THEY LIVE BY NIGHT wasn't the first film to have sympathy for its outlaw protagonists, as Fritz Lang's YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE has a deep understanding for the love between Joan and Eddie, and HIGH SIERRA gave Bogie a chance to portray an aging ex-convict with a heart of gold, but nobody did it with the warmth and immense love like Nicholas Ray. Ray, who was respected in America and idolized in France, brought something almost unheard of during the American studio era: a sympathetic heart to loners and at times violent characters who had been typecast as one-dimensional villains. Maybe he was a stranger there himself. In his first movie, he directs with a confidence and energy that is on par or better than another great directorial debut of the 40s, Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE.
Bowie Bowers (Farley Granger) has just escaped, along with T-Dub and Chicamaw, from a prison where he was wrongly accused of murder. Hiding out in a cabin of Chicamaw's brother, an attraction blossoms between Bowie and Chicamaw's niece, sweet tomboy Keechie. One successful bank robbery later, Bowie and Keechie decide to run away--and eventually get married--together, hopeful of an uncertain future together. But the Depression-era South is a harsh territory for young love, and after Chicamaw finds the young couple and tempts Bowie to pull off just one more heist that goes horribly wrong, Bowie and Keechie are no longer running toward a hopeful future but running away from an unjust and unforgiving police hot on their trail.
Like all Nicholas Ray movies, it's impossible not to note the acting (and Ray learned from the best--he was a good friend and protégé of Elia Kazan). Farley Granger is best known for his nervous, tense performances in Hitchcock's ROPE and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, but here he gives a very assured and accomplished performance; it's no wonder he called both Hitchcock and Ray the best directors he ever worked with, but their approaches are very different; Hitch would let the actors find the characters themselves, while Ray would quietly take them aside and guide them through in a fatherly way. It's this tenderness and empathy that made Ray such a gift to his actors. Cathy O'Donnell, who resembles a young Sissy Spasek is luminous and brings such a radiant glow to her role, quietly affecting and never once overacting; there are few actresses who could allude to both glowing innocence and tough worldliness in the same frame. Together they are perfect, two naive and sweet souls hardened by their pasts and parental problems (though never made explicit, it is implied that they have never dated anyone, never really loved someone, which makes their romance all the sweeter). They would later re-team for Anthony Mann's crime drama SIDE STREET, which in some ways is a sequel, seeing what would've happened if they had lived like normal people in New York City. Although the magic was still there, it didn't shine as brightly as it does here.
The supporting work is also top-notch, especially Helen Craig, playing a woman who is envious of Keechie and Bowie's love affair because her own husband is in prison, and she has a great scene when she betrays the couple. While we pretty much hate her guts throughout the whole movie, each line across her face shows so much pain, and we feel her own regret; anyone who's seen the movie knows how powerful her line is: "I don't think that's going to help me sleep nights." Howard Da Silva was unfairly blacklisted when Robert Taylor named him as a potential communist during the HUAC era. Sadly, we'll never know what other great roles he could've played.
While many first-time directors today make amazing little indie movies, during the studio era, there was little room to be creative. Like Welles, Ray used amazing cinematography that holds up incredibly well today, along with unconventional editing, and an acute sense of space. For example, the opening helicopter shot: this was one of the first, if not the very first, films to feature action being shot that way (normally choppers were only used for pan shots of scenery). That was Ray's first day ever directing, and what a way to begin a brilliant career. He would follow his promise with the underrated classics IN A LONELY PLACE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND, JOHNNY GUITAR, BIGGER THAN LIFE, BITTER VICTORY, and, of course, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Unlike James Dean, Nicholas Ray faded out, but while he was on fire, he gave us some of the most heartfelt movies to ever be placed through a film projector.
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