Nicholas Ray, 1948
Starring: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva
Bowie, a young prisoner, escapes with two older men, Chicamaw and T-Dub. Though Bowie was in prison thanks to a wrongful conviction for murder, the other two are hardened criminals. They plan to rob a bank together, which Bowie agrees to because he wants to hire a lawyer and prove his innocence. After the first robbery, they hole up in a gas station, where Bowie meets Keechie, the owner's daughter and Chicamaw's niece. After an accident, he finds his way back there and he and Keechie fall for each other. They run off together and get married, but Chicamaw hunts them down and insists that Bowie participate in another robbery. He and Keechie go on the run, but Keechie is pregnant and falls ill, which spells their doom.
The first film by director Nicholas Ray is less an outright film noir and more a noir-fueled crime film with a heaping dose of romantic melodrama. The tragic story of Bowie and Keechie – doomed young lovers caught up in a crime spree – is the obvious precursor to more famous and violent later entries like Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, and Badlands. Famed producer and Orson Welles-collaborator John Houseman helped get Ray the film and his first job as a director. Though Houseman had secured the rights the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson, it sat on the shelf for a few years. The same fate befell Ray's film, which was temporarily shelved by RKO's then new owner Howard Hughes. But it built up quite a reputation among other directors and actors and its release, two years after the film was complete, was a success.
Co-written by Ray and screenwriter Charles Schnee, this focuses on two dreamy, sensitive characters filled with loneliness and cut off from family, friends, or love. Many of Ray's future films would go on to show sympathy for outsiders, isolated characters who often make poor choices, get swept up in willfully bad decisions, and simply have hard luck. The inherent sense of doom and tragedy is probably why They Live By Night is generally grouped with film noir. There is the feeling that no matter what Bowie's intentions are, or what good he tries to do for Keechie, it will all end in pain and violence.
They Live By Night is somewhat similar to Moonrise (1948), oddly from the same year, as both films have a rural setting – rare within film noir – and a focus on the Depression-era South. Both have a documentary quality that makes it feel like the stories of these young, impoverished adults is playing out in small towns and farming communities across America. Like the characters from Moonrise, Bowie and Keechie were raised in poverty by neglectful or abusive parents, with at least one parent missing. There is also the sense that they cannot escape the life they've inherited for their parents and no matter how much they want to be happy, loved, and successful, it's just not in the cards.
This wouldn't have been conveyed so convincingly or heartbreakingly without Cathy O’Donnell (The Best Years of Our Lives) as Keechie or Farley Granger (Rope) as Bowie. The two young actors bring a fairytale-like quality of innocence and discovery to the roles. Both Bowie and Keechie have been downtrodden by life, but not hardened by it. They lack the fundamental cynicism or hopelessness possessed by all the film's other characters, which gives They Live By Night a magical quality that Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands utterly lack. O'Donnell would go on to further success with a relatively short career in classics like Detective Story and Ben-Hur, while Farley Granger brought his somewhat odd appeal to Hitchcock's Rope and Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock allegedly discovered him by watching a then-unreleased print of They Live By Night. There's also a memorable performance from Howard Da Silva as the one-eyed Chicamaw. Houseman discovered Da Silva when he was cast in the play The Cradle Will Rock (which has a fascinating story all its own), which Houseman produced with Orson Welles. Most of the film's other actors were friends of Houseman and Ray.
They Live By Night may not be my favorite Ray film – that honor goes to In a Lonely Place – but it comes recommended and is an absolutely beautiful film. Thanks to some dazzling performances by O'Connell and Granger, and excellent cinematography from George Diskant, this remains one of the best films of the late '40s. It's available on DVD as part of a double feature with Side Street or in Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4. Film buffs will also want to keep an eye out for some of the early shots, as Ray was the first person to use a helicopter to shoot a scene; previously they had only been used to scout locations.