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Made 18 years before Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, writer-director Nicholas Ray's first feature film, They Live By Night (1949), is a style-setting, violent-yet-sensitive study of a doomed outlaw couple of the 1930s. Little noticed at the time of its initial release, the movie later gained attention when the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema championed Ray as an influential auteur and a master at conveying the loneliness and displacement of his alienated, often anguished characters.
They Live By Night, starring Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell as the unlucky lovers, is now considered an important precursor not only to Bonnie and Clyde but to Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965). In 1974 Robert Altman remade Ray's film as Thieves Like Us, the original title of the Edward Anderson novel upon which it is based, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall in the leading roles.
Ray begins They Live By Night with a superimposed title that reads, "This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in." Granger plays Bowie, a 23-year-old escapee from a Mississippi prison farm where he was sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he did not commit. Bowie's dream is to live in peace with Keechie (O'Donnell), an innocent farm girl who becomes his sweetheart and then his bride. But his crooked companions have involved him in a series of bank robberies and the police are soon in hot pursuit, mistakenly believing that Bowie is the leader of the gang.
As sensitively played by Granger and the luminous O'Donnell, Bowie and Keechie are a pair of childlike dreamers who are unprepared for the violent consequences of a life of crime. Ray tells their story in typically dynamic style, with shadowy, expressionistic photography and innovative use of a helicopter for overhead, bird's-eye views during the prison-escape sequence and other scenes. But he never lets the action interfere with a melancholy focus on the young lovers.
Although Robert Mitchum once claimed he was Ray's original choice to play Bowie, the director always had Farley Granger in mind for the role ever since an initial meeting at a party at Gene Kelly's house. Granger recalled in Nicholas Ray by Bernard Eisenschitz that "Nick asked me who I'd feel most comfortable with, and I said Cathy O'Donnell, because I knew her at Goldwyn. So we did the test with Cathy, and it was very good....He and John Houseman [the producer] were among the few people who fought for me in my career. They said no, we will not make the film without him. When Nick believed in you, he was very loyal."
The film's critical standing has continued to grow. "Of all the American 'outlaw lovers on the run' movies," wrote Michael Wilmington, film critic for the Chicago Tribune, "the tenderest and most romantic is They Live By Night." The film was considered Ray's best by Francois Truffaut, who called his fellow director "the poet of nightfall." Critic Steven H. Scheuer went so far as to consider They Live By Night "perhaps the best debut film of an American director -- and I'm not unmindful of Citizen Kane."
Director: Nicholas Ray
Producer: John Houseman, Dore Schary
Screenplay: Nicholas Ray, Charles Schnee, based on the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Film Editing: Sherman Todd
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Alfred Herman
Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Farley Granger (Arthur 'Bowie' Bowers), Cathy O'Donnell (Catherine 'Keechie' Mobley), Howard Da Silva (Chicamaw 'One-Eye' Mobley), Jay C. Flippen (Henry 'T-Dub' Mansfield), Helen Craig (Mattie Mansfield), Ian Wolfe (Mr. Hawkins), Will Wright (Mobley).
BW-96m. CLosed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe