They Live By Night (1949)
They Live By Night (1949)

Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.

Release Date: November 5th, 1949 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Nicholas Ray Actors: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva, Jay C. Flippen, Helen Craig, Will Wright, Ian Wolfe

 


 

T

hree brutal lifers, who hijacked a car and its owner after escaping from a Texas prison, finally run out of luck when the vehicle’s tire blows. After beating the owner unconscious, the trio starts hoofing it across a field, before 23-year-old Arthur “Bowie the Kid” Bowers’ (Farley Granger) foot injury brings them to a halt. Shacking up behind a Cosmo billboard, the youth waits alone until nightfall, when a young woman, Katherine “Keechie” (Cathy O’Donnell), arrives to ferry him to a cabin a few miles away.

Meanwhile, Henry “T-Dub” Mansfield (Jay C. Flippen) and one-eyed Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) – the two roughest of the gang – pay $1500 to drunken Mobley (Will Wright), Keechie’s father, to acquire a dependable ride. Their master plan of permanently eluding the authorities will require additional funds, however, which prompts them to paradoxically plot a bank robbery in Zelton in the next couple of days. Although they succeed, their continuing mission of fitting in with ordinary people until the heat dies down proves more difficult, perhaps, than a notorious, headline-producing life of crime.

In one of the most unusual of all editing ideas, the picture begins as if a trailer, before quickly shifting into the title sequence. From here, “They Live By Night” sets itself apart from typical films noir through its assortment of characters. Everyone is a touch meaner and tougher than expected – including the lead duo. Little more than kids, Bowie and Keechie aren’t quite cut out for the company they keep, yet they’re just pitiful enough to resort to following in the footsteps of hardened criminals. They’re the type of doomed personas that unavoidably spiral toward a tragic outcome.

To lend a bit of humanity to this tale of killers and crime, Bowie and Keechie engage in some initial flirting, which soon blossoms into a proper whirlwind romance. The simple gift of a watch is particularly poignant, as it conveys their innocence and unfamiliarity with wooing the opposite sex, followed by a spontaneous marriage proposal (without any thoughts of a honeymoon) that is both cynical and quaint. With no experience in love or with a compassionate family unit, they must come up with their own definitions for the steps in building a relationship. In many ways, “They Live By Night” is a love story wrapped in the design of a film noir, with the anticipated heisting and run-ins with the law added to place the lovers into fitting predicaments and amidst the sort of bad company from which neither can escape.

There’s also plenty of suspense, sharply arranged by first-time director Nicholas Ray (who adapted the novel “Thieves Like Us” [itself penned by Edward Anderson] for writer Charles Schnee), from the initial holdup and getaway (shot primarily from the back seat of a car) to a careless incident with speeding and a diligent cop. The paranoia surrounding potential capture is also unyielding. And, in a fascinatingly brave presentation, the biggest heist takes place entirely offscreen. As Bowie and Keechie continue with their charade, desperately pretending not to be the miserable, unfortunate folk they started off as, it only becomes a matter of time before they run out of road on which to flee. The end, though not completely surprising, is heartfelt and powerful; “They Live By Night” is clearly one of the most potent of all romance-minded crime dramas.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10