Lampooning the dewy-eyed optimism of cinematic romance, They Live by Night deceives its audience through a brief preamble of saccharine strings and youthful, flushed faces, only to yank the rug from under their naive sensibilities and send the film into rough terrain. Disguised as a heist picture, it coasts on vivid, geometric composition and authentic outlaw vernacular, overshadowing an intimacy shared by the principal players that eclipses the action sequences, standing in stark contrast to its affected bleakness. Taken as a whole, the resonating passages reside in the quiet conversations and eager embraces of our adolescent lovers, leaving the petty details of their transgressions to sway in the wind like a paper tiger.
Edward Anderson’s characters are damaged goods far before we meet them, racing down a dirt road in a stolen car, desperate to avoid apprehension and further incarceration. Nursing a sprained ankle, Bowie (Farley Granger), the youngest of the treacherous trio, is abandoned in the sticks as his partners retrieve a cache of “stashed dough,” left to fester alone in the pouring rain. Forsaken by parent and school system alike, the defiant 23-year-old forges on without an ally, paradoxically committing crime in an attempt to finance a criminal lawyer. His middle-aged collaborators are also convicted felons, fueling Bowie’s pipe dreams with an endless stream of pilfered cash, exploiting his good faith for profit and power.
Bowie’s eyes meet Keechie’s (Cathy O’Donnell) in a ramshackle safe house, the pair sharing a smoke over war stories of parental neglect and veiled physical abuse. Keechie is as weather-beaten as her male counterpart, despite being in her teens, aged by cigarillos and a viscous coat of inky soot. Regardless of the literal and figurative layers of grime that blanket her exterior, she’s frightened by Bowie’s murderous anecdotes, shuddering as he expounds upon the death of his father and the manslaughter charge that landed him in a detention center. Their budding sexuality and the catharsis of conversation establish a rock-solid bond between the couple, broken only by Bowie’s dedication to his role as getaway driver and Keechie’s premonition of a violent end.
Rendering these obstructions through visual symbol, Nicholas Ray and photographer George E. Diskant shoot through the grates of fences, metal wire of car partitions and steely bars of motel bed posts, evoking a private prison cell for our damned devotees. Exterior photography also conveys distance and desperation, captured by crane shots that register the protagonists as inconsequential specks on the landscape, paralleling their sense of self worth. Travel is even implied through aesthetic detachment, shown exclusively by slow fade into the block letters of a coal-black map.
Though the forthcoming caper is methodical and filmed with aplomb, Ray seems indifferent to the machinations of the crime thriller, exuding an aloofness that counteracts the exposition surrounding the central setpiece. The twists, turns and tragic ends planned for the final reel are all a foregone conclusion, telegraphed well before they arrive on screen and well after we’ve connected the dots in our heads. His love story, lived on borrowed time, is far more stirring than his gangster picture, articulating infatuation through Keechie’s wide, toothy smile and Bowie’s nervous chatter and childlike inquiry. The pathos exuded by these newlyweds as they relinquish their future and fondly reminisce over the heartbeat of happiness they shared is devastating and deserving of a far more exhaustive motion picture.
They Live by Night (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1948)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Written by Edward Anderson (novel), Nicholas Ray (adaptation) and Charles Schnee (screenplay)
Photographed by George E. Diskant