This Film-Noir-inflected directorial debut feature of maverick US filmmaker Nicholas Ray is headlined by two young stars on the rising, Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, as their escapist romance is par for the course of a sorry denouement which tallies with the now stock "lovers on the run" scenario, to today's audience, it is Ray's audacious craftsmanship leaving a hefty mark on the route.
Adapted from Edward Anderson's novel THIEVES LIKE US (from which Robert Altman would regurgitate his own version using the book's original title in 1974), the storyline revolves around a young convict Bowie (Granger), who escapes from prison with two senior bank robbers, Chicamaw (Da Silva, flaunting with his snarky, one-eyed menace to great effect) and T-Dub (Flippen, sports a hostile ruggedness likens Michael Shannon). After falling in with Keechie (O'Donnell), the daughter of their accomplice Mobley (Wright), Bowie develops a liking for her, when a road accident leaves Bowie in the caring hands of Keechie, they decide to elope, leaving everything behind, whether it is police force or Bowie's partners in crime.
Notably, the film vigorously lunges its opening gambit of chopper-aided aerial shots when the credits roll, quite a cutting-edge feat of its time, but if one thinks for granted that the movie would be heavy on the action front, a sly Ray proves otherwise, he spares us with all the robbery fracas and the upshots of peripheral players, because the movie's focus is unflinchingly zoomed in on the star-crossed lovers, close-ups expressively inspect their indecision, immaturity, callowness, but also their steely determination of finding a way out in spite of the mounting obstruction, Granger and O'Donnell both elicit emotively heart-rending renderings without any help of plot machinations, their ending is foreseeable miles away, they are mired in a cul-de-sac, catching up with a scintilla of hope and affection before it's too late. Which is to say that in Ray's fabrication, one cannot help but discerning an overt proclivity for fatalism, a heady profusion of gloom, angst, and agitation, that would evolve into Ray's trademark in the years to come. Even in the supposedly jolly strains of YOUR RED WAGON interlude, Ray manifestly shows us the singer (Bryant), cadging cash out of punters and then brandishing it in front of our eyes, that's the world which entraps the two lovebirds, materialistic, corrupted and voracious.
Amongst the ragbag of supporting group, on the one hand, stage old-hand Helen Craig rounds out her celluloid debut with a stolid patina cracked with tangible tinge of compunction and trepidation in a less-heralded femme fatale role; and on the other hand, productive character actor Ian Wolfe gives our two wet-behind-their-ears protagonists a good run for their money as the grasping matrimony officiator, who effortlessly hammers that last nail in their coffin without much of self-awareness. By and large, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT has professed to be an auspicious point of departure for an auteur-in-the-making, and of course, the best is yet to come.
referential points: Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY PLACE (1950, 7.6/10), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955, 7.9/10); Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967, 8.6/10).