THEY LIVE BY NIGHT: The Start Of A Career Of Innocent Rebellion
They Live by Night belongs to the tradition of films about outlaw lovers on the run. Like many of Ray’s main characters, normal life eludes them.
“This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in…”
These words open They Live by Night, and the career of Nicholas Ray. Ray directed a number of masterpieces, many of them marked by tragic romance, delicate observations of private life, and fiery personalities. His influence is still felt; in fact, he was directly referenced in films from both this year and last year. He stands as one of America’s greatest directors, and Criterion’s new release of his debut film should serve well as evidence for that.
They Live by Night belongs to the tradition of films about outlaw lovers on the run. And yet, its power doesn’t come from the transgressive thrill of lawbreaking and the excitement of a life beyond the mundane. As the quote above implies, the two lovers in They Live by Night have never belonged to the mundane, but to a world of instability. Like many of Ray’s main characters, “normal” life eludes them.
Love in Struggle
The lovers in question are Bowie and Keechie (Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, respectively). Misguided youth is something a lot of movies explore, but one thing that stands out about They Live by Night is that there isn’t much rebelliousness involved. Bowie and Keechie have never known anyone or anything from outside a world on the fringes of the law. Their romance is the first truly innocent thing that really matters to either of them, and the film does not undercut that.
Rather, we witness the two of them attempt to construct something for themselves that resembles a normal life. At times, one gets the impression that they’re just engaging in some recklessly extreme role-play – and they may indeed be reckless. But then there are moments just between them, without stressors or distractions intruding into their lives. These occasions reveal what really underlies the film’s story: a desire for peace on the part of people who don’t really know what it’s like or where it comes from.
Nicholas Ray’s films tell the stories of outsiders. Some of them mount a focused opposition to the status quo, some fight their own worst impulses, others are simply lost. Though their motives and methods vary, they share a longing for peace. They Live by Night anticipates this tendency and something that branches off of it: his characters often attempt to create a place for themselves, to build a world that lacks whatever keeps them in the margins.
Reflections of Private Life
Film noir is usually associated with a sense of menace, and although They Live by Night lives instead on innocence and tragedy, it still has the look and feel of a noir. As the title implies, it takes place mostly at night, and therefore in shadow or with only artificial light sources. It’s appropriate to the criminal world Bowie and Keechie came from; at the same time, it conveys the clandestine nature of their relationship.
What really sets it apart, however, is the home life Bowie and Keechie try to build for themselves. At first, They Live by Night‘s interiors are dark, and cluttered with the impersonal utilities of their life of crime. Later on, when they try to fend for themselves as a couple, we notice their conscious effort to make their personal space more homey, and the little details that go into that. It’s notable that their attempt at a new way of life is expressed through objects: not only does it show development directly in the frame, but it shows that development is conditioned partly by influences external to the two main characters.
Anticipation in Retrospect
Most of the interesting or expressive things They Live by Night does are put into practice in more complex and dramatic ways in Ray‘s later films. The melodrama of Johnny Guitar, the use of stock footage in The Lusty Men, and the judiciously placed soundtrack of Bitter Victory can all be seen as variations on elements seen in They Live by Night. And in their own contexts, each one is effective and suggests an incredible cleverness behind it.
They Live by Night doesn’t quite manage to reach the heights of those films (or, for that matter, vary quite so sharply on its genre). Nevertheless, it works well as a crime film and even better as a romance, and it has a rawness to it that only heightens the sense of precariousness we get watching Bowie and Keechie. It’s perfectly straightforward, but at the same time, you can tell that it’s using some sophisticated tactics to reach the audience.
And if there’s one advantage it has over Ray‘s other films, it’s that its simplicity and broadness let you approach it from many different angles.
What, if anything, do you think the cross of noir and romance in They Live by Night says about both genres?
They Live by Night was released on November 3, 1949. It is currently available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, and for streaming on Filmstruck and Amazon Instant Video.
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