October is Nicholas Ray Month!

They Live by Night (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1949)

Nicholas Ray is drawn to angst-ridden youth, young people who jangle nervously around the outskirts of an unkind society.  This is seen in Ray’s iconic Rebel Without a Cause, in his lesser-known first feature Knock on Any Door, and in his exceptional lovers-on-the-lam tragedy They Live by Night.  Starring the irresistibly sincere Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell as Bowie and Keechie, They Live by Night is an ode to beautiful, foolish and hopelessly doomed love, set against the backdrop of a crime that spirals as treachorously as a Saul Bass design.

They Live by Night is the remarkable and influential ancestor of later masterworks.  A hand-held shot of Bowie from the backseat of a car is strikingly similar to the brazen 8-minute shot in Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy, which would be released the following year.  When Chicamaw, the leader of Bowie’s heist posse, sniffs at the piddly two-line writeup his gang receives in the newspaper, Ray seems to be hinting at hillbilly fame-mongering (later so integral to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde).  And in the freckled, well-scrubbed face of Keechie, a motherless girl with some potent yet unspoken father issues, we see an early trace of Holly from Terrence Malick’s Badlands.

Yet They Live by Night lacks the violent spirit of its latter-day incarnations.  Random, senseless violence does seep its way into Bowie and Keechie’s tale, but more as an indictment of the world surrounding them than as a compulsion of the star-crossed couple.  Bowie and Keechie are in love, and with Ray’s intuitive hand to guide them, their love is pure and convincing.

As with many film noir iterations of the late 1940s and early 50s, They Live by Night is about a diseased society  in which corruption is the common currency.  In one of the more delightfully unsettling sequences in the film, Bowie and Keechie are married in an artless establishment which promises twenty-dollar weddings, overseen by the shifty-eyed, creaky-voiced owner Hawkins (a scene-stealing Ian Wolfe).  After the marriage, Hawkins wonders if he can set up the skittish couple with a grossly overpriced hot car, or even a “trip” to Mexico.  Thieves dealing with thieves.  That Bowie and Keechie are some of the less malignant thieves the world has seen, yet manhunted all the same, is the ultimate heartbreak of They Live by Night.  “Bowie the Kid” and his pretty accomplice are just a couple of youngsters whose hearts jump every time there is a knock on the door.

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