being manipulated by the movie's events—and a closer, voyeuristic perspective—when Ray would like us to experience what Bowie or Keechie are feeling.
Less concerned with the young fugitive's crimes, Ray aims to justify the premise that Bowie is a societal outsider frequently placed in situations beyond his control. It's not that Bowie doesn't want to conform. He is constantly seeking ways to rejoin society, whether it's reaching out to the equally alienated Keechie or by robbing a bank—not to keep the share of the money for himself, but in order to afford an attorney that can acquit him of the false charges which landed him in prison in the first place. But Bowie, whose life is a succession of bad breaks, comes to expect the worst outcome in nearly every situation. This comes through in Granger's subtle choice of where to put the inflection in Bowie's marriage proposal to Keechie. Where most performers might read the line as, "Would you wanna MARRY me?" Granger reads it, "Would you wanna marry ME?" It's as if Bowie, a born loser, can't believe that Keechie (or anyone) could find anything of value in him.
O'Donnell's performance is just as nuanced as Granger's. Abandoned by her mother, she is stuck attending a gas station run by her foolish, greedy, and often intoxicated father, Chicamaw's brother Mobley (Will Wright). Early in the film, when Keechie and Mobley harbor Bowie and his jailmates, her defenses are up and at their hardest. Left alone with Bowie, she begins to come out of her shell, seeing a kindred spirit in the good-hearted young man. As the movie progresses, we meet T-Dub's sister-in-law Mattie (Helen Craig), a sharp contrast to the softer Keechie. Mattie's motivation in helping the gang is an opportunity to get her husband out of jail. The severely countenanced Mattie is what the softer Keechie could become after years spent covering for Bowie. (The director would later make the same contrast between the neophyte Susan Hayward and veteran Lorna Thayer, both stressed out wives of rodeo riders in Ray's The Lusty Men.) Though Mattie's looks are hard-edged and angular, one can discern that there was once a kind of beauty there, maybe not unlike Keechie's (a view deliberately encouraged by the similar hairstyle and face shape shared by Craig and O'Donnell). But resentment at her husband, his bad choices, and now this young couple who seem to share a bond she never got the chance to with her own love have left Mattie a brittle husk.
As Bowie and Keechie spiral down towards their doom, Ray encourages the viewer's affiliation with them even further. When they ride through the country backroads at night, tooling around the Midwest with a Woody Guthrie tune playing on the radio at one point, the camera often frames the backs of their heads as if we are riding with them in the back seat. During their lover's reverie, next to a fireplace in a hotel where they hide out, the shot is at its tightest angle, making it all the more pronounced when a sudden knock on the door disrupts the silence. We are as disturbed by the interruption as they are. They Live by Night grows increasingly subjective as Bowie and Keechie grow closer. The evening's darkness initially becomes a refuge for the two fugitives as the police track them down. But he sound of crickets, the moon-dappled shadows of leaves, the plaintive echo of a train whistle taunting Bowie to escape—and leave a pregnant Keechie behind—all reinforce the growing oppressiveness of nightfall.
Over the movie's short running time, it becomes apparent that Ray has employed all of his previous artistic and life experience to make this first feature. A precursor to the "lovers on the lam" of films like Breathless and Bonnie and Clyde, They Live by Night's Bowie and Keechie are also a proto-template of James Dean and Natalie Wood's characters Ray's best known film, Rebel Without a Cause. Still, in spite of being his first film, They Live by Night is one of his most fully realized works and arguably the least flawed. The auteur would never again be given as free a hand in shaping a film as he was in this one by friend and producer John Houseman, and Ray would later recall They Live By Night as one of his most satisfying directorial experiences.