View Full Version : They Live By Night

08-01-2004, 03:15 AM
I really, really love this film, and Nicholas Ray's original destroys the Altman remake. So enjoy my amateur criticism.

Somehow noir disappoints. I’m not quite sure why, but it seems every film from the movement is flawed just enough to take it down half a star or more. Frequently it is bad acting, a clichéd plot, or just not enough interest, but when one film pulls through, it makes it all worthwhile. Nicholas Ray emerged as one of his era’s best and most overlooked directors with this film. It is a masterpiece of film noir, and perhaps the best love on the run story yet told.
What makes They Live By Night so much better than every film like it before or after is in its depth. There isn’t an enormous amount of psychological probing in the picture, although you can certainly make a conclusion or two based upon the two main characters family life. The depth comes in the love story, which is probably the most fully realized and developed in any film noir. What makes these two a match for each other isn’t an intense burning desire, but a common thread. These two know and understand each other without saying a word. There is a bond there that you can sense and feel right from the beginning.
Perhaps there was a connection made during the film. Nicholas Ray was making his directorial debut with this, and despite being in films for several years Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell were anything but movie stars. The film has a personal affection, and it might be because Ray had a hand in the writing of the film, something that he rarely did in subsequent films. O’Donnell gives her best performance, and emerges most prominently from her typically supporting roles. Granger’s performance is a little more varied. He begins the film with an enormous amount of naiveté and you sense that this is going to be another nervous Granger role. As the film progresses, and the love affair, he becomes more aggressive, and matures emotionally. Perhaps he begins to believe what the papers are saying about him, but he soon calls the shots and we begin to unflinchingly support him.
There doesn’t seem to be a moment in the film when we lose our faith in him. When his old gang returns and he goes with them our faith is tested, as it is with Keechie. We’re not sure what he is doing, and we don’t quite understand why he can’t say no, but we soon find out. The papers blow it out of proportion, but unlike most films of this nature that element of the plot is downplayed. Also noteworthy is the fact that everyone in this film isn’t a detective. Most noir films suffer from the cliché of some yokel recognizing the criminal and turning him in. We know sensibly that if a bank robber were standing next to you in an elevator you would probably never know it. Ray realizes this, and only once does the film threaten to go that route. How Ray salvages the plumbers discovery is by not proving whether or not he actually did wise up. He leaves, presumably to tell the police, but we never see him telling them, so perhaps it is our paranoia as well as Bowie and Keechie’s.
Unlike nearly every noir film I actually felt a sadness throughout this picture. It broke my heart when Bowie fell back into old habits. I began to feel for Keechie and wanted the two to be truly happy together. I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t initially go to Mexico, but their desire for a normal life was touching. They weren’t into crime for glamour or to make it rich, it seemed all a matter of circumstances. We also never see Bowie commit a crime in the film. The most he does is serve as the getaway driver for a robbery. We never see him go into a hold up, we never see him shoot someone, and we wonder if he even could. When he pulls a gun in the restroom, it is taken away as if he were just a child. Even at the end when we see him attempting a shoot out, he gets shot down before he even pulls a gun out. Ray is convinced that this was an innocent man, and we never even get the real story of how he killed a man at 16.
The tragic noir hero is a staple, and in the era of the production code we know that no criminal can get away. Ray understands this and presents the whole film with an ominous quality. The sadness carries through, because we sense the impending doom, but still hope that for once it won’t be like that. We see Keechie remain innocent so there is at least a hope that her and their future child will make it, although she should consider quitting smoking.
Ray delivered a knockout film with this. I may venture so far to say that it is his best. It helped usher in a new personal and inventive style of filmmaking. Ray makes one of the first uses of a helicopter shot, and has an extraordinary feel for the extreme close up. That claustrophobia works wonders, and helps make this film just as interesting technically as it is with the plot. A true highlight of noir that deserves far more praise than Double Indemnity, The Killers, or Out of the Past.