| They Live by Night


Nicholas Ray

USA, 1948


Review by Josh Bell

Posted on 23 May 2013

Source 35mm print

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They Live by Night (by Evan)

Categories TCM Classic Film Festival 2013

It may end in tragedy, but Nicholas Ray’s debut feature They Live by Night has a lot of romance along the way to its unhappy ending. It’s a weirdly unsentimental sort of romance, as escaped convict Bowie and sullen teenager Keechie come together first out of happenstance and then almost out of defiance, developing an unbreakable bond forged in adversity and mutual awkwardness. That they’re on the run from the law seems almost secondary at times, since these are the kind of people who will always be on the run from something, who will never quite be comfortable in their own skin or as members of mainstream society.

That makes their moments of bliss all the more precious, and Ray has a way of framing them that captures the fragility of young love. A mid-film sequence in which Bowie and Keechie impulsively get married at a low-rent roadside wedding chapel is a beautiful distillation of their love for each other and their uncertainty at everything else in life. The chapel owner doesn’t exactly approve of them, and they don’t exactly approve of him, either, but the situation is the only thing that makes sense for them in the moment. Ray lets the sequence play out rhythmically and unhurriedly, allowing Farley Granger as Bowie and Cathy O’Donnell as Keechie to work up to just the right moment as their characters undertake a vow they may not entirely understand.

Before that point, Keechie is a bit of a background player to the drama of Bowie’s life on the run, as he escapes from prison with the help of more seasoned criminals Chickamaw and T-Dub. Hiding out after their initial escape, they seek refuge with Chickamaw’s brother, Keechie’s father. The shy Bowie, who went to prison at 16, has clearly never talked to a girl before, and Keechie matches his hesitant demeanor. Of all the women he could possibly meet, the only one he happens to encounter is the one who ends up being perfect for him.

They Live by Night has been cited as a template for later outlaw-lovers-on-the-run movies Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde, but it’s both sweeter and more tragic than those films. Bowie may be guilty of the crime that sent him to prison, but he’s not immoral or sociopathic, and he tries throughout the movie to leave his life of crime behind. When Bowie and Keechie have escaped both the police and Bowie’s criminal associates, setting up a makeshift domestic life in a remote vacation colony, they never long for the thrills of robbery or violence that they’ve left behind. They’re good kids who’ve been mistreated by life, and Ray never loses sight of that.

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