Monday, March 1, 2021

#2,534. They Live By Night (1949) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Nicholas Ray’s directorial debut, They Live by Night opens with escaped convicts Bowie (Farley Granger), Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) on the run. After hijacking a car (and beating its driver to a pulp), the three make their way to a service station owned by Chickamaw’s brother Mobley (Will Wright) and Mobley’s daughter Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell).

In need of some quick cash to spring T-Dub’s brother (who is also in jail), the three return to a life of crime, robbing a small-town bank and getting away with a sizeable loot.

With more money than he can spend, Bowie invites Keechie to leave town with him, and on a whim they get married. It isn’t long before Bowie and Keechie are deeply in love, at which point Bowie promises his new wife that his days of robbing banks are behind him.

But when Chickamaw and T-Dub try to recruit Bowie for another heist, the young man discovers pretty quickly that saying “no” to his old pals could be hazardous to his health.

With They Live by Night, Nicholas Ray established right out of the gate his penchant for trying new things; the opening scene, in which Bowie and his cohorts are flying down the highway in a hijacked vehicle, was shot from a helicopter, bringing an added level of energy to an already exciting sequence. The film is also expertly paced, and features plenty of crisp dialogue (Ray also co-wrote the film with Charles Schnee).

Yet as impressive as They Live by Night is on a technical level, it’s the characters themselves that drive the movie. Farley Granger is superb as the naïve Bowie, and the chemistry between he and Cathy O’Donnell (also strong as the equally innocent Keechie) is tangible, to say the least. Their scenes together are the heart and soul of the film, and even though we realize their time together will be short, we nonetheless root like hell for a happy ending for them both.

The secondary characters are equally well-developed. Howard Da Silva’s Chickamaw is a brute with a chip on his shoulder; he loses his temper whenever someone brings up his disability (he’s blind in one eye), and later on destroys a car radio when the newscaster suggests Bowie is the leader of their gang, and not him. At the outset, Jay C. Flippen’s T-Dub acts more like a father to Bowie than an accomplice, but changes his tone later on when Bowie announces he’s through robbing banks (resulting in what is arguably the film’s most disturbing scene). Rounding out the supporting cast is Helen Craig as Mattie, T-Dub’s sister-in-law, who is willing to do whatever it takes to get her husband out of jail; and Ian Wolfe as the proprietor of the fast-service wedding chapel where Bowie and Keechie get hitched.

A well-crafted film noir / romance that has withstood the test of time, They Live by Night ranks right up there with Citizen Kane and Reservoir Dogs as one the finest movies ever made by a first-time director.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

1 comment:

Donderboor said...

Insane you're still actively writing. Great take and keep up the good work!