They Live by Night

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A gimcrack romance decked out in film noir finery, They Live by Night is a “kids on the run” story, the child of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once and parent of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands.

Three escaped prisoners on the run are holing up at the secluded cabin of the brother of their leader, where the youngest of the three first claps eyes on the brother’s daughter. In one of the great introductions in moviedom, Bowie (Farley Granger), a fresh-faced 23-year-old who’s been in jail since he was 16, meets Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), hat pulled down and light slanting across her face. He doesn’t know how to talk to girls. But one look at her – feral in her dungarees, her sullen face pouting just so – and he’s gone.

While his compadres, leader Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C Flippen), scheme and plot more criminal activity to raise enough money to get them to safety, Bowie is being dragged in the opposite direction, towards Keechie in an amour fou she feels too but won’t admit to at first. Before the jailbreak Bowie was doing time for murder, after all.

Eventually, undying words having been exchanged, the two of them will hit the road, hoping for a new life, marrying en route at a quickie $20 wedding place and try to escape the orbit of the older criminals. But fate, and obligation, have staked a claim on Bowie that subsequent arrangements can’t quite obliterate .

This is a film full of characters who don’t quite have what it takes – most obviously in the person of Chickamaw, also known as “One Eye”, on account of his milky right eye, a physical failing matched by his inability to keep a cool head and see the broader picture. But Keechie and Bowie, too, have their failings, being dumb and naive and not in a particularly cute way.

Chicamaw, T-Dub and Bowie with accomplice Mattie
Chicamaw, T-Dub and Bowie with accomplice Mattie

But rather than a tragedy about people brought down by a fatal flaw, which is what They Live by Night really is, debut director Nicholas Ray sells it as a romance. O’Donnell is the real standout, as the pouting Keechie, though Farley is doing interesting stuff prototyping the moody movie teenager that James Dean was supposed to have invented some time down the line (and with Nicholas Ray, what’s more, in Rebel Without a Cause). He’s James Dean, the soft launch. There’s even a physical similarity.

It’s a film of two halves, all driving energy and rat-a-tat dialogue spat out by the actors in the first half, more breast-beating moments of soul-searching and emoting in the second, though Ray and his DP George Diskant light it all romantically, only turning up the harshness and moving into noirish visually as Bowie and Keechie head for their showdown with reality.

Look out for the mad helicopter shot early on – quite something for a debut movie and unusual at the time – and Ray scatters in a few more here and there, indicating a god’s eye view, possibly, or just showing off, perhaps.

More obviously on point and brilliant is the scene where Bowie and Keechie get married at a bus pull-in, the whole thing done as a fingernail comedy – the organist who plays only one chord, because that’s all you get for a $20 quickie like this. The whole scene summed up in a sound.

Whether the registrar’s little speech to Bowie later on – “in a way I’m a thief just the same as you are” – is really part of the film’s covert left-wing agenda (some people refer to They Live by Night as “film gris” for that reason) is open to question.

Personally, I see this cupidity as the registrar’s blind spot. Everyone in this film who has any sort of plot involvement has one. Note T-Dub – absolutely normal and no plot interaction whatsoever. Or the kid at the holiday lets where Keechie and Bowie attempt to make a new start – normal everyday kid, pointedly so, no plot interaction whatsoever. Everyone else – a different matter.

It’s the weirdly flawed characters, not the plot, politics or the stylistics, that make this such a fascinating film.

They Live by Night – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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