THEY LIVE BY NIGHT
(director: Nicholas Ray; screenwriters: Charles Scnee/from a novel by Edward Anderson “Thieves Like US”; cinematographer: George E. Diskant; editor: Sherman Todd; cast: Farley Granger (Bowie), Cathy O’Donnell (Keechie Mobley), Howard Da Silva (Chicamaw Mobley), Jay C. Flippen (T-Dub), Helen Craig (Mattie), Will Wright (Mobley), Marie Bryant (Singer); Runtime: 95; RKO; 1949)
“Nicholas Ray’s debut feature is a gem.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Nicholas Ray’s (“Rebel Without A Cause”) debut feature is a gem. It’s a film noir set during the Great Depression about a 23-year-old prison escapee, Bowie (Granger), who was serving a life sentence for murder. After serving 7 years he teams up with two veteran hardened criminals, Chicamaw (Da Silva) and T-Dub (Flippen), and sinks deeper into a life of crime.
After the three rob a number of banks, the edgy Chicamaw pushes Bowie to drive too fast in traffic and he gets into a car accident injuring the boy. When a cop confronts them Chicamaw shoots him and takes the injured boy to be nursed by a relative of his, the attractive Keechie (O’Donnell), who lives on a broken-down farm with her drunk father (Wright). The two other criminals take off but when they return later they find out that the couple, who are living off his share of the bank robberies, fell in love and have traveled cross-country through the dark nights of America. They have gotten married and are staying in a cabin camp out west. When Chicamaw tracks him down, he forces the reluctant bank robber to continue robbing banks. Bowie has different plans, as he hopes to escape to Mexico with Keechie and live an honest life. But he believes he owes the criminals his help for one last job, since they took him along on their escape.
On the bank robbery T-Dub gets killed and in their escape, Chicamaw resents the radio broadcasts making Bowie to be the leader of the gang. In a drunken stupor he attacks Bowie in the car, but is overcome and the two part ways. Soon afterwards a radio broadcast announces that Chicamaw is killed trying to break into a liquor store.
Warning: spoiler in next paragraph.
What Ray does very well is make this into a love story, one that is emotionally moving. It’s a road movie that tells how the doomed lovers on the lam hold out hope that they could somehow survive their ordeal and find happiness together. The sober-minded and gentle Keechie is a perfect complement to the naive and vulnerable Bowie, as they both seek a conventional life. But that becomes impossible for Bowie to realize as he can’t overcome his dark past and he is finally betrayed by a relative of T-Dub’s — Mattie (Craig), and is killed by the police who set a trap for him. Bowie was so much in love with Keechie that he wrote her a letter when he realizes that he can’t escape his fate, which is crumpled up in his hands as he is lying on the ground in front of his motel room. In the last shot, she reads it while walking back to the cabin and tenderly says: “I Love You.” There was no escape for the couple in the dark world they resided in: surrounded by thieves, drunks, and betrayers. The only comfort they had in life was their love that grew from an initial mistrust to one that was consuming. The dark, expressionist photography and the love between these two in such dark settings gives this very ordinary story a poetical elegance.
REVIEWED ON 7/17/2001 GRADE: B
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